What fiction writers can learn from screenwriters – Part 1 – Control Your Copyright

by J.J.Foxe on November 23, 2012

Fiction writers can learn a lot from our screenwriting cousins.

I’ve been reading a bunch of screenwriting stuff recently….and thought I’d start a mini series pointing aspiring fiction writers in the direction of some great screenwriting resources/ideas that nevertheless have applicability for fiction writers.

Before we do though, here’s the biggest lesson (for me) from reading about screenwriting and reading interviews with screenwriters:

Don’t Give Away Your Copyright

Now sceenwriting is one of the few forms of writing where selling the property automatically involves a transfer of the copyright ownership.  And the number of interviews – with big name screenwriters – I’ve read where one (or more) of the following have happened is ridiculous:

  • The screenwriter sold a screenplay and was immediately fired from the movie and the ‘writing’ role was handed to a bigger name screenwriter.
  • The Lead Actor decides he wants major changes to the story so his character – and by extension him – looks better to the audience.  If it comes to a ‘discussion’ between the screenwriter and the lead actor, the screenwriter loses.  Every time.  Because the story is no longer his.
  • The screenwriter has to take ‘notes’ and incorporate them into his script from people who wouldn’t know a story beat from a bucket of crap…
  • …the most famous example of this I can think of is William Goldman having to take ‘notes’ from a dentist called into advise on the infamous torture scene in Marathon Man
  • Because of the surrender of copyright, screenwriters are bottom of the food chain in the movie world.  As illustrated by this joke: Did you hear about the dumb blonde who slept with the writer?  Offensive to both writers and women.  Hollywood is so fucking classy.
  • Money.  Hollywood has a profit share scheme based on ‘net profits’ and gross take.  Movie royalty – stars, directors, etc – get points on gross.  Writers get net.  There are plenty of war stories of screenwriters who have written movies that have gone on to be highly profitable – yet never see a dime because of creative accounting.

Surely This Doesn’t  Affect Fiction Writers?

You’d think so, right?

You’d be wrong.

There are plenty of people out there ready to part writers from their copyright, or parts of their copyright.  And with the rate of change in the  Author To Reader industry, there’s a ‘rights grab’ going on at the moment.  (I no longer call it the ‘publishing industry.’  That is a 19th century term that no longer applies.)

There’s an old cliche that Content Is King.  And it’s true – whoever controls the content ultimately makes the moolah.

Prime Example…there’s a law suit going through the legal system in the US at the moment where one of the ‘Big 6’ is claiming that their old, pre eBook,  contracts specifically cover the rights to electronic versions of books and they don’t have to renegotiate and pay more for those rights.  But can carry on paying the same, shitty royalty rate for eBooks.

It’s easy to see why they’d want to do this – if they win this case then their backlist becomes a goldmine where they convert to digital, sell for ‘normal’ price and make a profit of 50% plus.  The poor old writer would probably end up with the current rate…17.5% or whatever the hell it is.

So What Should A Fiction Writer Do?

1.  Be informed.  Ignorance is never a defence in law…and being ignorant will get you screwed.  The Writer Who Got Screwed is an archetype that I’d love to see vanish from the world.

Read up about copyright so you understand it.  Read these blogs that help keep you up to date with what’s going on in the Author To Reader Industry:

The Passive Voice

The Business Rusch – Every Wednesday Kris Rusch posts ‘the business rusch’ – her posts are always worth reading.  As is her archive.

Dean Wesley Smith

2.  Hold Onto Your Copyrights.  If a company is offering to publish your work on Kindle and other platforms for you, and wants paying on a percentage basis in perpituity, then walk away.  You can find people who will do this for a flat fee.  Never, ever, pay by giving away a percentage of your royalties.

There’s a particular industry service that revolves around taking a percentage of the writer’s work – and thats Agents:

3.  Learn About Agents  Reading the three blogs I mentioned above will clue you into some helpful facts about agents.  Kris Rusch in particular has scuds of helpful info….and one of her main recommendations is that for many writers hiring an IP (Intellectual Property) Lawyer is a more effective solution because (a): they are actually qualified and understand intellectual property law; (b) you pay a one off fee, and (c) unlike most Agents, all of YOUR money doesn’t go first to the Agent, before he sends you ‘your share.’

The Writer Doesn’t Have To Get Screwed

Reader’s don’t care who published a book.  Or who is the Agent on a book.  Or what the contract terms for the publishing of that book are and how the royalties split down over time.

All they care about is reading a great book.

And the folks who write those great books – so NOT Agents, not Publishing Companies – are the ones who should benefit the most financially from providing that experience.

Sadly that’s not the natural order.  But for the first time in a century  a writer has got publishing choices.  But you can only choose effectively if you are armed with solid information.  So make it a part of your schedule to read up about all these things.

Reading the three blogs I listed above on a regular basis will keep you informed.  And that will allow you to make the kind of choices that mean YOU can maximize the returns on your fiction.

And not be one of those gnarled veterans propping up the bar at a writing conference weeping into his whisky about how he got screwed.

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