Bestselling and award-winning young adult and middle grade authors are increasingly creating original fiction tied to pop-culture worlds, especially those with roots in comic books. This trend represents a shift from 10 years ago, when the pairing of licensed fiction and high-profile authors was a rarity in children’s publishing.
Part of the change is due to the ubiquity of pop culture in daily life today. “These properties go beyond just being a license now,” says Beth Brezenoff, editorial director, global trade, for Capstone Young Readers. Capstone’s Switch Press publishes Gwenda Bond’s Lois Lane: Fallout and Lois Lane: Double Down under license from DC Comics and Warner Bros. “These characters mean so much to so many. They have become a shared mythology and a collective experience.”
Jarrett J. Krosoczka, author of Star Wars: Jedi Academy: A New Class for Scholastic, agrees. “Star Wars has become a cult institution,” says Krosoczka, whose other work includes the Lunch Lady graphic novels and the Platypus Police Squad novels. “Yes, it’s a license, but it’s also a way of life for many people.”
Meanwhile, from the licensor’s perspective, publishing is playing an increasingly central role in fleshing out a licensed realm and its characters. “The worlds have gotten richer and bigger, and licensors are excited about and very open to having writers expand their brand,” says Kara Sargent, executive editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, which publishes the Monster High and Ever After High series, both with Mattel. “It used to be that people felt there were kids who were readers and kids who preferred toys. But in fact there’s a huge overlap between the two.”
The nature of the entertainment business today also contributes to the trend. “The way films are taking hold is much different than 10 years ago,” says Andrew Sugerman, executive v-p at Disney Publishing Worldwide, for which literary licensed fiction based on properties from its Lucasfilm, Marvel, and Disney divisions has become a key part of its publishing strategy. “The big tent-pole films are breaking records every year and are creating awareness of the story lines and characters. The fans have a thirst for going deeper, and the demand for quality content and quality storytelling has never been greater.”
“This is a great hybrid thing we’re doing,” says Michelle Nagler, associate publishing director at Random House Books for Young Readers, which is releasing four YA novels in August 2017 featuring DC Comics characters, authored by Leigh Bardugo (Wonder Woman), Matt de la Peña (Superman), Marie Lu (Batman), and Sarah J. Maas (Catwoman). “We’re getting rid of all those preconceived notions of what is literary and what is commercial fiction. This very much falls between the two and that’s what’s interesting to me.”
Authors as Fans
Many authors are excited about creating stories within these pop-culture worlds. “The stigma’s been lifted,” says Gitty Daneshvari, author of Little, Brown’s Monster High: Ghoulfriends series, as well as the School of Fear and League of Unexceptional Children books. “It’s like 10 to 15 years ago, no movie stars acted in TV because they thought they’d be stuck doing that forever, but now they’re all in TV and it doesn’t hurt their careers. The same is true for branded content. You can step in and then step right back out.”
“This generation of authors, we’re fans, and a lot of us are excited to work with the characters we love,” says Melissa de la Cruz, author of The Descendants: Isle of the Lost and The Descendants: Return of the Lost for Disney, as well as her own Blue Bloods, Beach Lane, and Ashley Project series.
When Bond, whose other books include Girl on a Wire and Girl over Paris, found out that she would be writing the Lois Lane books, she says, “I was honored and a little scared, mainly because there is this huge fan base that has been ill-served many times throughout [the character’s] history. I see the books as my gift to them, as a fan of the character myself. Lois Lane was a significant figure in my childhood.” Brezenoff says that Bond’s enthusiasm for Lois Lane was a real selling point when it came to choosing an author. “She was super excited about the project. It really meant something to her, and that was meaningful for us.”
The ability of a pop-culture character to pull kids into reading can also be appealing. When Shannon Hale, author of the Princess Academy series, was approached by Little, Brown to write Ever After High, she was hesitant. “At first I thought I wouldn’t accept it, but after I met with Mattel, I knew I would enjoy writing the story,” she says. “The real driving force was that I meet so many kids who think they’re not readers. I knew these kids would be watching the Netflix series and playing with the toys, and that this could be the hook for them to pick up a book, maybe for the first time.”
“There’s nothing better than reaching a new audience,” Daneshvari says. “There is a built-in audience for these brands that is so excited and is waiting for more content. Their excitement is contagious.”
While there are many factors that attract authors to certain licenses, the idea still gives some authors pause. “There certainly was some caution in me,” Leigh Bardugo, author of the Grisha trilogy, says. “I don’t think I would have taken it on if it wasn’t Wonder Woman. To be able to lure us away from our own work, it’s because these characters mean so much to us.”
The pressure to not disappoint the fans can also be intimidating. “These characters come with a lot of baggage,” Bardugo says. “That can be good because it’s what has resonance, but it also comes with heavy expectations.”
“You have a sort of mantle of responsibility,” agrees Margaret Stohl, author of the Beautiful Creatures novels, as well as Black Widow: Forever Red and the sequel Red Vengeance, based on a Marvel character, for Disney Publishing. “It’s the most I’ve ever worked on anything. You have to really do it the way the fandom deserves or it’s not worth it.”
Both the authors and the property owners benefit from their relationship in a marketing sense, with fans of the licensed tie-ins often trying the author’s other books, and vice versa. “One of the great opportunities is the cross-pollination you get by pairing up major brands with major authors,” says Michael Petranek, Scholastic’s senior editor and Lego publishing manager. “It’s a big win-win.” Scholastic is releasing the first Assassin’s Creed YA novel, by Matthew J. Kirby, this fall, under license from Ubisoft.
