Saturday, September 07, 2013

Upwellings from the Memory Pool ...

Recently, a woman writer I knew slightly passed away. I won't say who, nor will I confirm it if anybody posts here, that's not where I'm going with the story, but people in the biz who know me will likely know to whom I refer.

This is not to speak ill of the dead, but to examine my reaction to the death, and the personal history upon which I found myself looking back when I heard of her passing. 

I got into writing for the Star Wars™ universe eighteen or so years ago. My first novel for them was Shadows of the Empire; I subsequently wrote a five-issue miniseries for Dark Horse Comics, and eventually, collaborated on three more SW's novels, with Michael Reaves. 

Between the Dark Horse project and the MedStar and Death Star novels was a long gap, during which I didn't officially work for Lucasfilm/-arts. 

The gap wasn't my idea.

I would have done more. Intended to, having in mind another original comic book series and a couple of novels. But something happened and I–along with several of the other SW's writers of the time–suddenly seemed to find ourselves personae non gratae.

Several of us who had been writing for 'em, and quite successfully, were suddenly somehow longer able to do so. Was there a blacklist? Who can say? There were some hard feelings, and I heard them manifested. I also heard some reasons why I wasn't being considered, and proved to myself and others that those reasons were, um ... the word here is "bullshit ..." 

It is hard to prove anything at this far a remove, but at the time, it seemed easy enough to figure. You don't need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

What happened? 

The writing organization to which I belonged, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, aka SFWA, became unhappy with Lucasarts and the then-new publisher of their SW's novels. The house that won the bidding war had to pretty much give away the store to get the rights to the next round of books, and as a cost-cutting measure, was electing to cease offering royalty payments to writers, in lieu of a flat-fee.

A figurative drop-in-the-bucket, such royalties, but there you go.

Typically back then, the writers in shared-universes got a tiny piece of the pie, and if sales were very good, might actually earn back their advances, even with only 1% or 2% of the action.

I had such a deal with SOTE, and it paid off long-term. I'm still getting little checks eighteen years on, and given my druthers, I would prefer a tiny piece of the action over what became fairly handsome flat-fees. (As I recall, the deals were something on the order of $40K for a paperback original, and as much as $70K for a hard/soft deal. Much more than the advance I had gotten.) 

At at 1% royalty, you have to sell a bunch of books to earn that much, do the math: At, say, $8.00 for a paperback, the writer's cut is $0.08. Divide that into forty grand, any you earn out after half a million copies are sold. 

Back in the day, when I had a Top 5 New York Times Bestseller with SOTE, you could do that, though it would take a while. As the franchise expanded to more and more books, sales of any one title dropped, and that is much less likely to happen now. When I started, a SW's novel was an automatic bestseller.

Not anymore.

So, the book house announced its new policy, and SFWA came unhinged. There was some serious frothing as some of the officers and members climbed onto their steeds and rode off to do battle with Lucas and his minions. The intent was to slay the greedy dragon, or at least wound it enough so it would see the light. We the writers deserve a piece of the pie!

I was not among those heading into that war. Yes, I allowed when they asked, my druthers would be for royalty over flat-fee, but given the amounts of the latter, which was nothing to spit at, I wasn't going to aim my lance at Lucas and spur that horse. George been bery, bery, good to me, so just, you know, include me out, and thank you, kindly.

SFWA, mainly in the form of the writer who passed away, included me in anyhow, after I told them specifically not to do so.

I was a bit peeved. I sent a note to my editor and my contacts: Listen, I said, I didn't do this, I'm not part of it!

Yeah, right. That's not what that open letter said.

Fast forward a bit: Lucas, unsurprisingly, was not brought to his knees by SFWA, whose entire budget, if it fell out of his pocket, would not have been worth his time and energy to bend over and pick up. It wasn't knights against a dragon, it was mosquitoes against an Abrams tank.

Writers who were interested in getting well-paid for fun work lined up out the wazoo, and the SW's biz continued unabated, eventually netting George what? four billion and change? when Disney bought him out. 

Along the way, by the by, the publisher went back to offering small royalties, because given the decline in individual sales, it was cheaper.

But: While I could be wrong, it certainly seemed as if I and others had been tarred by that brush SFWA slung hither and yon. 

How do I know this? Attempts to contact my editors at Lucasfilm failed. Nobody would even talk to me, much less allow me to pitch anything. I thought we had this great relationship, only to see it vanish like smoke in a Class-5 hurricane.

Understand, that past Tim Zahn's first couple, my first SW's novel sold more than any, and everybody made money on it. I was one of the golden boys, Bantam sent me a leather-bound, gold-leaf impressed copy of the book in appreciation. But then nobody wanted to take my calls.

I had been a faithful, on-time worker, loyal, didn't reveal any secrets, ne'er talked out of turn, was a team player, but it was crickets and echoes. 

It wasn't just me, I spoke with others who had similar stories. A few more bits and pieces came my way to confirm it, I shan't bore you with the minutiae. We had, the thinking seemed to go, gotten too big for our britches, and AMF.

So, okay, I had other work, life goes on, and if you live long enough, wide ties will probably come back. Things change, worlds move. Eventually, there was more work to be had from the fine folks at Lucas. I got some, and much enjoyed doing it. Let bygones be bygones.

But: The woman who helped put me into bad professional graces died, and while I didn't bear her any ill will–she was, by accounts, a fine person–it did stir up all those old associations. It was a road not taken, and as it turned out, I have nothing to complain about, but at the time it happened, it was a disturbing experience, and memory forms as it does.

Interesting how that works.


Klemens Dombrowski said...

might even be a standard strategy by lucas: don't let them grow as big that they become serious weight at the negotiations table... wouldn't wanna pay 3% royalties!, that could cripple the cash flow ;-)

Steve Perry said...

It wasn't Lucas who initiated the royalty thing, but the book house. SFWA jumped on them, but extended their ire toward GL because they figured he was at the top and if they embarrassed him, he'd send word down the line to fix things.

It was a poor tactic.

When SFWA got snarky, it pissed folks at the Ranch off, and I don't blame them for that, save that those of us who weren't part of it got dragged into the mess. That I do fault them for, they tossed babies out with the bath water.

When I first signed on, my editor at Bantam, Tom Dupree, told me, You'll like these folks, there's not a suit in the bunch. And that was my experience throughout the work on SOTE. Fine folks, bright, energetic, adept at their jobs, overall a great ride. Not empty suits looking at the corporate bottom line.

Once this SFWA biz came down? My impression was that somebody musta spent some time at Brooks Brothers ...

If I recall correctly, Tim Zahn got something like 4% for his first SW's novel, and it sold well enough to make him a small fortune. Of course a million bucks don't go as far as they once did, but still. After that, once everybody saw what a cash cow they had, the pie got divided into thinner slices. But I wasn't bitching about it; my piece earned my advance out several times over, I was happy. And I would have written for the flat-fee, which was more that I was getting most other places.

I saw it, SFWA's attitude cost me work I might have had, and the woman who led the charge had an agenda that, however it was intended to address a grievance, didn't help me at all.

Stan said...

Sun Tzu get's it right, again: Sit quietly on the river's bank, long enough, and you will see the bodies of your enemies float by....

Thanks for sticking around, Sir!