discussions genre stuff writing & publishing

Tie-in Fiction Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

I just wanted to post a note on tie-in fiction, because Graham McNeill’s Empire has been shortlisted on the online poll for the David Gemmell Legend Award. It very much has my backing to win, not only because Graham is a good chap, but because it’s about time the world acknowledged tie-in fiction as proper fiction. Secretly, I think if this book wins, they’ll change the rules to not allow public voting, perhaps not even tie-ins.

I know that a Warhammer book on the list will surprise many people. Many won’t know Empire even exists, but folk in the genre need surprising by the fact a tie-in book is indeed popular. To cast a blind eye to such fiction is called snobbery, and given that huge swathes of readers look down on SFF, I find it incredulous such an attitude persists.

Quick note: Technically two tie-in books are on the Gemmell Award shortlist – the Sanderson/Jordan Wheel of Time book is another author writing in someone else’s creation – there is simply no difference. Tie-in/franchise/creator-owned – it’s all the same zone of literature.


You know, major genre publications have spent years not even acknowledging tie-in as real fiction, refusing even to have conversations about it. Tie-in fiction is hugely important, and keeps people reading SF and Fantasy where they otherwise might not, and the novels themselves are entertaining and well-written – on average – as much as an original SF and Fantasy novel. The worldbuilding can be incredible, the detail way beyond anything most authors can manage because often it’s had years of organic evolution. You want immersion? Visit a tie-in world. I’m chuffed that many bloggers review tie-in fiction. I keep going on about how there used to be review “gatekeepers” to opinion a few years ago, but the blogosphere has changed that, and tie-ins have benefited.

Check out this chat I had last year on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog with million-selling author Dan Abnett for more detail on what I can’t distill here. Read to the bottom.

Go on. Because tie-in fiction doesn’t mean what you think it means.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

25 replies on “Tie-in Fiction Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means”

A tissue of lies, Newton. My curse on tie-in fiction and all who sail in her!

(Slightly) more seriously, how does your very-much backing for Empire on the basis of its being a tie-in book and it’s author being nice (though that’s certainly an advantage over, say, Best Served Cold) work in with your previous assertions that we should carefully compare the shortlisted books and consider them on their merits?

Well, to be honest, there’s no way the books will be compared, so my backing is mainly based on the case that it’s the minnow compared to the giants.

As for comparing and contrasting titles – sure, I’d like this still to be considered. But I ain’t got the time to read them all!

I’ve been discussing the concept of genre-guilt for awhile now and I think tie-in fiction is basically the distillation of that concept.

The idea is that, while we claim to enjoy fantasy, we still feel some shame that we aren’t reading mainstream, and so we embrace fantasy that isn’t fantasy, but commentary on society, allegory, whatever (I’m using the vague “we” here, of course; I’m sure none of US embrace this idea).

Tie-in fiction is basic, unabashed fantasy. It’s fantasy based on another fantasy, even. A sort of fantasy compound. You can fool yourself into thinking that you’re reading a great work of art when you read A Game of Thrones or The Magicians, but when you’re reading a Warhammer book, there’s basically no denying it.

Kind of makes one wonder how disparate the tastes are between the readers of fantasy and the “true” readers of fantasy that don’t like their fantasy too much.

I just woke up, so I might be a little foggy. Let me know if you need clarification.

100% concur on this one, Mark, although I came late to the party. I always sneered at the Warhammer and 40k novels (I am a casual gamer, so I played in the universe but never read in the universe). I was challenged by one of my gaming mates to at least try and picked up Horus Rising by Dan Abnett (the first in the Horus Heresy series). I was completely blown away. The writing was excellent, the storyline was amazing and I had random squeee moments when I recognised random personages in the story from the gaming table. It was tremendous fun. And it was also pretty hard sci-fi: genetic mutations, space travel, aliens. I’m reading all the same kind of stuff in Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit right now, and *that* was shortlisted for the Arthur Clarke!

I would say that genre tie-ins can be a great way of starting a reader off into the realms of genre fantasy. A lot of wargamers, in particular, will pick up the tie-in novels while at a younger age than they might start reading full-on fantasy – and this just opens the door to new readers.

I fully support the inclusion of Empire in the shortlist.

A good story is a good story.

