Expanded Universes, Contracted Books: A Look at Media Tie-in Novels
I'm currently reading Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which is a comic
book based on the two video games that are based on the extended universe of the
science fantasy sextology. Although it captures the flavor of the Star Wars
universe, it's about as far removed from the original series as pasteurized
processed cheese-food product is from cheese.
Media tie-in novels (for the purpose of this article, I'm focusing on tie-in novels
rather than novelizations, comic books, and games) add new dimensions to a
familiar world, a world where the characters that fans admire continue their
adventures beyond cancellation.
Media tie-in novels shed light on briefly skimmed minor events and answer such
trivial-yet-burning questions as, "Will Phoebe find true love?" (Charmed: Sweet
Talkin' Demon), "How did Avon wind up on that prison ship with Blake?"
(Blake's Seven: Avon: A Terrible Aspect), and "What happens after the Kilrathi
surrender?" (Wing Commander: False Colors). These are answers that I, and tens
of thousands of others like me, want to know.
Like most novels, media tie-ins range in quality from shoddy to sublime, and
media tie-ins are as diverse as the books you see on the speculative fiction shelves.
Each author takes a different approach to similar material. If a person watches Star
Trek because she likes Vulcan stoicism, there's a book for her. If a person watches
Star Trek because he likes Kirk's take-charge attitude, there's a book for him, too.
Karen Traviss, who writes Star Wars books as well as her own fiction (The World
Before), says, "You have no idea how rich and varied [media tie-ins] are until you
pick them up and read them. And there's no single flavor…. The universe is
shared, but the stories aren't. Every writer brings their own distinctive style to the
Professional authors with an arm's length of publishing credits enjoy writing tie-ins, even when they can be writing in their own universes. Eric Nylund, author of upcoming Mortal Coils and two Halo books says, "The Halo books tap into a readership I
always wanted to tap into, 14- and 15-years old, the Golden Age of science fiction,
where the readers are very impressionable. That's what really gets me jazzed
firing up their imaginations."
Traviss says, "The sense of communal storytelling both with other authors and
the interactive process with the readers is a very powerful experience." Because
she writes in the Star Wars universe, populated by other authors, it's also a shared
experience. "Other writers are lobbing stuff into the mix all the time, and you have
to make that part of your storytelling too. It pushes your boundaries in
unpredictable ways, which is terrific. It stimulates your imagination."
However, not all genre authors feel the same way about media tie-in novels: The
media tie-in industry exists to dish up more stories to satisfy the craving for a
particular "property." The original material is owned by a company. Therefore, the
writers have no rights to their creation.
Norman Spinrad (Mexica), who has written tie-in novels for Star Trek and Land of
the Lost, has more than one objection to the field. "The first reason is [the rights-holders] have endless requirements of the writers what they can do and can't do
and [the writers] get put through rewrites. It's the same headaches as writing for
TV, but for much less money. Another reason is the writer doesn't own the
property. The money isn't that good, and the royalties are minimal. It's dumb
The writers of these novels work for hire, which could mean they receive a flat fee
with no royalties, or perhaps a much smaller percentage than usual. Although many
of the authors interviewed receive royalties, many others receive a flat fee only.
John Ordover, formerly an editor of the Star Trek line of books, says the
arrangement is equitable. "[Tie-in authors] get two or three times the advance of a
regular novel. Neophyte authors will be lucky to get $4,000-$6,000 for an original,
but they'll get $8,000-$12,000 for a tie-in."
Sean Williams (The Crooked Letter), who is paid royalties for his Star Wars
novels, says the terms of payment does not bother him. "Does a lawyer working for
large firm expect partnership percentages just for employing a new defense? Of
course not, so why should we?"
Williams adds, "I apply the talents I possess to the best of my abilities to give them
the sort of work they're looking for." George R.R. Martin (A Feast for Crows),
however, does not believe that tie-in novels contain the best writing an author can
produce. "The writer is essentially a hired hand, doing a job for pay, and in my
opinion that doesn't get you your best work. It's like if you're building your own
new house, you'll put more time and care into it than if you're building a house for
Quality is an issue with Martin, as with Spinrad, who agrees. "I've seen this ruin
the writer's style." He describes writers who have lost their own voices after
submerging themselves in the world of the tie-in property. So media tie-ins, an
entertaining diversion for the reader, may not be the best deal for the writer, either
financially or stylistically. Even more sinister, they may not be good for the
speculative fiction genre as a whole.
