Thursday, November 17, 2005

Stalking the elusive movie deal (updated)

Annie Wilder asks a question that goes right to the heart of the Writer's Dream:
Thanks for your willingness to answer some questions about selling film rights. My book, House of Spirits and Whispers, came out in September 05. My publisher has the film rights (I'll get a portion of any money they receive) but said I could try to help sell the rights. I have done some research and it seems like the best way to go about it is to get an agent. Could you tell me about your experience[s]?

There appear to be two questions here: a.) how do I get an agent?, and b.) how do I sell the film rights?

As for a.), the best time to talk to an agent is after the publisher expresses interest in your book, but BEFORE you sign the publisher's contract. This is the point when a good agent can best help you avoid expensive mistakes. The happy news here is that if you've got another book in you, this is a good time to be looking for an agent to represent your future work.

The less-than-happy news is that it's probably too late to find an agent interested in representing House of Spirits and Whispers.

You see, an agent is a commissioned salesperson. An ethical agent makes his or her living by selling your work, and makes money only when you make money. Ergo, since the book contract is a done deal and your publisher already owns a chunk of the film rights, this immediately complicates the situation and reduces whatever potential income your prospective agent might earn. I've met very few ethical agents who were eager to participate in fee-splitting deals or represent properties that were in some way already encumbered.

[Digression]: At this point, I want to inject a strong cautionary note. While you may have trouble drawing interest from an ethical agent, there are plenty of unethical so-called agents out there actively seeking you. For example, we've already encountered these scum-sucking bottom-feeders. If nothing else, remember this principle: the money always flows to the writer. Anyone who wants a "reading fee," a "listing fee", or any other sort of payment from you in order to promote your work is a scam artist and should be treated with the same regard you accord any common intestinal parasite. [/Digression]

As for b.): your best bet at this point is probably to contact anyone you know who works in the film or TV business, or anyone you know who knows someone who knows someone who used to work in the film business, try to get your book into their hands, and hope that someone reads it and decides to option it. At this point you will again be in the state of having moneyed-party interest in your property, and it will become much easier to attract a reputable agent. And whatever you do, don't sign anything until you've had your new agent look at it.

(There again, this is always this alternate strategy...)

Anybody else have any good suggestions for Annie?

As it happens, Secret Agent #6 does:

Actually, you have written an fine response. I can add little, other than to note that the author should relax and walk the dog. The deal is done and she is powerless to do anything. On the other hand, things may work out OK.

Movie people have lots of scouts and are well aware of what books are published. Each time a client's book is announced in Publisher's Weekly I get calls from "producers" or "story/development people" wanting to know "if rights are available?" Heaven forbid that any Hollywood type should stoop to reading a book to see what it is about before wanting to pursue rights. Actually, the publisher's catalog description and PW reviews are enough to create movie interest. So the author should spend no money on fee-based catalogs or websites. Real producers and studios pay no attention to these listings.

The author should change the paper in the birdcage and spend no time trying to get an agent to sell this property. No legitimate agent will try to sell a project actually controlled by the publisher. The problem is not just reduced commissions, it is lack of control and inability to negotiate the sale if there is a legitimate buyer. No one in Hollywood will waste their credibility talking up a property they can't control. It's like telling your bachelor brother, "You should date my friend, she has a great personality." The publisher should have an agent already who will get promotional copies direct from the publisher and send them around -- business as usual.

Unless the author's contract with the publisher specifically gives "approval" of a sub-rights sale or the publisher involves her in the deal (fat chance), she can't even afford to hire a lawyer to review the film-tv contract.

The publisher's statement: "... I could try to help sell the rights..." is a simple publisher's ploy to get the author to spend her own money promoting a book that the publisher will profit from. Unless the author is really connected in Hollywood, this is a waste of money. Consider, if the author has a 10% royalty on a $20 hardcover, she will earn $2 on each book sold. The book may cost $2 to manufacture, giving the publisher about $6-8 in income after the 50%-60% retail discounts. If the publisher cons the author into buying 100 copies of her book to mail to Hollywood types and reviewers, the author will pay whatever the author's discount is for books and earn no royalty on author's copies purchased for promotion. Suppose that is $12 per copy. Now the Publisher has $10 for each book the author bought, no returns and no royalty to pay and the author is out $1,200 plus the cost of mailing. Authors can spend more than they got for an advance, doing the publisher's job.

The author has a "real" publisher, so while she shouldn't sign anything else without representation, she can be confident that things will happen or they won't. She would be better off pursuing speaker fees for presentations based on the book. One of our clients speaks frequently and buys his copies (to sell in the back of the room) from Ingram because they are cheaper than the "author's discount," they earn royalties, and they are counted as copies sold at retail when computing the book's net sales figures.

I recently spoke to an author who was published by a subsidy publisher for a fee of $800. The publisher "was adamant" that he do a promotional mailing of his new book. He bought the books and paid for the mailing spending $5,000 for which he received no response and gained no notice. However, the publisher paid for its print run.