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“Random Royalties”

Random Royalties

Cynthia’s Column Nov 2008

This is a cautionary tale.  Or possibly precautionary.  It could happen to you, and probably is happening to some of you at this very moment.  But be reassured it has a happy ending.  When I turned 50, I suddenly realized that I was a mortal with a limited lifespan in this world, and this caused me to realize that my screenwriting class, which I’d spent more than twenty years polishing, was therefore also mortal.  My immediate response was to write down my class in the hopes it might outlive me.  With the help of a terrific N.Y. book agent, Doris Michaels, I made a two book deal for The Writer’s Guide to Writing Your Screenplay and a new updated version of my 1988 book Selling Your Screenplay now retitled The Writer’s Guide to Selling Your Screenplay.

I know what you’re thinking.  Why should we read a writing book written by someone with such a redundant title?  The Writers Guide to Writing…?  Come on.  The books were published by an arm of The Writer Magazine, and they wanted their name in the title.  So the books came out in 2002 and did all right.  Flash forward three years to 2005.  The Writer Magazine decided to fold its book publishing division.  My Selling book went out of print and I was able to acquire the remaining copies before they could be shredded.  (A word that makes published writers cringe.)

The Screenwriting book, which is my class on paper, has been well liked by screenwriters.  And fortunately Billboard Books picked it up.  I signed a contract with them that gave them the rights to continue publishing this book.  Or distributing it.  Anyway they paid me no advance against royalties, but royalties would be coming as the book continued to sell.  Only then, it did continue to sell and no royalties were forthcoming.  For three and a half years.

Fast forward.  Fall 2008.  I have twice in the last year emailed my book agent to try to track down the royalties.  On Amazon.com my screenwriting book is usually in the top five of all screenwriting books.  So it must be doing something, right?  My agent is unable to find out what’s up with that.  So a couple of weeks ago I decided to get into it myself.

I call Kalmbach, the publishing house that published my books and The Writer Magazine.  At first I get nowhere with this.  They don’t seem to remember me or my book.  They will look into it and call me back.

So I google Billboard Books.  On the websites there is no phone number.  So I look in the whitepages.com.  No luck.  Finally google dumps me into a website for Billboard Books’ parent company, which seems to be something called Watson-Guptil.  On their website I also have trouble finding any contact information.  Like a phone number.  Finally I get a phone number for them, but the person who answers informs me that I’m speaking to Random House.  Hmm.  These fish keep getting swallowed by bigger fish at such a rate that the phone book has no time to update its records.

So I ask Random House for the person in charge of book royalties and am passed through three people until I finally get someone who looks into it and informs me that they don’t publish my book, they merely distribute it.  So any royalties would be something I’d have to take up with Kalmbach Books.  The publisher of my book.  Double hmmm.

I call back Kalmbach Books and they look into it further and finally inform me that they sent me a letter in February of 2005 that both my books were going out of print and that I could buy them back or they’d be shredded.  That word again.  Bummer.

Except that that’s not how I remember it.  Or my agent remembers it.  And what’s with the letter of agreement with Billboard Books?  Not only that, but my book continues to be sold as “New” on Amazon.com only now with a higher price ($17.95 instead of $16.95) and I’ve come across these newer books when students get them online and ask me to sign them.  They are a larger size than the original by about half an inch.  Somebody somewhere is making my books and making money off my books and no one seems to know who that might be.  All I know is that it is not moi.

I call Doris and tell her the runaround I’m getting.  She is sympathetic and had the same sort of experience when she tried to track this down.

I’ve been on the phone close to two hours and have gotten nothing but confused and befuddled and bummed out.  I give it up until I can think of what to do next.

The next day the phone rings.  Someone from Random House named Mark says he got my message and is returning my call.  My voice sounds, I’m sure, completely hopeless about the situation, and not even interested in the fact that he is dutifully returning a phone message.  I can’t even frame an intelligent question at this point and don’t feel like repeating the whole complicated mess, so silence falls onto the line.  Then he says an amazing thing.

“You’re right,” Mark says.

I’m right?  About what could I possibly be right?  I feel, if anything, totally wronged.

“We owe you money.”

Really?  I literally sat up straight and my eyes opened wide.  “You do?”

“This fell through a crack.  I apologize.”

My book fell through a crack?  Apparently books and authors get lost in cracks.  He explained that the mistake was that when Billboard Books picked it up, it should have been given a new ISBN#, but that it still had Kalmbach’s ISBN# on it so, thus the confusion.  And between Kalmbach/Watson-Guptil/Billboard and wonderful, cracked Random House there were two other interim publishers in the food chain.  Lordy.

“Am I still in print?”

“Yes.”

Well, cool. So they are figuring out how much money they owe me and sending me a check.  Damn.  If I hadn’t kept checking on Amazon and finally taken the bullshit by the horns, I never would have been paid at all.  My book would still be lost in a crack.  So writers, be vigilant.  It turns out nobody’s looking out for us, but us.  Luckily we’re smart and eventually even lucky.

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