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MIND MELD: How Do Media Tie-In Novels Affect SF/F?

There’s been talk of media tie-ins lately and lots of opinions have been bandied about, so we thought we’d put it to this week’s panel to weigh in:

Q: How do you think media tie-in novels affect the genre of sf/f?

Read on to see a variety of viewpoints…and be sure to tell us your opinion!

Sean Williams
Sean Williams’ latest novels include The Dust Devils, the second book in his Broken Land series for children, and the latest in his gender-bending gothic-noir space opera series, Astropolis: Earth Ascendant. The latter follows Saturn Returns, which was nominated for the Philip K. Dick award and won the Aurealis Award for best SF Novel of 2007. He lives with his family in Adelaide, South Australia.

This question is one of great concern to me, having received the odd jibe for doing tie-in work alongside “real” fiction (for the record, I have four media novels to my credit and twenty-three original novels). My first introduction to SFF came through Doctor Who in the 1970s, particularly the novelisations of the show, which I read and re-read obsessively, and still own as it happens (this came in handy last month, when I was writing a paper on atheism). But for those books, and my parents’ awareness that I was becoming interested in the genre, I might never have encountered writers such as Clarke and Heinlein, through their juveniles, then Asimov, Pohl, and the rest. As an introduction to the genre, then, I think tie-ins function as well as magazines, movies, television, anime, manga, slash, fanfic, or any of the other entry points we can imagine. Why single out this one for condemnation, as some people do?

Love of ideas, sense of wonder, open-eyed speculation–personally I don’t care what particular media encourages such traits in people. That it *is* encouraged is the important thing.

For instance, I have two books out this month. One is a fantasy novel for kids. The other is the novelisation of the latest LucasArts game, The Force Unleashed, occasionally billed as Star Wars: Episode 3.5. As part of the Big Book Club, a national literacy initiative, and in parallel with National Science Week, I’ll be touring several states alongside representatives of the game developers who worked on the project, talking to kids about computer science and the animation industry surrounding it. Star Wars therefore will be helping involve kids in science, which can only be a good thing, for the wider community as well as SFF. Star Wars will also be raising awareness of my other novels, and through them the rest of the genre. I see no harm in that at all.

People like reading tie-ins, and we should let them do so, without rancour or envy at the sales they generate. It’s easy to imagine the industry cynically producing crappy clones just to satisfy the market, but as younger writers with proven track-records–like myself, Tobias S. Buckell, Steve Savile and others–become increasingly involved in the sector, it’s hard to make that claim stick. We work as hard at these books as we do at our own. Indeed, these are our own books in a very real way, since we grew up with the franchises and we have investments in them. I would never write a book I didn’t love. That applies to Star Wars just as much as it does to Astropolis, or the Broken Land, or anything else I’ve written. Anyone suggesting we do it solely for the money doesn’t know us well at all.

Paul Raven
Paul Graham Raven does a ridiculous number of things, including publishing the near-future sf webzine Futurismic, developing and managing websites for various authors and agents in the genre field, and online public relations for the UK’s foremost boutique genre publishing house, PS Publishing. He also answers tedious and easily-Googled questions about Naval history at his day-job in a museum library, reviews sf novels and music by hirsute tattooed lunatics, and spews the contents of his brain and browser bookmarks onto the web at Velcro City Tourist Board.

Well, the caveat here is that I never read media tie-ins myself (as there’s way too much other stuff that I don’t have the time for reading), so I’m going to avoid making sweeping statements about writing quality or literary worth. Essentially, though, I think media tie-in books are a double-edged sword.

The good thing about them is they can entice people across the borders from TV and gaming into reading – and, more specifically, reading genre fiction. Anything that gets more people reading (in general) is a good thing in my ledger.

The downside I’ve observed is that they tend to end up as the book equivalent of the shallow end at the swimming pool – a point at which less experienced swimmers feel comfortable, but beyond which they are unwilling to venture without the comforting logos of their water wings. The already familiar settings and characters act as a crutch of sorts, a lessening of the amount of imaginative effort that must be expended to read a book completely. In many cases the characters are already fixed in the reader’s head by the original format, as is the setting, and those are the two vectors wherein our best writers (not just in genre) do their best work – while I’m not belittling the amount of work and craft required to write a tie-in successfully, I think it’s fair to assume it calls on, if not a different set of skills, then a different ratio or balance of the same ones.

Real-world example – a very good friend of mine of a similar age to myself absolutely devours the Black Library/Games Workshop Warhammer 40K novels. I mean, seriously – he waits outside shops on launch days, takes ’em home, reads ’em in an afternoon and starts them a second time immediately afterwards. Totally hooked.

But I’ve utterly failed to entice him to read beyond them. I’ve tried giving him Charlie Stross’ Singularity Sky, pointing out that Mr Stross was an early writer in the W40K canon; no dice. Hell, I’ve tried him on the Solaris catalogue – put out by a different branch of the same bloody company! – and he’s not interested. He can’t explain why, and I can only guess…he’s perfectly happy, of course, but I can’t help but feel he’s missing out on a wider world of more writers, more characters, more settings. Go figure.

The other perceived (and admittedly minor) downside is a function of embittered ghetto thinking, which I try to avoid because I increasingly believe it does genre fiction (and fandom) a huge disservice. But the fact remains that the highly visible profile and brand recognition of certain franchises beginning with the word ‘Star’ demonstrably causes people who don’t read genre at all to assume that non-tie-in novels are actually the inferior form – because, y’know, you never see Neal Stephenson or Bruce Sterling’s name on the teevee, do ya?

Not to mention the syndrome whereby a book you’re reading can be an object of derision one year, but once the (utterly plot-butchered) movie or TV series (loosely) based on it comes out, everyone starts waving the cut-down novelization version at you, “coz you like a bit of that sci-fi/fantasy stuff, don’t you?”

