The World of Licensed Characters and Work-For-Hire

Chances are, if you’ve ever thought of writing a book, you’ve thought it would go something like this:

You get an idea for a story, a great idea. For months (maybe years) you work on it, writing and revising and polishing until you have a manuscript you can be proud of. Then you go to work finding an editor who loves it enough to buy it (or an agent who will find one for you). Finally, someone offers to purchase the right to print your book, and a year or two later you hold the finished product in your hands.

Eve Adler

But not all books are created this way. We’ve all seen books based on characters from TV or the movies, or an entire line of books based on one character. The process used to create these kinds of books (and book products) is a completely different world. I was privileged to take a peek into this world by visiting with Eve Adler, an editor with Grosset and Dunlap/Price Stern Sloan. Though all publishing houses work a little differently, the basic process is the same.


Happy Feet Two: The NovelBook publishers are always on the lookout for great characters found in television and movies, as well as popular toys or games. Once they find them, they make an offer to purchase the right to create a book that ties in with the character or their world. At Grosset and Dunlap, the licensing division takes care of this work. They search for licenses they can purchase for movie tie-ins (a recent example, Eve edited books for the Happy Feet 2 movie), or books based on popular television characters (for example, Grosset is responsible for many of the Penguins of Madagascar books).

Sometimes it gets complicated and publishing houses purchase the right to create books based on a television series which was based on a beloved book or book character (Angelina Ballerina is a classic Grosset and Dunlap example).


Book publishers are also busy creating their own brands in-house. In this instance, they will develop the brand and produce the book(s), and create any apps if applicable. For those brands they want to expand further, they may publish different formats, like sticker stories and board books. Occasionally, if they own the rights, they may license them out to others to create plush items, games, and other products.

“Ladybug Girl by husband and wife team David Soman and Jacky Davis is an example of an in-house brand that we all love and are looking to develop,” Eve shares. “Dial publishes the original hardcover picture books, and at Grosset, we’ve published several board books and a sticker story to expand the brand.”


But who writes these books? That’s where work-for-hire comes in.

Work-for-hire is when a writer is hired to write a book for a publishing company (or other entity). The writer does not retain the rights to the book—those belong to the publishing company—and they are paid a flat fee for their work. There are strict guidelines and very quick deadlines (usually two weeks to write a picture book, for example).

These writers still work with the editor on revising or making any changes to the work, but also those who own the licensed character must be consulted and approve the projects. So sometimes a work-for-hire author might need to revise based on the licensor’s suggestions as well as the editor’s.

Breaking into the work-for-hire world is not easy, but it can be done. Eve says, “To be a good writer-for-hire author, you need to make sure everything you’re writing is on-brand. You also need to take direction well, especially since there are so many cooks in the kitchen, so-to-speak, in licensed publishing.”

Publishers with work-for-hire projects often want to see samples of a writer’s work. Editors will keep names of those writers whose work they liked, and when they have a new project, they will contact the writer and offer them the job. Eve says the easiest way to get started is by having your own contact with an editor.

Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators The best way to make contact is by attending writing conferences. (In fact, that’s how Eve and I met; at the SCBWI Utah/Southern Idaho regional conference in Salt Lake City.)

Work-for-hire isn’t just for writers, though. Eve mentioned that often her company hires teachers or librarians to create their leveled readers, since readers must follow strict reading level guidelines and most teachers/librarians are already familiar with these. And a few smaller products may be written by the editor in-house, since hiring someone outside the company is not cost-effective. “At Grosset, we (editors) usually write our licensed sticker stories, activity books, and board books. It’s a really fun part of the job!” says Eve.

The licensed characters and work-for-hire world is an interesting and ever-growing part of the publishing business. And though we didn’t discuss this part of the industry today, Eve also acquires original manuscripts. As a special opportunity for our readers who were also writers, Eve accepted submissions through May 10, 2012. If you sent something to Eve, she will will do her best to respond within 6 months of the date your submission.

Thanks to Eve and Grosset and Dunlap/Price Stern Sloan for letting us take a look behind the scenes of this unique part of the industry! And a special thanks to Eve for the Mixed-Up opportunity to submit original work to her.

Also, don’t forget to check out our Mixed-Up Middle-Grade Skype Tour! Simply leave a comment here to be entered to win a Skype visit with Wendy Shang, author of the award-winning THE GREAT WALL OF LUCY WU!

Elissa Cruz has always wondered how the book tie-ins her kids love to read were created. Now she knows. She is hard at work writing her own original middle-grade books, hoping one day they may be made into a brand of their own. She’s not holding her breath, though. You can also find her at her blog or participating in her other middle-grade project, #MGlitchat on Twitter.

Elissa Cruz