Are Media Tie-In Novels Trash?

Over at Emerald City, author Karen Traviss explains why she writes Star Wars novels. In the article she voices the widespread belief that “media tie-ins are rubbish”.

But are they? Do they not require effort just like any other book? According to Karen, they are even more difficult to write because of constraints put on the authors by the controlling party regarding character deaths, their backgrounds, language/terminology and the like. Additionally, the story events need to be congruent with the events in books by many other authors; there’s lots of coordination involved.

Speaking for myself, I have historically tended to avoid tie-ins because of this stigma. That’s unfortunate for me. I am surely missing out on some perfectly fine sf. For example, some co-bloggers have extolled the virtues of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy of Star Wars books.

Media tie-ins are not exclusive to the Star Wars universe of course. Star Trek is another popular source of books, as is Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more. There’s even a whole gaming-related set of tie-ins, which I will not even start to get into here.

What do you think? Do you read tie-in novels? Which ones? Or are media tie-in novels trash?

13 thoughts on “Are Media Tie-In Novels Trash?”

  1. The Star Wars books are held to a rigid line. Nevertheless, one author did manage to get permission to kill off Chewbacca.

    The Star Trek books, on the otherhand, are almost wide open. You can’t kill off the main characters, but other than that, anything goes. No continuity is maintain unless the books happen to be by the same author.

  2. I wouldn’t say media-tie ins are harder to write, but I think you need a different set of skills to write good media-tie ins, than if you write in worlds of your own creation, and its as hard to write good MTIs as it is to write original novels. That said, there are good MTIs, like there is good stuff in every genre and subgenre of literature. The problem is, who has the time to read hundreds of Star Trek or Star Wars to find the good stuff. Also I think because of the constrainsts of the universes you write in, it’s much harder to be original than if you write in your own universe.

    A long time ago I read MTIs to gaming universes like Battletech, Shadowrun, AD&D, and I still remember some of the stuff very fondly (while I also remember that some of these books were quite a pain to read). And some of these authors went from MTIs to original stuff, like Michael Stackpole who writes some of the best fantasy today. Another writer I liked very much was Nigel D. Findley, I think if he hadn’t died so young he would have also went on to write original stuff, and he would have been great at it. And the Warhammer stuff by Jack Yeovil (Kim Newman) and Ian Watson was great.

  3. Maybe other authors can criticize media tie-ins, but I cannot. I wrote a sequel to a Null-A book by A.E. van Vogt. Naturally, the language, technology, plot, characterization, even the background philosophy of general semantics had to be handled in a fashion harmonious with the originals. In all modesty, I thought I did a fine job with the material: it was the most fun I have ever had writing. Any criticisms leveled at media tie-ins would also apply (at least to some degree) to folks writing shared-world books like THIEVES’ WORLD, sequels like Betancourt’s AMBER books, or any genre where the rules are tight.

    When the poet Euripides sit down to pen PROMETHEUS BOUND, he cannot kill off Zeus, or have Prometheus escape, or have the plot turn out in a fashion any other than what the deposit of tradition dictates.

    In each case, the author is constrained by the expectations of the audience.

  4. Media tie in novels are like all books–you got your good, your bad and sometimes those rare ones that transcend and are great.

    I tend to classify media tie in novels into three categories:

    1. Author has a good idea for a story but works too hard to tie in the universe he or she is working in. This can happen in a lot of Trek novels where it feels like the author had a good story but works hard to put in Kirk, Spock, Picard, etc. It’s almost like a gimmick to sell the books based on name recognition. The first 24 novel struck me like that. It was a decent story but would it sell without Jack Bauer on the cover. I think not so much.

    2. Author has a good story and does well with the characters. I’d say a majority of the Pocket Trek novels fall into this. There are some references and nods to continuity but it’s not so laybrynth like that a new reader can’t pick up on it. Characters act and talk like they should on the show and you could see it being an extended episode or movie. OR something that could not do on the television budget.

    3. The third is hardest to describe. It’s the most rare. It’s where an author has a godo idea that totally fits the universe and writes the characters so well you can hear the actors saying the words. I’d say Keith R.A. DeCandido and Peter David both best explemify this in Trek nad Timothy Zahn in the Star Wars books. These are books that not only have a great plot, but they also tie in continuity well in a totally organic (to the book) way. They explain enough so that casual fans get what is going on but not so much that hard core fans tune out. Delicate balance. These are books that fly past and are a joy to read and you wish they could make into an epiosde or movie but you know wouldn’t do justice to the printed page.