As mentioned above, I’m not going to argue for the superiority of non-franchise fiction, because I know not whereof I speak…and the sales figures speak for themselves, so there must be merit to media tie-ins. But some parity of respect from non-fans would be nice, at least…

William C. Dietz
William C. Dietz is the best-selling author of more than thirty novels some of which have been translated into German, Russian, and Japanese. He grew up in the Seattle area, served as a medic with the Navy and Marine Corps, graduated from the University of Washington, and has been employed as a surgical technician, college instructor, and television news writer, director and producer. Prior to becoming a full-time writer Dietz served as director of public relations and marketing for an international telephone company. He and his wife live near Gig Harbor, Washington.

Generally speaking I believe that tie-in novels have had a positive impact on science fiction and fantasy because they:

  1. Bring new readers in from games, TV, and movies.
  2. Help to fuel the science fiction/fantasy genres by keeping them connected to popular culture.
  3. Enrich shared universes with stories characters and situations that wouldn’t otherwise be available to readers.

There are exceptions of course, truly awful tie-ins that should never have been published, but the same can be said of original novels!

Jim C. Hines
Jim C. Hines is the author of the humorous Jig the Goblin trilogy from DAW, as well as the forthcoming book The Stepsister Scheme. He’s published almost forty short stories, including several tie-in stories for various RPG-sponsored anthologies. He wrote this response while doped up on three different kinds of cold and allergy medications, so any incoherence or outright stupidity should be blamed on the drugs. Unless you think it’s brilliant, in which case it’s all Jim.

I first entered SF/F through tie-in novels. Star Trek books lined my wall as a kid, and all I wanted was more of the same. Eventually, my parents forced a copy of a Feist fantasy into my hands, and with that book came the realization that maybe there were other good things out there worth reading.

I’ve been talking about tie-ins a lot since returning from GenCon. One of the most interesting arguments I’ve heard from booksellers is that the proliferation of tie-ins is squeezing more and more original SF/F off the shelves. A bookstore might receive one or two copies of my book (to pick a not-so-random example), which will sit on the shelves for 3-6 months. Then, if they haven’t sold, they’re stripped and shipped back. A typical Wizards of the Coast book, by contrast, might ship a dozen copies and stay on the shelves for years.

I’m not a bookseller, so I can’t say how widespread this is. I’ll admit feeling a little envious when I walk into Barnes & Noble and find a single copy of my latest book, whereas the next shelf over has Wookies and Dark Elves as far as the eye can see. Like every other author in existence, I want more of that shelf space for myself, and I wonder if they’re pushing me and other “original” writers out of the stores.

But can we really blame tie-ins for squeezing of the midlist? Bookselling is a business, and I’m not convinced bookstores would return my wonderful books to make room for more tie-ins if those tie-ins weren’t selling. I know I spent years devouring them until my parents arranged their intervention to show me this wasn’t the only kind of book out there. I think tie-ins have a large, loyal readership, and that’s one reason they get more shelf space. (I’d love to see actual research showing how much overlap there is among tie-in readers and readers of non-tie-in SF/F.)

I do think you can make an argument that tie-ins have contributed to more and more trilogies and long series in original SF/F. Tie-ins take you back to a familiar world and characters. It’s true that some readers do get bored after a while, but many can’t get enough. After all, are your average readers more likely to buy a new story about a world and characters they already know they love, or something completely new where there’s the risk they’ll hate the whole thing? Writing longer series is one way for us non-tie-in authors to try to steal some of the success of the tie-ins.

Kevin J. Anderson
Kevin J. Anderson is the author of nearly 100 novels, 46 of which have been national or international bestsellers. He is working with Frank Herbert’s son Brian to continue the Dune Chronicles, and he has written many Star Wars and X-Files novels, in addition to his original novels, most prominently the seven-volume space epic, The Saga of Seven Suns which is also an international bestseller. His work has been nominated for the Nebula Award, Bram Stoker Award, won the SFX Readers Choice award, and been named “New York Times Notable Book” of the year. He also set the Guinness World Record for Largest Single-Author Booksigning in history.

Well, that’s sort of a no-brainer. Before the real surge in tie-in novels occurred in the 1990s, most bookstores (chain stores and independents) had only a tiny SF section, a few shelves of mixed midlist titles and old classics. Then Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Files, and other franchise novels started hitting major bestseller lists; Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire hit #1 on the New York Times; my X-Files Ground Zero hit #1 on the London Sunday Times. SF sections in bookstores doubled, then tripled in size because more and more readers walked into the stores. Even bad films (such as Starship Troopers and The Postman) propelled the original novels onto the bestseller lists, once they were reissued with tie-in covers. A rising tide lifts all boats.

For many readers, tie-ins are a “gateway drug” to get them into the genre, filling the same role that the Heinlein juveniles did in previous decades. The fans who come in for media books DO notice the authors they like, and they DO read our other novels. I have fifteen years of royalty statements to prove it. Sales of my original novels increased immediately and substantially once I started working in media books. A large percentage of the readers of my Dune novels with Brian Herbert have also followed my Saga of Seven Suns (enough that those books are now hitting general fiction bestseller lists). Anybody who claims that tie-in readers don’t read other novels is simply misinformed, but many of those readers would not have come to the genre without the catalyst of wanting to read new adventures starring their favorite characters. We have a lot more readers now than we would otherwise have.

Rob H. Bedford
Rob H. Bedford is a longtime genre fan who works and lives in New Jersey. He has held various marketing and publishing positions, building up the diverse background (he hopes) required for becoming a published writer all the while plugging away at various stories and novels. He also writes book reviews for SFFWorld and moderates the forums there, where this topic cropped up a little over a year ago.

The simple answer is that it means there are more Science Fiction and Fantasy books on the shelves. More books are a good thing right? The grain of salt to add is that 90% of everything is crap and media tie-ins are no exception. Let’s look a little closer, though.

