Join 3,435 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


I Ought to Be in Pictures?
August 6, 2012 6:15 PM   Subscribe

What are the realistic odds of a movie studio buying rights to fiction? What steps could one take to even attempt this?

I have had a book published by a small independent press. My partner has been wonderfully supportive and just excellent in every way through this process. Now that the book is complete, my partner would like to hire an agent to attempt to sell the book rights to movie studios. I have been immersed in the world of writing for many years, and I have serious doubts that this would be a good idea. First of all, the book is not a popular genre (literary fiction), I have no proven sales record yet, no real marketing budget, and very little experience writing screenplays. My area of writing expertise tends to be more in the realm of literary fiction, poetry and literary criticism, so I have very little to go on as far as first-hand experience with this process.

I am worried that this plan would be a waste of money in the end, since I imagine the odds of movie studios wanting to make obscure literary works into films must be very slim. My partner seems set on this course of action, and tends to see my doubts as either defeatism or low self-esteem. To that I respond that he hasn't been on the receiving end of years of rejection as most writers are. He thinks it would be a great idea because my work seems very zeitgeist-y to him. I don't want to say too much, but my book covers material very similar to several recent successful films. He believes that my work is unique enough that film studios would be interested in its take on this material.

I understand that what my partner wants to do come from a place of care and support, but I feel that we cannot afford to blow a few thousand dollars on such a long shot. I've had friends that were strung along by agents for years, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars in attempts to sell books to major publishing houses with no success. I suspect we could find an agent more than willing to take our money, but that we might not get anything out of it.

How realistic is my partner's plan? Are there resources I can use to find out more about the process?

Anonymous because I don't want to seem like I'm plugging myself here.
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well to start with, you should never ,ever pay money to an agent. A reputable agent makes his/her money by taking a percentage of the sale of your book. Any agent who wants money up front is illegitimate.

In terms of selling your book - what matters more than your literary rep or sales history is the story itself. Your status as a screenwriter shouldn't really figure into it because most reputable producers are going to want to option your work and then work with an experienced screenwriter. If you're set on attaching yourself as screenwriter, that makes for a harder sale.

Do you have a literary agent? A reputable literary agent who didn't ask for money up front? If yes, why don't you discuss this with him/her? If not, you might ask your publisher or editor if they can give you a referral to a reputable agent.

These sales do happen. But you shouldn't plan on getting rich. A likely scenario is that if yu can attract a reputable producer they might want to option the book for $1 against further money if they can get it set up somewhere.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:28 PM on August 6, 2012 [12 favorites]


BlahLaLa beat me to it. You need an agent at a legitimate literary agency, and as a writer, you should never, ever pay an agent. One of the things literary writers are rarely taught is that money always flows to the writer. You can find legitimate agents on querytracker (a quick search for agents representing literary fiction pulls up 13 pages of results). However, it's easier to get an agent if you have a new project ready to submit to publishers.

The AbsoluteWriter forums are instructive in the business side of writing.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:34 PM on August 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


You can't "hire an agent." An agent takes you on as a client, or not. Anyone you can "hire" isn't someone who has the connections and experience to sell your work to visual media producers.

So. How do you get an agent to take you on as a client? Find agents who specialize in representing visual media rights for already published work and send them queries about this work. If your partner would like to help with the office drudgery related to this task, or fund your hiring someone to help with that office drudgery, that's great and very supportive.

The AbsoluteWrite.com forums are a great resource for information on this topic. If you want to send me a MeMail with more information, maybe I can point you to some other resources.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:37 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Let me emphasize as strongly as I can that anyone who advertises their services as someone who, for a down payment of any upfront sum of money, can sell your intellectual property to any visual media producer (TV, movies, web broadcasts, whatever) is either lying or deluded.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:38 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


the odds of movie studios wanting to make obscure literary works into films must be very slim

They're incredibly slim. Most movies are made either from established properties (The Avengers, The Hunger Games) or original screenplays (Little Miss Sunshine, Black Swan) or remakes. Movies made from literary fiction are usually made from fiction by long-dead authors (Requiem for a Dream, Barfly).

So. There are some movies made from obscure literary fiction by living authors. But not many. Movies made from literary fiction by living authors are usually made from books that have won major prizes, like Life of Pi or The English Patient.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:49 PM on August 6, 2012


OK, firstly, I'm a little confused about what you and/or your boyfriend wants to happen here.

Are we talking about you being paid to write an adapted screenplay based on your novel, which then becomes a movie?

Are we talking about a producer or studio executive optioning the rights to your novel, with the idea being that you will eventually see money for granting the right for someone else to adapt your work?

Are we talking about you adapting your novel into a screenplay on spec (i.e. for no upfront pay), in hopes that you can sell it in Hollywood?

