Copyright, Royalties, and Sausage Making

I woke up this morning to see my Twitter feed covered in something other than politics and COVID. Suddenly, the focus has switched over to Disney and its refusal to pay an author royalties. In a nutshell, Disney seems to be arguing that when it bought Lucasfilm, it bought the rights to print all the old Star Wars books, but didn’t need to take on the responsibility for honoring the contracts of the authors who wrote those books.

This is obviously more than a little distressing. If a company the size of Disney is able to get away with this argument, it sets such a terrible precedent for all writers. A company could just sell the rights to a novel to a sister company and then duck out of ever paying the author any royalties. If that were the case, authors would no longer have any incentive to sell any of their rights to anyone.

Book publishing seems really clean on the surface. Authors write the books, agents sell the books, editors help get those books ready for publication, and then the publishing houses pay for the books to be produced, and readers get to happily consume those final products. Readers pay for the books, and that money then gets shuffled around between everyone who was involved in the process.

But the longer I’ve been directly involved in this process, the more I’ve realized that often that chain breaks down. That when you look to see how the sausage actually gets made, it can sometimes turn you off eating it altogether. Do I have any company actively not paying me royalties at the moment for books that they’re selling? Well, I’m not going to say I do, but I’m also not going to say I don’t, and that’s about all I’ll get into at the moment. Let’s just say I can relate to what Alan Dean Foster is going through, albeit on a much smaller scale.

You write your book and put it out there, and you celebrate when it finds a home. But that home is sometimes temporary. Your precious book becomes a commodity that’s sold and traded as companies shift hands. It can be disconcerting and bewildering, and sometimes it stops making any sense altogether.

Which is why I’m very glad that writing books isn’t my main line of work. I’d love it if I could get to the point where it could be, but stuff like this just makes me happy to remember I get a paycheck as a librarian . . .


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