Tag Archive for work for hire

Work for Hire: Swallow Your Pride

I hear a consistent gripe from friends when it comes to doing work for hire: they don’t get to tell the story they want to tell. Whether it’s comics, ghost-written prose, or media tie-ins and novelizations, the content owner has the ultimate say in what does and doesn’t see print.

I’m having a similar problem with the project I’m writing right now. My first draft took the story one direction, and I felt pretty good about it. Then the rewrites came, and I had to do some extensive revision because my plot didn’t jive with the editor’s. I didn’t have a complete outline to work from, so I didn’t have a a solid idea of the project’s vision before plotting it all out.

You know what? I was okay with that.

The whole idea behind work for hire is it’s not my project to begin with. My job is to match the editor’s vision, or at least stay within the constraints he gives me. Period. I can offer advice and opinion, and they can take it or leave it, as fits the work. This applies whether we’re talking a small indie publisher or one of the Big Two. Even the popular guys who sell a ton of books for DC and Marvel can only go so far, and they know it. They may have earned a little more trust and leeway, but a Superman story still has to be a Superman story.

So I dove in and made the changes my editor asked for. It stung a little, but the paycheck soothed the pain.

What it comes down to is deciding whether the direction a project is headed should still have the writer’s name on it. If a writer can’t live with the changes he’s contracted to make, it’s not time to draw a line in the sand. If he’s made his case, he should either accept the editorial response or walk away. I’m fortunate I’m not in that situation, but I’ve seen others have to make the tough decision to break away from an editor (especially when that decision is complicated by the politics of getting more work or not). It’s part of the business.

This is why it’s not uncommon to see guys sticking with creator-owned work despite the costs and effort required to get a new project off the ground. Contracted work keeps the lights on and puts food on the table, but the ultimate goal for most creators is to set out on their own. This is where the potential for real money is, especially in the long term. More importantly, it’s also where we find creative satisfaction.

In the meantime, we put our heads down, do the work, and keep the lights on. It will pay off.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

This Gun’s for Hire

Vanity and self publishing aside, there are two general directions to take: writing your own work or writing for someone else.

In the prose world, writing your own work is straightforward: you take your own ideas, put them on the page, and push them out to the public in some way. Writing for someone else usually means a media tie-in (writing a Star Wars novel) or ghost writing (writing a book under a celebrity’s byline).

In the comics world, we have creator-owned and work for hire. In a creator-owned situation, the writer and/or artist create the characters and stories and manage their publication and own all the rights. Work for hire is contract work, usually writing for a company like Marvel or DC. The company owns the characters and the stories, but the writer is paid to come up with the script.

The difference comes down to profit for the writer.

By retaining the ownership of the work and the rights to things like foreign language editions and movie adaptations, the work can be a lot more lucrative in the long term. The writer is more likely to receive royalties, perhaps an advance, but it may also take a while to actually produce a profit for the writer (especially rookies). In a media tie-in or work-for-hire situation, the writer is usually paid a set rate and sent on his way. If the author is given a one-time fee, the book could sell a bajillion copies and make the bestseller list in twelve countries and he’ll never see another dime.

(And yes, there are exceptions out there, but don’t expect to be an exception, precious.)

Some pros will tell you to avoid media tie-ins and work-for-hire work like the plague. Sometimes they will tell you it’s because you can make more money if you handle a creator-owned property correctly, sometimes it’s for more artistic reasons and the satisfaction or reward of forging your own path.

Let me tell you why I’m happy to do both.

To put it simply, work-for-hire gigs pay the bills. While I expect Winter Kill will pay off bigger in the long term, my single biggest paycheck came from adapting a finance textbook into comics format. As I write this, I am punching up the dialog in another of their books, again for pay. This guy pays well and pays on time.

I wrote my Phantom short for Moonstone on a work-for-hire basis. King Features owns the character and now the short story I wrote him into, and I got a small paycheck for my effort. However, I know a few people who sought out my other work after they read my short story, so it paid for itself in intangibles and potential future sales.

This is why many creators are happy to write for the larger comics companies if given the chance, or don’t turn down opportunities to write about someone else’s characters. The page rates the Big Two pay can mean the difference between writing full time and writing in the meager lunch break between shifts driving the forklift. I’ve heard of movie tie-ins that pay tens of thousands of dollars for a month’s worth of punching keys.

What’s more, work-for-hire gigs are easier because half the work is already done. For example, Batman is already written and there’s not much most writers don’t know about him. Star Wars has a meticulous history and character gallery to draw ideas from. With the textbook adaptation, I just had to put someone else’s words to scenes, dialog, and captions. It can be tedious work if it’s not something the writer would read or watch on his own, but compared to starting with a clean slate it’s a piece of cake.

Every one of those projects gets me closer to being able to write full time. Royalties that never materialize will never put food in my kids’ bellies. Until The Pack and other works I’m developing start generating real income, I’d be an idiot to turn down work-for-hire gigs.

Bring ’em on.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Down with OPP

Other People’s Properties, that is.

I don’t play in other folks’ sandboxes very often. I feel it’s more productive to spend my time on my own properties, and to be honest, in the long run it’s more rewarding. There are times, though, that an invitation comes along that sounds like a lot of fun, and it can be a good opportunity to gain a little more exposure.

