Rise of the Undead: The Tale of Vampire Diaries’ Creator LJ Smith’s Return to Writing through Self-Publishing
By Jessie Nguyen (2021)
In the world she created of blood-sucking vampires, shape-shifting werewolves, and hex-casting witches, what terrified Lisa Jane Smith the most was not the monsters, but the threat of losing the world in its entirety. In this world, Smith was able to weave a tale of supernatural adventures and heart-palpitating passion, able to breathe life into the characters that she had lovingly molded and pushed towards finding company in one another. But then, in 2011, her greatest fear came true when this world that she had built up for the past twenty years was taken away from her.
Vampire Diaries is a paranormal romance series created by LJ Smith that chronicles the story of Elena Gilbert, a young high school girl who finds her heart torn between two vampire brothers, Stefan and Damon Salvatore––but this series is much more than a cheesy YA cash-grab. The Vampire Diaries and the debate surrounding the morality and legality of its ownership is representative of a larger industry issue surrounding creative freedom in published authorship, and LJ Smith’s subsequent turn towards self-publishing points to an overall trend towards direct publishing over traditional forms. Through examination of LJ Smith’s personal statements and interviews, fan reactions, and empirical research, I will illustrate how the controversy and consequent shift in publication format are indicative of industry-wide diversification of publishing options for authors.
About the Main Characters of this Story
LJ Smith began writing her very first book while in high school, which was published as The Night of the Solstice in 1987 when she was around 20 years old (Melton, 648). The middle-grade fantasy novel had one of the “ugliest covers of any book” she’d seen in her life, and despite good reviews it was a commercial failure that sold only around 5,000 copies (Alter). Smith then focused on her education, studying experimental psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and obtaining her teaching credentials from San Francisco State University (Melton, 648). It was while she was teaching public school for a kindergarten class with special ed children that she received a phone call from Alloy Entertainment (Salt Lake Magazine).
Alloy is a book packaging and television production unit of Warner Bros. Television (Warner Bros). It is known for a high output of books, many of which are then turned into best selling franchises and television series such as The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Gossip Girl (Warner Bros). An Alloy editor had read one of the two books Smith had published at the time and saw her potential in writing books targeted towards younger audiences that could balance the suspense of the supernatural and the lightheartedness of quippy humor (Salt Lake Magazine). Thus, Smith was asked if she would be interested in writing a new young adult series, pitched as “Interview with the Vampire” for teens (Alter).
The Opening of the Diary
After taking a writing test, Smith was hired by Alloy to create a series about a high school girl caught in a love triangle between two vampire brothers (Alter). She was excited to have the chance to tell a new story and have this story distributed to many, thus the allure of Alloy Entertainment with its numerous best selling franchises was too hard to resist for such a small-time author (Bookalicious). All Smith knew at the time, as she revealed in a later interview, was that “a book packager [like Alloy] put together ‘bargain’ books, using ‘bargain’ authors and a huge amount of editing” (Bookalicious). Bargain was understood as being cheap and fast, but failing to read the fine print meant that she was making a blind bet––one that was going to end in a fold. By focusing too much on the pot, Smith was caught up in the excitement of initial publication and neglected consideration of the future. The only issue with her beautiful new cover was that her author name was so small that it could barely be read, hardly giving any credit to the author––an issue which would later come back to bite her in the neck (Bookalicious).
In the short span of nine months, for a small advance of a few thousand dollars, Smith quickly wrote a trilogy––which was later bought from Alloy to be published by HarperCollins, one of the world’s largest publishing companies––that was released in 1991, with a follow-up fourth book published in 1992 (Alter). A period of personal tragedy led Smith to take a decade-long break from writing, but she was pulled back into the series in 2007 after the success of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight spurred a mad rush for teen vampire novels (Alter). This rapidly put The Vampire Diaries (TVD) on the best-seller list, and Smith was given another deal with Alloy to write a new trilogy of TVD books (Alter).
