15 November 2010

Working Hard for the Money

Background reading for this post is here.

I put this link up on facebook. When someone asked me my opinion I started to try and answer and then realized I had a TON to say. Rather than try to put it in a tiny little facebook comment box I figured I had enough for a blog post. And besides, I haven't posted in forever.

What you may need to know about where I'm coming from in my analysis. Before I ever tried my hand at fiction writing, I wanted to be a screenwriter. I still do, but I understand it may be a circuitous route that involves me doing things like writing books. If you want to be a screenwriter, you have to understand that a script is, economically at least, like a house. You can build a house by hand and lovingly hand craft the moldings and blow your own glass windows, but once you've sold it the new owners can gut it, strip it and sell it for parts. If you can't handle that, don't write screenplays.

I've also worked for an entertainment lawyer who did client (i.e. actor, writer and director) representation. I will never be a lawyer, but I can actually read a contract at this point in my life, and let me start by saying, if you're signing a contract with a multinational corporation that produces media in some form, you're probably already screwed.

Taking those facts into consideration, here is my thoughts on James Frey's experiment in media packaging.

The problem with publishing high concept fiction that the author wants to have fully exploited is that most authors don't have the capital to exploit their own work completely. (Writing a book is, as near as I can tell, the closest an individual can get to creating capital out of thin air.) So the idea of some sort of collective that has the resources to fully exploit high-concept writing is something I'm fully behind.

Consider something like Gossip Girl: it was created and packaged by Alloy. Cecily von Ziegesar got a flat fee and her name on the books. But she doesn't get a cut of the TV show (I heard her say this at an author event) any merchandise, any foreign sales, etc.

And like the article says, the real money is in merchandise. There are plenty of books that haven't come from packagers that could be equally as good (or bad, as the case may be) a TV show as Gossip Girl, but only a company really has the resources, savvy, and most important in Hollywood the clout to take meetings with studio heads and executive producers with standing show contracts. They can walk in with stats, a platform, an existing professionally written speck script, professional pitchers (which novel really aren't) and the promise of a continued relationship with an established content provider. Most authors can't afford to fly to L.A.

So even though CVZ probably couldn't have gotten Gossip Girl made into a TV show, the audience is responding to her characters and her writing (though less of her writing on the TV show). Alloy is making a ton of money off the show, because they could do things that CVZ couldn't, right? Or are they just stealing CVZ's work? Under the current system, both seem true.

Even when an individual author can up sell their own book they get screwed. Deborah Gregory, who wrote the Cheetah Girls book, was thrilled Disney wanted to make her books into films, but she got a flat fee for ALL the subsidiary rights. She would have made residuals if the film actually netted money. So Disney took a "loss" on their movies and she made no residuals on the films. But Disney went on to make a fortune on merchandise that Gregory had no cut of.

Also, neither of these authors had a say in what sort of merchandise their writing would be associated with. An author of children's books might be totally okay with journals or stuffed animals but balk at dishes, waffle makers or child size switchblades. Joking aside, imagine a book with a strong environmental message with cheap plastic merchandise. No author would approve of that, but a major corporation that sells licenses for secondary parties to produce merchandise might because it's not like the lawyers sorting out the deal have read the book or that anyone in a creative position would probably look over the deal.

Monetarily, the guy who wrote "Number 4" for James Frey is better off than CVZ or Gregory. Especially when you consider that all writers, me included, write for free, especially at the beginning of our careers. And most authors write for free, with no guarantee of payment until the book is sold, for their ENTIRE careers.

Honestly, the money part of the contract isn't the problem. I'd be thrilled to split my subsidiary rights on some ideas I have for books (not the one I'm working on now, but that's because I don't want it fully exploited). In exchange I'd get legal and publicity expertise, the meetings with the right producers and toy companies, and to knwo that someone is fully exploiting my work on my behalf.

The ownership of copyright is also less of an issue that I think this article makes it out to be. The standard boilerplate for studio copyright now includes the phrases "in perpetuity," "the entire universe," and "on all existing technologies and those that do not yet exist." You sell movie rights, that version of the movie belongs to that studio FOREVER. And depending on the contract, that studio may own the rights and the right to grant those rights, FOREVER, forcing the writer out of the picture entirely. So if a writer's work is exploited in even the most basic way, they author's copyright may be compromised forever. But all the legal wording is basically made up. They can barely enforce copyright law in China, they certainly can't enforce it on Alpha Centauri 6,000 years after the end of human existence on technology invented by aliens who share both consciousness and memory and have therefore never invented art because they have neither point of view nor metaphor. (End digression.)

Most writers are more that wiling to sell apsects of their copyright to studios. (It's a good bet - it's a lot of money and most options never make it as far as filming.) But if a writer hates the movie that's made, good luck arranging for a remake, there will be unbelievable legal wrangling, even though the author STILL OWNS the primary copyright. But a company has resources to step in or even demand executive production credits (and the right to intervene to some extent). A company can threaten to withhold future works (which, unlike an author, they are guaranteed to have) while and individual writer gets to whine to the press.

Of course, James Frey's company's contracts sound incredibly flawed. My problem with the contract (as it's described, having never seen it) is the control of the name. As an author, your name is your brand the company is being pretty awful about it. You could work on a project for a week, get fired, lose you monetary rights, go ogg and win a Pulitzer, then find your name slapped on a book you had nothing to do with. That's really scary.

Also, working with Frey sounds like hell to the nth degree.

If a nice reasonable person had a company like this with guaranteed name stuff (one way or the other, so you know what you are getting into), a slightly higher writing fee, Creative Commons developing nation attribution noncommercial share alike licenses, and a no sweatshop guarantee on merchandise I would jump at the chance to split my copyright and subsidiary compensation with them.

Or somebody could give me a few million is start up capital so I could hire some producers as consultants, PR and publicity people, entertainment lawyers, a couple literary agents and managers, a web designer, graphic artists, sales team, sales researcher, some product designers, an app developer, assistants for key players, HR staff and a bunch of YA writers to be part-time editors and packagers and they could spend the rest of their time actually writing for the company (so part of the company's cut would actually go BACK TO the writer in the form of editorial salary).

But considering how busy I am, someone would literally have to hand me the cash. I could never get it together to raise it otherwise.

In other words, don't work for James Frey because he is an asshole, not because the contract sucks. Because it really only sucks in minor ways. Whereas, James Frey? Major asshole.


At 10:55 AM, Blogger M. Garcia said...

I have $50 I can contribute. How much stock in your future company will that buy me? WAIT! i can also add some yummy cupcakes to that! and possibly some writing...what do you say!?


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