And a good author will use the constraints of the worldbuilding (whether their own, or someone else’s in the case of Tie-Ins) to their advantage.

I sometimes think we get all precious about creating high-art rather than telling a good story.

And most importantly… I thought you’d retired from all this rebel rousing?

Now you’re singing my song. I’m on a mission to introduce as many as possible to Black Library books. It’s because I discovered that they’re generally written to a much higher standard than alot of what’s out there.

I’ve reviewed Warhammer 40k books on my blog and now for, in fact most of the books I review for them are Black Library novels, most recently A Thousand Sons by Graham Mcneill. I challenge anyone, 40k fan or otherwise to remain unmoved by that novel. It’s a masterpiece. I’m often reminded just how good the likes of Graham Mcneill and Dan Abnett are when I pick up other novels outside the Warhammer/40k universes.

Definitely worth the effort to get into.

Adrian, he never said he was retiring. Just taking a step back in order to spend some quality time with the 3 dimensional people 🙂

I have to admit I’m not a big fan of traditional tie-in novels. Not for any particular snobbishness about the quality of writing, but more because I generally prefer books to films and games.

As a result, I’m simply not familiar enough with most of these shared worlds to pick them up.

That said, I can recall being a fan of the old Thieves World series when I was a kid. Not perhaps exactly the same thing, but a shared world used by a number of authors all the same.

For myself, I think the prospect of writing in a world that is already well grounded in print, film, TV or an established gaming universe, will always be limited. Again, not because one is better than the other but I’d have a hard time living with any inconsistencies in a story or a fictional universe that weren’t my own. Likewise, I don’t like the idea that there would be limits to what could be done with certain central gods, characters, or elements of the world and past mythos. Of course, you get the benefit (a double edged blade here) of not having to do all the world-building yourself.

All that said, obviously there is sizable market for this sub-genre, as attested to by the truck loads of such books on the shelves of Forbidden Planet. And where there is a market, there is a demand and so someone must really like reading this stuff. Nothing wrong with that either and more power to them.

I’ve read some tie-in fiction over the past few years. Some was decent, some was not. Typical percentages, perhaps. Yet I don’t read it very often for the same reasons I don’t read many secondary-world fantasies these days; my interests are shifting again more and more to the shorter form, to stories that are grounded much more in its characters than in its settings, especially settings on steroids (which I tend to find distracting more than pleasing).

So perhaps one can have a bias based not on blind assertions, but on a fuller realization of one’s likes and dislikes that develop and change over time?

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Sam – genre guilt is an interesting one. I do wonder why a minority seem to be ashamed to like SFF. I think it’s a cultural thing, more than anything else.

Amanda – yes, that’s precisely the reaction that many have, and I’m very glad you’ve given it the chance.

Adrian – what Philip said. 🙂

Eric – yes, those books sound precisely the kind of tie-in / shared world book. It’s a broad area, to be honest. Most people assume tie-in is a novelization of a film, for example.

Larry – that you’ve read some over the years is good enough to spot that it’s much like normal fiction, in that you get some good, some bad. As for character over setting, I guess I can see where you’re coming from. Subtle characterisation is harder to find in books which must explain setting and action (I suppose it’s all about what an author can afford to give airtime to.)

Yeah, it’s a preference thing, more or less. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what authors of secondary-world fantasies have to deal with in creating their settings/stories, but what I note I suspect may be part of the reason why SF/F does not appeal to large segments of the reading population, regardless of any open-mindedness that may or may not have been taking place.

That being said, if an author skimps too much on the characterizations and has a narrative that feels hokey and not creative at all, I’ll blast both barrels of the critical shotgun, as witnessed in my scathing comments on the Clash of the Titans movie remake 😛

Tie-in fiction is limited and benefited in the same manner: it deals with pre-established territory.

It’s easier to access because the world, the backstory and the like are already there. You can read one book and have a general working knowledge of where it is and what’s happening.

But at the same time, you realize that not a lot is going to happen that’s different. The main allure of SF/F, the idea that anything can happen, is a little limited, since the author doesn’t have the power to do whatever he wants.

I haven’t read this particular nomination, so I couldn’t say, but I probably should. Ideally, tie-in fiction is still the same game, only with different rules as to how it’s judged.

