READER QUESTION: How Can I Get My Unpublished Novel Into the Hands of Filmmakers?

Hey, screenwriters–

Today’s Reader Question comes from Anna, a budding novelist, who writes: “I’m trying to break into the field of being a writer (of books).  I have written a couple stories that i think would make a good movie.  i was wondering if you could advise me on how to present such an idea and to who.  Should my book be in a different format?  Anything else I should know?”

First of all, Anna– congrats on having some terrific short stories and– hopefully (presumably?)– a finished or almost-finished novel!

As for getting your work– either short stories or books– into the hands of filmmakers, the truth is: the best way to get your novel or short stories picked up by movie-makers is… quite simply… concentrate on making them very successful as novels or short stories in their original medium.

In other words– untested novels or short stories have very little (if any) value to movie producers or studios.  This doesn’t mean it never happens (and we’ll talk about these exceptions in a moment), but for the most part, books and/or short stories that get adapted into movies get adapted because they’re already successful in their original form.  The Kite Runner, for instance, was a best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini before Marc Forster made it into an award-winning film.  And much of the reason it was made into a movie in the first place wasn’t just that it was a well-written story, but that it was an incredibly commercially successful story.  This doesn’t mean that a novel or story must be a commercial hit in order to become a movie… but it helps.  Movies, after all, are expensive endeavors… and filmmakers like knowing they’re investing their millions of dollars in a property that’s already a known brand with a significant audience.

Having said that, many movie adaptations aren’t from internationally famous properties.  Persepolis began as a French graphic novel before becoming one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Picture.  The key, in many ways, is simply to get your work published; publication itself is an important stamp of validation– it says “hey, someone else liked this enough to invest money in it.”  And if your work wins some awards or gets critical acclaim, that’s helpful.

Once your story is in print, you can then try and get in the hands of movie producers and executives.  Most writers work with agents or editors to do this; if you get published by a big company, they will undoubtedly have relationships to Hollywood, as will a good agent (and if you get published by a big company, you’ll have literary agents crawling all over you).  Some big companies even have direct connections to publishers, like Simon & Schuster and CBS, or Harper Collins and 20th Century Fox, which are both owned by News Corp.  These houses are sometimes even able to sell a book’s movie rights before the book is published (this is the exception I mentioned a moment ago)… but this happens because these companies have amazing powers of synergy.  And it often happens only with properties they feel certain will be massive hits.  The Harry Potter movie rights were set up before the books came out.  So was Gone With The Wind.

If you’re not published by a big house, you can still try yourself to get your work to filmmakers; you may just need to do a little more legwork on your own.  A lot of it will be looking up addresses and cold-calling/cold-mailing/cold-emailing, etc.– which, to be honest, is never a very good way to go.  Most execs and producers don’t respond to unsolicited submissions… not because they’re lazy or narrow-minded (a complaint they hear all the time), but because they are receiving literally thousands of submissions a year, and they need some sort of internal filtering system.  And submissions from strangers take a distant backseat to submissions from friends, agents, writers, stars, or producers they already know.

HOWEVER– like I said before, simply being published gives you a decent stamp of approval that moves you higher up the list.  So if you can’t get a published to buy and print your work– do it yourself!  This may not give you the same street cred as being Simon & Schuster’s big marketing project of the summer, but it’s better than submitting just a manuscript.  Plus, many self-published writers have gone on to great success.  Tracy Grant, who was a guest blogger on Script Notes a few days ago, self-published his first novel a few years ago… he’s now writing on ABC Family’s Lincoln Heights.  At the very least, self-publishing, selling, and promoting your own book will be a good education in how the publishing/marketing world works.

If you don’t want to self-publish your book, there are still ways to get your work in front of an audience.  Thankfully, we live in the wonderful age of the internet.  A few days ago, I posted a long interview on Script Notes with author Mark Yoshimoto Nemcoff, a writer/producer who’s found great success serializing his novels as free online audio books.  Novelist J.C. Hutchins published his work online and wound up with 30,000 listeners, 1 million downloads, and a book deal with St. Martin’s Press (his book comes out next year).  If you don’t want to do an audio book– no problem… start your own website or blog, and publish your book in installments there.  Thanks to sites like MySpace and Blogger, it’s totally free!

The whole point is: getting your book out there in the world– however you need to do it– allows you to find an audience.  Hopefully, a big audience– like J.C. Hutchins.  And that’s what will make your work attractive to producers and execs– knowing it already has either: A) someone who believes in it enough to put money behind it (like a publisher, big or small), or B) thousands of people who already love it.

Which is why, like I said in the beginning, your goal right now shouldn’t be getting your short stories and novels into the hands of movie people… it should be making your short stories and novels as successful as they can be in their original medium.

And when lemme know when you’re in LA for your book signing– I expect an autographed copy!

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