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Richard Curtis on
Publishing in the 21st Century
Mastering the Business of Publishing
by Richard Curtis
Originally published by E-Reads
Books into Movies
IT'S OFTEN SAID that they're not making movies the way they used to. That's a matter of opinion (it happens to be mine), but if it's true, the decline can be attributed to the fact that they're not adapting books the way they used to. Since the golden age of filmmaking in the 1930s, the ratio of theatrical films based on books to those made from original screenplays has been steadily shifting to the latter. Today the odds that your novel will be made into a movie are distressingly low, even if your novel becomes a best-seller.
I can't believe there are fewer adaptable books today than there have been in the past. Why, then, aren't they making books into movies anymore?
One reason facetiously offered by book people is that nobody in Hollywood reads. Relying on my own experience, I'd have to say that's untrue. What is probably closer to the mark is that movie people don't have a lot of time to read, but then, neither do book people. Most of us are so busy reading manuscripts for business that we can't spare a moment to read for pleasure. While I, like so many of my colleagues, can read three or four book-length manuscripts in one evening, I have been plodding through a published biography, at a rate of a few pages a week for over two years; it's taking me longer to read that sucker than it took the author to write it!
At any rate, what little reading time movie people have is usually spent reading screenplays. Books are synopsized for them by readers, and only if a reader's recommendation makes the book sound as if it has strong movie potential will a producer read the book itself. And sometimes not even then.
The downward trend in film adaptations follows the decline of the studio system and the corresponding rise of one revolving around independent producers. Under the old arrangement, all-powerful studios acquired best-sellers and other literary properties and adapted them for producers, directors, and stars belonging to the studio "family." The studios were self-contained entities possessing financing, production facilities, and distribution capability—the three elements essential to making commercial films. After World War II, however, producers, writers, actors, and others challenged the studios in a bid for more artistic independence and a bigger piece of the profit pie. They succeeded to a degree in weakening the studios' absolute power and control, but at a high cost: the loss of efficiency. Today's producers cannot simply scoop up all the talent they need from one studio pool, but instead have to assemble "packages" out of a fiendishly complex and far-flung tangle of artists, agents, lawyers, unions, guilds, financiers, smaller distributors, and other elements.
This radical change has taken its toll on adaptations of books. Let's see how.
The hardest part of getting a movie made is raising the money. It is easier to raise a sunken treasure galleon than to raise money for a movie. These days a film budgeted at $20 million is considered a home movie; indeed, $20 million is now the salary of a superstar. Still, it's a lot of money, and anyone furnishing it to a filmmaker expects either an excessive participation in profits or an excessive say in the way the movie is made, both of which are abhorrent to a producer. Studios are not disposed to back films until all elements of the package are in place, or at least a "bankable" star or director has made a commitment.
In short, few independent producers have any money. Not long ago—twenty or twenty-five years—we used to see a number of outright purchases of books for movies. Though an outright purchase doesn't guarantee a movie will be made, the size of the outlay, often hundreds of thousands of dollars, certainly guaranteed an earnest effort would be made to recoup the investment. Today, one seldom hears about outright sales. Everything is optioned. When independent producers start piecing together a movie deal, the item on which they least want to spend what little money they possess is the book; for them, the key item is the screenplay.
The screenplay opens the doors to securing financing by stimulating the interest of stars and their agents, and then to assembling the rest of the elements. Once these all come together and the money has been put up to make the film, the author can be paid. Until then the author is in effect asked to subsidize the writing of the screenplay by being moderate in his asking price for the option. In many cases authors are asked to give producers a free or nominal option against a big purchase price and share of the profits. These strangely unbalanced deals—often options of a few hundred dollars against purchase prices of hundreds of thousands—result from the fact that the option money has to come out of the producer's own pocket, whereas the purchase money comes out of someone else's.