In a lot of ways, the media tie-ins serve as a “gatekeeper” for the genre, inviting readers familiar with a franchise or property to our playground. Granted, some of those readers aren’t going to venture outside of the confines of the property that invited them. As a reader, and I speak from personal experience here, some of the earliest and most accessible stuff for younger readers (at least way back when I was a younger reader) was the plethora of novels under the (then) TSR banner. Of course I’m talking about the early Weis/Hickman DragonLance novels and Forgotten Realms. What happened after I read DragonLance? Well, I liked Weis & Hickman, so I ventured to their Darksword series where all the non media-tie in stuff was shelved and haven’t left since. I’d always had a proclivity to reading this stuff though, being a long-time comic reader and RPGer. From moderating the forums at SFFWorld, I’ve come across a lot people who have led to the genre along a similar path. Of course I know that isn’t the only path.

Media tie-in novels work in a similar way for the authors, too. A lot of people were introduced to Matthew Stover’s writing through his Star Wars novels, which are the cream of the crop in media-tie in fiction, IMHO. Monitoring discussion boards and hearing Stover himself state that people searched out his non-SW fiction (like the excellent Heroes Die, Blade of Tyshalle and forthcoming Caine Black Knife) just shows how well that idea works in practice sort of proves this point. Same goes for Greg Keyes who wrote a couple of well-received Star Wars novels and I’m sure the same will happen to Sean Williams because of his SW novel, The Force Unleashed. Though I can’t personally speak for Star Trek novels, I’m sure the same reciprocity can be said for a writer like Peter David, though his legions of comic book fans read his original stuff, like the Sir Apropos novels and his recent novel Tigerheart.

By bringing writers from the genre at large to media tie-in fiction, and I’m thinking Star Wars New Jedi Order here, Del Rey attracted a lot of readers. The series was, for the most part, a success. Stover, Greg Keyes, Walter Jon Williams, and the team of Sean Williams/Shane Dix are probably the most significant writers not normally associated with Star Wars who brought some clout to the table with their Star Wars novels. The early Star Trek novels are a virtual who’s who of talent and award winners: James Blish, Joe Haldeman, Vonda N. McIntyre, Greg Bear, and John M. Ford. Even before media tie-ins were the major aspect of the bookstore shelves they are today, it becomes pretty clear this cross-pollination has been going on for quite some time.

Media tie-in authors didn’t push the others off the shelves, which seems to be one of the perceived negatives about this subset of the genre. If anything they created more of a genre fanbase and clout in the bookstores before the internet in 1980s and the early 1990s. The funny thing is that the perception of non-genre readers towards “us” is not too different than how genre readers look down upon media tie-ins.

A writer like Paul S. Kemp has written some very well-received Forgotten Realms novels. Just google his name and you’ll come up with some good reviews of his Erevis Cale novels, though those reviews do have the placation “Not just good tie-in fantasy, but good fantasy period.” Either way, nowadays the good writers of media tie-in fiction are getting noticed outside of the circle of fans of the media property.

Where does that leave us now? Well, the media-tie ins are taking up considerable room on the shelves and the bestseller list, but the writers on these books are going back and forth from the media tie-ins to the main SF shelves. Will media tie-in fiction ever get the respect from SF genre readers that SF genre people think they deserve from the general reading public? Probably not but they will likely always be a familiar looking invitation. Who knows, but there will always be people who decry it without even reading it and the media tie-in fiction will have its supporters.

To answer the question, after all of that, I think media tie-in fiction has a positive effect on the genre – it brings in new readers and can help to broaden the audience of established writers

Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Kristine Kathryn Rusch is currently on the Hugo ballot for her novella, “Recovering Aoollo 8.” She has won Hugos for her short fiction and for her editing. Her latest novel is The Recovery of Man from Roc.

I think media tie-ins are good for sf. They bring in new readers. I wrote an entire essay on this for BenBella Books a few years ago and resold it to Asimov’s. You can access the essay here. (And while you’re on the Asimov’s site, subscribe.)

Those are all my thoughts on the issue–several thousand words worth.

Alan Beatts
Alan Beatts is the owner of Borderlands Books in San Francisco. He’s been a fan of SF and Fantasy ever since he discovered Michael Moorcock, Robert Heinlein, and Andre Norton one very exciting but academically unproductive school year.

First, I think it’s important to make a distinction between game tie-ins and the others (i.e. movie, TV, and so forth). For a long time, I lumped them all together but a conversation I had recently made me reexamine that assumption and I’ve concluded that there is a difference. Game tie-in work allows the author to create their own characters and, to a great extent, build their own setting within the larger game-world. In this, game tie-in work is more similar to the shared universe projects that were popular in the 80’s like Thieves’ World or George R. R. Martin’s Wild Card series. In contrast, other tie-in work usually requires that the author use the characters from the film or TV series as their primary cast of characters (though my friend Jeremy Lassen of Nightshade books points out that there are exceptions to this rule, notably the Star Wars franchise novels which are not associated with particular characters) and, in terms of world-building, any deviation from the “bible” that accompanies such projects must be approved. Because of these differences, I’m going to limit my comments to the more typical film and TV series tie-ins.

So, how do media tie-ins affect our field? Negatively.

First, they contribute to the increasing tendency of readers to expect “same-book different-cover” in their reading, rather than stretching and reading original material. This tendency leads to stagnation in the genre as a whole.

Second, the contract terms are typically work-for-hire, which means that the author does not retain any rights to their work. This prevents the author building on their successes and moving towards a financial position where they can write full-time. Since an author who can afford to write full-time produces more work and has more time to hone their craft this progression, which is hindered by tie-in work, tends to improve the quality of work in our field.

Third, authors who are working on tie-in work which is, essentially a dead-end, creatively speaking, are not working on their own, original work. Net result is one less imaginative and creative novel being written — a novel which might contribute to the development and maturation of our field. In addition, tie-in work takes up space in publishers’ schedules and space on bookstore shelves that might otherwise be occupied by more original work.

Finally, media tie-ins, due to all the inherent limits to the form, present the poorest face of the genre to non-sf readers. This reduces the credibility of our field and also reduces the number of “converts” to science fiction.