Off the top of my head, I can think of three times I’ve had something published featuring properties that belonged to someone else: I visited Brian Keene’s zombie apocalypse world of The Rising with “One Night in August”, I wrote a Phantom short for Moonstone’s The Phantom Chronicles, and most recently I got to play with Tim Seeley’s Cassie Hack in Hack/Slash Trailers Part 2.

Again, that’s published. I had one short story I submitted but never heard about again, another short I stepped away from, one I knew I would never finish in time, and another that was just accepted by the editor and is awaiting approval from the property owner. Oh, and one I ghost wrote, which is all I can say about it.

The experience itself is a mixed bag.

In almost every case above, I was invited by the editors or the property owners to submit a story. This is flattering, whether it’s because the owner trusts you with your work or because the editor trusts you to handle the property with respect and/or thinks you can bring something to the table. (Writers love having their egos stroked.)

It’s also a lot of fun, especially if it’s a property you’re already a fan of. Even my kids dig the Phantom, and they were excited when I told them I got to write a story about him. (Of course, they were then disappointed that it wasn’t a movie or comic book.) It’s all the better when you get email from fans of those properties telling you they enjoyed your take on the character, and they will then be seeking out your other work.

Fortunately I have yet to have any of those fans tell me I screwed up. That would suck a lot of the fun out of it.

I have, however, had a creator tell me I don’t understand their character. I agreed to some rewrites, but after the third time around I finally decided I wasn’t going to make this person happy and I backed out. I’d love to have published a piece about the character in question, but if the creator wasn’t happy, chances are the fans wouldn’t be, either.

That extra scrutiny is a lot of work. The same process happened with The Phantom Chronicles: my story had to be approved by the licensor, King Features Syndicate, as well as the editors at Moonstone. The edits in this case were fairly light, but I had to go through two separate rounds of them several weeks apart.

You also have to do your homework. If you’re lucky, you’ll be given a series bible. If you’re smart, you’ll read previously-published material and learn it. If you’re lucky and smart, the property owner will send you previously-published material and you’ll read all of it. Depending upon the property’s history, this can get tedious if you’re not already a huge fan.

The easiest work-for-hire projects are the one where you just play in the other world, but you create your own characters. For example, with “One Night in August”, I was told “The zombies look like this, this is what happened with the world, you can’t use any of the characters from the novels.” So tell a zombie story with this kind of zombie? Done.

Imagine, though, working in the Star Wars universe where everything is meticulously recorded and checked for continuity. You really have to know your stuff. Writing for Marvel or DC is probably a bit better because there are so many characters and there’s such a rich history to mine, but a big frustration I hear is many characters are tied up in other books and are off limits.

Also, the fans are bigger critics than the editors, so be ready for backlash. If you don’t have a thick skin, don’t bother. (Of course, this can also be said about writing in general.)

I’m not going to tell anyone they should or shouldn’t do it. Sometimes it can be rewarding, either financially, emotionally, or both. For me, going forward it’s going to come down to whether or not it’s worth my while.

In the case of the piece I just had accepted, it doesn’t pay a ton of money but I know the creator, I like the character, and this character has a fairly solid fanbase. If the publisher takes notice of my story, even better. In the case of Hack/Slash, it was a four-page piece and took no time at all, plus it was done to help the creator. I’m down with that.

Would I work for Marvel or DC given a chance? Hells yes. They pay well and they get your work in front of many thousands of eyeballs. I’d have to give a lot of thought to something like Star Trek, though. I know a few guys who do very well writing those books, but I just don’t have the passion for the source material. Same for the Buffy books. It’s not a series I got into. (For the record, though, I’d write the shit out of Firefly. That’s some Whedon goodness I can get behind.) As professional as I would be if they wave a check in front of my face and I take the job, and no matter how hard I busted my ass to do the research, I’m sure I’d have a lot of sleepless nights worrying an editor would tell me “It’s just not working out” and I’d have wasted a lot of time and have to give that fat paycheck back.

And that wasted time can really kill your own properties.

Look, I know a guy who wrote a novel based on an obnoxious TV show for tweens. It’s about as far removed from his usual work as you can get. However, he told me what it paid, and he was then able to claim a bestselling novel in his credits. I sure as hell wouldn’t turn down a job that would pay off a third of my mortgage.

Here’s what you do turn down:

1) Stuff you hate or just don’t want to be associated with. This should pretty much speak for itself. I’d write porn for a buck, for example, but my wife would kill me and I’d probably lose my job. (Though some may say this is what pseudonyms are for…)

2) Stuff that has no established fanbase. If there’s nobody reading it, there’s nobody going to be reading what you contributed. Either the editor/creator wants to cash in on your name, or they just can’t get anybody else to do it. Either way, run.

3) Stuff that doesn’t pay. This usually goes hand-in-hand with 2, but some people just want a free ride. I know of a big name in television who flirted with a friend of mine to write some spec scripts for a television show they were developing. They jerked him off for a while, and pretty soon he realized he wasn’t going to get paid. Why should he bust his ass to put money in someone else’s pocket? Again, run.

4) Favors. Nobody likes to turn down their friends, but chances are if it’s a favor, 2 and 3 are involved and you have the additional heartache of them assuming you’ll be cool with their asking for three rewrites and their getting pissy when you don’t stick to their vision. Respectfully decline, then run.

It boils down to this: every writer has their own product. Your product represents you the best, and there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing your own product succeed.

Raise that baby and put it out into the world.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.