Although there is a lot of activity in options of books for the movies, it can be argued that the option system is actually harmful to a book's chances of being made into a movie. Options are usually purchased in six-or twelve-month increments, but are renewable at the producer's option for several more six- or twelve-month periods with the payment of additional option money. The process can tie up a book for eighteen months, two years, or longer while the producer frantically tries to juggle screenplay, financing, distribution, director, and stars in the hopes of getting them to sign a contract. Nobody wants to sign a contract until he has a guarantee. The financiers may want a distribution commitment before they fork over their money; the director may want a particular star to agree to appear in the film; the star may want a terrific screenplay; the screenplay writer may want a huge fee; the studio may want the book to be on the best-seller list.
Since the odds against everyone signing are so high, it's likely that when the option or renewal lapses, your book will have been shopped all over the movie business. Though you'll then have an opportunity to market the rights again and pursue those who might have been interested in your book a year or two ago, the book will probably have the smell of death clinging to it, and you'll be unable to revive it.
Clearly, it's a lot cheaper and easier for a modestly heeled producer to option or commission an original screenplay than to get involved with books. But with the kinds of movies that are pulling in big bucks at the box office these days, it may reasonably be asked, "What do producers need books for, anyway?" So many of these films are youth-oriented, exploitive, devoid of ideas, predictably plotted, action-packed, and populated with stick-figure characters. A producer contemplating making one of these teenage fantasy films is certainly not going to seek those values in books. Indeed, he would have to search far and wide to find books dumb enough to make into today's hit movies.
Interestingly, the one area in the entertainment industry where books are still welcome, and in fact welcome as never before, is television, and the immense appetite of the networks and cable companies does not threaten to diminish in the foreseeable future. Publishers' lists are combed furiously by producers seeking movie-of-the-week or miniseries candidates, and because of network commitments to air scores of these films annually, the search has become intensely competitive. Many of the properties optioned or acquired are novels, but television producers, unlike theatrical film producers, plunder short stories, articles, and nonfiction books as well as novels in their quest for adaptable material.
Ironically, the quality of television movies now often exceeds that of many theatrical films. Once characterized as a vast wasteland, television has discovered ideas and begun to develop them into vehicles that are often intelligent, sensitive, moving, and controversial, touching on themes that the movies used to portray but seldom do any more. Out-of-wedlock children, incest, senility, spouse or child abuse, drug addiction, kidnapping, and physical disability are some of the themes that have been woven into recent original television movies, and few who have watched them can claim that they are inferior to most theatrical films made today or that they are not the equal of many made in the past.
From the viewpoint of the author with a book to sell, this change is of major importance, for it no longer is smart to disdain television deals while holding out for a theatrical one. It is likelier that an option will be exercised for a TV movie than for a theatrical one, and the price gap between the two media has begun to close. And, from the viewpoint of pride of authorship, the chances are better than ever that an author's vision will be preserved intact in a television adaptation. For all these reasons I recommend that if you or your agent are approached by producers interested in adapting your work for television, and the terms are comparable to what you might get from a movie-movie producer, don't hesitate to make that deal.
Here are some other suggestions for improving your chances of making a movie or television sale in today's market.
- Prepare an extremely brief—no more than two pages—synopsis of your book to show to interested producers. It should be a highly compressed summary of the theme, story, and characters, and should read like a jacket blurb except that the emphasis should be on the cinematic values rather than the literary ones. Potential buyers will want to see the manuscript, proof, or printed copy anyway, but if they have time to read nothing else they will read your summary, and a well-written one will enable them to visualize the film the way you yourself visualize it.
- Give no free options, even of a few weeks' duration. Inevitably you will be approached by would-be producers claiming they know exactly the right studio or network executive who will buy your book, and all they need is a couple of weeks to make a deal, and could you let them have just this one shot free of charge because by the time the papers are drawn up it will be too late, etc. Most agents who have dealt with movie and television people have heard this line before and shut the door on it; they've learned that people don't respect properties they get for nothing. An investment in an option guarantees a certain amount of commitment and responsibility. You don't have to draw up a complete movie contract for such a modest deal, but a deal memorandum synopsizing the highlights of the negotiation, such as option price, purchase price, profit percentages if any, duration of option and renewals, reserved rights, credits, and so forth, is a must.
