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Positioning Yourself for Licensing Deals

Your books are worth much more than just the words on the page.

Occasionally, you meet an author that simply wants to write a book to tick it off their bucket list. These authors have no grand ambitions. They simply like writing and have always wanted to produce a book. Some aren’t even bothered about publishing. A printed manuscript in a drawer is enough. That’s fine. Most of us, however, have more commercial aspirations. We want our cerebral thrillers to fill movie theatres like The Da Vinci Code. We want profound jewellery and posters like The Fault in Our Stars. We want video games and character action figures like The Lord of the Rings. In short, we want licensing deals that propel our work into the public eye.

Veteran authors typically know it’s more beneficial to focus on writing books than to seek success with subsidiary rights deals. They understand that the income from these game, movie or merch deals will be derivative of their books in most cases; they won’t earn life-changing income unless their fiction is already selling. Newer authors, however, often pursue them doggedly and make two classic mistakes that scupper their chances of success with this business model. They either:

  1. Fail because they have nothing to offer licensing partners but lofty expectations, or
  2. Get an offer after newfound success but sign an unfair contract due to desperation

So, how do you avoid these fates and run a successful author business that incorporates licensing deals that work for you? In essence, the key is to position yourself well from day one. You see, signing contracts is a precarious business. One unwise decision can negatively impact you for decades. Thus, while you can make mistakes and learn from them, it’s better to start on your right foot. In today’s article, we’ll explore a few factors you should consider to ensure this happens. Along the way, you’ll learn how to position yourself for success and sign positive deals that maximise your control over your intellectual property (IP) for the long term.

Become an Attractive Investment

Firstly, it’s important to realise that there are two ways to get licensing deals. One is to pursue them as you would a publishing deal, pitching potential partners, and the other is to attract offers by becoming an investment that’s so attractive potential partners come to you. It might sound like the second option is less certain, as if it relies on luck, but it’s actually easier to succeed that way as you can control more of the process. Indeed, simply creating a compelling fictional world and a strong pitch doesn’t do much. Potential licensing partners also want evidence to suggest an adaptation would do well financially, and you can produce that evidence by selling books.

Say a potential games manufacturer wants to license IP from an author and they have two options on the table: Author A has some original fiction and a slick pitch but only a few sales. Author B, meanwhile, is prolific. Their books seem derivative but they’re popular and win awards. In most cases, the games manufacturer will approach Author B first, even if Author A is more actively willing to work for a licensing deal. That’s because many potential licensing partners would rather partner with entities that are already doing well. It proves there’s demand and means they don’t have to drive interest from a standing start. So, to begin, empower your brand with book sales.

Identify Goals and Deal Breakers

When many authors think about licensing deals, they focus on movie adaptations. It makes sense, them being arguably the most glamorous. It’s important to remember, though, that there are lots of subsidiary rights and that no two deals are the same. In fact, the details are often more important than the main right a contract discusses. Imagine, for example, you’re negotiating an audio contract. That’s not one IP right. As a result, one wry phrase can force you to hand over a lot of subsidiary rights. What’s more, one clause can limit your ability to shop around future books or even publish them yourself, despite the deal looking watertight at first glance.

This is why it’s important to identify your goals before you license rights. That way, you can work out what the important details are and whether a $5,000 Japanese audio deal will be worth jeopardising your chances of getting a $5 million Hollywood pay-out. Best practice is to talk to an IP lawyer. A good one will point out common consequences you might encounter and will help you establish your deal breakers. Sure, signing a contract might sound fun, and could boost your author platform, but it’s not worth it if it’ll get in the way of you accomplishing an even greater goal. Positioning yourself not just to sign one deal; also think about playing the long game.

Attend Licensing Conferences

Signing deals is as much about connections as the success of your IP. Indeed, read “About the Author” sections of popular books and you’ll see a trend of authors who used to work in publishing, whether it was as an editor themselves or as a newspaper journalist. Admittedly, yes, those jobs gave those authors useful writing experience that helped them write well. But it’s vital not to underestimate the power of knowing people “in the office,” if only via friends of friends. The same goes outside publishing. Simply having a toy manufacturer know your name and that you’re easy to work with will instantly improve your chances of getting a toy licensing deal.

How can you meet people who are able to offer deals, though, without first working in their industry? Attend licensing conferences. Lots of companies send representatives to scope out promising IP and negotiate deals. The key to connection is not to expect a deal during your first visit. Instead, attend some seminars, make notes and chat to visitors you meet in the audience. Maybe even invite some to grab lunch. Over time, you’ll learn names, identify the decision makers and work out their own deal breakers. When you’ve established rapport and have IP that’s a good fit for a project, you can pitch. Getting a deal gets easier when they know, like and trust you.

Give Licensees Freedom

Ask any author if they care about the way someone adapts their IP and you’ll often get impassioned responses about them wanting any adaptation to be “close to the source material.” But that’s often an unrealistic expectation. Sure, it can be frustrating to see a movie, game or even graphic art that strays from your original vision, but you must understand that each licensing deal will create unique IP that’ll have its own set of unique challenges. Sticking to a 600-page book scene by scene is not a good way to make a 90-minute movie. Hence, it’s often better to hand over control to an expert who deals in territory that’s unfamiliar to you.

Mentally prepare for licensed IP to be “its own thing” and it won’t sting. Plus, it’ll put you in a more advantageous position to enjoy a bigger guaranteed paycheque. Indeed, would you rather quibble over controlling the output so much that your partner is no longer excited and offers you $20,000 for it, or give up control so they can feel motivated putting their own stamp on it after giving you $200,000. Either way, the adaptation could flop or soar. It’s just that you get paid a lot more signing off on the latter deal. And if it isn’t a hit, it doesn’t matter. Your readers will still love your books and, if you’ve limited the license, the deal won’t affect others in the pipeline.

Create IP That’s Cheap to Adapt

Many projects require a similar investment, no matter what books you write. For example, a board game themed around a murder mystery set in a single room or an epic fantasy full of monsters both require equal card and plastic. Film and TV projects, however, can vary wildly in budget. The Blair Witch Project, for instance, cost $60,000 while the production budget for new Star Wars and Avatar movies exceeds $200 million. Thus, prospective licensing partners consider the potential costs more on these projects. Due to this snag, the final way to position yourself for more licensing deals is to write books that will cost less to adapt.

That doesn’t mean you can’t write fantasy or sci-fi. Just consider how much each scene will cost — whether you need to show the monster or whether you could simply have characters hear its ominous roars outside their building. The latter will make it easier to greenlight. And if you think a low budget will limit the potential return, think again. When it comes to film and TV, budgets don’t correlate with revenue. Around the World in 80 Days cost $110 million and only made $72 million worldwide while Paranormal Activity had a $15,000 budget and grossed $193 million. Minimise the potential budget when writing and you’ll be more likely to attract an offer.

If you’ve got this far then you should now know how to attract more licensing offers, and you’ll have primed your mind not to fixate on details that will sabotage your efforts. Plus, you’ll have identified your deal breakers. Do this correctly and you’ll sign great deals that will not only boost your profile in the short term but position you well to sign more deals in the future. Remember, though: knowing how to do all this is not enough. Action creates motivation, both in yourself and potential licensees. So get to work on the elements you can control. The rest will follow.

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons

Dan Parsons is the bestselling author of multiple series. His Creative Business books for authors and other entrepreneurs contains several international bestsellers. Meanwhile, his fantasy and horror series, published under Daniel Parsons, have topped charts around the world and been used to promote a major Hollywood movie. For more information on writing, networking, and building your creative business, check out all of Dan’s non-fiction books here.