Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Ah Hollywood

STATUS: Because it’s like zero degrees in Denver, we are listening to Escape to Margaritaville on XM radio. Does anyone have some sunscreen?

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now: VOLCANO by Jimmy Buffett

I guess yesterday’s post rubbed some of the glittery shine off the idea of a big Hollywood film deal. The reality of how much of a share an author can expect is often a bit eye-opening. Sorry to be the one to deliver the bad news.

In order for a Studio to have the right to base a film on a book, they have to option the rights to the book. Sometimes these options can be good money—like high five figures or six figures. Most tend to be more modest though.

In fact, sometimes the best scenario is to have the producers or Studio continually renew the option but never produce the actual movie. It’s like free money every 18 months….

As I’ve never had stars in my eyes regarding Hollywood, I always advise authors to carefully consider whether they really want to sell the dramatic rights for their books.

1. Can they live with a bad script and/or a bad movie?
2. Do they understand that they may have very little say in the screenplay or the plot elements of the movie?
3. Do they understand that sometimes a movie made does not translate into a ton of book sales?
4. Do they realize that Hollywood can often be condescending to the authors whose books they’ve bought to translate to the screen?
5. Do they understand that the film co-agent could put together the absolutely best package of producer, screenwriter, studio, and acting talent and there is still the possibility that a bad movie will be made?

If an author is okay with all of the above, then we can shop the film rights. If not, better to wait until the author is in a more powerful position and has leverage to be able to dictate better terms.

And, I also tell them that a movie could be the best 2 hour commercial your books will have and that can translate into lots of book sales.

Which is also why I’m hyper vigilante about “publishing rights clauses” in any film contract and why I will have the author walk away from any contract that might encumber or infringe on their publication rights. In fact, I’ve threatened to walk away any number of times because Hollywood tried to grab some of those rights.

After all, publication is an author’s main venue for earning money. That must be protected at all costs.

27 Responses

  1. Kristin Laughtin said:

    Oddly enough, I’m more scared of a bad cover or title change than a bad film being made of anything I might ever write. I suppose I’m just used to hearing “The book is better” when it comes to movies, and would hope that would translate into sales. I also tend to think bad movies are more the result of Hollywood screwing up than the author’s original story being bad. See, optimism!

  2. Ebony McKenna. said:

    I’m really glad you put these last two posts. Most people hear ‘movie’ and think the author gets millions. Your point in the previous post about 5% of 100% of the profits . . . yes but who actually makes a ‘profit’ in these movies after all the costs come out.

    So while it is still a fantasy of mine that my books are one day made into movies (and cgi is so good, the talking ferret will be completely believable) It might not be awesome all the way. It’s tricky enough people think I’m a millionaire because I got a book deal. LOL!

  3. Yuenmei said:

    Thanks for this info, Kristin! It’s all news to me and it’s very interesting. All the more reason to find an agent you trust and not try to navigate the industry alone, it seems.

  4. Josin L. McQuein said:

    The first thing anyone writing for the screen learns is that the writer is the lowest man on the pile.

    There’s a story about Louis B. Mayer and his infamous attitude toward writers (which was really no worse than any of his contemporaries, but he was just better known). He had an entire stable of writers who were expected to churn out a certain number of pages per day, and made the the comment, on their floor, that it didn’t matter what they put on the page because writing isn’t what made movies – stars and directors were.

    His head writer handed him a blank ream of paper and told him to knock himself out (< -- a bit more colorfully), then walked off the floor. Hollywood has never had much esteem for writers because they don’t work in a visual medium. They go for package deals – attaching a start and/or a director to sell the project as a whole. The “idea” is the least concern if the rest pans out.

  5. Natalie Aguirre said:

    Your points are so true. The hardest thing is risking that the movie won’t be as good as the book. To be honest, many of my favorite fantasy books, like Percy Jackson and Cornelia Funke’s, were disappointing movies. If they could only get it right like the Lord of the Rings movies. It’s a hard risk as an author.

  6. Diana said:

    A movie could also be a two hour commercial not to buy any of the author’s novels. Case in point, Nicholas Sparks, I don’t care how many times he gets on the NY Times bestseller list or who raves about his work, I will not buy anything that he has written. “Message in a Bottle” was the worst romance story that I have ever seen in film. The reason that movie tanked at the box office is because the story particularly the ending sucks. Since he also wrote the screenplay, I assume that the rest of his stories are of the same caliber.

  7. Kristi Helvig said:

    What’s getting me through this zero degree day is knowing it will be sunny and almost 60 degrees by the weekend.

    I heard Melissa Marr talk at a book signing and she turned down a bunch of film companies who wanted the rights to Wicked Lovely due to some of the reasons you mentioned. She ended up accepting an offer because they gave her a lot of input into the process (and Vince Vaughn was producing which would sway me right there!)

  8. Paul said:

    I tend to work visually when writing, working out what’s going to happen as if it was a movie in my head.

    I often imagine what it would be like to watch the end credits roll on a film adaptation of something I’ve written. I think the biggest rush would just be, hopefully, seeing a good representation of my work on screen, with its own film score (I’m a big film music geek). It’s good to have some details on what an author can expect. I knew that only an already very successful writer could get a good deal, but getting a better idea of it helps put it all in context.

  9. Mark R Hunter said:

    On the one hand, that all seems so distant to me: My first novel is about to come out through a small press, and I’m still on the agent hunt while ramping up a selling effort for my first time out. A movie option? I haven’t seen the gallies!

    On the other hand, with Hollywood always hungry for more material, it’s not impossible that someone might want to snap up my story for, say, a Hallmark Channel movie, or to keep it on the shelf because they have a smiliar picture coming up. It seems so surreal and egotistical to consider the idea, but it’s always best to keep an eye on that fine print.

