BIG NAME (with itsy bitsy name)

Today’s essay is something of a rant. I’m angry about something, but I confess I’m also conflicted about it. I consider it a scam, an exploitation, and a great opportunity, all at the same time. I’m talking about the practice of author collaboration that ends up with the famous author’s name in two-inch tall letters on the cover with a much smaller and harder to read “with unknown author name” tucked somewhere in there.

Perhaps the most blatant one I’ve seen of this lately is Tom Clancy’s latest “Locked On”. You can see the cover here:

That light blue smudge between Tom Clancy’s bold name and the similarly bold title are the words “with Mark Greaney”. Really, click on it to see a larger picture at the Amazon page. However, given the color choice that blends his name into the background, I get the impression we’re not supposed to notice it.

Now, I get that Tom Clancy is a famous author, and his name will sell books. Mark Greaney’s name… not so much. Yes, he’s written some other books, but he’s not #1 New York Times Bestselling Author TOM CLANCY.

So, let’s get into why this got me angry. First of all, as a reader I feel like I’m being sold a false bill of goods. I’m looking for a Tom Clancy novel, and instead, I’m getting what is possibly a collaboration but my cynical heart suspects is a Tom Clancy outline and a Mark Greaney novel. Nothing against Mr. Greaney. He is, quite possibly, a better writer than Mr. Clancy. At the very least, he is likely to get better editing than Mr. Clancy.

But I feel a bit like Greaney is being taken advantage of here. I don’t know how the royalties are split, but you can bet that Tom Clancy isn’t doing this as a charitable contribution to Greaney’s career. Either way, I doubt the royalty split matches the split of the workload in writing. And yes, I understand that this is truly a huge break for Greaney. On top of the exposure he’s getting with Clancy’s vast audience, whatever royalty split he got is bound to make for a very nice payday. But still, if he did the bulk of the writing, part of me feels he should get the paycheck that goes with it.

But back to the cover and the Tom Clancy brand, if you’re going to do that kind of branding, I feel like more credit should go to the guy doing the bulk of the writing. In a similar situation in SF, Larry Niven and Edward Lerner wrote a trilogy in Niven’s Known Space universe. At least in that case, Lerner got almost as tall a font as Niven, and they didn’t try to blend his name into the cover background.

And part of me is a little annoyed at Clancy for not just writing the thing himself. Yes, I understand that readers are often more eager for stories in a beloved universe with beloved characters than an author is eager to write those stories, but I feel like this kind of collaboration is a cop out. I mean, really guys, either write your own sequels, or admit that you’re opening it up to licensed fan-fiction. A compromise on that works well in the various spin-off novels from such franchises as Star Trek, Star Wars, and even Babylon 5. The franchise was the brand, but the author still got proper recognition.

In particular, I’d like to point out how it was handled for the Babylon 5 novels. Babylon 5 was the brainchild of Joe Michael Straczynski. Not only did he outline the entire five-year series, but he wrote about two-thirds of the episodes. These spin-off novels were either filling in back stories that we didn’t get to see or tying up loose ends to let us put the characters to bed. They were clearly the stories that Straczynski wanted to tell, but he did not claim authorship on any of them. Yes, the franchise name got the big font, but the author got top billing as the author. Stracynski’s credit was always listed (notably in a smaller font) as “based on an original outline by J. Michael Stracynski”. No thunder stealing, no questionable claims of authorship, no author-branding.

Now, I wasn’t in the writing rooms of Clancy or Greaney, so I can’t say how that particular collaboration really worked.

But the way that cover is presented smacks of dishonesty, and it pisses me off.