In the defense of tie-in work many people comment that it provides authors with steady, relatively simple work that allows them to write full-time. But, I think authors might be far better served by writing part-time, writing less, but doing work that will build them a solid, sustainable, career.

Tracy Duncan
Tracy Duncan has been a Star Wars fan long enough to know better, but not long enough to accuse George Lucas of ruining her childhood. She blogs about the favorite franchise at Club Jade.

In 1991 Star Wars was, as these things go, fairly dormant: Everyone knew about it, but the movies and toys were old news. Coming onto the scene that spring, Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire was a New York Times bestseller for several months, peaking at #1 in June: the leading edge of a resurgence. That December, I was 13, bored, and out of books when I picked up my father’s copy of Heir; within a week I went from mildly interested to addicted. For the next few years I noted release dates only to obsessively lurk in bookstores hoping for street dates to be broken, bought Locus to glean bits about new author deals, and eventually even got online to find that there were other people just as crazy.

While we waited for movies – first the Special Edition re-releases of the original trilogy, later the prequels – Lucasfilm continued approving books that carried the story past Return of the Jedi. The license passed from Bantam to Del Rey in 1999, and Del Rey began publishing books based on the new films. (Terry Brooks’ The Phantom Menace novelization was another #1 bestseller, in no small part because it predated the movie release by about a month.)

I won’t lie: Not all the books were stellar. Star Wars books have always been something of a crapshoot, and from the few forays I’ve taken into other tie-in lines that seems to be pretty universal. A bad tie-in novel can be immensely frustrating, but a really good one can give the franchise an added depth and new perspective. Perhaps the most accessible example of this in Star Wars is the Revenge of the Sith novelization; Matthew Stover reverse-engineered an actual novel – not a play-by-play – out of the script, giving the storyline and characters an added polish that might make even the most cynical prequel-hating Star Wars fan feel at least a little sorry for Anakin Skywalker. (Or at least, Count Dooku.) Other books have given the Imperials (or at least some of them) a touch of humanity, given us Force-users beyond the Jedi and the Sith, and taught us about Hutt reproduction. (Okay, so maybe that last one was more than anyone needed to know: Welcome to the Expanded Universe!)

And the fans will follow particularly beloved authors to their original work – Mike Stackpole’s Star Wars and BattleTech novels gained him additional readers for his DragonCrown War and Age of Discovery books; Zahn’s Conquerors’ Trilogy and Dragonback series also have a large crossover following. This year, I’ve seen fans mention Stover’s October Caine Black Knife in the same breath as December’s Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor as books they can’t wait to read.

What the main appeal of the Star Wars novels has always been for me is that they are a continuation of the characters that I fell in love with on screen. I could never really get into the prequels, so most of the stuff in the galaxy far far away that I care about has taken place in the novels and comics. I love the original movies, but the Expanded Universe has been the focus of my personal fandom since before I even had any concept of fandom as a community.

And to me, it’s the fandom community itself that is most enriched by tie-ins.

Anyone who frequents the major Star Wars book forums is probably laughing their pants off at me right now: in the wake of the last Legacy of the Force book we’re currently going through a cycle of hate-on-the-series. (Like brushfires, they’re a regular occurrence, and often necessary to clear out the angsty debris of an aging, overstuffed fandom.) But isn’t a strong, vocal base the strength of any niche group? Whether it’s a massive multi-format franchise like Star Wars, or one with a more single-author focus like Harry Potter or A Song of Ice and Fire, fans are the ones poring over every detail online and attending book events, even without the author present. Without the Expanded Universe and the people I met via it, I would never have attended a con or learned what a filk is, much less wrote a few (very bad) ones myself. And hell, it’s hard to be scared of your average science fiction convention once you’ve participated in a mock funeral for a dead Wookiee.

Tie-ins might not be great literature, but that’s not the point. Star Wars was never meant to be 2001, and neither are the books sporting its shiny foil logos. Consider tie-ins the literature equivalent of popcorn flicks: They might not actually teach you anything except how to swear in a made-up language, but they sure are fun for a couple of hours, even if it’s the kind of fun that you get from an MST3k-style mocking.

David Gerrold
David Gerrold is in training to be a curmudgeon. Approach at your own risk. You’ve been warned.

Tie-ins are merchandising. They are marketing. They are also a particular kind of advertising, using the bookstores as additional channels to raise consciousness of the primary product. Just about every big-budget movie, TV-series, or video game also has a novel, a making-of book, an “art of” book, a graphic novel, a prequel, a sequel, a few tie-ins about background characters, you name it. The goal is to create an “event” feeling about the movie or TV show or video game.

Now all of these tie-ins might provide interesting backstory that there isn’t time for on the screen, but the franchises also compete with all of the books and stories that aren’t derived from movies and TV shows. So the audience is being pulled into a lot of second-tier storytelling instead of finding the real treasures that come from authors who write from their own personal passion.

The best science fiction has always been courageous, dangerous, even subversive. The legendary science fiction authors took chances, not just thinking outside the box, but thinking outside the box factory. We have great authors today. A lot of them. They’re still working, still stretching the event horizon of the imagination, but the machinery of big-budget franchising has made it a lot harder for those authors to get shelf space, and it’s even harder for readers to get past the tie-ins to find those new books and new adventures that challenge them to stretch their vision of what’s possible in the universe.

Walter Jon Williams
Walter Jon Williams is the author of over 25 novels (including the Hardwired series, the Dread Empire’s Fall series, Voice Of The Whirlwind, and Implied Spaces) and numerous short stories. He has won the Nebula award twice (for “Daddy’s World” “The Green Leopard Plague”) and has been moninated for the Hugo award for both his novels and his short fiction.

Tie-in fiction hasn’t changed written science fiction at all. Written SF, and the people who read it, are too insular a group to be changed by much. They continue to live in their isolated subculture, sublimely unconcerned with what goes on outside their world.

