Ahem. Picture if you can the scene. Individual –who has never read any of my books – approaches me and says: “I’ve heard you’re an author. I’ve got this great idea for a story. You write it and we’ll split the money!”
At which point Dave gets arrested for attempting to push the head which held this ‘great idea’ through the nearest brick wall. It’s a squeezing process, (rather like dealing with a sponge or a mop) to get the wonderful ‘great idea’ out, so I can seize it, and run away with it and write it. Because, naturally, we authors are like that. We never ever have ideas of our own, more than we could write in this lifetime and several more.
No, of course it’s not that this is something that non-writers have done to me more times than I care to count (I have learned to wear shoes on these social occasions, which is bad, because it severely curtails my counting skillz). These non-writers often seem to be non-readers too. The ‘great idea’ is inevitably something they’ve seen in a movie, which they think would be soooo brilliant if you did in space. With Gerbils. And Will Smith. No, it is not that it keeps happening, it’s that I am a bad man.
Oh, and because it is such a great idea, and sooo brilliant and unique, they often think ‘split’ means something like 75% or even, yes, 90% for them. Because writing is sooo easy that any jackass (or even someone as stupid as me) could do it, and I’m incredibly lucky to get this generous offer.
In younger days I still tried to point out that I had come across far more badly written books with brilliant ideas in them, where the author just didn’t have the skill to make a cracking brilliant idea or concept into an entertaining story with the sort of appeal to sell millions of copies, than the inverse. Indeed, a bit of research will show that a fair number of runaway bestsellers are about as original as my Japanese camera. My Nikon may not have the originality of a Leica or Hasselblad. Nikon may have borrowed freely from the lens technology of Zeiss or whoever… It’s still a remarkably good camera.
These days – because the law is just so un-understanding about justifiable head-through-wall pushing — I ask what numbers they think such a story would sell.
This usually gets a startled silence. And then my amusement begins. Their idea of the value of their ‘Great Idea’ usually ranges between Harry Potter and The Da Vinci code (and they have no idea how many copies those sold). I seriously even had someone tell me ‘a couple of hundred million copies’. I make no attempt to correct this, but merely ask my next question: “So how much do you think we’d earn per copy?”
Which usually gets an even more startled look, and maybe the dawnings of suspicion (not always, but sometimes). Almost always I’ve got variants on: “Well, you should know.”
At which point I say that, yes, I do, but as they’re proposing a business venture, I’d like to know what they think an author earns per book. Sometimes they need to be urged somewhat to guess. It’s always interesting to hear what they think we get per book. And besides I think I’m doing a public service. Readers (and non-readers) tend to ‘blame’ authors for the price of books. It is the greedy authors who push the prices up, dontcherknow? Nothing to do with the guys who take 92-94% of the income on the US price of a paperback, or, in Australia, because my Royalty is calculated on the US cover price, not the AU$20-25 here… the people who take up to 98.32% of the income.
When I have had a good laugh, and filled them in on the royalty rates (which I’ve had people outright refuse to believe, and call me a liar. Because as everyone knows, authors all have snorkels so they don’t drown in the caviar) I offer my counter-proposal (because, trust me on this, telling them sales numbers from the world of reality, is going to be less successful than telling an ardent young socialist that no, it won’t work better this time.). Because they’re sure it will sell squillions of copies, and it’s only fair they get the lion’s share of the proceeds of their ‘great idea’ even at 42 cents or whatever a copy, that’s still a large fortune. Even if it’s only a paltry million paperback copies (before the naturally inevitable movie is sold) that’s still $420 000. I’ll ghost-write it for 50 Grand up front. They keep all the rights and get all the credit. And get to fight off the vast herd of slavering publishers who will naturally be eagerly clamoring to publish it once they get even a whiff of the ‘great idea’.
I must admit the one downcast soul who looked at me with hurt puppy eyes and said: “But I haven’t got 50 Grand.” – and was seriously contemplating taking out a second mortgage, did demolish my cynicism, and I tried exceptionally hard to explain the reality to him, and that, no I wasn’t actually prepared to write it, and no, it probably would not sell to a publisher, let alone sell many copies, and that even bestsellers with track records and all the push and marketing in the world didn’t. I didn’t have the heart to tell him his great idea wasn’t new, and stunk on ice. I told him that he could write it himself, and publish it on Kindle, or even, if he wasn’t up to it, hire a perfectly competent ghost writer for a couple of thousand. I think he did that, and it vanished without a trace.
But most of possessors of ‘great ideas’ back off at this point, and inform you in hurt or injured tones, that they were offering you a wonderful, never-to-be repeated opportunity to become rich and famous, FAR beyond your ability, but if you didn’t want to accept their generosity… well, if you dared use even a hint of their great idea… you were planning to steal it, weren’t you? Take it all and give them nothing…
This is probably not the best time to try your Grimly Fiendish cackle, or even do Shylock hand-rubbing imitations. Be strong, authors, be strong.
Be better than me.
And if you can’t, try to keep from laughing sooner than I do.
Look, story ideas, plot twists, etc. etc… are something most authors have in spades, if not steam-shovel-loads. It’s probably one of the main reasons many of us thought we’d like to write. And ideas are not copyright. If you’re worried about that wicked caviar-swimming author stealing your great idea… don’t tell them. It’s massively unlikely and, to be honest, even the best ideas are not unique (one of my early novels has a Sir Terry Pratchett theme/idea to it… It is bottom-drawered forever, simply because everyone would assume it was at best fan-fic, if not outright plagiarism. Only… I wrote it years before Sir Terry. And he did NOT steal it from me, or anyone else. It was a great idea… he just translated that into a story FAR better than I ever could. C’est la vie.).
The hard part isn’t the idea. It’s making that idea into a great story, and then selling that story.
*The Great Idea ™ is the unalienable property of the Good Idea Fairy, the civilian cousin of the Emperor Mong. So don’t think you can own it. It, however, can own you.