Intellectual Property Rights

In my Business and Government class this week, we covered intellectual property rights and how much a copyright is worth. My econ professor, explaining the theory, boomed, “How much do we want to reward someone for inventing a new mousetrap? How much is someone’s novel worth?”

It is an old question in a new light.

My professor likened the government to a cheerleader when it comes to copyrights: by granting intellectual property rights, it incentivizes innovation and encourages creativity. More shocking, granting copyrights sanctions monopolies for those innovators. With a copyright, you have the sole right to reproduce, display or perform, distribute, and develop derivative works of your creation. You are the sole producer, which means you have full market power to price and produce at any quantity you want.

Of course, it’s never as simple as that. To produce your novel into something to sell, you need to print it (or put it in epub format), design it, advertise it, publicize it, and all that jazz. Most people rely on an economy of scale and experience (ie a company that already knows how to do all this and has the infrastructure to do it) to get that done. So you license the rights in a contract to a publishing house that will take care of the production for you. The publisher has to pay an advance as a deposit to show that they are serious about producing your work. More than that, they have to pay you royalties because it’s still your work, and you’re not just going to let them take all the spoils after producing it. Then, if you’ve negotiated it into your contract, at a certain point after they stop producing your novel, your rights revert and you own them completely by yourself again.

Notice the language I used in the last paragraph. The writer does not “get” an advance or a royalty as a treat for writing a book the publishers like; the publishers are paying for the right to produce a book they love. This is a dynamic I think many writers forget too easily. They are the monopolists granting an oligopoly; it is the publishers that are paying for the right to the book. One of the good things about self-publishing is that we authors are reminding publishers of this fact: the writer is the one with the power. If the publishing house cannot make it worth it to the writer, the writer will keep all their rights.

Just some musings as I study for my econ midterm. Let’s hope I can draw the graphs to back up my theory!

Meeting the Wizard

Recently I had the opportunity to pay $36, travel two hours by public bus, and go to a reading/book signing by one of my favorite authors, Jodi Picoult. At first, I jumped at the idea; what could be better than hearing her words read by her and listening to her talk about writing? But then I began to rethink it. What if she was disappointing? What if in real life she wasn’t as awesome as her books? What if she’s actually mean? It is hard to read something without thinking about the author and what she was thinking when she wrote it, although modern criticism encourages this detachment (see The Intentional Fallacy). As a writer, I know that often things I write have nothing to do with me, but as a reader, I imagine everything as an extension of the author’s experience. So if I meet Jodi Picoult and she doesn’t live up to my expectations, would I ever be able to enjoy a book of hers again?

I decided to protect my illusions and skipped the reading.

This led me to wondering about the benefits of getting to know an author. Everyone has experienced the swell of curiosity after reading a good book; you just want to know everything about the author and how they came up with the idea and how you can extend your experience of the fiction through meeting them. Writers become even more obsessed with meeting their idols to pepper them with questions like what their writing schedule is like and how they come up with their ideas and how long it took them to be published. A cult of personality is created around the great writers that lasts long after their deaths; on my vacation this past week to the Florida Keys we visited Hemingway’s home (although we got there too late for a tour) where you can see the rooms in which he wrote and meet cats descended from his pets.

Me in front of Hemingway's House

But what is the point of trying to meet the wizard behind the curtain? The questions authors give eager writers rarely have any impact on the aspiring novelist’s writing; the fact remains that you have your own rhythm of when you write and just because Jonathan Franzen says to write in the mornings doesn’t mean that will work for you (I have no idea if he said that; I made it up for an example). Seeing where Hemingway wrote doesn’t hint at the secret of his genius. Elizabeth Berg writes in her book Home Safe about a writer visiting her idol, E.B. White’s, home and feeling much closer to him and imagining she has so much more insight into his work. Then she says:

“As she stood in White’s work space that day, it occurred to her that she was grasping at straws when it came to really understanding anything about the man; you could read his work, even biographies about him, and imagine a certain kind of person; but the reality of him would forever be a mystery…She thinks it was Margaret Atwood who said that wanting to meet a writer because you like their work was like wanting to meet a duck because you like pate.” (p. 63)

This captures for me what is the pointlessness of meeting a writer. It is the piece of fiction that you fell in love with, not the person. And, after all, most writers are shy, introverted people; it follows that their best work, their masterpieces of brilliance, are what they write, revise, and set out for you to read, not the speaking engagements they do to get money or the empty rooms in which they wrote. Meeting the writer will not extend your experience of the fiction; only reading more of their works will do that.

I imagine many people have different opinions on this, and I would love to hear them! Also keep an eye on Sarah Martinez because she has a lot to say on this subject.

Thoughts on Day 1

Sorry about the absenteeism. In the midst of packing, driving, flying, conferencing, finding-wireless-internet-ing, I’ve not had time or resources to tend to my blog. But all that is about to change.

Yesterday I started my work as an intern at the Whidbey Island Writers Association (WIWA) and Andrea Hurst and Associates. It was a long day but definitely worth it.

I arrived one day before the Saturday Chat House Conferences, one of WIWA’s most important events this year, meaning I entered into a whirlwind of last minute preparations and panicking. Because whenever an event is about to happen, be it a birthday party, a writer’s conference, or a wedding, things are bound to go wrong and the organizers are bound to have to scramble.

WIWA is largely a volunteer organization, with the conference being planned and executed entirely be a committee of volunteers. This means that they are doing the conference on top of their real lives; they are doubly busy. So there was plenty for me to do. It started with me being trained on how to handle credit cards for tomorrow when latecomers want to register, and then I graduated to folding maps, stuffing envelopes, and alphabetizing. While the work was not entirely intellectually stimulating, it was necessary for someone to do and I basked in my own efficiency (it was nice to be able to do something right after spending five minutes arguing with my stick shift to please stop stalling).

I was going to write about the best part of my day, but then I just couldn’t pick a moment. Was it when I met people I’ll be working with this summer who I’ve corresponded with through email and today I got to see they were actually 3-D and really, really nice? Was it when the sun shone down on me as I did my first solo (without anyone I knew on the road with me in my car or another) drive? Or was it when I got to eat dinner in a room full of successful writers and agents?

Since this blog is about writing, I guess I’ll pick the latter. First off, I’d been researching the authors ever since I found out I would be going to the conference. So even though I hadn’t read her book (yet…I really want to, though!) when I got to have a conversation with Susan Wingate about my writing ambitions and about what it is like to be a full-time writer, I was pretty jazzed. And then I ate dinner at a table of agents: one with the Sandra Dijkstra agency, one who works at Andrea Hurst Literary Management, and one who I later heard is one of the most successful agents in America. Yikes. The crazy thing is, they’re all nice. And they all eat. And they all avoid dessert (well maybe not all of them). They’re real people.

I don’t know why this comes a surprise to me since I want to be an agent and I consider myself a real person so logically that would mean an agent could be a real person. But somehow it’s heartening to know. Because while I might not know much about agents yet, I sure do know about real people. So how hard can this summer be?

Famous last words.

Last thing read: Chapter 15 of Careless in Red by Elizabeth George. (I highly recommend it, by the way. More on her later)