Breaking Into the Licensed Property Market Demands a Study in Character by Alice Culbertson

Are you partial to The Powerpuff Girls? Mad for Malcolm in the Middle? Starry-eyed over Star Wars? Then you probably know that, not only can you enjoy these characters on the small and big screens, you can also enjoy them in books. And as a writer, maybe you’ve wondered how you might go about entering the market of writing books for licensed properties.

Books that feature characters from TV shows and movies are plentiful and widely available, and have enjoyed what Scholastic editor David Levithan terms a “huge explosion” of popularity in recent years. Scholastic, the world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books, has a media department to handle most of their licensed properties. Their staff does include some in-house writers who work on these books, but freelance writers also write many of them.

Jude Watson is one such freelance writer, with several titles to her credit, featuring Saved By The Bell and Star Wars characters. She notes that many people who want to write for licensed properties share a common misconception that just being a big fan is enough to qualify them for the job. “It’s not like you can be a big fan of a movie and think you can write for it,” she says. This type of writing, she adds, is geared toward professionals, particularly writers who have already published something for licensed properties.

So that brings about an age-old question: “How can I get experience if no one will give me experience?”

First, a critical “don’t.” Don’t send in ideas or manuscripts for a certain property. “It’s NOT a good thing to do,” says Levithan, noting that legally, the editors at Scholastic may not read such a manuscript and it would be returned to the writer unread.

“If people DO want to write for a licensed property,” adds Levithan, “they should first and foremost submit themselves, and then if the publisher wants ideas, the publisher will solicit ideas from them.” Although Scholastic is not currently accepting resumés from new freelance writers, the best way to approach a prospective publisher, says Levithan, would be to send a resumé showing previous experience writing for a licensed property and relevant writing samples. Resumés and samples showing related media experience, such as articles or books featuring celebrity profiles, might also be considered.

If you don’t have any previous or related experience but would still like to break into the market, the most important thing to know about this type of writing is that the writer must maintain the integrity of the property. “It’s staying true to the characters,” says Levithan. “Staying true to the age level and the humor level or the non-humor level of the property absolutely is the key thing.” The creators of licensed properties develop distinctive personalities for their characters and generally won’t accept any deviation from these characteristics. In writing for them, then, it’s important for the writer to understand who a character really is and what the character would—or would not—say, think, or do.

Watson’s entry into the licensed property writing market came from a business contact she had made while working in the editorial department of a New York publishing company. This contact was working for Lucasfilm Ltd., the production company that has produced a string of popular movies, including those in the Star Wars series. Watson, who had moved to California, was already a full-time freelance writer, when this contact asked her to work on a Star Wars writing project.

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