Those are all three different things, with different levels of difficulty and risk.

I'll say right now that, if you don't enjoy screenwriting and have no interest in a screenwriting career, you should absolutely drop the notion of adapting your novel into a screenplay yourself. There's just no reason to do that to yourself. If you like writing novels, keep writing novels.

If at some future time you feel the itch to try screenwriting, do it on your own terms, whether that means adapting your own work or starting from scratch on an idea that seems suited to film. Whatever you want. Whatever is going to be easy and fruitful and workable for you.

If we're talking about getting someone to option the rights to develop your work into a film, as far as I'm aware, this is not how it works.

In every case I've ever heard of, from the big headline-grabbing stuff like Focus Features buying the rights to 50 Shades to someone optioning a friend's short story, it's usually the person who wants to make the movie seeking out the literary material to adapt.

This gets a little hazy as you move up the ladder, as media conglomerates come closer to vertical integration, literary agents have lunch with development executives, etc.

But on the level you're at, trying to fish around for a development deal is likely a waste of time.

Leave it alone and let someone approach you. Plenty of young, hungry filmmakers look for exactly your situation (unknown literary fiction author published through a small press) to option in order to write their own adaptations, all the time.

If you (not your boyfriend, and not through some vague notion of ambition and success) are really passionate about seeing your novel on screen, the best thing to do would probably be to start hanging out with young filmmakers, tossing a few copies of your novel around, and hinting that your friends over at Twee & Pwecious Publishing, Inc. would definitely be open to selling an option for a very reasonable fee.

If you are not too interested in this, then don't give it another thought.

FWIW, though, I know someone who published an award-winning work of literary fiction that was eventually optioned, and then eventually became a mainstream film. It was pretty exciting! But I'm almost positive that it happened through her literary agent and/or publisher working out a deal with Hollywood folks, and not through my friend pounding the pavement trying to get someone interested in her book.
posted by Sara C. at 7:09 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've had friends that were strung along by agents for years, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars in attempts to sell books to major publishing houses with no success.

Your friends were scammed and those "agents" were not actually agents. There is no risk to you in sending query letters to (reputable) agents. You're right, of course, that the odds of success are extremely slim. But there are movies made from less-than-super-famous literary fiction; e.g. my friend Mark Poirier's novel Goats was made into a movie that's coming out as we speak.
posted by escabeche at 7:59 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sara C., agents absolutely do market rights to visual media producers. Connecting with an agent who does that is the only way to increase your chances of getting your work optioned.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:52 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


The best use of your time right now is writing your next book, by the way. If you want to make a living as a midlist (i.e., not famous) writer, you've got to be able to write a book a year at minimum.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:54 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Agents do sell books, but writers don't hire agents. You can send free copies to all the agents you like, but don't spend any money hiring someone. Creating a social media buzz can sell a book as well.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:26 PM on August 6, 2012


I have had a book published by a small independent press.

Did you pay this independent press any money before they published your work?
posted by pharm at 4:33 AM on August 7, 2012


Start your next book.

When you're ready to deal with this kind of stuff, an agent or agents will contact you. If you go looking for them, you might get a courtesy meeting from someone hoping to find a diamond in the rough before anyone else notices it. But 99 percent of these go nowhere.

Work in the field you know, build your reputation and audience. When agents come knocking on your door, that means they believe there is a market for your work and that it might be possible to sell film or other rights for money. They're much, much more likely to come to this conclusion on their own than to believe you if you tell them it's the case, really it is.

As for paying the agent, as everyone else has noted, no. This is not an agent. This is someone selling you the dream. There are lots of people willing to do that because it's a lot easier than making a living in the business.

While I suspect pharm's question was supposed to mean "well of course you don't pay the agent!" I'm actually interested in the answer. The field before could look quite different depending on whether this was a legitimate small press or a vanity publisher.
posted by Naberius at 6:43 AM on August 7, 2012


From the OP:
No, I did not pay anything to have my work published. I used the usual submission process. I had sent this manuscript out quite a bit over the past year and finally found a press that was interested in it. I have a contract with them to receive a higher percentage than usual from the book's sales because they are fairly new and don't have much to offer in the form of marketing budgets yet.

As I said, I'm more accustomed to the submission process for literary magazines and presses, which usually involves presenting the complete work without much biographical or other material unless requested. This was why I didn't know if the book would already have to be in a screenplay/script format before a movie studio would even look at it.

Thank you for all the suggestions so far.
posted by jessamyn at 7:03 AM on August 7, 2012


Having read Naberius's comment I now see that mine could be read in several different ways! I actually meant to find out whether the OP had used a vanity publisher or not, but both interpretations are good ones!