As for that claim that the producer needs only a few weeks, don't believe it. Everything in the movie business takes six times longer than you would imagine it should. I have seldom seen a movie option exercised after six months, and indeed have seen producers dig themselves into an awful hole by paying too much money for too brief an option, necessitating their renewing the option for too much money again for yet another brief option. The author who finds himself in the position of dealing with such a producer enjoys the rare pleasure of being in the driver's seat, so if someone wants a short option, give it to him, but make him pay for it.
- Renewals of a producer's option on your work should be more expensive than the original option and should not be deductible from the purchase price of the rights. The initial option is usually applicable against the purchase price, but thereafter the producer is in effect paying rent on your property. If you allow him to deduct renewal fees from the purchase price, he is in effect not renting your property but buying it from you in installments, and relatively painless installments at that. You'll want that lump sum due upon exercise of the option to hang over the producer's head like some ominous cloud. And, by making renewals more expensive than the original option, you are telling the producer that tying your property up for such a long time is an inconvenience, and one that is not mitigated by the money he's paying you to extend your option. If you option your book before publication, try to negotiate the deal in such a way that the option expires around your publication date and is not renewable beyond that date. Your property will probably never be hotter to movie people than before it's published, when it will not have been exposed to the entire industry or shopped all over town. Thus anyone taking an option before publication is getting your work at its ripest moment. If, by the time the book is published, your producer has not been able to make a deal, his option should expire, and expire without hope of renewal. If your book then goes on to get good reviews and/or hits the best-seller list, you have a second lease on life.
Take This Job
and Shove It
MOST WRITERS DREAM of leaving their day jobs (some have night jobs as well) and launching careers as full-time freelancers. In their eagerness to realize that goal, many of them quit as soon as they've made a few sales. This decision invariably turns out to be ill-advised if not catastrophic after the author discovers that he did not properly reckon the cost of independence, project the size and flow of earnings, or prepare himself psychologically. Even an author lucky enough to strike it rich on his first book should use the utmost restraint before quitting his job to become a writer. By the time he realizes he doesn't know what to write for an encore, he may have raised his lifestyle to an unsupportably high plateau.
The questions of whether and when writers should go full-time are among the most common and vexing that agents have to deal with, and if an agent ever had a notion to play God, here is his opportunity. The responsibility for this decision is awesome and demands ten times the prudence required to advise authors about such matters as selecting the right publisher for their books. The number of factors is large and their complexity intimidating. It's the kind of decision that should be reviewed with a great many people to collect as much input as possible.
An excellent idea is to make a list of pluses and minuses, what you stand to gain and what to lose. Often the right choice will jump out at you when you review this list. The secret is to make sure you have enumerated all the factors. Then you must be brutally honest with yourself. You do not want to subject yourself and your family to needless suffering because you erred on the side of wishful thinking when you drew up your scenario.
My first rule of thumb is to determine whether you have enough work lined up under contract to guarantee employment for one to two years; that probably means you have reached a level of skill and reliability your publisher can count on. I seldom permit an author to include in his expectations income that is not absolutely guaranteed—royalties, foreign rights sales, movie deals, and the like—unless there is a solid history of such windfalls in his track record. If you've never sold British rights to your previous books, if you only hope your next book will earn royalties, if your father-in-law thinks your book is a natural for the movies, I toss these items out of the equation, because they are only fodder for self-delusion and disappointment.
I do, however, include in the equation the renewal of current contracts after you have fulfilled them, particularly if you are a genre writer. If you have a three-book contract in an ongoing series, I tend to consider it a likelihood that you'll be given another contract at the expiration of this one. If you're an established mainstream writer with three or four books under your belt and a potful of good ideas for new ones, I'm disposed to take for granted that you'll land a new contract when you complete your present book.
