Work for Hire — Unfair, or Decent Opportunity?

Parafantasy dropped a pretty distressing bomb by covering the story that popular author L. J. Smith was fired from writing The Vampire Diaries, the story she (essentially) created.

“To put it briefly, I’ve been fired from writing the Vampire Diaries. And I’ve been fighting and fighting this since last fall, but there is absolutely no recourse. Midnight is the last L. J. Smith book in the Vampire Diaries series….”

Ouch. For fans of the series, I’m sure the news that their author is being switched up is a kick in the gut. Even for non-fans, it might be mystifying how something like this could happen. It’s got to be some stupid legalese loophole, right? Well … sort of.

The Vampire Diaries were created under what’s known as a “work-for-hire” agreement:

And both these series were written “for hire” which means that the book packager owns the books the author produces. Although I didn’t even understand what “for hire” meant back in 1990, when I agreed to write books for them, I found out eventually, to my horror and dismay. It means that even though I have written the entire series, I don’t own anything about The Vampire Diaries.

How true is what Smith says? Well, completely true. Writing something for-hire means it’s no longer yours — the characters, settings, words are owned by the parent company. The question, then, is whether or not this is fair. And the answer … yes and no.

For-hire writing is often seen in the context of shared universes. If you’re hired to write a Star Wars novel, for instance, you’re doing so for-hire. You don’t get to own the concept of lightsabers, the planet Tatooine, or even the original Jedi character you introduced. Those belong to Lucas, and it sort of makes sense in this context.

Now, The Vampire Diaries is a bit different. From what I can tell, HarperCollins hired Smith to create the series and characters from the ground up, and from Smith’s comments (“…I pleaded and promised to do Phantom as they required.”), it’s clear they had a strong presence not only in the editing, but in the overall design of the series. Thus, it’s not “I’ve written a book series, and HarperCollins is publishing it!” It’s “HarperCollins has an idea for a book series, and they want you to write it for them.”

So is it fair for HarperCollins to kick Smith out? At the very least, it sounds like they should have been far more up-front about what was going on here, if Smith is being honest when she said she didn’t know she was writing for-hire. If there was any deception going on, that’s incredibly shitty. But assuming there wasn’t any malfeasance, it’s hard to be too angry. HarperCollins will probably get a lot of justified anger over their douche move, but in the end, The Vampire Diaries as a concept was their project.

And furthermore, I don’t think Smith or Ezmirelda are quite correct to characterize Smith as being screwed by the fine print. Yes, it would have been better if Smith were aware of what she had signed to prevent this sort of blindsiding. But really, what would her options have been? It’s extraordinarily unlikely for a project like this that HarperCollins would have agreed to remove the for-hire stipulation; if Smith insisted, they likely would have just chosen another offer (remember, L.J. Smith was definitely not a well-known author at this point). And now, even though Smith has been removed, and that’s horrible, she’s gained a ton of publicity and a fanbase — I would think she could her pick of publishers for her next novel. Those are things she wouldn’t have necessarily gained before signing the work-for-hire contract.

Benefits aside, however, all decisions should be done with forethought. I had no idea what the “for-hire” phrase meant before a fellow author ran into it a few months back, so I absolutely know where Smith is coming from. If you’re not interested in an agent (and if Smith got this contract even with an agent, and was confused about the contents, something’s very wrong), then all writers should take the time to read over each contract in its entirety, and educate themselves about the meaning of the terms within.

And as much as I’m sure Smith is steaming over what happened, I’m sure her fans will follow her to whatever her future projects may be. I wish her the best of luck.