Dumbo Author Only Got $1,000 – Hey, Waita Minute, That’s A Lot Of Money!

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The Mail carries the story of Helen Aberson, the writer of the original Dumbo story, and how she felt she got cheated by only receiving $1,000 for the story. And, you know, $1,000 doesn’t sound like much. Yet this was $1,000 in 1938 money, back when $1,000 was real money. And for a first time author, which she was, for a children’s book, that’s really not bad at all. There’s many an author who’d be happy to gain that sort of sum these days for a more substantial book. In fact, I know people who have written books today for $1,000. I’m even one of them. And that’s $1,000 in today’s money too.

Yes, obviously, there is that movie thing and so on. But it’s Disney that made the movie, without it the book is just a children’s book:

‘My mother wrote Dumbo but was paid a measly $1,000’: As Disney’s latest blockbuster makes £38million in one week, author’s son reveals how she died ‘heartbroken’ aged 91 after never getting the recognition she deserved
Author Helen Aberson wrote a children’s story featuring the elephant in 1938
She was given $1,000 after selling rights to a publisher who sold them to Disney
Ms Aberson let the copyright on her book lapse in 1968 without telling anyone
Disney has not put her name on credits for books or films produced since then

True, Disney is being a bit mean not recognising her any more as the author. And US copyright law was a bit odd, you had to re-register the copyright in the 28th year after publication to extend it out to 95 years or whatever.

But it’s also true that she did get a fair deal:

For despite the huge success the cartoon brought to Disney – apparently saving it from closure – the studio paid the author of the book on which the film was based just $1,000. Author Helen Aberson was 30 when she wrote a children’s story featuring the little elephant in 1938. She based her idea on her experience of growing up in poverty and facing discrimination as the daughter of Jewish immigrants to America from Russia. She sold the rights to a publisher, which in turn sold them to Disney for $400.

That’s a little confusing. But my assumption is that she got $1,000 from the publisher for the book itself. The publisher then made whatever they did make on the book, the $400 what they charged Disney for the film rights. Disney then took it from there.

As to that all not being fair, well, she made 2 years’ worth of Harvard tuition at the time out of the one kiddie’s book. Not something most authors would expect today. She made about 8 month’s average income:

Average income: $1,731 per year

My sister just sold a – short, agreed – novel to a publisher for a flat £600 fee. That’s in real, today, money. Seriously, a $1,000 in 1938 money just wasn’t a bad deal at all:

If you want to compare the value of a $1,000.00 Income or Wealth , in 1938 there are five choices. In 2018 the relative:
real wage or real wealth value of that income or wealth is $17,800.00
household purchasing power value of that income or wealth is $43,100.00
relative labor earnings of that commodity are $40,200.00 (using the unskilled wage) or $50,100.00 (using production worker compensation)
relative income value of that income or wealth is $93,100.00
relative output value of that income or wealth is $235,000.00

Anything between $18k and $100k depending upon which exact comparison you want to make.

Sure, it’s not a wholly happy tale and we might indeed think Disney’s been a bit mean over the years. But that original $1,000 for the Dumbo story wasn’t a bad deal at all, not unfair in the slightest. There’s worse going on in Bloomsbury every day of the year, Sundays and public holidays included.

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Matt Ryan
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Matt Ryan

Presumably Andrew Mayer looks enviously at the Tolkien estate and wishes he could live off the works of his parents without having to do anything towards his own upkeep.

Tim Almond
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Tim Almond

But it’s not a beloved novel any more, is it? Kids aren’t being read Dumbo as a bedtime story, are they?

Disney didn’t just take these books and plonk them on the screen. He took the basic idea and reshaped them, added songs, cutting-edge animation and visual effects. The new Dumbo film isn’t an adaptation of the book (like Murder on the Orient Express is), it’s an adaptation of the previous film.

Jonathan Harston
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Jonathan Harston

I got £120 for my first magazine article, and it was the biggest cheque I’d ever seen other than my student grant which was only four times bigger.