The renewal of contracts means money payable on signature of those agreements, so that when you look down the road for money to be earned after fulfillment of your present commitments, you should be able to count on income from new deals. It is also reasonable to figure that you'll get more money per book than you're getting now, because it's likely the publisher will feel you're a better writer and there'll be more of a sales record to justify raises. There is also a tendency among publishers to give raises to their regular writers if for no other reasons than inflation, longevity, loyalty, faith in the future, and humane motivations. You have to ask for these raises, but there's a good chance that if you don't push it too hard, your publisher will give you a little more the next time around just because you're a nice person.
Another important factor I weigh when discussing with authors the decision to go full-time is increased productivity.
At present, because you're only able to devote an hour or two to your writing in the evenings, and maybe twice that much on the weekends, you are not capable of turning out more than two books, say, per year. But if you launch a full-time writing career, you may be able to double or triple your annual output, meaning double or triple the revenue. There is also, I've observed, a tendency for writers to improve the quality of their work after they become full-timers, because they're exercising their skills to a greater degree, and (domestic distractions notwithstanding) their concentration increases. And if you do become a better, faster writer, the prospects for raises in pay from your publishers become even better. The process, in due time, becomes self-perpetuating.
Having painted the future in broad, and slightly rose-tinted, strokes, it's time to focus on the hard realities of budgeting your money after you make The Big Move. Get out that legal pad and set up two columns, Income and Expenditures. So far, so good. Unfortunately, that's about the only straightforward thing about setting up a budget, because when you start to analyze each item, you quickly see that simple concepts and definitions are elusive.
When you work for "the man," you most likely receive a regular paycheck from which certain mandatory deductions are withheld. Among these are federal and state income taxes, sometimes municipal ones as well. Social security contributions are also compulsory. Then there may also be deductions for disability insurance, worker's compensation, medical insurance, union dues, stock option purchases, pension contributions, and donations to the boss's pet charity. Your net take-home income has been 20, 40, even 50 percent or more of your gross salary.
When you become a full-time writer, however, you suddenly find yourself in the position of "taking home" a "paycheck" from which nothing (except commissions, if you have an agent) has been deducted. At first glance that's great. At second and third glances, you realize that the heavy burden of responsibility for many of those obligations, formerly taken care of by your boss, now rests on your own shoulders. You will have to set aside enough money to pay income taxes, social security, and other taxes such as unincorporated business taxes, occupancy taxes on your business property (your office, that is); medical and/or disability insurance premiums; pension contributions (you may now qualify for a Keogh Plan savings account); and whatever other "benefits" you wish to continue enjoying as carryovers from your erstwhile job. So, the $50,000 per annum that you project taking home when you go full-time may translate into less than $25,000 of disposable income after you set aside all the obligations your employer used to pay on your behalf.
To your projections of income from your writing, add income from your spouse's job if any, investment dividends and savings interest, and other sources of guaranteed revenue such as teaching, lecturing, or consulting income. And you must not rule out your savings as a potential source of income. Because delays are more the rule than the exception in the publishing game, it is entirely possible that you will have to tap the principal in your savings account or liquidate a long-term investment in order to tide yourself over between checks.
Because many major expenses are payable quarterly (such as estimated federal taxes), semiannually, or even annually, you might consider opening a savings account for those obligations only. You can then earn a little interest on the money you have set aside to pay those bills. Needless to say, you must never invest that money in speculative ventures.
When you try to tote up the "expenditures" side of your projections, you once again discover that nothing is as simple as it seemed to be when your boss took care of things. You will immediately see how costly medical insurance is, particularly when you are no longer participating in a group health care plan. The social security rate for self-employed people is higher than for those in "respectable" jobs (writing has not been a respectable job for twenty-five years).