For licensors, well-established authors also contribute story elements that can extend to the company’s other business areas, such as television, film, and consumer products. “We’re always looking for ways to bring these rich worlds to life,” Sugerman says. “These authors have achieved an amazing status in their storytelling and their own voice, and they can take these worlds to new places.” He reports that there have been occasions where characters originating in the novels have been integrated into entertainment from other divisions. “You can look at it as sort of story R&D for the broader organization,” he says.
The right author for a licensed title needs to have a strong affinity for the character, according to publishers and authors, along with a distinctive voice, a compatible writing style, a fan following, and an ability to work under time constraints. “I was the passionate fangirl, who also understands YA,” Stohl says. “When I heard I would be doing this, I had such an adrenaline rush that it’s forever imprinted on my mind. It’s truly a labor of love.” The fact that she was a fan, she believes, gave confidence to both Marvel and Marvel fans that she could be trusted to respect the Black Widow character.
Licensors, authors, and publishers alike say many readers will embrace licensed books by their favorite authors, as long as the pairing is authentic. “There is a cult of personality that has been attached to YA,” Stohl says. “With the rise of social media, the readers already know that the authors are fans of the characters, so there is a natural fit that everyone understands.”
Business reasons can also play into a writer’s decision to accept an assignment tied to a licensed world. “Publishing is a hard business to get in and stay in, and you’ve got to diversify,” de la Cruz says. “It’s so easy for a book to get lost,” Hale notes. “In this situation, there’s a strong marketing push, and you know it will be cared for. You’re partners with the brand owner.”
Established literary authors working on licensed titles are often given more leeway in storytelling than is the case for most traditional licensed tie-ins. “It’s a delicate balance, but [most licensors] do allow a good deal of creative freedom,” Sargent says. “They’re open to veering into new directions when suggestions are made by the authors.”
“You’re not going to talk [licensors] into stuff they don’t want to do,” Brezenoff says. “There’s no special treatment because the author is Gwenda Bond. But it may push them in a slightly bolder direction or a little more out of their comfort zone.”
Authors feel they’re on a level playing field with the licensor in most cases. “I knew I was being invited because of the work that I do,” Krosoczka says. “I was asked to create something that was me. People think I’m creating the book [Lucasfilm] wants, but I was creating the book I wanted to create, and they helped guide me. It’s like they have a vintage sports car in mint condition and they give you the keys and say, ‘Take it for a spin.’ Hopefully you bring it back without any scratches on it.”
“It’s a whole universe and you do have a restricted, narrow space in which to play,” de la Cruz says. “But I had a lot of freedom. Every question that came up, I had a say, and for every challenge, the solution that’s in the book is my solution.”
“There are definitely more cooks in the kitchen, and it takes some getting used to,” Bardugo says of the editorial process. “It’s like you’re a kid and, instead of one parent, you have to get a lot of people to sign off on the permission slip.”
Writers note that the licensor’s attention to detail is as important to the end result as the author’s contribution is. “This [world] is very sacred to a lot of people,” de la Cruz says.
“We don’t want to create extremely tight swimming lanes, but we do want to ensure that the novel will fit into the broader context, so the film and the book and the film sequel fit together harmoniously,” Sugerman notes. “It’s a real creative collaboration between the authors and the story teams that exist across the company.”
Authors often enjoy the back-and-forth with the brand owner. “The collaborative element is appealing to a lot of people,” Bond says. “You’re not just in a room by yourself. You have people you can talk to if you need help.”
The collaborative aspect of literary licensed fiction applies to the publishers’ internal structure as well. Nagler notes that Random House’s Chris Angelilli, who oversees editorial for licensed titles, and Mallory Loehr, who oversees editorial for the trade division, work together closely on projects such as the author-driven DC Comics books.
A Fine Balance
Authors have different approaches when it comes to how much research they do before beginning the writing process. Some delve wholeheartedly into the existing canon, while others read or watch just enough material to select some interesting characters or environments.
Mattel sent Daneshvari Monster High webisodes, TV series, and scripts, which she skimmed. “I wanted to figure out my world before I was constrained by what they wanted,” she says. “The crux is to find your own voice within a world that exists. But there is so much information. It can kind of paralyze you.”
Stohl owns five decades’ worth of the black-and-white Black Widow comic books and had read every one even before taking on this project. “There are through-lines,” she says. “I’m not inventing a new Natasha. The balance is to find consistency through 50 years of comics and also to find a new lens through which to tell the story.”
“There’s so much history, and people bring so much of their own lives to their perspective of [Wonder Woman],” Bardugo, who did a wealth of research on her character, says. “The fans are very invested in her. But I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do with Wonder Woman’s mythology from early on.” Of course, the research is not necessarily a burden for an author who is also a fan. As de la Cruz says, “It’s a tough job, watching Disney movies all day.”
Publishers stress that not every licensed YA or middle grade novel needs to have an author with literary roots; writers who specialize in licensed fiction remain the right choice for many titles. “These are the exceptional projects,” Nagler says, adding, “There is also amazing storytelling going on in true licensing.”
That said, more pairings between literary authors and licensed worlds are on the horizon. Scholastic is working on a Lego: Nexo Knights middle grade fiction series with Max Braillier. Disney, meanwhile, has plans for Star Wars: Lost Stars by Claudia Gray and Iron Man: The Gauntlet by Eoin Colfer, both coming out this fall, as well as a Marvel Squirrel Girl novel from Shannon Hale and original fiction tied to Beauty & the Beast and Tangled, among others.
“Licensing was kind of a dirty word [to many authors] in the past, but there’s no reason a story about Princess Leia or Black Widow can’t be as literary and interesting as any other work of literature,” Hale says. “It’s like writing a sonnet versus open verse. You have rules and constrictions, but you can still create a work of art.”