The Royalty CheckPrint
It’s good to be the king—if only for a brief moment
By Brian Doyle
May 16, 2014
Just opened a check in the welter of the morning mail and discover it to be, as it says crisply in bright blue ink, a Royalty Check, for a piece of writing, and my mind whirls away into speculation and inquiry, even before I scrawl my illegible nomenclatural rune upon it, and cram it in my jacket, and plot its eventual conversion into sandwiches and milk for the children.
As with many things, I have taken the term for granted, and I have no idea why what is essentially a payment for service, or a tax on a publisher’s profit, is called what we call the unruly spawn of kings and queens. Our friend the dictionary tells me that the usage harks back to the rights granted by sovereigns, and that the sense of the word as used in bright blue ink this morning on my check can be traced back to the mid-19th century, at least. But beyond that the trail goes cold, and I am left to ponder.
Do I feel royal, having endorsed the royalty check? I suppose so; for a moment I am a richer man, swimming in small coins, better off financially than I was before I opened the envelope. I feel slightly magnanimous, able to solve the sandwich-and-milk conundrum with a wave of the hand. I feel the slight paternal pride that a king must feel occasionally, in that something under my supervision managed to make its way in the world and resulted in an unexpected gift. If we stretch the truth a little, we might even call the fee a princely sum, especially as it is payment for fiction through and through, with not a jot of factual content, albeit, the author hopes, a good deal of truth about human behavior.
But like any sensible and reasonable king, I find the moment of euphoria brief, and the press of matters undone is manifest, and the list of things to do is long, and the ideas for unwritten pieces of writing fill many small scraps of paper. So the regal instant passeth, and the brief king is once again merely a diligent scribbler, aware that any thought of money during the act of writing is poison to the project. The check is folded and pocketed and forgotten, and I turn again to the blank page, inviting and alluring, and so to work.
Brian Doyle is the editor of the University of Portland’s Portland magazine and the author of many books, most recently the novel Chicago.