What tie-in fiction has done, along with other media-based SF, is to change the composition of science fiction fans.

When I attended my first science fiction convention, thirty-odd years ago, the convention was built entirely around fiction. A couple movies were shown, sure, but the panels and discussions were based around the books and the sort of people who read them. If I walked into a room full of strangers, I could be sure of having maybe 200 books in common with them- all the core texts of science fiction. I could be reasonably certain that, if no other topic presented itself, I could start a conversation about Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, or Gordon Dickson’s Tactics of Mistake, or Ursula Leguin’s Left Hand of Darkness.

Media science fiction changed all that.

Star Trek lasted for three years on a major network in the late Sixties, and veteran SF writer James Blish was invited to write novelizations of some of its episodes, and other authors continued with new, original tie-in novels, and it wasn’t long before the novelizations outlived the series itself. Trek reruns became nothing less than hour-long advertisements for Trek fiction- and the commercial advantages of having hour-long ads for your fiction soon became apparent. Trek fiction outsold original science fiction. Trek fiction outsold original science fiction by a lot.

And the media fans soon began to have their own conventions, which were bigger- by a lot– than SF conventions.

And then Star Wars happened, and it all got bigger. More people attended the last Star Wars movie on its opening day than have ever read a science fiction novel.

If you want to consider how thoroughly media SF is dominating the landscape, consider the title of this column. Mind Meld. It’s not called “Sietch.”

I rest my case.

When I attended my first science fiction convention, the average fan’s first exposure to SF came through fiction, and through reading they acquired a first-hand acquaintance with science fiction’s history, tropes, and its specialized vocabulary. They were able to place each work, each idea, in its context, to relate it to other work, to traditional themes in science fiction, and to the contributions of individual authors, editors, and magazines.

Since the 1970s, a fan’s primary exposure to SF would most likely have come from film or television, and latterly computer games, anime or manga. While TV science fiction can be good science fiction, it come free of context, all the minutiae of the history of SF- the average Star Wars fan doesn’t know, and probably doesn’t care, how George Lucas borrowed most of his good ideas from EE Smith, or that Star Trek is a lineal descendent of Edmond Hamilton’s tales of the Interstellar Patrol.

I no longer have 200 books in common with everyone I meet at a science fiction convention. I no longer can be assured that the next stranger I meet at an SF convention will have read a science fiction novel at all.

The success of media SF is on the whole a positive thing. It shows that there’s an audience for SF, and that there’s money to be made on science fiction ideas.

I only wish it was the creators of science fiction- the people who put all this stuff in books for people to find – who were making the money, and not the people who use their ideas without credit

Andrew Wheeler
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years. He spent sixteen years as an editor for various bookclubs (most notably, working for the Science Fiction Book Club the entire time), ending as a Senior Editor. He is currently a Marketing Manager for John Wiley & Sons.

That’s a very thorny, interesting question, and I’m not sure I could list all of the ways that tie-ins have affected the larger field, or figure out what it all has meant for SFF. But you asked, so I’ll start listing. I’ll throw a whole lot of things at the wall, and hope that they start to form a picture eventually.

The influence of tie-in prose fiction, specifically, can be difficult to separate from the influence of the things they’re tying into – for example, Star Trek and Star Wars have had various effects on SF stories over the past forty years, but the effects on the field as a whole have mostly been from the movies and TV shows. This is mostly in the sense of standard props, settings, and themes, which can either become more common in non-media books (because they’re obviously popular) or less common (because they have the stink of other media on them). Space opera became the literary subgenre that dared not speak its name for a decade or so in large part because of Star Wars, for example.

Tie-ins are mostly a science fictional form – there are some moderately successful fantasy tie-in series, and one or two examples of successes in the world of mystery (such as Murder, She Wrote and Monk), but, generally, SF has been the prime mover here. There have been many attempts to explain this, but none have rung entirely true to me. But there clearly is something about popular SF in moving-picture form – whether it be worldbuilding, characters, or whatever – that makes a substantial audience want more of that, and willing to take that more in prose form.

Tie-ins allow journeymen writers a chance to get paid and to work in the field; they’re generally not open to brand-new writers, and writers with strong careers only rarely dabble (exceptions: the early Timescape Star Trek novels and the novelizations of the last Star Wars trilogy), which leaves them mostly as an option for people who’re either using them as a career or for writers regrouping after something didn’t work out as planned. As such – and combined with the last point – they’re a kind of safety net for SF writers willing to do them.

Tie-ins give writers in unpopular genres someone to look down their noses at, which relieves their existential misery somewhat. There’s only so many disparaging comments one writer can make concerning “books about college professors screwing their students,” so being able to also disparage books with Wookies in them gives non-tie-in writers a vital dose of superiority.

Readers have found their way into written SF (and, to a lesser degree, genre fantasy) because of tie-in novels, but what they’ve mostly found there is…more tie-in novels. Despite a couple of anecdotes otherwise, tie-in readers are much more likely to be fans of the property than they are of the genre – they want Star Wars stories (or Supernatural, or Babylon 5, or X-Files) rather than SF or fantasy stories. That’s an effect as well – tie-ins tend to create a stable subgenre for a while (as long as those fans keep wanting more of that thing) that doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the genre.

Some people think that tie-in books have siphoned readers who are “rightly” readers of “real” SF away, and poisoned them with inferior goods – as you might guess from my scare-quotes, I don’t agree. Avid tie-in readers are, again, fans of the property rather than of the genre as a whole, and expecting them to suddenly jump to books that aren’t about that property is unlikely.

There may, perhaps, be the possibility of tie-in readers broadening their horizons once they’re not as interested in a particular property – that could be a point where they look around the rest of the SFF section and try out a non-tie-in book. But I suspect that it’s much more likely that they’d instead start following a different media property, since that’s what they’re really interested in.

