In my other, non-authoring life, my partner and I run a Walt Disney collectibles store. Fantasies Come True has been open for 32 years, so we’ve gained a reputation for knowing what the value is of, say, that old Mickey Mouse marionette which has been sitting up in Aunt Eliza’s attic since Eisenhower was in office. Every now and then we’ll get a phone call asking us what the value might be of something they came across when clearing out ol’ Eliza’s attic.
These days, the collectibles market is largely an Ebay-led world. The value of that old Mickey Mouse marionette can be defined as either “Whatever it, or something like it, got on Ebay last week.” Or, to put it another way, “Whatever someone is willing to pay.”
As vague and elastic as that definition is, when it comes to Mickey marionettes, Tinker Bell vases, and Bambi snowglobes, we’re talking about a definable thing. It’s in a definable condition, of a definable size, of a definable character, made in a definable year with definable materials.
This past week, however, I found myself having to evaluate something far less tangible, far less palpable: the value of my writing.
For the past couple of months, I’ve been talking with a film producer. He approached me just as I was finishing the final edit of book 1 in my Garden of Allah series, The Garden on Sunset. He’d discovered the existence of the Garden of Allah hotel, and thought it would make a great setting for a TV show. So I sent him an advanced copy of the book, which he loved. Then I sent him the 9-book synopsis I’d written back when I was querying my way through 46 literary agents. He loved that too, and was very keen to move forward, which meant acquiring the screen rights in order to repackage the story for television.
Through this process, I was excited at the thought that I might see my work on the screen but, knowing how very hard it is to get a show on the air, was also not exactly about to pop a lung from holding my breath.
Then an email arrived from him listing the nine bullet points of the offer he was putting on the table. Wow, I thought, he’s actually making me a firm offer. So, he’s not just talk, after all. This might actually happen…?
Then I studied the offer he and his lawyer had put together. He assured me that it was a fair offer “given the various factors in play here.” By that, I had to assume he meant that as I was not a traditionally-published author with a proven track record, I couldn’t command Grisham-level advances. And for I all knew, maybe he was right. I’d never had Hollywood come knocking on my door before.
He was asking for the rights of all nine books in the series, which I thought was fair enough. He’d read the synopsis and knew where I’m planning to go with this series, so it was understandable that if he was going to pitch a multi-season TV show, that he’d want the rights to all the books, regardless of whether I’d written them yet, or not.
But the amount he was offering for all nine books seemed surprisingly, disappointingly, and typically low. But there was a definite offer on the table with a definable dollar amount attached, and I realized that my writing had become a Mickey Mouse marionette. I was sitting on one side of the table with a “thing” and he was sitting on the other side with a pile of dough and willing to pay me for it.
That was when the questions erupted. Was it enough? Was it a fair market offer? Was it commensurate with all the time I’d spent researching, drafting, rewriting, editing and proofreading? Was it the only offer like this I might ever get? Is a bird in the hand worth two in the bush? Was this just an opening offer from which he expected me to negotiate?
It forced me to think about how much my writing is worth. And my time. And my creativity. And my inspiration. And my hopes. I was being asked to put a dollar value on an intangible and there’s no Ebay for that. No Value Assessment for Dummies.
I read a lot of biographies and find it endlessly interesting to learn how lives can take a turn down rough and dark roads, or be elevated to mountaintops out of just one decision. I didn’t want to be the guy who turns down a great opportunity through misplaced ego or unchecked greed. Nor did I want to be the person who, six months later, sits up in bed and cries out, “D’oh! What the hell was I thinking signing such a crappy deal like that??!!”
So I put the word out among friends who might know someone who might know a lawyer or agent who could tell me, at least on the surface of the 9-point email, if this offer was anything resembling a good deal. I ended up talking with half a dozen informed people and the consensus was universal: It was a great deal…for him. For me? Not so much. The deal was crap and I’d be a fool to go anywhere near it
While it was flattering that someone wanted to slide a pile of money across the table at me for my work, it’s not very flattering if they want to pay so little. So I sent the guy a nicely-worded email turning down his offer. I fully expected him to come back to me with “Let’s talk about this some more.” or “Let’s negotiate.” or “Make me a counter offer!” or “Give me a day or so and I’ll see what I can come up with.” But no. Five minute later I got an email saying, “Thanks for getting back to me.” and that was the end of that. Apparently my work is terrific…as long as it can be land-grabbed for cheap.
This whole experience served to remind me why I started writing in the first place. I write because I like to write. It feeds me, it inspires me, and it fulfills me. I write because not writing isn’t a viable option. However, if, as a result of that, some Ray Bans-wearing, beamer convertible-driving, tennis-tanned Hollywood producer recognizes the potential to repackage my work into some other format, and values it enough to make me a decent offer for it, then I would be a fool to knock him back. But for now, I think I’ll take my chances with those two birds in the bush. Maybe one of them will be a Mickey Mouse fan.