Should authors license their imaginary worlds?

George R. R. Martin explained last week that he wasn’t going to license his fantasy world. Which to me raised an important question.


Should authors do that? Should authors allow their world to be used by other authors – to expand the genre, and keep readers enjoying the experience?

I’d agree with Martin. They shouldn’t. Because the experience won’t be the same. Not worse, but different.

It is over twenty years now since Isaac Asimov passed away – a great loss to the world of writing. He was more than just a sci-fi author; he was a great writer by any measure, influential and capable in many fields.

He left behind a hanging thread; his Foundation series, which by 1990 he had amalgamated with his Robot series. The last lines of the ultimate volume, Foundation and Earth, left hints at a tantalising future story – and Asimov indicated he had every intention of writing it.

Except he didn’t. Since then that universe has been licensed; there have been ‘gap filler’ books produced by some very capable and well known SF authors, all of them highly professional and solid in their own right.

But they weren’t Asimov. And to me, it shows. They put their own spin into the stories – their own stamp, as any good author should.

To me, that meant they weren’t the same. Not at all; and – to me at least – a good part of the magic of Asimov’s world wasn’t the setting he’d created, but the way he handled that setting. Other authors – quite rightly, I might add – didn’t do it the same way. And to me that lost something.

Others may disagree. Others might like the licensed books better than the originals, maybe. It’s all a matter of taste.

I think commercialism also plays a part – but more on that next time.

Meanwhile, what do you think of licensed worlds? Your cup of tea? Or not at all.

Cowpyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next week – we’ll be discussing commercial motives to license. But before then, more writing tips, more humour, more – well, you’ll see. Watch this space.


25 thoughts on “Should authors license their imaginary worlds?

  1. Whenever I think of Kafka, I think of just this sort of thing. I’m not a Kafka scholar, but I’ve grown a fascination for what would have happened if Max Brod had fulfilled the author;s wishes and not finished any of his work. I guess what I think most about is how closely did Brod’s ideas mirror Kaufka’s and if all those authors would have killed themselves after reading Kafka! I’ll have a blog post on the subject in the next couple of months. Great post…very thought provoking.

    1. Thank you. I must admit, I find it hard to think of anybody following Kafka! On the other hand, without Brod we would not have had Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, which to me sums up so much about the reality of human nature.

  2. As a fan of both the Dragonlance series of books and the Star Wars franchise of books, I would say there is no problem with licensing your created worlds or universes to others.

    With that said, would I want to see Orson Scott Card license the Ender universe, probably not. Much like Asimov and Foundation, some stories need to be told with an intimate knowledge. I agree with Martin that Middle Earth belongs to Tolkein and since he is unable to write more then we shouldn’t get more.

    So, to your original question, Should authors license their imaginary worlds? If they want to.

    I would never get down on an author that makes money off of licensing their worlds to others to write within, just like I would not scoff at the elitism of those that ignore fans and refuse to allow others to help them tell more about their worlds. Everyone has their opinion and if you created the world it is yours to do with as you please…. until it becomes public domain.

    Good blog post, thank you for bringing up such a good question.

  3. I am a big fan of licensed work. I am a reader who wants to explore every nuance of a world or universe, and that’s usually most possible when licensing is brought to bear, such as in the Star Wars and Warhammer universes, both of which I enjoy reading in greatly.

    As a writer, I’m too new to the field to really know if I would be comfortable licensing my own domains. My gut tells me that readers are discerning enough not to be fooled by a different author, and more books seems like it can only be a good thing for those looking for them.

    1. I’ve not read any Warhammer novels, but I understand they’re licensed from a game – broadly, then, from something that was in some respects more a collaborative production, intended to be imaginatively shared, than most novel-only scenarios by individual authors. Does that make a difference? I’m not sure. It’s all to do with personal taste. I think it would be easier to license and explore such a world than one that was the individual creation of a particular author. Ultimately, as you say, it’s up to the reader.

  4. I’ve read the entire Foundation series (twice) and all the Robots stories except the last novel (I can’t seem to get hold of the Empire novels) and I can’t imagine reading anything added to the saga by someone other than Asimov. I already made that particular mistake regarding Douglas Adams when I read the authorised sixth book in the Hitchhiker’s series (And Another Thing… – Eoin Colfer). I wish I hadn’t. As you say, it wasn’t the same.

    I can understand readers not wanting to let a particular author’s universe go, but on the other hand, all good things come to an end. If we don’t allow them to come to an end we end up spoiling them.

    1. I agree. I looked at some the licensed Foundation works – even on brief evaluation skim in the bookshop, they just didn’t have the Asimov magic, as far as I was concerned. A pity.

  5. It seems to me that in another writer’s words, the world will not be the same. That said, while licensing a world can certainly be done technically and legally, the result will always be “not quite.” To me, that is why there will always be writers, for each one of us brings our unique experience, personality, and voice to writing, and the result is our creation alone.

    This is such a fascinating subject, Matthew, and thank you for writing about it. I do not read that much fantasy or science fiction and have never attempted writing either yet I know that even in writing an essay, we create a unique setting. Of course, both fantasy and science fiction worlds are much more extensive yet I believe the concept to be the same.

    As always, a wonderful post, Matthew!

