Leeching off the Talent: writing for hire & the dark side of publishing

Something caught my eye in the library yesterday: a glossy new book with a quintessential American hunk gazing out at me, the words ‘CREATED BY L.J. SMITH’ emblazoned across the cover. I was confused. The Temptation – as this shiny appeal to teenage lust was entitled – seemed to be a new addition to The Secret Circle series, which I had devoured in the ’90s. I’ll confess my interest was piqued, and I flicked to the first page for a read.

Something was off.

These were not the characters I remember idolising as a pre-teen.

A quick glance at the cover, and suddenly all was clear: created by L.J. Smith. Written by Aubrey Clark.

Most of you will know of L.J. Smith via the CW’s horribly earnest adaptation of her series The Vampire Diaries.  The books have had a renaissance of sorts, thanks in large part to the TV adaptation, but mostly because of the blockbuster success of a certain vampire turdpile, which has prompted a great deal of YA coattail surfing and the re-emergence of works from the ’90s woodwork.

Both The Vampire Diaries and The Secret Circle are published by HarperCollins, but they are ‘packaged’ by Alloy Entertainment. Smith explains this relationship in an email to a fan (since leaked):

When I got a call asking me to write a vampire trilogy for Harper, it wasn’t Harper who was calling me. It was a book packager, now called Alloy Entertainment, calling on Harper’s behalf. Their job was to take authors’ work, put blurbs and covers on it, and sell it to a publisher. When I wrote the first Vampire Diaries trilogy it was called “work for hire.” By the time I found out what that meant it was too late. What it means is that the book packager, Alloy Entertainment, owns the books, not me. Even though they are copyrighted to me, I still can’t write them without Alloy’s permission.

Turns out Ms Smith was fired three years ago, her intellectual property handed to a ghostwriter because she refused to toe the party line (it’s a love triangle thing – the publisher wants one couple to live happily ever after, the author favoured the other). So far, so bloody horrifying.

Meanwhile, I am devastated. Of course I have other series done directly with a publisher: The Forbidden Game, Dark Visions, and the Night World books. But I put so much of myself into the Vampire Diaries books that right now I’m devastated. I never imagined anything like this could happen.

To someone already perplexed by the very concept of ghostwriting, this takes the biscuit. Fair enough if the estate of Virginia Andrews wants the cash cow to keep churning, spin it as a ‘legacy’ even. But when writers’ works – the characters, in particular – are forcefully taken from them, we have surely lost the spirit of creativity. Writing by numbers – much like the squad of anonymous Sweet Valley High authors did for years, speaking of writers for hire – detracts from any cultural or creative value we might attach to literature, undermining it as some sort of cheap commodity to be sold to the most acquiescent typist.

Smith’s solution? She’s now publishing her own conclusion to the Vampire Diaries via Amazon’s Kindle Worlds (though Alloy still receive some of the profit). I want to say ‘you go, girl!’ but I can’t help but think she’s willingly plunged herself into an intellectual property Groundhog Day. Because here’s the rub: Kindle Worlds licenses out the characters and material just as Alloy did. It’s essentially fan fiction at a price, and Smith has now knowingly entered a contract that allows her works to be cannibalised, legally and at profit, by any Joe Bloggs who chooses to do so.


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