Really, media tie-ins aren’t closely bound to the core of the genre – they’re more related to their original and to other media properties than to pure novels in the same genre. (Although, of course, the SF and Fantasy genres are larger, wider, and full of more warring or just different camps than they used to be – so the ways that the tie-in audience is different from the “standard” audience isn’t as strong as it was ten or twenty years ago.)

I also expect that the existence of tie-ins led, more or less directly, to the existence of fan-fiction, which opens up that whole barrel of worms as well. (Here, as with so much else with tie-ins, Star Trek is the ur-text.)

All of that is mostly about series tie-ins, rather than one-offs like movie novelizations. Novelizations of popular movies used to be an important way of extending the experience of a film, but they’re much reduced these days, with quick DVD releases and the omnipresence of the Internet. But those, too, were mostly for people who were big fans of that one thing, and wanted to stay inside the world of that one thing as long as possible.

So those are some of the ways that tie-ins have affected SFF – they haven’t damaged it, or really expanded the non-tie-in side of the genre, but they have dragged a lot of people though some of the same literary hallways as pure prose writers have, and reminded us, as often as we care to notice, that there’s a much larger world out there (in several dimensions), whether we’re choosing to interact with it at the moment or not.

Carl Vincent
Carl Vincent is the proprietor of the eclectic Stainless Steel Droppings.

Pardon me, if you will, while I climb into my WABAC machine and set a course for the late 1970’s. While I would like to argue that they cheapen the genre, I have a very strong conviction that my 11-year-old self has a differing perspective on the issue.

Like many of my generation, Star Wars was my first true introduction to science fiction. Recall, if you will, that these were the days when you could only see a film as many times as your parents, or your friends’ parents, would load you up in the station wagon and drop you off at the theater (presupposing you had saved your allowance, had earned money picking up aluminum cans, or had generous parents). Once that initial run was over, the only film that remained was the one in your imagination. Enter media tie-in novels.

It could be argued with relative ease that it wasn’t the celluloid glory of George Lucas’ initial creation but the Han Solo novels of Brain Daley-“From the adventures of Luke Skywalker, based on the characters and situations created by George Lucas”-that fueled my life-long passion for science fiction. As a young man I borrowed my uncle’s well worn copies of Han Solo at Stars’ End and Han Solo’s Revenge (I later bought my own copy of Han Solo and the Lost Legacy) and lived adventure after adventure with Han and Chewie in their days before that fateful meeting with Obi Wan Kenobi. Along with Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, with Luke’s [now] creepy incestuous longings for Leia, made up a large portion of my 11 and 12 year old reading. When Return of the Jedi was finally removed from theaters, it was the novelization that kept the Star Wars universe alive in my heart and mind until the day, much later, when the films were finally released on video. In fact, I read Return of the Jedi so many times that summer that even now I watch the films and recall things that I actually read in the book that my faulty memory would swear were once in the film (and with George Lucas’ constant trickery, I could be right!).

It is difficult to know what would have become of my reading life had I not been exposed to those novels at such a young age. To this day I have a wide range of interests when it comes to reading, but although I do not live and die in the science fiction aisles of the local bookstore, it is still far and away my favorite genre of fiction. I give media tie-in novels the bulk of the credit for that fact. As I sit here typing this with a copy of Han Solo at Stars’ End on the desk beside me, it takes just one glance at the cover to transport me back in time to my grandparent’s farmhouse and to the bedside bookshelf of my teenage uncle that became my source of interstellar travels for years to come. If media tie-in novels have that same value to a 10 or 11 year old boy today, then I would have to argue that they are the best thing in the world for the genre. Even as an adult I enjoy the occasional Star Trek novel which allows me to go on new adventures with characters I have grown to love over the years. But it is the affection for the media tie-in novel born in the heart and mind of that young child in the late 1970’s that would most loudly proclaim me a hypocrite were I to criticize that subgenre of science fiction and fantasy today.

Chis Roberson
Chris Roberson‘s novels include Here, There & Everywhere, The Voyage of Night Shining White, Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, X-Men: The Return, Set the Seas on Fire, The Dragon’s Nine Sons, and the forthcoming novels End of the Century, Iron Jaw and Hummingbird, Three Unbroken, and Warhammer 40000: Dawn of War II and the comic book mini-series Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love. His short stories have appeared in such magazines as Asimov’s, Interzone, Postscripts, and Subterranean, and in anthologies such as Live Without a Net, FutureShocks, and Forbidden Planets. Along with his business partner and spouse Allison Baker, he is the publisher of MonkeyBrain Books, an independent publishing house specializing in genre fiction and nonfiction genre studies, and he is the editor of anthology Adventure Vol. 1. He has been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award four times–twice for publishing, and once each for writing and editing–twice a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and three times a finalist for the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History Short Form (winning in 2004 with his story “O One”). Chris and Allison live in Austin, Texas with their daughter Georgia. Visit him online at www.chrisroberson.net.

My answer might well be titled, “How I learned to stop worrying and love the tie-in.” Not a great title, but you can’t have everything…

I’ll be tackling the question — “How do you think media tie-in novels affect the genre of sf/f?” — in two parts.

First, “How do you think?”

This is a question that has plagued mankind for millennia, and luminaries from Plato to Rene Descartes to Roger Penrose have weighed in with an opinion. I’ll simply take it as a given that I do think, and leave it for wiser heads than mine to address just how.

Second, “Media tie-in novels affect the genre of sf/f?”

Well, of course they do.

The question is, are the effects of media tie-in novels positive, negative, or indifferent?

There was a time that I railed against media tie-in novels (I usually call them “franchise novels,” but a rose by any other name…), insisting that they were bad not only for the writer, who invariably is laboring under a “work-for-hire” contract in which they have no ownership stake in the novel, and bad for the reader, who should instead be reading more “challenging” work. And I think that both of those are valid concerns, as far as they go, but that I was overlooking two important facts. First, that it isn’t always necessary for a writer to own everything they write, and that not all readers are looking to be “challenged.”

