Why I’m Not Participating in the Dark Crystal AuthorQuest Contest

My first thought was, “Oh my God, I could get paid to write Dark Crystal tie-in fiction!”

This is no small matter. The Dark Crystal is, completely unqualified, my favorite movie. It got me hooked on genre stories from a very early age, and it’s been a touchstone for when I need to remember why I write in the first place. The worldbuilding, characters, and that peculiar Jim Henson touch make it fun, even if the pacing is sloppy and the main character a bit dull.

When the Jim Henson Company announced a partnership with Penguin Books to publish an unknown author’s take on the Dark Crystal mythos, I was beyond excited. I don’t usually write fan fiction because a) I’d like to get paid for my writing someday, and b) because creators sometimes frown on it. And really, tie-in media is just fan fiction for which the owner pays the author. I’d love to write tie-in novels someday.

But this contest isn’t the typical deal. For one, you’re not guaranteed that Penguin and Henson Co. will publish your work, so it’s no better than writing something original over-the-transom. Not only that, but once you submit your work for consideration, Henson Co. now owns it, so you can’t take it anywhere else. (And it’s not like you could try to sell a Dark Crystal prequel novel to anyone other than Henson Co.)

According to the terms of the contest, if you don’t win the coveted top prize, your work could be published anyway, without compensation. That’s the worst failure mode here: nevermind writing a bit of fan fic with Skeksis and Gelflings that will never see the light of day, but imagine putting hours into something that gets read by thousands of readers that you will never see any compensation for. It could be published in anthologies of Dark Crystal short stories, posted permanently to the Dark Crystal site, used for a scene from the (forever-upcoming) Dark Crystal sequel movie, and you won’t see a dime.

How much is it worth? I know I’d be putting in at least 40 hours of writing time: 10 for the initial draft, another 30 for editing. That doesn’t count hours of research, reading tie-in media to see what gaps could be filled in the Dark Crystal universe. Nor does that count the work that the judges would request if you make one of the five finalists in the contest. 40 hours of writing time is a month and a half of actual time for me, which would be more like two months given my other writing obligations.

Here’s your typical tie-in deal, as described by James L. Sutter. An owner of a piece of media likes your work and asks you to write a story set in the same universe. You’ll undergo editorial oversight, just like any other book. You typically get paid an advance and royalties, just like any other book. But you’re not flying blind; you know that the hours you put into that novel will, unless something seriously goes wrong, result in books on shelves at the end. And hundreds of authors aren’t competing with you for that one publishing deal, either.

If Jim Henson Co. approached me directly and said, “Erik, we know you love our work so much. We’ll offer a four-figure advance and royalties for a story set in this world,” I’d say, “Let me seek representation first, but I’d love to.” Because they aren’t asking anyone else, because they can’t say “Nope, we don’t like it enough, but we’re going to publish part of it anyway and not pay you a dime,” because I’d be negotiating a contract, not signing away my rights blind.

No, I won’t be submitting to the contest. I have so many stories I could tell in the Dark Crystal universe, too. But these terms, like the Skeksis, would drain the living essence out of me.