There are different types of IP in traditional publishing. IP stands for “intellectual property” and from a legal standpoint any story idea is intellectual property. But in traditional publishing, we tend to use IP as shorthand for any project owned by a company that hires an individual author to write it. So this can run the gamut from franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, or Disney Princesses to original story ideas developed by a publisher (in-house IP or proprietary content) or a book packager.
In-house publisher IP/proprietary content
In-house IP is when the publisher (aka the person who will print and distribute the book) comes up with an idea and hires on an author to write that idea. This includes all of the Young Adult DC books like Marie Lu’s Batman: Nightwalker or Daniel José Older’s Star Wars The High Republic: Race to Crashpoint Tower. But it can also be original ideas that are not a part of an existing franchise like Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi. You might be surprised how many of your favorite books were actually IP/proprietary content.
Often times when an author is approached to write IP for an in-house project they are often presented with a general pitch for the concept (anywhere from a single sentence pitch to a page outline). But after an author is signed on it is up to them to actually flesh out the idea with the help of their editor. Depending on the IP, an author can end up changing a lot about the original pitch or creating their own story out of a single vague pitch. Therefore, even though the concept was sparked by an idea from within a publisher, IP is just as much a product of the author’s imagination as any other story. (When it is IP involved in a franchise, the company/publisher might create more constraints so that the story does not counter other content/canon within that franchise universe).
Things you can ask your agent to bring up during contract negotiations include: Bonus if the book is sold as TV show or movie, bonuses if the book wins awards, bonuses if the book is a bestseller.
Working with a book packager
These days many book packagers comes up with a concept, develop the idea, audition and hire the author, pitch the book to publishers, and participate in marketing the book. So, other than printing and distributing a book, a book packager does almost everything a publisher does. Book packagers run on a model of studying the market and coming up with high concept, commercial ideas that reflect the flow of the market with high likelihood of being picked up for adaptation in other mediums. In kidlit, with the market changing so quickly, book packagers have flourished.
The pros of working with a book packager is that they are much more hands-on during the developmental process. It’s almost like being in a writer’s room where the editor(s) and the hired author work closely together to develop the plot. There are also developmental revisions that will occur directly with the book packager before any publisher lays eyes on the manuscript. Some packagers are definitely more collaborative than others so it is dependent on which packager you’re talking about if you’ll be kept to a strict outline or if you’ll be given more developmental freedom. Also, keep in mind that IP created with a book packager will usually be subbed on proposal. So you’ll have to write under contract with a tight turnaround once it’s sold to an actual publisher, so have time available for that!
Some of your favorite books and TV shows are from book packagers including The Vampire Diaries , Gossip Girl, The 100, Everything, Everything, Frankly in Love (Alloy) and Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky (Cake Literary). But with the rise of a focus on diverse stories and authors, book packagers have had to defer to the diverse authors hired on for the stories more and more. In this way, it’s become a very collaborative process that ensures that the author’s viewpoint is front and center in the story.
Things you can ask your agent to bring up during contract negotiations include: drafting fee (aka a flat fee you get paid for writing the proposal pages regardless of a sale), receiving a percentage of the advance, receiving a percentage of royalties, bonuses if the book wins awards, a kill fee (if the book doesn’t sell)
When should you consider working on IP?
One of the biggest reasons to work on an IP project is when it’s for a franchise you’ve always been a fan of and would love to work on. So many authors today are getting the chance to work on superhero stories they adored as kids, or Star Wars, or on reimagining their favorite Disney stories. When it comes to original IP, if you like the idea for a project and you feel like the company hiring you can provide you with good developmental guidance then it’s worth looking into. Generally, a writer does get author credit (e.g. your name is on the book and when people bring up the list of things you’ve written this would 100% be counted). If it’s a ghost writing gig, then that would be different.
Agents can and should definitely be involved to make sure you get a good deal with the packager (when it’s a book packager your deal and contract is with the packager not the publisher). Your agent will be able to negotiate percentages and if you get a cut of sub-rights or royalties. But just be aware that you usually get paid significantly less for a book you write with a book packager because they generally get a big chunk of the advance, rights, and royalties (also the copyright is usually under the name of the book packager not you). Advances on in-house publisher IP can range depending on the story, your author platform and background, and a few other factors. In general, in-house IP advances aren’t those flashy 6- or 7-figure outliers we sometimes hear about. But many publishers will pay very decently for IP plus offer royalties of book sales and some bonuses.
Working on IP is a decision that should be made the same way you’d make a decision about what publisher you’ll sign with. You have to like the editor you’ll work with and be able to tell that you share a creative vision for the project. So, talking with the editor can definitely be a contingent you have before signing anything.
In the same vein, it’s just as important to do your research about book packagers as it is to do research about agents and small presses. Make sure that they have a good track record and always review the contract carefully if you don’t have an agent representing you at the time.