The most important thing I failed to consider, though, was how important media tie-in novels had been to me personally, once upon a time. In renouncing media tie-ins in my twenties-and in particular looking at many of them as being childish – I’d forgotten that there’d been a time when the vast majority of media tie-in novels had seemed to be aimed directly at me. Namely, when I was a child.

I came to science fiction and fantasy in prose form at odd angles. As a child of the seventies I was already saturated in sf/f-as someone (William Gibson, maybe?) has said, science fiction was my native culture-but primarily in the form of television, movies, and comics. I’d read a bit of prose sf/f aimed at kids, probably, but then sidetracked into Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. By the time I was in middle school, the only contemporary science fiction and fantasy novels I was reading were, get this, media tie-ins. Huge stacks of Alan Dean Foster movie novelizations (Krull was a particular favorite), Star Trek and Star Wars novels, Elliot S! Maggin’s Superman novels, even Scholastic Book Club adaptations of Disney films (I still have my copies of the Condorman and Unidentified Flying Oddball novelizations). Those books were my entrée into contemporary science fiction, my first glimpse of what the field had become in the days since Jules Verne set down his quill and ERB hung up his typewriter for good.

Not all readers of media tie-ins are kids, of course. There are times when I want nothing more than to visit a familiar world, and pick up a novel set in a franchise I’ve followed for years to see what’s been happening. I still think that televised Star Trek has never been better than the novels of writers like Peter David, Diane Duane, and Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens (and it’s a telling fact that Star Trek: Enterprise didn’t get good until the Reeves-Stevens came onboard as “story editors”), and that novels like John M. Ford’s The Final Reflection rank among the best science fiction published at the time, media tie-in or otherwise. Arguably, the Star Wars novels of people like Michael Stackpole and Sean Williams are better than the films ever were. The writers of Star Trek and Star Wars novels have long proved that there are things that can be accomplished on the printed page that tv- and film-makers are still unable to duplicate, and fans of those franchises looking for something better than they find on screen are rewarded by a visit to the media tie-in shelves.

But while media tie-in novels aren’t only for young readers, my experiences and the experiences of countless others like me show that a non-trivial percentage of media tie-in readers are young people. Would I have gone on to read “real” sf/f novels had I not been drawn in by media tie-ins? Probably. With me it was already imprinted on my DNA. But there were doubtless other kids browsing those same stacks in the Waldenbooks and in the wire racks at the grocery stores who wouldn’t. And despite the fact that I’ve been known even now to bemoan the amount of real estate in chain stores given over to media tie-in novels, how many future sf/f readers would we lose if those media tie-in novels were to disappear?

You hear a lot about the “graying of fandom,” and there are eternal cries for new fans and new readers. As nice as it would be to think that we could simply hand young readers the smartest, most “challenging” novels that our genres have to offer, it seems unlikely to snare more than a bare handful of them. How much better to hit them where they live, to take franchises they already enjoy-in tv, film, video games, you name it-and offer them more of the same?

“Hey, kids, do you like that [game/show/movie]? Then you’re going to love this…”

Keith R.A. DeCandido
Keith has published over thirty novels, most of them in the realm of media tie-ins. The majority of his work has appeared in the worlds of Star Trek. Keith has written novels, novellas, comic books, short stories, and eBooks, and also edited several anthologies that cover all five TV shows as well as several prose-only series — one of which, the Corps of Engineers eBook series, he co-developed. Several of his Trek novels have hit the USA Today best-seller list, and received critical acclaim from all over the map, both online and in print, and Keith also continues to edit the monthly Star Trek eBook line.

Tie-ins are like masturbation: many people do it, they generally enjoy it, but they’re reluctant to admit in public that they do it.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

11 Comments on MIND MELD: How Do Media Tie-In Novels Affect SF/F?

  1. Great round-up of responses!

    Several writers seem to be making the case that tie-ins are a “good” thing because, by and large, they increase SF readership. K J Anderson summarizes this viewpoint nicely: “We have a lot more readers now than we would otherwise have.”

    But this raises another question, perhaps even more thorny than the original (and it may seem trivial, but I think there’s more to it), and that is:

    What is the effect of having more readers on the genre of sf/f (aside from the immediate economic consequences)?

    If we could design the world to have as many SF readers as we wanted, would we opt for 100%? And if there’s some kind of cut-off as to what constitutes a “desirable” threshold of market penetration, why is that the case?

    It seems that the answers will depend on what one esteems most about SF, and whether one views it principally as entertainment or as visionary literature (and it can sometimes combine a little of both, but it’s an uneasy partnership).

    Anyone care to walk through this field of land-mines? 🙂

     

  2. Doctor Who books too, of course, way back when were aimed at kids.

    Related to Chris Roberson’s comments – if there were few/no tie-ins, how many writers would be lost along with the readers?

  3. I’m not sure that’s a thorny question, Alvaro. Would we deign to have 100% of readers in the world be reading SF? Well, why not? What does it hurt? In fact, it would probably help. And even then, you would have a huge disparity between one reader and the next. You’d have people who read the hard-science stuff, and people who read the New Wave stuff, and people who only read space operas. People who only read SF set on generation ships. And so forth.

    I think it’d be all right. I think it’d be sort of nice.

    A lot of really good responses. I absolutely think media tie-in novels are great things, especially when they’re explored and built upon with enthusiasm, like Star Wars always was, when it was at Bantam (they really seemed to lose the thread, when they shifted to whoever did the New Jedi Order stuff). I have quite a lot of Kevin J. Anderson’s Star Wars books, from Darksaber, to the Young Jedi Knights affairs, and so forth. Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s New Rebellion was my favorite book for a long time.

    They’re absolutely a gateway drug, in that I devoured Star Wars books, and from there, found myself with a set of tools with which to better spread out into the rest of the world of SF and devour it. And that’s what I did. (Just recently, before I had heard of this Star Wars: CLone Wars yaz, I had just gone back to re-read some of my old, battered Star Wars novels. They still make me happy.)

    So. Right. Media tie-ins = Good things. (Except for the snobs who are afraid of the common little people, perhaps).