The pinnacle of TVD’s fame came with its adaption into a CW television series in 2009 (Erin). Commenting on the television series, Smith remarked: “I think it is a brilliant story, brilliantly written, beautifully acted, with terrific direction, cinematography, and music” (Erin). The show aired for eight seasons, during which the book series’ sales sky-rocketed to more than five million copies, with Smith receiving fifty percent of royalties as the series creator (Alter). Unfortunately, this high did not last for long.
The Loss of a World
In February 2011, after a lack of releases and a period of silence, concerned fans found the following bombshell statement in their email inboxes: “This is still confidential, but…I have been fired from writing the Vampire Diaries” (Kirk). Smith had been removed from the series. Instead of being returned edits for her manuscript, she had been forwarded a letter addressed to the anonymous ghostwriter who would be taking over her series (Kirk). In the bare minimum words necessary, Alloy had told LJ Smith that her services were no longer required (Salt Lake Magazine).
When the Wall Street Journal asked Alloy’s president Leslie Morgenstein to speak on the matter, he declined to elaborate and simply cited creative differences, saying that “We wanted to go in a different direction from the writer” (Alter). In later blog posts and letters to fans, it was revealed that these main differences were regarding the direction of the love triangle between Elena and the two vampire brothers, older bad boy Damon and younger sensitive Stefan (Estes). Alloy wanted to maintain the originally intended coupling of Stefan and Elena in order to align more closely to the television series, but Smith wanted to pursue her own more recently favored couple of Damon and Elena instead (Estes). This conflict of end goals became the creative difference that ultimately resulted in the break-up between author and book packager.
As to how this split was able to occur in the first place, Smith explains in the following letter to fans:
You may wonder how they can go on writing books without me. It’s because when I was originally called by an agent to write the first trilogy, that agent was from a book packager (someone who puts together books and sells them to publishers) and what I wrote, I wrote “for hire.” Although I didn’t even know what that meant back in 1990, when I wrote the first books, I found out soon enough. It meant that even though I wrote the series, Alloy Entertainment (the book packager) owns the series. I own nothing. And Alloy and HarperCollins wanted me to write straight Stelena, and doubtless less about Bonnie, and I wouldn’t do it. I had to follow the characters and what they were telling me in my heart. But it was a very expensive and reckless thing to do. Book packagers like meek, obedient authors who do exactly as they are told. I’m not that way. (Kirk)
For future installments of TVD, the books would say “Created by L.J. Smith” on the cover, but the words would no longer be hers to craft or amend (Erin). In her fight to take back her place at the main series’ helm, the publishing titan HarperTeen sided so vehemently with Alloy that Smith’s agent was intimidated into resigning from her position, telling Smith that she was no longer going to represent her in this matter anymore. Smith stated in an interview that, during this time, she was “very literally, alone surrounded by unfriends” (Bookalicious). And Smith believed that she had “no one but [herself] to blame for not being submissive enough” (Erin).
The Reactions of TVD Fans
Fans were confused. Why was it that LJ Smith’s name was still appearing in a dramatic, cursive font on the covers of books she had not written herself, and who was this new Aubrey Clark writer that was being credited in a smaller font? A civil war broke out: on one side, the loyalists that swore allegiance to the characters and said they would continue reading the series regardless of who was writing it; on the other, more vocal faction, the fans that protested the morality of Alloy Entertainment and cried out that they would only support what they consider to be the true Vampire Diaries canon of LJ Smith.
Book blogs and news sites exploded with posts about the controversy. A fan’s comment on a news article exclaimed:
No Smith, no Vampire Diaries. I don’t pay companies to abuse power, or employees. And you know, for all the money Ms. Smith has brought in with her books, and [now] two TV [series], they owe her their loyalty. This is unacceptable!
I don’t care if the books end with [Elena] getting run over by a truck. Her creation, Her right. It should not be up to the publishers to decide how she writes her books. If they can’t agree, then they should simply not publish the new books. They should not steal her work of more than 20 years. If Ms. Smith wants to write her books with [Elena] and Damon running off together, that’s her right.