…granted, that might not be ideal for an award.

Sam: “Tie-in fiction is limited and benefited in the same manner: it deals with pre-established territory.” This isn’t an argument I agree with. Stories set in the real world have just as many backstories and established roles already in place. If I wrote a modern day novel about a policeman, it’s just as non-lazy as writing about, for example, a Space Marine.

Don’t forget, in a lot of tie-in fiction, the books added to the world so it grows organically.

Check out the talk I had on Jeff’s blog for the full details of my arguments.

I suppose I’m put off tie-in fiction because I’ve never e.g. played anything in the Warhammer universe, and so the setting (which has a lot to do with how much I get out of a book) just doesn’t particularly appeal. (Although there are the Doctor Who tie-ins, which did get a lot of extra world-growing done…)

On the other hand, would I exactly pick up Sanderson’s first Wheel of Time book if I hadn’t read the Jordan ones first… I guess not 🙂

The major problems with tie-in fiction are sprawl and what are they grounded on plus the general lack of a unifying vision from an author that writes in the universe and created it.

I do not play electronic games at all or watch movies/tv that much so I am usually uninterested in fiction based on such

I am also generally a “completist” in the sense that as long as I follow a series – I drop from series often (96 listed so far by me on Goodreads), though I also follow lots of series (131 ongoing listed so far by me on Goodreads), I like to read all the volumes and all the ss associated with it if any…

Most tie-in fiction has lots of novels and I just do not have the time and inclination for them.

This being said if a top, top favorite author (David Weber, IM Banks, PF Hamilton) would write tie-in, I definitely would give it a try as I did when Mr. Weber wrote in the Bolo universe or in the 163* universe – actually the 163* universe which I love is the closest it comes to tie-in that I read with multiple authors and tons of ss, but there is an unifying guidance from Eric Flint who created it and is the main writer

Liviu – what about those tie-ins where the author has indeed helped contribute to the world. That is, for example, Dan Abnett’s Sabbat World – a sector of the 40k universe which is essentially his ‘toybox’ to do with as he pleases. You’ll probably find much of it compares – in skill with prose and how the world in constructed textually (for it still needs to be for the sake of the story) to the contemporary greats of original SF.

I will just argue again in the favour of the Horus Heresy tie-in novels. Those who have played 40k know the outcome of the Horus Heresy and the general events. However, reading the books of the Horus Heresy, knowing the outcome did not affect my enjoyment AT ALL, because it was the journey that I enjoyed, the little details. And anyone who hasn’t played 40k would be able to enjoy the books in their own right. Enjoyment for all, in fact 🙂

Athena – how would you view something like Sword of Shannara, which famously riffed (ripped-off?) Tolkien? Is that unsanctioned fanfic?

How would you view Sebastian Faulks writing a James Bond novel?

Why would you say fanfic is better than official tie-ins?

So many questions!

Mark, it’s one thing to base something closely on the style or content of a particular work (not fanfic), another to write missing scenes or alternative endings for LoTR, James Bond, the Odyssey or Piper’s Little Fuzzy as recently done by John Scalzi (fanfic).

A lot of literary fiction is fanfic of originals whose copyright either never existed or expired (examples: all retellings of epics including the Silmarillion, much of which Tolkien lifted straight out of the Volsunga Saga; a good deal of Shakespeare; Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.)

I said that “much” (not all) fanfic is better than tie-ins” because I’ve read a fair amount of both. I stopped reading tie-ins early, because I found them uniformly awful. Fanfic, on the other hand, varies very widely in quality. You may know that there’s so-called alternative universe fanfic, which diverges completely from canon. AU fanfic is often better not only than tie-ins but also than the original (Star Wars is a prime example, given Lucas’ dismal characters and dialogue).

Fanfic is really a throwback to old-style storytelling, which left the tellers free to embellish and change according to their and the audience’s mood and circumstances. More here:

“Dream Other Dreams, and Better”

On second thought, the part of The Silmarillion based on sagas is copycat, like the second generation example you listed (Shannara) — Tolkien did make changes, including names. The librettos for Wagner’s Nibelungen and for Tristan und Isolde are fanfic, as is Mallory’s Arthurian cycle.

Comments are closed.