Tales from the Before Time: Springtime Surprise

Today’s mail brought us the spring royalties on the Mageworlds e-books (available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other e-book retailers.) The pleasant glow this cast over the morning brought to mind another springtime royalty period, some time ago — and thereby, as they say, hangs a tale.

The first thing you need to know is that the book in question was an anthology of short stories, Bruce Coville’s Book of Monsters.  We’d contributed a story to the anthology — “Uncle Joshua and the Grooglemen” — and had been paid a good rate-per-word for it; and that, we thought, was that.  Because the second thing you need to know is that most of the time, the on-acceptance payment for a short story, whether in a magazine or in an anthology, is the only money you’re going to see from it.  Every once in a while, though, a particular story will turn into one of its author’s good children, and continue generating revenue, sometimes in unexpected ways.

The next thing you need to know is that Book of Monsters came out at the peak of the early-nineties middle-grade and young adult horror boom, when the Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark series were filling up the bookstores and selling like very scary hotcakes.  Not only that, it hit the shelves in October of that year, just in time for Halloween.  It also had some really good stories in it, which probably helped a little bit as well.  At any rate, the anthology not only sold, it sold in sufficiently large numbers that it earned back its advance in the first royalty period.  (This is a thing that never happens — except, of course, for the one time when it does.)

Fast-forward to the following May.  By that time, we’d forgotten all about the anthology and our short story in it.  The money we got for the story had gone to gasoline and groceries long before, and we knew better than to expect anything more from that direction.  Meanwhile, our elder son, whose birthday was coming up, had been agitating for some time for a mountain bike, and we in turn had been pointing to the bloodless turnip that was the family budget and saying, “Think again.”

Then an envelope arrived in the mail, and in that envelope was a royalty check for roughly ten times what we’d been paid for the short story in the  first place.  Our eyes bugged out like a Tex Avery ‘toon’s, and the next thing we did, after carefully replacing the check in the envelope, was call Bruce Coville and ask him if that royalty payment was for real — because, as we said to him, we’d hate to deposit it and then have it turn out that somebody in the publisher’s accounting department had slipped a decimal point.

Bruce assured us that the check was real; and we, in turn, said to our elder son, “Happy birthday — let’s go down to the bicycle shop.”

That story continued to be one of our good children.  The anthology generated royalties for some time thereafter; there was an audiobook edition, for which we got an additional payment; and we later expanded and reworked the short story into a middle-grades novel for Harcourt, which in turn had a French edition from Hachette.

The thing is, though (and I suppose that it’s the moral of this tale) — you never can tell in advance which of your stories is going to be the good child.  All you can do is give each one of them your best shot, and then wait to see what happens.

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