If harper thinks they can scam buyers, readers, and the writer, I think they are in for a rude awakening. (Comment on Estes Article)
A Twitter petition began making its rounds, with supporters promising: “you will NOT buy any future books as they will not be written by L.J. Smith! By signing this you are officially saying you will no longer buy another ‘Vampire Diaries’ book unless LJ. Smith is re-hired!’” (Kirk). LJ Smith herself quickly tried to dissuade such rallying, pleading fans to not boycott Harper since the new books were still a continuation of the world she had originally created and some of the writing in the next two books were still going to be hers (Kirk).
An Industry Issue Overall
The relationship between an author and publisher is often regarded as give-and-take. Authors act as the suppliers of raw material in the form of book ideas and crafted sentences to publishing houses, then the publisher in turn offers services to edit, design, print, promote and sell the work on the author’s behalf (Phillips et al). The role of book packagers further complicates this relationship as they act as the intermediary; authors like Smith provide the raw dough in the pan, packagers like Alloy bake the cake, then publishers like HarperCollins place the cake on display to be sold to customers (Dunleavey et al). At both steps of the baking or display stage, packagers and publishers can make custom orders to the author, as seen with the contract for a teen vampire romance signed between LJ Smith and Alloy Entertainment. This link makes the publishing industry a “service industry” that serves both authors and markets through the assembly, organization, and dissemination of knowledge (Phillips at al).
To the unaware and inexperienced author, attention from a well-established publisher can feel like the greatest flattery and the greatest relief when traversing the unfamiliar realm of the book industry. But limited resources within such publishers also gives rise to high degrees of competition and high rates of rejection. It may take time for new authors to parse through the coded manners of the publishing industry and their go-to soft lines of rejection: “‘I did not fall in love with it’; ‘It does not ﬁt our list as it is currently developing’; ‘I wish you luck in placing it elsewhere’” (Baverstock and Steinitz). This creates an atmosphere of frustration and anxiety for authors, thus why one may feel desperate enough to latch onto the first half-decent offer they receive without reading the fine print of the contract (Baverstock and Steinitz).
In their research into the differing perceptions of publishers and authors, Phillips et all found that, while publishers seemed to think that the publisher-author relationship was successfully meeting expectations, it was usually the authors that believed conditions could be improved. The main tether that bound authors to their publishing houses was the author and editor bond rather than the connection to the publisher as a whole (Phillips et al). The dissatisfaction with publishing houses was largely caused by their lack of input into other parts of the book publishing process such as the design and appearance of the title as well as initial sales and marketing impact (Phillips et al). To secure a contract and successfully put a book on the market, many authors are under the impression that they must sacrifice a part of their creative freedom during the writing stage and their significance of control in the marketing stage. But what if you could prep, bake, and sell your own cake, and even eat it too?
Resurrection from the Grave
After she was dismissed from The Vampire Diaries, Smith shifted focus to her three other popular fantasy series with Simon & Schuster and a new post-apocalyptic novel (Alter). As the original creator of TVD, she continued to receive royalties from the new novels and the television series, despite no longer having direct creative input (Alter). Regardless of the monthly check deposits, LJ Smith still felt a sense of emptiness from the world and characters she had abandoned; she had not finished telling their stories, and she wanted the chance to continue them.
This opportunity appeared in fall of 2013 when Smith’s tax attorney and friend, Julie Divola, emailed her about a new way that she could tell stories about Elena, Damon, and Stefan––self-published fan fiction (Alter). Kindle Worlds is a platform created by Amazon that “allows fan writers to legally publish and sell stories based on other people’s fictional creations, without changing characters’ names or masking the story’s origins” (Alter). Since Vampire Diaries was one of these series that provided a license to Amazon, the original creator was then able to start writing and publishing fan fiction about her very own series. Smith has now published two novels on Kindle Worlds, a novel, Evensong: Paradise Lost, and the novella-length story “The War of Roses,” for $3.99 and $1.99 respectively (Alter). Although the profitability and the marketability of these novels on such a platform is much less than what she was operating with at Alloy, this allows Smith to find closure for herself and her characters, and also provides readers with continuations of what they felt were the true canon of the Vampire Diaries series.