    As for Trek books, some are bound by the guidelines. Others such as the DS9 reluanch and the New Frontier books are not as bound and have made major changes.

  5. Media Tie-In Novels Do Have A Place

    Link: SF Signal: Are Media Tie-In Novels Trash?. For those of you who are fans of media tie-in novels, or those who are considering writing one, there is a discussion firing up over at SFSignal.com. When I was younger I

  6. John M. Ford’s “The Final Reflection” was a damn fine novel. It just happened to be a Star Trek novel.

    So there.

    8o|

    Seriously: Like two previous posters said: Like any other genre, ya gotcha good, ya bad and ya really, really ugly.

  7. It depends on the authors. Christopher Golden, Nancy Holder, Kate Orman and Justin Richards are always good.

  8. John, you wrote a sequel to Null-A? Was this ever published, I’m a big fan of your and Vogt’s work, and your sort of media-tie-in stories to the Night Land captured the original mood perfectly, so I wonder how good you were at doing the same for van Vogt.

  9. Regarding Keith’s comment about an author who “got permission to kill off Chewbacca”? That was Lucas’s idea; he believed (with some reason) that the Extended Universe was getting too predictable because every reader knew they couldn’t kill off a major character. Killing Chewbacca was a signal to the world that such cozy certainties were no longer true.

    Which brings us to the biggest reason that Star Wars tie-ins are a different kettle of fish than any other tie-in I’ve ever read: they are, on a fundamental level, not an afterthought. They are real canon, and while people argue over how to rate the various ‘levels’ of canon in Star Wars, I am aware of no other franchise that can say the same thing. The MTIs are the main focus, now, and were a major focus even while the movies were shooting. Because of that, the authors have a much broader pallette to use–their stories can, and do, change the SW universe. They don’t have to make sure everything is returned to the status quo ante by the end of the novel. Those changes have to be approved, and sometimes (as with Chewie’s death) are decided upon by others; but they also open up a whole scope for imagination you can’t find in other MTIs.

    I’m not saying other MTIs aren’t good. In fact, I’ve read some that are exceptional. But the canon-limitation of non-SW MTIs is the only argument with any validity I’ve ever seen that could be used to degrade the quality of MTIs in general. It doesn’t apply to SW MTIs, and it could be applied with equal justification to a great number of long-running novel series. Heck, in a lot of cases you could apply it to the media which the tie-in is about (Star Trek being a good example). Which therefore implies that while MTIs in general are prone to that flaw, it is not inherent in the form.

  10. Okay as the self appointed SW Fanboi (notice the very hip spelling of said title), I like the tie in novels as they do fill in the spots missing from the movies and make the world feel alive. I also enjoy the novels that don’t involve Luke, Leia, Han, and the other “heroes” of the movies. Having every book involve them would render the galaxy pretty small or make these guys super travellers :)

    Furthermore, I think that tie in books are good since they will get folks to read, and ultimately that should be the first step. Lets hope that, once they read a couple books that are tied to movies and other media, they will expand thier reading options by reading books from a given author who wrote the tie-in book. Lets face it there are trash novels in almost every genre, and media tie-in books are no exception.

  11. Well, having played Devil’s Advocate to generate some response (“What? That devil!” (6)) I should now come clean.

    While it’s true that I have yet to read media tie-in fiction, that as not stopped me from purchasing it. What may have been originally driven by biblioholism has turned into no small collection of media tie in novels. It started with purchases by well-known authors who dip into the shared universe and blossomed. By my estimates, I own about 60 Star Wars novels (Stop drooling, Tim!) and 25 Star Trek novels. Heck, I even have about 10 Battletech novels. (Thanks, Trent!)

    So, no, I do not believe media tie-in novels suck by virtue of their being MTIs. They offer enough value to get my dollar, even if I did get the majority of them off the bargain rack at a used bookstore. Hey, I gotta support the book-buying habit somehow, don’t I? :)

    For more useful information on MTIs, check out the website for The International Association of Media Tie-In Writers whose members include the likes of the aforementioned Karen Traviss, Keith R.A. Decandido, William C. Dietz, Nancy Holder, and Steve Perry. The website offers a host of articles on the subject, including one on this very topic: “Are Tie-In Writers Hacks?

    Thanks for all the great comments! I think I may even be abvle to swing a pole out of this. (Ahem. As it were.)

  12. I’ve read all the CSI, CSI:Miami, 24 & Criminal Minds books. I can say they are just as good and relevent as any other fiction or non-fiction work out there. Now if only they would write House.

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