The book I won't sell.

Just about a year ago, I made a big mistake. It was a simple mistake, anybody could have done it. But in the midst of all my research, I forgot to check one thing that invalidated everything else . . . Sorry, too vague. Here’s what happened.

A year ago, I started work on a Steampunk retelling of George Orwell’s amazing work “1984”. Same basic story, but told as an adventure, with daring escapes, dirigible explosions, submarine battles, giant cities built on moving railroad cars. The ideals behind Steampunk lend themselves well to the concept that each man is a cog in a huge machine.

It’s a really fun idea, and I had a lot of fun writing it. I figured that, with the success of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, coupled with the rising interest in Steampunk, there was no reason this couldn’t be a seller as well.

I wrote it for last year’s National Novel Writing Month, then cleaned it up, and shipped it out to agents and publishers. I even started to podcast it, though I’m only about four episodes in. My plan was to shop it around for a year, then, if I hadn’t sold it, self-publish it. Self Publishing has worked out well for me with my previous book, “Tumbler”, so it was a viable backup plan.

From the agents and publishers, I got a lot of form rejections. This didn’t bother me, as everything I’d read said that it was pretty standard to get dozens of rejections. Then a note from a publisher floored me. The publisher said that they liked the writing, but that there was no way they could publish this. After all, 1984 isn’t in the public domain. If my story was anything like 1984, it would violate copyright.

Honestly, it was something I just hadn’t thought of before. In all my research, I didn’t look into whether someone would think that I was trying to violate copyright. So I did some more research, had a chat with a lawyer friend of mine who knows his way around this. What I came up with was three options:

  1. Shelve it. Orwell died in 1950, and copyright holds for 70 years after the death of the writer. So, by 2021, I can shop it around again without concern.
  2. Keep pushing with big publishers. If I find a publisher that really loves this work, and is willing to bear the risk of fighting this battle, then it could still get published.
  3. Change the book. When I say change it, I mean fundamental shifts. The title would be gone, Big Brother would have to be removed as a character, the plot would have to deviate sharply from what I’d written beforehand. . . basically write a whole new book. I decided not to go that route because, not only would it destroy the best part of this novel, but with all the changes that I’d need to make, I might as well write a new story.

I’m still going to try to find a publisher, but honestly, I don’t think it’s worth the work. Why would a publisher buy a book written by an unpublished unknown author, when there’s the risk of being sued if you sell it? If I’m going to be smart about this, my time would be better spent working on the next book. In another decade, I may try to push harder on this, when I have eight more books available for purchase (yes, I plan to do at least one per year until I die).

The really sad thing is that I can’t self-publish it. Self-publishing is fun and easy for me, and I’m really sorry that I can’t put it out there.

I also feel bad because I’ve been telling people about it for the last year. I’m sure there are a few people out there who were looking forward to it, and I wish I could help there.

I’m probably still going to put it together in CreateSpace, and print out a couple copies for myself and for family. But the sad fact of the matter is that I don’t think we’ll see 1884 for sale anytime soon.

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  1. I was really looking forward to that one too! You’ll have other great works though—I can wait. 🙂

    • Sorry. 🙁 Hey, just think how “Retro” it’ll be when I pull this out of the drawer in a decade and we all go, “Wow, that’s nowhere near as good as your new stuff. Ugh.”

      Either that, or it’ll be one of the “lost stories” . . . like the way they keep finding new Beatles recordings. 😛

  2. Tony Mast mentioned it on Twitter already, but have you considered approaching Orwell’s estate, or whoever currently owns the rights? That seems like a fourth option. If they like the story, and are willing to make a deal, you might have an easier time finding a publisher than even if 1984 was simply in public domain.

    Plus, waiting might not be an option. Don’t the copyright time limits tend to get bumped out further every few years or so?

    • Well, the last time it was bumped out was 1998, as far as I know. That time, it was extended from 50 to 70 years. So, while there may be another extension in the next decade (although I don’t think Disney has that kind of clout anymore) I think I’m probably good.

      Worst case, I’ll just have to work on the newer stories instead. Thanks!

  3. Dude. Sad to hear that, but I understand.

  4. Another option is to work a deal with the current holder of rights for 1984 and just pay a licensing fee,

  5. Thank you for the suggestion. I’ve tracked them down, and I’ll give it a shot. Near as I can tell, the licensing fee would run a minimum of 110USD, but that’s not terrible at all. This may not solve the problem of getting a publisher, but it would certainly remove one obstacle to publishing.

  6. Parody is protected, however. Perhaps there is a way you could tweak the book so it reads more like that?

  7. I’d considered that, but it seems to me that I would have to be deriding or taking a humorous slant on the original text, which seems like it’s too open to interpretation. I mean, I could say that by pointing out how 1984 had a steampunk theme, but without a setting, I could argue that I was making commentary on 1984. But it would be up to a judge to decide whether I was making a valid case or not.

    Thanks for your help!

  8. Unfortunately you are not the only one who decided to play with that crossover

  9. Peter: Yeah, I saw that a few months ago. Luckilly, his version is almost completely different from mine. So, I’d have to change the title, but little else. So, that’s good news, at least.

    And hey! That might make publishers more interested in Steampunk 1984 stories! 🙂

  10. I hope it worked out to pay the $110 for the license. I’d like to read it.