OP: I'm glad to hear that you've published through people who actually think you're worth published on your own merits & not because you've paid them money. I strongly suggest that if you apply the same principle to the movie industry, ie that money flows towards you, the creator & never the other way around, that you won't go wrong.
posted by pharm at 8:11 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have a contract with them to receive a higher percentage than usual from the book's sales because they are fairly new and don't have much to offer in the form of marketing budgets yet.

Oh, I am sorry to hear that. This is a terrible deal. I highlight this not to browbeat you for having made an error, but to point this out to others in hope of their not making the same mistake.

The strategy to having a long-term professional writing career is to build a large audience of people looking for your next book. Getting a buck more on per-book sales from a publisher who can't afford to (or doesn't know how to--very little book marketing is paid marketing when it comes to literary fiction!) build a large audience for you is not a good trade-off.

So. If your partner wants to invest in your career financially, the best use of your partner's money would be to hire a reputable book publicist to take up the slack from your publisher (make sure your publisher has the infrastructure in place to actually fulfill requests for your book, though!)

The AbsoluteWrite.com forums are a good place to get pointers to reputable, effective book publicists.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:50 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I disagree in part, for what it's worth, with the comments by the always insightful and excellent advice-giver Sidhedevil above.

A number of very reputable upstart publishers are signing contracts that are far superior to "establishment" publishers, and they often give a greater percentage to the writer. (That being said, I agree with the fact that professionals get books in people's hands.)

As far as your original question goes: the way to get your book optioned is to get it in their hands. Get it to a reader in any producer's office. Just blind-mail 'em all over, from Scott Rudin's office on down. No note. You just want it read. Any flunky can open it; they read dozens of books a week, and they're hungry to find something original and unheard of.

People option books CONSTANTLY. I recently optioned a one-off website to a big-name producer. This stuff happens left and right, and rarely is a movie ever made, of course, but that's fine.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 10:14 AM on August 7, 2012


A number of very reputable upstart publishers are signing contracts that are far superior to "establishment" publishers

It is absolutely true that one can often get a higher percentage of royalties from a small press than from a large trade publisher.

However, being offered a higher percentage of royalties explicitly as a consolation prize for "we don't have the money to market your book" is an ENORMOUS red flag. Especially since very little financial cost is involved in marketing literary fiction.

Publishing with a small press is often by far the best choice. Publishing with a small press whose statements to authors indicate they don't know what they're doing isn't.

There are lots of small presses that are excellent at building audiences for literary fiction without spending lots of money! The OP's publisher doesn't sound like one of them if this is how they explained their contract terms.

I've also been in the option club with a couple of things, and nothing's panned out to date. There is a figure floating around in the science fiction and mystery writing worlds that only 2% of works that are optioned ever get to the production stage.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:51 AM on August 7, 2012


When you're ready to deal with this kind of stuff, an agent or agents will contact you. If you go looking for them, you might get a courtesy meeting from someone hoping to find a diamond in the rough before anyone else notices it. But 99 percent of these go nowhere.

Work in the field you know, build your reputation and audience. When agents come knocking on your door, that means they believe there is a market for your work and that it might be possible to sell film or other rights for money. They're much, much more likely to come to this conclusion on their own than to believe you if you tell them it's the case, really it is.


This is not, in my experience, how getting an agent works. The vast majority of writers in my acquaintance found agents via the slush pile. Many of them also have film deals.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:59 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I want to dispute what RJ Reynolds is saying in one regard: at every producer/director/writer's office that I've ever worked in -- and I've worked in MANY -- unsolicited material was returned or trashed ASAP. I have worked with A++++ list producers, writers and directors and they would only accept material that came via an agent. They want to avoid any possibility of a "you stole my idea" lawsuit.

And even if you were to do that -- sending it without a note? Just sending the book? Straight into the trash can, my friend.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:11 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Get it to a reader in any producer's office. Just blind-mail 'em all over, from Scott Rudin's office on down. No note. You just want it read.

Don't do this.

It's a waste of perfectly good copies of your novel. This is not how getting your book optioned works.
posted by Sara C. at 3:42 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yea, here's my AskMe regarding breaking into screenwriting. Different subject but great, incredibly great advice that you may find interesting. It definitely advises against blind mailing.

I would seek out an agent or agency. Find out what their policies are for formatting and submissions and submit until you get picked up.

More great advice from above is to put this one into submission-auto-pilot and work on your next piece. Try to have something in the can just in case.

Don't give up and be inspired by googling famous authors rejection letters. Don't forget to save yours!

Good luck and keep at it!
posted by snsranch at 6:48 PM on August 7, 2012


« Older I'm sure not knowing this make...   |  Help me figure out what's wron... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.