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Breaking Out of the Box
Original novels based on popular TV series are finding a ready market

By John-Michael Maas, Publishers Weekly, 12/23/2002

When it comes to TV tie-ins, brand extensions rule. Series like Buffy
the Vampire Slayer are flying off the screen into multiple licenses for
books, graphic novels, even video games. This brand polyphony lowers
the audience barrier to entry, and holds appeal across multiple
demographics and formats. But something further is happening. There has
been a groundswell of original novels that share the premises and
characters of popular TV series while offering completely new
adventures, with some titles even surviving beyond the run of the TV
series itself.

Syndication Rewrites the Rules

While book tie-ins are hardly new—there was a tie-in to 1933’s King
Kong—the game changed with the original Star Trek series. The show came
and went in the late ’60s without fanfare, but rose like a phoenix in
the early ’70s with syndication and original novels that boldly
ventured to worlds never seen on the small screen. “The license is
still going after 30 years,” observed S&S executive editor Lisa Clancy,
who uses the example of Star Trek to rally in-house enthusiasm for the
highly successful Buffy the Vampire Slayer series she edits. “Star Trek
shows that you can continually reinvent a property to keep it alive.”

For tie-in publishers, TV syndication can be a double-edged sword. On
one hand, there’s no denying its market penetration. “It extends the
normal series life span and brings in new viewers,” said Clancy. “And
some younger viewers, who would otherwise miss a prime-time show, can
now watch it in an earlier time slot.” But syndication also means that
fans don’t have to go far to get their fix. “If they can see it on TV
or DVD or watch taped episodes, why should they buy a novelization?”
noted Beverly Horowitz, v-p and publisher of the Knopf Delacorte Dell
Young Readers Group. “DVD has changed the landscape because fans can go
back for what they missed,” concurred Hope Innelli, v-p and editorial
director of HarperEntertainment. “Tie-in books, therefore, have to
serve a different purpose.”

Many of these books keep fans happy by shedding more light on the
characters, filling in plot gaps or turning back the clock. For
example, the lightning pace and Washington insider backdrop of the Fox
series 24 left a lot of unanswered questions at the end of last year’s
premiere season. “We created a backstory in conjunction with the
writers that explains how key characters got there in the first place
and reveals why the revenge plot unfolded. That’s just not on the
show,” said Innelli.

Original novels can also exist in entirely different time frames,
taking the audience to places the shows can’t go. The Alias novels are
prequels that unfold seven years before the TV series takes place.
Viewers, therefore, know much more than the character in the books.
“What’s fun is that on the show, Sydney [the heroine] is already a
seasoned spy, but with us, she’s still green, more of an everygirl
going into a crazy situation,” said Random House editor Wendy Loggia.
Readers also know that Sydney’s love interest in the books will turn
out to be a ruthless killer she must liquidate seven years later on the
show.

Apparently, this doesn’t become confusing. “Look at Star Trek; they’re
still doing novels based on the original show, decades after TV has
moved on to different series and cast members,” said Tor’s James
Frenkel, who edits the tie-ins to Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda. The
first Andromeda novel, Destruction of Illusions (Feb.), is set before
the show’s opening, while subsequent books take place contemporaneously
with the series.

To some extent, the mushrooming of prime-time shows that run
concurrently with syndicated reruns, along with the rise of DVD series
collections, have already conditioned viewers to operate in parallel
timeframes. Law & Order, for example, regularly shuffles its cast,
though everyone shows up on cable reruns. “Readers are savvy enough to
recognize that the books have their own continuity,” said Clancy.
Practically speaking, the publishing lag time also makes it impossible
to keep pace with a show. “I’ve seen publishers fall off their schedule
trying to do it,” said Clancy.

Original novels that depart from the plot of the TV show require close
coordination with the show’s creators. “We don’t want what we’re doing
with Sydney’s past to interfere with what they’re doing in her
present,” said Loggia. Added Frenkel, “The producers know more about
the character’s future than we do, so they let us know if we’re
violating that.” For Justice League, DC Comics hired its own writers
and delivers completed manuscripts to Bantam editor Marissa Walsh for
her comments. “DC is really the caretaker of these characters,” Walsh
explained.