  10. Anonymous said:

    It’s a much older book, but I was horrified to see the more recent movie that called itself “Cheaper by the Dozen”. I think the only similarities between the book and the movie were the number of children and the title. Such a disservice to a fine book.

  11. Jeff Baird said:

    It seems to me this is just another case for hiring an agent. Who of us, really, has the ability to sort out this stuff? What about the time factor? Like many of you, I have my first about ready to query and have the last critical readers reviewing for comment. Seven re-writes for me. How many times have they brought up, self publish, editor, publisher or agent? I actually have defended my position to go with an agent. Over these last 2 years (for me) how many times have we just heard breaking news about e-rights, contract clauses, and Amazon etc. Not to mention America’s north and south, Europe and more. It just proves to me that you need representation (if they will have us)! And movie rights, it appears is in the same category. Just too much change, complicated and too time consuming to go after. Most of us are working real jobs and writing. For me, it is just one more reason for an agent. Then, we make the decision together about “our” future as a successful writer!

  12. Mark R Hunter said:

    Jeff, I sold my first novel without an agent, but the experience cemented my determination to sign with one. Whiskey Creek is a small press, and since signing the contract I’ve spent almost all my spare time — which I used to call “writing time” — working on platform, distribution, and publicity ideas. I understood what it would take going in and I’ll put my all into it — but that stuff’s really not my forte, and when will I find time to sell my other three completed manuscripts? An agent gives a writer the best hope of signing with a publisher that has a solid distribution system and at least some publicity budget.

    Certainly a writer *can* succeed without representation; but being part of a team makes it a lot easier.

  13. Anonymous said:

    If authors don’t get a say in what happens to their book when it becomes a movie unless they have a lot of clout, how is it that Marie Lu is exective producer for her book to movie deal?

  14. Anonymous said:

    You have the best agent blog out there — and I read most of them. None better.

    You should be proud of how well you inform authors of the intricacies of the writing world.


  15. Lucy said:

    Kristin, thanks so much for this–one of my favorite posts so far, as it answered a number of my questions. (Some of which, of course, I didn’t know I had until now, which means you really hit the right spot.) 🙂

    Wordver: Gotte–as in, love this job!

  16. Rick Daley said:

    Thank you for this and the prior post on film rights. I visualize my books as films, but don’t consider the bad adaptation angle.

    Josin- great story, thanks for sharing!!

    Good film adaptations:

    STAND BY ME (from Stephen King’s “The Body”…perhaps the best film adaptation ever)


    Worst film adaptation:


    Harrison Ford didn’t want to come back and play Jack Ryan again, so they changed the character and made him a young analyst again and cast Ben Affleck in the role. But by downgrading the character’s age they also took away his experience, and thus the plausibility behind the story.

  17. Anonymous said:

    Wow… I’m so thankful there are agents like you who will safeguard us helpless authors from all these predatory practices. After what happened to LJ Smith the other day, the publishing industry seems increasingly like a snake pit full of folks looking to cheat a naive newcomer in any way possible. Scary…

  18. Dave Ale said:

    @ Anonymous (re: Executive Producer)

    To be completely honest, as someone who works in the film industry, Executive Producer is a bit of a B.S. credit in a lot of cases.

    Wikipedia sums it up best:

    “An executive producer of a motion picture is typically a producer who is sometimes involved with a property that has since been optioned into a film, but has no direct input into the creative process of the film itself”

    Part of me wonders if they give that credit to an author because then it looks like the author is endorsing the film, even if they weren’t really involved.

  19. Dave Ale said:

    Not to say that that’s the case here. Obviously I don’t know all of the details.

    Sometimes the executive producer is involved, helping pick the stars, the director, green lighting the script… and sometimes they’re the star’s agent and all they did was give the star the script then agree to the deal.

    And just to make things more confusing, while in film the executive producer credit can mean a whole host of different things, in television it’s the guy running the show who gets the credit.

  20. Jeff Baird said:

    Mark, thanks for the feedback. After the many blogs here, going without an agent seems very dangerous. Much more down side than upside.
    I also follow the query shark for obvious reasons. At least an agent can give you exprienced advice while protecting you. Sometimes having friends critically read your work doesn’t help as much as you might think. Kristin and Megan probably think I am sucking up. But just read the blogs, it’s more ground breaking than CNN! For me, I don’t have time or the interest to study do’s and don’ts with contract language.

  21. Margaret South said:

    There is some money to be made, but in my experience bringing a book to the big screen, it’s very hard on the original author. I encourage authors, if they’re lucky enough to get a film deal, to take the money and stay out of it. That said, Iris Rainer Dart was thrilled with the outcome of our adaptation of “Beaches.”

  22. Mark R Hunter said:

    I don’t have a problem with sucking up, Jeff. 🙂 Having friends read your work can be ego-boosting, but not very helpful: Most are usually either too nice or don’t have the knowledge themselves to give the necessary advice.

  23. starkalicious said:

    Thanks for the eye-opener — I didn’t realize how hard writers get screwed by Hollywood.

    I would assume, however, that it would be different if you were Rowling or Tolkien?

  24. Andie Newton said:

    I am so glad I found your blog. there is a lot of information…I need to go through the archives.

    I’ve been writing a manuscript for a year and a half and just started a blog – it’s a collection of short stories – A cocktail of history and prose taking real historical pictures and making up a nice little story to go along with it. It has been fun. But I think I need to get a bit more serious with learning the ins and outs of the literary world. I’m attending my first writer’s conference in March and I’ve got an agent and two editors on my docket. Anyway….again, glad I found your blog.

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