  4. I’m a reader of media tie-in novels. Mainly I read Star Trek novels but I have read stories in other properties as well ( Highlander, Aliens, Hellboy and Star Wars ). I don’t read these novels exclusively though. In fact they probably only compromise about 20 percent of my reading. The main reason I enjoy them so much is that I am able to continue to enjoy more stories in a world I already enjoy. I like the fact that I can still enjoy new stories in a world I already love. It’s comforting to revisit a universe from time to time in a world I know I enjoy. It helps all those stories stay alive in my mind. It also introduces me to new authors and then I go and find more of there works.

  5. Media tie-in fiction is like any other kind of fiction – it has good books and bad ones. Some of them stretch, expand and explore their subject matter in interesting ways, and some of them are paint-by-numbers fiction that isn’t worth reading at all.

    I think it’s a form of fiction, just like an original short story is a form, or a feature film, or whatever. I think it’s an interesting form because at its best, an author will take an existing world and find a new perspective on it, or a fresh direction for it to follow. People can be very quick to criticise some forms when what they really should be doing is criticising some of the content.

    A superbly written piece of tie-in fiction can be as high quality as a superbly written piece of original fiction. In 2004, it was a Doctor Who novella that won Australia’s Aurealis Award for Best Novel, for example.

  6. S. F. Murphy // September 3, 2008 at 10:19 pm //

    Some of those 40K novels are far superior to much of what is often nominated at the various community awards.  Especially Dan Abnett’s work. 

    That said, part of why media SF comtinues to do well is because they never forgot what their primary mission was.

    To entertain.

    Doesn’t mean it can’t be deep, soul searching or feature complex, multi dimensional characters (one of Abnett’s strengths) but they never forget that entertaining the reader is the primary mission.

    Not poking fun at the reader (Stross’ anti-space opera/space opera satire work in Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise).

    Not preaching at the reader (just about anything that isn’t media related).

    Not writing something so stylistically dense and convoluted that only fellow travelers with MA’s in English Literature get it. 

    Besides that, many SF readers do come from the media tie ins.  Those that get beyond the issues I’ve listed.    Then again, a lot of media SF readers run into those three issues and decide, “hell with this.” 

    Respects,

    S. F. Murphy

  7. I posted some comments about this on Jonathan Strahan’s blog post on the subject but in addition to thoughts and questions regarding the recent history and economics of tie-ins, I’d say: 

    They’re a good thing, mostly along the line that Paul Raven drew. People reading, even if it’s just the cereal box, is a good thing, and one has to imagine that eventually people will move outward into other interesting areas, which is a good thing. 

    I’m also convinced, though this may be clouded by nostalgia, that some of the tie in books of the 70 and 80s were really pretty darn good. Uhura’s Song by Janet Kagen was good. The 1983 Star Trek book “Black Fire” (Sonni Cooper,) was great as well, and I remember enjoying many of them. 

    More recently it seems that there are more of them, they come out quicker, the success or failure of a specific book isn’t as important as the overall success of the line, and they’re targeting the casual fan rather than the more serious fan. That might be important dimension in this discussion. I think the development of the serious fan is important, but the engagement of the casual fan is–while potentially profitable–neither here nor there for the genre. 

    Anyway, fascinating thought, and I think it’s good to have the opportunity to talk about this, as we often don’t engage tie-in work, but I don’t think we can/should ignore it’s impact/import. 

  8. DensityDuck // September 4, 2008 at 12:59 pm //

    @Paul Raven:

    “The downside I’ve observed is that they tend to end up as the book equivalent of the shallow end at the swimming pool…”

    Oh, seriously.  Everyone is all “zomg, kids are reading Harry Potter, isn’t it grand that they’re reading, we should be happy that they’re reading, reading reading reading!”  Except that they don’t read anything else.  HP is not a gateway–it’s a fad, they’re reading HP because that’s what everyone is doing these days. 

    From what I can see, the only way tie-ins ever worked as a gateway was when the reader would have gone to SF&F in the first place.

    “Not to mention the syndrome whereby a book you’re reading can be an object of derision one year, but once the movie or TV series based on it comes out, everyone starts waving the cut-down novelization version at you, “coz you like a bit of that sci-fi/fantasy stuff, don’t you?” “

    Gack.  My mom bought me “Eragon” last year.  I’m like, “Mom, I’m thirty…” It was kind of funny to see the original novel that The Tough Guide To Fantasyland was based on, though.

    *****

    It’s kind of unfortunate that you guys couldn’t get Alan Dean Foster to comment, because he’s written some excellent tie-in novels, such as The Last Starfighter and Alien.  At least he got some shout-outs.

    *****

    I think that what Andrew Wheeler was moving towards was something I’ve often thought, which is that “movie/TV tie-in” is actually a genre unto itself.  There is a subtle but crucial difference between “novelization of SF property” and “original SF work set in the universe established by an SF property”.

  9. S. F.Murphy // September 4, 2008 at 2:48 pm //

    Hey Duck,

    Those Media novels are how I got into science fiction.

    Umm, even published a thing or two that is not media tie in.

  10. Oh, and hands up who has read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy?

     

    🙂

  11. I also expect that the existence of tie-ins led, more or less directly, to the existence of fan-fiction

    I think that might be the other way around; I have Star Trek fanzines contemporaneous with the show that I believe predate the earliest tie-ins.

    I was already reading SF when I came across tie-ins, starting with the Blish novelizations of Star Trek (if those can really be called tie-ins), which I read and enjoyed in sublime ignorance of the fact that there was an associated television show.  I kept reading tie-ins right along with original SF; some worked for me and some didn’t, though my (eventual) familiarity with the properties probably set the bar for “worked” lower than it would otherwise have been.  I also kept reading fan fiction, which I realized earlier on was often much superior to the professionally-produced tie-in novels.  I still reread the better stuff in my fan fiction collection; the pro tie-ins, not so much.

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