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Licensing Opportunities

21 June 2018

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

I think the moment writers dream of being published, they have the same wish. They want to write the books of their heart. They want those books to reach a vast audience, and they want someone else to worry about doing all the things that turn a book from a rectangular object on a shelf into a vast global empire a la Harry Potter.

Most writers expect their agents to help with that. Some think the publishers will do it all. Even more writers believe that once they make a movie or TV deal, the magic will happen. Their heroine will become an action figure. Their hero’s face will decorate a throw rug. Even the feline sidekick will find images of herself for sale in the plush toys section of every toy store and bookstore on the planet.

Not to mention the new stuff—the apps, the games playable on every device, the YouTube channel, the Instagram feed, the Spotify playlist. The old-fashioned stuff too. Socks and t-shirts and posters. Tchotchkes that come directly from the book, like Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans from Harry Potter. The first time I saw a packet of those, I laughed out loud with pleasure.

But it’s not that easy to have products made from your book. Most books don’t easily lend themselves to toy or product licensing. Most books aren’t popular enough, truth be told. And many don’t have the imagery or built-in products like Harry Potter did. (Rowling was simply showing how kids could get into a craze, so she invented a bunch of crazes, which then became actual crazes. Nifty cool, in my opinion.)

Most publishers barely have time to put out their monthly schedule of books. And most publishing houses don’t pay attention to subsidiary rights aside from translation rights and film/TV rights. Thinking about other types of marketing, licensing, and sales is simply impossible for them. They don’t have the staff, and they certainly can’t do it for each book they publish.

In fact, most publishers only respond to requests. So if some game company comes to them and asks to license the board game rights to The Handy Dandy Money-Making Novel, the publisher will figure out if they have those rights to license (chances are they do, these days) and if so, then they usually say yes, without any negotiation at all.

There is, as my poker-playing husband is wont to say, a lot of money left on the table each and every day.

. . . .

You can license anything to anyone, if you know what you’re doing. And knowing what you’re doing is the key. Most book agents haven’t even been to a [large licensing] show like this, let alone have any idea what they’re doing when they get there.

The larger agencies, with movie and TV arms, have a licensing division, but even then, those agencies usually sell the rights for their clients to one organization—say a movie studio—and don’t worry about licensing the coffee cups on their own.

Money left on the table.

And I know why it happens. It happens for the very reason that writers want to hire someone else to handle everything for them.

Learning a new world—any new world—is a lot of work. And you need to be a bit forward to handle a licensing fair. Most writers aren’t. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t attend.

. . . .

But you’re going to need to give this part of your business some thought as well.

Most writers don’t, except to say that their agent handles this stuff. I was in the middle of writing this post, having just come off the rights fair, when the Donadio & Olson news broke, and I took time out to write that first blog post about the extreme problems with agents. I recommended that writers avoid agents at all costs, and got tremendous blowback, including comments like “I can’t hold an auction for foreign rights without an agent” and other myths.

(Ironically, I was Googling that particular tweet because I couldn’t remember how it was phrased, and saw that a German publisher contacted that same author on Twitter because the German publisher “emailed your literary agent and never got a response.” You cannot make this stuff up. Seriously.)

So, I wrote about the problems with agents and financial mismanagement, ignoring the actual rights licensing and other things they fail to do.

I did meet a few agents at the rights fair. Agents who specialize in licensing the rights to “properties” that are “bankable.” None of the agents I spoke to, briefly, handled books that weren’t already big gaming or big movie projects. (Yes, I spoke to the agents. Research, y’know.)

Here’s the thing:

Indie publishing has disrupted traditional publishing, yes. But indie publishers (and writers who consider themselves self-published) have pretty much built their businesses on the old traditional publishing model.

That model is based on innovations made in the early 1960s. Traditional publishers have not moved off that model at all. This is why James Patterson has his own division (which he runs) inside of Hachette, his U.S. publisher.  The article I’ve just linked to here, on that division inside Hachette does not mention licensing outside of the traditional publishing norms of TV/Movie and translation. Patterson has added a few things, like a literacy campaign, but I didn’t see much about other types of licensing.

He’s creative and innovative, but his creative innovations are very 1990s, partly because he’s working inside the traditional publishing industry—which he disrupted (and continues to disrupt) all by himself.

You can see the book industry’s disinterest in this licensing fair just by searching for the word “book” on the website. Chronicle Books and Sourcebooks were there, but not as the companies themselves. Rather, they were represented as part of someone else’s marketing campaign.

I found Penguin Random House’s booth in the armpit of the floor, back in the part with some exhibitors for whom English was not their first language, and some smaller exhibitors like quilters.

Penguin Random House has thousands of properties that could be exploited as brands and for licensing. You’ll note in the photo above that they only focused on three for some inexplicable reason.

The big comic book companies were all present. Marvel and DC were there, of course, and they were hard to miss.

. . . .

Why should you care? Because this is the part of the business that built LucasFilm. George Lucas retained his licensing rights when he made the tiny deal for the distribution of the original Star Wars movie. There’s a lot, lot, lot of money in marketing, branding, and licensing, if it’s done right.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, The Business of Writing

2 Comments to “Licensing Opportunities”

  1. One of the wonderful things about self-publishing is freedom.

    When you traditionally publish a book, your publisher probably won’t license any foreign or subsidiary rights. And you can’t.

    Any beginning self-published author probably won’t license any foreign or subsidiary rights. But they can! They always can. They will always have the freedom to expand into the business area of licensing at any time they choose.

    These rights may be lucrative or they may be worthless. But fortunes change, and when they become lucrative, the independent author has the ability to capitalize on opportunities as they come up–or to decide to create opportunities.

    The traditional publishing world encourages authors to think in terms of stories. But what is really being bought and sold all the time is never stories. It’s rights licenses. And this is like a pie that can be sold whole or cut into slices. And contracts for options or rights can be time-limited, which means the pie may never run out of slices.

    This is a different way of thinking for authors, but it is important. Dean Wesley Smith has an interesting parable take on this. This is the introduction to the Magic Bakery series of blog posts.

    If that piques your interest, you have two options:

    Read the series of blog posts article by article, bottom of the page up, or
    Buy the book in Kindle edition or paperback for your reading convenience.

    Traditional or self-published, this is something every author should have at least a passing understanding of. I look forward to Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s future posts about licensing, but Dean Wesley Smith’s series is a good way to form a valuable mindset about the concept.

  2. KKR nails it again! Way to go, Kris! And DWS, too. 🙂

    (Gonna save this repost and OP for my own marketing research library.)

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