In a World Without Vampires and Werewolves, What Does this Mean?
LJ Smith’s legal publishing and sales of her Vampire Diaries novels illuminates a poignant shift in the way that the publishing industry is turning towards self-publishing. The publishing industry as we know it first began in 1439 with the invention of the printing press which made books widely available to ordinary people for the first time (Ross). Major shifts in publishing usually aligned with major shifts in accessibility, as the next big change occurred in 1979 in the form of desktop publishing, which allowed American parachutist Dan Poynter to write and publish The Self-Publishing Manual, and the invention of print-on-demand further allowed self-publishing authors to print book copies to order (Ross). The biggest transformation came in the 1990s with the beginning of the era of the ebook, and the introduction of a digital payment mechanism in 1998 and Sony’s first ebook reader in 2004 turned the industry on its head (Ross). Agents, publishers and wholesalers were now “disintermediated,” and the only thing that stood between writer and reader was an online distributor-retailer (Ross).
Authors began to self-publish in droves, and they found many different avenues to do so. One of the most notable success stories is E.L. James’ massively profitable transition from Twilight fan-fiction in 2009, to self-published Fifty Shades book series in 2011, and finally to the silver screen in 2015 (Harris). Kindle Worlds, the platform used by LJ Smith, was created in 2013, and its publisher Philip Patrick said that they view themselves “as a laboratory looking to create new business models on behalf of writers” (Alter). Beyond just Kindle Worlds, other digital platforms for authors to circumvent intermediating publishers are also on the rise (Mustonen). For example, Smashwords is an online distributor of indie e-books that, in just the past year, increased its number of books published by 5.7% and number of authors served to 154,100, boasting its fourth consecutive year of sales growth (Coker). Now, the existence of such options of direct publishing have improved the bargaining position of a weak author against the publisher, and also given rise to a new species of author––the hybrid author (Mustonen).
Hybrid authorship means that an author is “willing to take on the work of vetting proofreaders, editors, and cover artists, or seeking out the best independent publishers for their finished work” in return for increased creative control (Harris). With creative freedom being cited as the biggest reason authors decide to go down the self publishing route, an increasing number of romance authors, and authors in general, are now independent in choosing the type of book they want, the deadline they want, the cover they want, and so on (Harris).
LJ Smith isn’t the only romance author who has made the switch. Courtney Milan is a best-selling historical romance writer who transitioned from traditional publishing with Harlequins HQN imprint to self-publishing (Harris). She states:
I started self-publishing for money and career stability. I did the math and realized I had the choice between working a full-time job and writing on the side for my publisher while wracked by the constant fear that my sales wouldn’t be good enough to get another contract, or supporting myself full-time by self-publishing, [so] I chose Door B. (Harris)
Some authors also strike a hybrid balance between traditional publishing and self-publishing for “books that don’t meet their publisher’s vision or marketing strategy or for which they don’t want to wait for a slot in their publisher’s schedule” (Harris). For example, Mary Jo Putney, a Kensington romance stalwart and Romance Writers of America (RWA) 2013 Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, says that she uses self-publishing for her “books of the heart” (Harris). Just like LJ Smith, many romance authors have a story they want to tell, and for a growing percentage of them, the means through which they tell this story is self-publishing.
The Future of TVD and the Romance Publishing Industry
Though her direct input into the official Vampire Diaries series has come to a close, the world and the characters that LJ Smith created are still her own to continue and shape as she pleases. LJ Smith says that she plans to write eight more books to bring her version of The Vampire Diaries to an end (Alter). Smith is one of many romance authors that have chosen to find creative freedom in their own independent avenues of publishing. LJ Smith’s story counts as a cautionary tale for aspiring authors, and as an example of the romance industry’s growing flirtation with self-publishing.
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