“I Want My Buffy!”

Now in its seventh season, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has become an
unalloyed phenomenon that’s spun off numerous licensed products. And
with more than three million books in print, it has set a new standard
for branded series of original novels. “Buffy has its own life as a
license separate from a TV tie-in,” said Borders’s media book buyer
Michael Garza. “Usually, interest in tie-ins dwindles over the life of
the series, but Buffy has had a longstanding sales picture and a
tremendous fan base.” Even rival publishers admit “it has really set
the bar for where these books can go,” as Ballantine’s v-p director of
sales and marketing Anthony Zaccardi commented.

“The storyline is really rich with characters and mythology,” said
Clancy. “People feel involved in the growth of the characters in a way
you can’t be with half-hour sitcoms or even some dramas.” The series
has also inspired a communal sensibility among its fans. According to
Clancy, some have even hosted charity parties that were promoted via
the Internet, and sometimes even attended by cast members.

As the charity events suggest, Buffy is snagging an audience far older
than you might expect. In fact, Buffy used to have separate teen and
adult tie-in lines, but they’re merging into a single series that’s
accessible to everyone. “The readers range from age 8 to 68, based on
the letters we get,” said Clancy.

Similarly, Loggia’s Alias books are written for 12 and up, “but we’re
designing them to look adult, which is where B&N is shelving them.
Twenty-five-year-olds can pick them up without feeling like they’re
reading a book for kids,” she said. Though Justice League rates highest
with boys ages six to 11, the animated series premiere movie garnered
Cartoon Network’s highest 18-34 rating to date for an original telecast.

In a nod to the books’ ability to stand on their own, Borders generally
stocks the series tie-ins by genre rather than in a media section. “We
put it where the fans are already shopping,” said Herschmann. In the
case of Buffy, Alias and CSI, that means stocking graphic novel tie-ins
in the graphic novel section, which has shown rapid growth (see Comics,
p. 21). “We’re getting an audience beyond the traditional fans,”
commented Herschmann.

All of this raises the question of whether any of these titles can
outlast their TV counterparts. Disney’s Loggia hopes Alias will be
around for a long time, especially since the first novel hit the New
York Times bestseller list this fall. But, she believes, “we could
probably continue to publish because we have such a strong series
concept.” For her part, Bantam’s Walsh said the Justice League
characters will persevere no matter what, since they mostly predate the
series anyway.

While that kind of bullishness may seem surprising, there’s some
evidence that tie-ins can offer ardent fans a way to stay in touch with
a canceled series. Although Murder She Wrote went off the air in 1996,
Penguin is about to publish its 19th original novel. Even the Dr. Who
series (BBC Worldwide Publishing) still sells, according to Herschmann:
“The buys are not massive, but there is a loyal core audience. It’s
money in the bank.”

Publishers have even launched tie-ins after a show has been canceled.
Del Rey’s Dark Angel series debuted last October, after the Fox show
ended the previous spring. “We knew the show’s future was up in the air
when we made the deal, but we’re confident in the fan base,” said
Ballantine’s Zaccardi. “They think the cancellation may actually have
boosted tie-in interest,” said Borders’s Herschmann.

Another reason books could outlive a series is pure numbers. “A
fanatically loyal fan base doesn’t necessarily get you into TV
syndication, but that same number can support a book franchise,” said
Borders’s Garza. Take Roswell: the TV show, based on the Roswell High
books by Melinda Metz (Pocket), was canceled this season, but the books
live on. “We tied into the show while it was on and now we’ve advanced
beyond it,” said Clancy.

Going one step further, Buffy embraced a whole new genre — the
musical — with a special episode that had its own tie-in, Once More with
Feeling. Initial sales have been encouraging at Borders. “If the
license is popular and the base is loyal, format doesn’t matter,” said
Garza. In fact, one format often helps push the others, particularly
when merchandised together. Explained Garza: “If you’re buying the DVD
for Christmas, why wouldn’t you want to get the stocking stuffer
mass-market tie-in?”

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