And then there are those "bennies" and perks you took for granted when you worked for that company. If you had an expense account, you will now have to absorb that portion of the benefit that was formerly spent on yourself, in particular travel and entertainment. No longer can you charge the firm for your spouse's meal when you take clients or customers to dinner; no longer can you bill your boss for mileage incurred on that side visit to Disneyland during your business trip to Los Angeles. And because current tax law permits you to deduct only a percentage of legitimate entertainment expenses, you've also lost that part that your company absorbed in tax on the undeductible part. Say good-bye to the free use of the postage machine when you mailed off your personal bills; to the telephone from which you called your publisher, your agent, your kid in college, your mother in Florida; to the photocopying machine on which you ran off copies of your manuscript after everyone had gone home; and to the office word processor, computer, coffee maker. Say good-bye to the paid vacation. You want a vacation, you now can take fifty-two weeks a year if you want, only you have to pay for them out of your own pocket. Say good-bye to sick days on salary. Say good-bye to the company car and the company jet and the company dining room. Buy your own car and jet and dining room.
I am not saying there aren't also many hidden benefits to leaving our job for a full-time writing career. But somehow, the savings on carfare or on the expensive wardrobe you're trading in for the freelancer's uniform of jeans and T-shirts don't seem to balance the hidden costs. And not everybody fervently believes that getting to see more of one's spouse or kids is a hidden benefit.
The biggest challenge to the newly independent is the large lump-sum payments due with unforgiving regularity throughout the year. Among these, as I've said, are quarterly estimated federal income and social security taxes, but there are also state and local taxes and estimates and medical insurance premiums. This is not to mention those other lump sums you have to pay whether you are self-employed or not, such as automobile and home insurance, private school or college tuition, summer camp fees, repair contracts on major appliances, and the like. And these all have a way of going up. Add to them the cost of occasional but inevitable contingencies, the kind that always seem to rear their heads hours after your warranties expire and moments after you have served notice to your boss of your intention to leave his employ; washing machines giving up the ghost, television picture tubes burning out, automobile engines seizing, wisdom teeth impacting.
Aside from being fiscally unprepared to deal with these aggravations, you may not be emotionally able to cope with them. This is by far the graver problem, for while you can often juggle your accounts or hustle up some money to cover short-term deficits, it is much, much harder to find the psychological resources for dealing with that condition of perpetual anxiety about money that is the lot of most freelance people.
The truth is that not everybody is constitutionally cut out to work for him- or herself. There are those who are incapable of preparing a budget or of staying within its rigid boundaries. There are those who cannot handle the loneliness of freelancing and the loss of the social support that comes from working with others. There are those who lack self-discipline, those who, after years of punching in and out at a time clock, reporting to a boss or supervisor, adhering to rules and regulations and work orders, are at a loss to structure their own time. There are those who cannot set short- and long-term goals or keep to them. There are those who cannot live with the distractions of full-time domesticity. There are those who go to pieces at the prospect of drawing on their savings or selling off an investment to cover an unexpected expense. There are those who indulge their newfound freedom by tackling that Great American Novel they've always dreamed of, instead of doing the commercial projects that have to be done to keep their finances on a steady course.
Having tried the freelance life for several years in my twenties, I can testify to having flunked most of the above tests. Though I did produce a goodly number of books during that period, and earned a decent living, I found the loneliness and isolation very hard to bear, and the budgeting of money impossible. I had some savings salted away, but having been raised to think of drawing money out of savings as tantamount to filing for bankruptcy, I suffered woefully. Every month, when the time came to pay my bills, I developed all sorts of neurasthenic symptoms ranging from vapors to hysterical pregnancy. So, be as candid with yourself as you can be when you contemplate making this critical career decision, and ask your spouse, your best friend, your accountant, your attorney, your shrink, and your agent to be so, too. If they vote yes, then all you'll need is a ream of paper, a pair of jeans, and a few T-shirts, and you're in business.
Oh yes—don't forget $100,000 worth of book contracts!
All the best,