Spinrad says, "This stuff is driving out real science fiction. If you walk into a book
store, what do you see? The majority of the books are tie-ins. And because tie-ins
are multimillion-dollar commercials, they're going to sell better than free-standing
novels. I imagine that the science fiction and fantasy tie-ins in any given year far
outsell every [non-tie-in] novel combined." (Because publishing companies like
Del Rey and Bantam do not comment on their sales figures, I could not neither
disprove nor substantiate his claims.)
David Moench, publicity manager at Del Rey says that sales figures, "depends on
what the property is. The popularity of certain movies and games helps the sales of
these books that's what drives it. The casual reader sees the movie and
becomes interested in reading more about that specific universe."
Elena Stokes, publicity director at Tor Books, says, "The [production company] of
What Dreams May Come gave us trailers and art, and even though the movie
wasn't that successful, we shipped 585,000 copies the month before the movie
came out. [Another property] did not receive as much advanced support, so we
only shipped 54,000 copies of our tie-in and did not have a good sell-through."
Supplying advanced artwork and other visuals to the people who sell books to the
bookstores can ratchet up the sales of the book. Science fiction media tie-ins
typically have this in abundance. (It makes one wonder why such efforts are not
put into every novel.)
The average science fiction/fantasy first novel (paperback) sells approximately
5,000-20,000* copies. The media tie-in figures are more than respectable: In fact,
But then there's the question of bookshelf space: specifically, science fiction
Media tie-ins are not the sole domain of the speculative fiction genre. Sweet Valley
High, Little House on the Prairie, and CSI have all been tied-in. However, tie-ins
are a mainstay of speculative fiction, and bookstores are devoting an increasingly
larger portion of bookshelf space to them. Why is this happening to science fiction
and fantasy, but not other genres?
In a genre based on speculation, the interviewees can only speculate. Margaret
Weis (Mistress of Dragons) says, "I think because readers become so involved in
the world itself. With fantasy and science fiction, [the readers] are interested in the
whole exotic alien world, which is so different than ours. In a romance [the
readers] care about the characters more than the world." In other words, fans
become so smitten with a certain universe, they crave stories placed there.
Williams says tie-ins are popular in science fiction, as opposed to other genres,
because, "There's still a gap between the imagination and what appears on the
screen." A good tie-in novel can bridge that gap.
Traviss, Ordover, and Williams believe that media tie-in books are good for the
genre: These books lure readers to the science fiction department and reel them in.
Williams says that media tie-in books were his gateway to "real" science fiction.
"The first SF novels I ever read were Doctor Who novelizations back in the 1970s.
Reading them (and, later, Star Wars, Blake's 7, Space: 1999, etc.) encouraged me
to read 'serious' SF when I found a library that stocked it."
Weis has a suggestion to drive readers toward real science fiction as well as
alleviate the stress of the shrinking book shelf: "The bookshelves currently shelve
the [tie-in] books separately from our [non-tie-in] books. If they shelved the tie-in
books together, it would be a big help."
Meanwhile, Traviss has noticed a boost in her own sales, thanks to her tie-in work.
"Star Wars fans have picked up my own copyright titles and really made a
difference to my career. They might not even have looked at that section of the
store if they hadn't known me as the Republic Commando woman. In fact, a lot of
reader mail that I get tells me exactly that."
However, Martin disagrees. "I don't think you build a career writing in other
people's universes." He explains. "At an autographing, I once sat next to a writer
who had done a couple of well-received Star Trek novels, and she had also had a
number of distinguished novels of her own…I observed that some of the people
who came up had her own novels and some of the people had her Star Trek novels,
but no one had both. She had two separate audiences."
Nylund is not sure if the readers of his Halo books will pick up his other novels. "I
have a feeling that the readerships don't overlap that much. But I'm sure there's a
subsection of people who read science fiction novels and Halo novels."
However, Nylund has developed a strategy to steer his Halo readers toward his
other fiction: "I have another book coming out that I think will appeal to the
readers of the Halo books, which is a good bridge from the science fiction action of
Halo to the science fantasy universes I create. I just started my own website and
blog, and I'll probably podcast a short story. People can listen to that and judge for
We all do judge for ourselves, that is. Personally, I find media tie-ins easy to
read because the shape of the universe has already been created, and the author fills
in the color. I tend to read them when I feel the need for light reading. Of course,
not everyone agrees, but not everyone has to. That's why we have more than one
book on the shelves.**
* Thanks to Jane Jewell, executive director of SFWA. Figures are for paperbacks,
first print run.
** The author would like to announce that movie and comic book tie-in rights to
this article are available through her agent.