Have You Written Your Best Work Years Ago?

While watching Joan Jett at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga three weeks ago, she announced that she will play songs from her new album, “Unvarnished,” and, with some hesitation, the classic songs we all know and love. I saw the bittersweet moment on her face that she knew that her fans will always remember her for the songs she wrote years ago. A dilemma many creative people will face sooner or later.

Jett could have joined many other classic bands in touring around the nation to play the hit songs from her early career without ever writing a new song or recording another album. That’s not her style. After 37 record labels rejected her first solo album in 1980, she created her own record label and pushed the boundaries for what a female musician can do. She writes new songs and makes new albums that may never ever earn the same level of fan appreciation as her earlier hits.

So many fans regarded Stephen King’s “The Stand” as his magnun opus that he could have died after its publication in 1978 and be content with that, ignoring his many other novels and “The Dark Tower” series and that came afterward. J.K. Rowlings may never write anything that surpasses the Harry Potter novels, but she keeps writing new novels under her name and a pen name. The easy way out would be to pull a JD Salinger by not publishing anything more and cashing in the royalty checks.

If my ebook sales are any indication, I’ve written my best work years ago.

Okay, maybe not. I haven’t written a magnun opus for my fans to declare their undying devotion. My earliest short story ebooks sell better than my recent short story ebooks, leaving my “mid-list” ebooks to sag in the middle. I’ve had nagging doubts about the quality of my writing over the last few years, a constant tug of war between double checking the old stuff and writing the new stuff. The only way to side-step the doubts is to plunge myself into writing something new, get into the creative moment and go with the flow. The mobile office has been a great help in writing a handful of new flash stories for the summer. With renewed confidence, my best work is yet to come.

On a related musical note, Victor Willis, the original police officer in the 1970’s Village People disco band (which played at the Mountain Winery the following week after Joan Jett), regains the copyrights to his classic songs like “YMCA” and “In The Navy” after signing them away years ago by invoking an obscure provision of the 1978 copyright law. That’s heartening. Since I’m signing away my copyrights into an intellectual properties holding company (IPHC) to keep them separate from my publishing business and myself as an individual, I might run into this situation if I ever lose control of the IPHC.

Scarlett Johansson Sues The Author Of Her Literary Doppelganger

Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson

According to the Hollywood Reporter (via The Passive Voice), Scarlett Johansson is suing the author of her literary doppelgänger that appears in a French novel.

In the novel The First Thing We Look At [by Gregoire Delacourt], a woman shows up at the door of a mechanic in the northern village of Somme seeking help. At first the mechanic believes she is ‘Scarlett Johansson,’ though sixty pages later it is revealed she is not the actress but simply a doppelganger named Jeanine Foucaprez.

Maybe the publisher forgot to include this legal boilerplate:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Of course, it really depends on how the author wrote the character.

  • A passing reference to a character that physically looks similar to Ms. Johansson wouldn’t invite legal scrutiny, whether coincidental or not.
  • A character that is a precise clone in description, mannerism and history that readers can readily identify as Ms. Johansson would invite an accusation of trading off her name.

Ms. Johansson has personality rights on how her public image is use, which is halfway between a private citizen who expects privacy and a politician who gives up privacy. (With the recent spying revelations, no one has any real privacy.) If a character believes that another character was Ms. Johansson for 60 pages in a novel, Ms. Johansson has a winnable case.

From another paragraph in the Hollywood Reporter article, the author admitted that he compared his other characters to Ryan Gosling and Gene Hackman. If you need to invoke the names of famous people to prop up the description of your characters, you’re not a very good writer.

Putting A Price On Your Literary Copyrights

When filing for my Chapter 7 bankruptcy last year, the paralegal for my attorney needed a price for my literary copyrights and the documentation backing up that price. Neither the paralegal nor I knew how to do that. After the paralegal consulted with the attorney, she told me to talk to an intellectual property rights attorney. (Never mind that I could barely afford to file for bankruptcy.) A Google search turned up nothing useful.

I didn’t think my copyrights were worth too much. I’m just a short story writer that no one heard about who found a niche in the genre anthologies and started publishing my reprints as ebooks. At the time of my filing, I made less than a hundred bucks a year from my copyrights. If I was Stephen King or J.K. Rowlings, my copyrights would be worth substantially more, and, even then, it might be difficult to determine a price for their copyrights.

While I was pondering this weighty legal matter, a contract from Pill Hill Press valued my short story, “The Lunch Box,” at a quarter-cent per word (the typical rate for a “non-pro” genre market). I had my answer. After figuring out the per-word number for each of my copyrights, I was able to provide a precise dollar amount and the documentation—a copy of the publishing contract—that satisfied the attorney’s requirements.

Were my literary copyrights worth a quarter-cent per word? Maybe, maybe not.

I started thinking about the value of my literary and other copyrights after setting up an  intellectual property holding company (IPHC), where I needed to value my contributions (i.e., cash and copyrights) for the owners equity account. A quarter-cent per word is still a valid metric and I have two-dozen contracts to back up that value.

Since the IPHC will be handling the first serial right sales for my copyrights, a quarter-cent per word will probably be the prevailing rate for the foreseeable future. If I ever go “pro” (as if six dozen short stories weren’t enough to establish my writing creds), making a nickel per word would be a big step up.