    1. Thank you. Yes, I agree – anything we write, irrespective of what it is, must be unique to us by definition. And that counts in terms of expressions of our individuality. That is as important as the commonality we have as humans; and being able to share that individual idea (be it in a fantasy novel, or any sort of writing) allows us to enrich that shared human experience with that uniqueness. To me, at least, it’s not quite the same when someone simply follows the work of another.

  6. Someone else may be able to write just as good as you, but the flavor will be different, and it would be noticeable in the end result. It’s a compliment that there are many who want to continue the story, but somehow it doesn’t seem right. If someone wanted to continue my Dana series, I would not object; but I would not want them to meddle with the children’s sci-fi series I’m working on. Seems incongruous, doesn’t it?

    1. It’s a matter of taste, I suspect – and perhaps also the extent to which one created universe or another resonates with the original author; I’ve heard of one significant fantasy author who says “yes” to fan-fic about one created universe, and “no” to another. Fans respect that.

  7. Hi, Matt … you raise a cogent point. I could write a Foundation story — but I’m not Asimov, so there wouldn’t be that certain something he brought to words on a page.

    I am, however, or at least was, ENORMOUSLY tempted to write a sequel to one of my favorite all time SF novels: The Witches of Karres by James H. Schmitz. It’s one of the two books that inspired me to be a writer. “Fanboy” would be a reasonably accurate description of how I feel about Schmitz and TWoK.

    I remember, though, how thoroughly enraged I was at the “sequel” I saw penned by certain writers who shall remain nameless (including at least one writer I had previously thought worth reading); not because they purloined that Universe, but because they didn’t bring the same wit, verve and style that Schmitz brought to the page.

    In short, they weren’t Schmitz.

    Which I guess is kind of your point.

    1. It is – I guess the issue is that a ‘second’ author, however competent, will always bring something of themselves to the novel. And the more competent they are, I suspect, the more of themselves they will bring – creating a new thing that is perhaps just as good as what they follow – but not the same. And for some readers, I guess, that difference is where the magic is lost. Of course, for others, the second author may well bring magic of their own. It’s all a matter of taste in the end.

  8. Great post. I write fantasy myself, and the book I’m writing at the moment is set in it’s own world – a world that I have spent a lot of time and effort creating. And I don’t know if I would be comfortable with other people using it (if I ever publish and become as wildly popular as George RR Martin that is). But I suppose it can make the world he created live on, which may be just as important to someone who has spent so long crafting something that has become so popular.

    1. Good luck for your own writing and created world. It’s a wonderful experience to be able to build something like that from your own imagination. I think that, irrespective of the popularity, an author’s created milieu is going to have a value to them – one that they may not be prepared to share, or to see others simply use.

      1. Thank you. It is a great feeling, and to be able to use that as a setting for your story is so fulfilling. And I agree completely, it doesn’t even have to be published for it to mean a great deal to an author. Like anything you create, you have a great sense of accomplishment and ownership regardless.

  9. I agree with you and George RR Martin — a secondary work is never quite the same as the original. It’s one of the reasons that, although I love Pride and Prejudice, I’ve never read any of the spinoff books. They just feel like fancy fan fiction.

    1. I think they are, by and large. Actually, I have to confess, when it comes to spinoffs of Jane Austen, I am afraid all I can ever think of lately is that dubious ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ mashup, which I never read – I glanced over it in the bookshop. Kind of intriguing, at least.

  10. Like many things, it’s all in the execution. For example, the Star Wars extended universe is, by and large, pretty fantastic. There are a lot of duds (at least in my opinion), but there are also some truly amazing stories that I love to this day. That wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t licensed Star Wars. I think licensing is okay as long as A) It’s made very clear that the new books being produced are not done by the original author, and B) There’s some sort of quality check to make sure they’re decent and actually fit in with the universe.

    1. It’s that quality that is key.I agree that distinguishing between original and later authors is pivotal. I am not sure if it’s so obvious in works intended as franchises, or which have multiple authors – did you ever encounter the ‘Perry Rhodan’ series? Ridiculous German space opera designed for licensing. I am not sure Lucas ever designed Star Wars the same way, but I can see how the universe he created could become a fertile ground for many creative authors – and good on him for allowing it to go that way.

  11. A writer has one voice. One voice. All other voices are other voices and not the original. Any other work pertaining to a writer’s universe should be designated as “other,” as fan fiction. I haven’t made up my mind, though, about fan fiction. It doesn’t appeal to me as a reader, but I know that for many it adds to the experience like a video game derived from a movie. Essentially they have the opportunity to enter that universe and play. When I was 15 I wrote a Star Trek story and loved doing so, but it wasn’t true Star Trek. I’ve never taken that creative route again. Instead, that experience sparked the desire to create my own universe and write about it (yeah, it took a long time to get there).

    1. I never thought of fan fic like a ‘video game’ version of the story! Great comparison; those who want to experience it get in there and play. And you’re right – it’s so much better, in the end, to make up your own world creatively. Which may take time – but all good things do. Tolkien never stopped creating Middle Earth…what more need be said?

  12. It’s a weird problem. I remember reading 007 novels after Ian Fleming died… it was okay because I knew the character had survived the author, and there was no confusion. Not incidentally, the non-Fleming versions of 007 were absurdly inferior. I think, as a writer, you’re lucky if fans are competing to replace you.. but only if you’re dead.

    1. I’m inclined to agree. I think the movies extended the stories reasonably – some of them seem to have shared only title in common with Fleming’s work, but to me that didn’t diminish them as stories.

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