When a writer signs on to do a “work for hire,” sometimes the contract is for a onetime flat fee, and sometimes it includes an advance against royalties. When the advance has earned out, then the writer receives royalties. It has been thus in the publishing industry for a very long time: a relatively straightforward and time-honored business relationship that pleased everyone.
There was rarely a problem when mergers occurred between two publishers, because everyone understood the arrangement. Then something strange happened. The creators of content (writers, artists, musicians) suddenly found themselves party to vast mergers that swallowed up not just another publisher but entire other corporations. Most notable of these was The Walt Disney Corporation’s recent acquisition of Twentieth Century-Fox and then Lucasfilm.
Some of you may know that I ghostwrote the book version of the very first Star Wars film, as well as the first sequel novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. I also wrote the book versions of the first three Alien films. I always received regular royalty reports from the original publishers. Then Fox and Lucasfilm were swallowed by Disney and a funny thing happened. My literary agency stopped receiving royalties. They no longer even received royalty reports.
When a writer is dealing directly with a publisher it’s fairly easy to track such things. When a gargantuan entertainment conglomerate that bestrides the land like an all-consuming colossus arrives, small things tend to fall through the cracks. Even writers and their modest concerns.
That’s what happened to me, and subsequently to the writers’ organization to which I have belonged since the beginning of my career (Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), also to a growing number of other writers.
It took my agency about a year just to find out who had the rights to (and income from) the three Alien books. Previously, an agent or writer could simply call a publisher and ask. It was a little easier to find out who controlled the rights to the two Star Wars books. Subsequently — well, you get brushed off. You, your agency, your writers’ organization, the writers’ organization’s lawyers. To a corporation the size of WDC, you’re just creative dandruff. Unless.
Unless you go public, which is what we finally did. Now, suddenly, there is communication between my representatives and the WDC. It’s funny what the light of day and a little publicity can do. We’ll see if the brushoff continues or if a resolution to what is at base a simple matter eventuates. Disney is claiming that in purchasing Fox and Lucasfilm it only acquired the rights to properties and not the obligations joined to them. It’s an interesting approach.
Anyone out there paying off a mortgage? Why? You clearly own the house, so just sell it to someone else and explain that the mortgage doesn’t go with it: then buy it back free and clear. It’s the same concept.
It’s a pain to have to deal with something like this, but my representatives and I finally decided we could no longer simply let it slide. Because, money aside, the more you let giant corporations get away with such things, the more they will continue to do so.
Here’s how I presented my original complaint to the WDC. Pretty straightforward, I think, addressed personally to Disney’s most venerable representative:
We have a lot in common, you and I. We share a birthday: November 18. My dad’s nickname was Mickey. There’s more.
When you purchased Lucasfilm, you acquired the rights to some books I wrote. STAR WARS, the novelization of the very first film, and SPLINTER OFTHEMIND’S EYE, the first sequel novel. You owe me royalties on these books. You stopped paying them.
When you purchased Twentieth Century-Fox, you eventually acquired the rights to other books I had written. The novelizations of ALIEN, ALIENS, and ALIEN3. You’ve never paid royalties on any of these, or even issued royalty statements for them.
All these books are all still very much in print. They still earn money. For you. When one company buys another, they acquire its liabilities as well as its assets. You’re certainly reaping the benefits of the assets. I’d very much like my minuscule (though it’s not small to me) share.
You want me to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) before even talking. I’ve signed a lot of NDAs in my 50-year career. Never once did anyone ever ask me to sign one prior to negotiations, for the obvious reason that once you sign, you can no longer talk about the matter at hand. Every one of my representatives in this matter, with many, many decades of experience in such business, echos my bewilderment.
You continue to ignore requests from my agents. You continue to ignore queries from SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. You continue to ignore my legal representatives. I know this is what gargantuan corporations often do — ignore requests and inquiries hoping the petitioner will simply go away. Or possibly die. But I’m still here, and I am still entitled to what you owe me. That includes the right to not be ignored just because I’m only one lone writer. How many other writers and artists out there are you similarly ignoring?
My wife has serious medical issues, and in 2016 I was diagnosed with an aggressive variety of cancer. We could use the money. Not charity: just what I’m owed. I’ve always loved Disney. The films, the parks, growing up with the Disneyland TV show. I don’t think Unca Walt would approve of how you are currently treating me. Maybe someone in the right position just hasn’t received the word, though after all these months of ignored requests and queries, that’s hard to countenance.
Or as a guy named Bob Iger said, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.”
I’m not feeling it.
Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.