When it comes to books, the word 'ownership' can mean different things at different times.
Who owns an idea?
Nobody. Try copyrighting an idea and be prepared for laughter and disdain.
Who owns a completed manuscript?
Unless you've been paid to ghostwrite a novel, ownership rests with the author. The laws on copyright different between the UK and US, so as this is a mixed audience I will simply say that in the UK copyright exists (but would still require proof if there was a legal challenge) from the act of writing it. The Society of Authors has some brilliant information here:
Who owns your book once it's contracted?
You own the manuscript and you enter into a contract with an agent or a publisher. They own their edited version of your original manuscript. No matter how many drafts you've gone through, an objective editor will find more gold and cut away more. Their contract permits them to do certain things with your manuscript and specifies which of those actions requires your prior approval.
Who owns your book once it's published?
You and the agent / publisher retain the same proprietary interest in the book, but the reader owns their copy. Now, here's the thing, they may also have an emotional investment in your characters and their adventures, which - I would argue - is every bit as important as the nuts-and-bolts ownership principle. If you disappoint them during that book or in any subsequent book, they will vent their frustration online or by word of mouth. Once you become aware of this factor it can be a challenge to balance what you want to write, what your characters want you to write, and what your audience expects.
I have spoken on this blog before about the principle of 'the same but different'. However, different can mean different things to different people.
The BBC website recently reported that JK Rowling tweeted her apologies for killing off Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series. Some would argue that the plot demanded it and that there's a certain logic in his demise. Others were so attached to Snape (and, of course, Alan Rickman who portrayed him) that it felt like an act of literary cruelty.
I ponder all of this as I write my fifth book in the Thomas Bladen Spy Chaser series, and I'm mindful of the feedback I've received, including:
- Isn't it about time that Thomas and Miranda settled down?
- Is there an ultimate revelation at the conclusion of the series?
- Is Book 5 the end of the series?
- Why isn't Thomas more macho?
- I hope you don't kill someone off just for the sake of it.
Without giving away any spoilers, my statement to the imaginary panel is:
Someone dies in each book. I won't name the dead but I make it a body count of at least eight so far. Thomas has shot five people, been wounded by one, and restrained himself from shooting someone on at least one occasion (not counting a familial near-miss!). How much more macho do you want him? Thomas and Miranda's relationship has its own carousel of baggage, but it has also evolved through the series. Book 5 continues that journey. Is it the end for Thomas and Miranda and Karl? That depends on the readers and what they want. Of course, a TV deal would certainly help bring Thomas Bladen to a wider audience! And yes, there is a revelation of sorts in Book 5. It's subtle, but it is there.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have gun battle to conduct. Or do I?