Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

The Life and Times of a Copyright…

How One Short Story Made A Lot of Money…

So many writers do not understand the value of a single piece of copyright. In this case, let me tell you the story of the life (so far) of a short story titled, “In the Shade of the Slowboat Man.”

Back in the early 1990s, about thirty years ago, I was invited to write a story for a vampire anthology and like a fool I said yes. I hate vampires.

So I put it off until a writing retreat on the Oregon Coast with eight other writers in one house for the weekend. I sat down at my then-massive computer sitting on an end table in the retreat house and decided I would get the story out of my hair and then write a couple of others that weekend, which I did.

I crammed together two partial titles from old stories in old magazines, put the title at the top of the page, and just under three hours later I finished the story. Printed it off for the others attending to read and went on to write a few other stories. (I never looked at it again, never rewrote it, none of that silliness.)

When I got home I sent it off to the editor and even though this was an invite anthology, he  bounced it because it flat did not fit the blood and guts of the other stories. He was right. My story was sort of a vampire romance way, way, way before that sort of thing was being written.

So I tossed the manuscript that the editor had returned in a drawer, but my wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, loved the story and made me send it to Ed Ferman, the publisher of F&SF and he bought it.

And then it was on a few final ballots for awards and reprinted in an awards anthology.

Total earnings so far for the copyright, about $400.

The year after that I was contacted by a producer of a radio play series and they wanted to license the story for a radio play, with actors and everything. We came to terms and I got $5,000 for the license for the radio play. They needed a script, and since Kris used to write radio scripts, they hired her to do that and she got $6,000 for writing the script.

The play was wonderful and got a lot of attention. Total earned from the copyright for those three hours of writing so far was $11,400.

Over the next few years the story was republished three times in various books and I made another $300 total.

In the late 1990s I was approached by Hollywood and they took an option on the story for one year for $2,000. That option was renewed three more times over the years for a total of $8,000 and nothing was ever made.

Total earned for the author in the first ten years on the copyright, $19,700.

Story went dormant for about ten years until the indie movement came along and I started putting it in various books, collections, and such. At our regular going rates for a reprint short story, I have made another $1,100 for a total to the author of $20,800 for a three hour short story thirty years before.

Of course, since I own 50% of WMG Publishing, I could count the proportional income from all the projects it has been in, plus stand-alone sales, but too much work. Just say it has earned a lot.

I had no idea that a rejected vampire story from thirty years ago, that I wrote in a crowded room at a writer’s retreat in three hours could earn that kind of money over time. This is one reason I alway always, always harp on the value of copyright and that a writer should never get in a hurry when something doesn’t sell right off, and never sell all rights.

I have a hunch that “In the Shade of the Slowboat Man” still has a lot of life in the copyright, a lot more licenses to license.

You can get this story for $2.99 in electronic and $5.99 in paper on Amazon and for $6.99 for the entire issue in Smith’s Monthly #22 on WMG Books.


  • S. H. Miah

    I see a lot of people on forums like Reddit saying you and your wife are lying about the money you guys make and shouldn’t be teaching writing business because your Amazon rankings are above 100k or whatever nonsense.

    They can’t even see the fact that licensing and distributing wide produces cash streams which can form rivers when the stories begin to add up. Which makes them believe KU is the only way to go.

    I honestly don’t know why writers struggle to broaden their thinking on these things. Perhaps they just aren’t thinking long term?

    • dwsmith

      Hmmm, wonder how we are paying for all the employees at WMG and the office and Kris and my penthouse condo and so on and so on… Hmmmm… Luckily for us, we do very little on Amazon. To us it is just one of many bookstores. Nothing more and nothing less. But please, do not try to defend us to idiots. You are better off writing.

      • Fabien Delorme

        In terms of rankings, Amazon counts KU borrows as full sales, even if the book never gets read and thus never earns a cent to the author. Meaning, you can’t compare the ratings of a KU author with a non-KU author, anyway (and, of course, this is not a bug but a feature, since Amazon wants writers to think “only KU writers get in the top 100, I need to be there as well”). Plus, that doesn’t include the cost of ads, obviously.

        Equating ranking with raw income is so stupid I can’t understand how these writers can even run a business.

        Plus, many writers can’t wrap their head around the concept of multiple tiny income streams. They have their one book in one store and can’t imagine there are other ways than fighting for the #1 spot.

        • dwsmith

          Yup, but the key with advancing to the next stage of your own writing is ignore all that kind of crap. Just do your own thing.

  • Vincent Zandri

    Awesome. I addressed this topic yesterday at The Writer’s Life…how just a single short story published independently can bring you $2K and more without doing much in the way of advertising or promo. If it happens to be tied into an existing mystery series for instance, that’s usually promo enough.

  • Philip

    One of my law school professors (an adjunct) practiced entertainment law specializing in selling movie rights of peoples’ lives AND movie rights to SHORT fiction. He talked at length how Hollywood loved shorter works, and gave as an example his client who wrote the story which led to the film Million Dollar Baby.

    • C.E. Petit

      <sarcasm> Philip, your instructor must have been lying (which is how one can tell he “concentrated his practice” in the film industry†). In H’wood, they always buy the life, not just the life story — because the film executives don’t have lives and are envious. </sarcasm>

      See, e.g., William Goldman, Which Lie Did I Tell This Time? More Adventures in the Screen Trade (2000).