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Two Authors Discuss How Their Debut Novels Were Picked Up by Hollywood

Film adaptations aren’t typically in the plotline for debut novels, but two new thriller/suspense authors, Kathleen Barber and Rea Frey, have capped their debut dreams with film contracts for books seemingly written for the screen.
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By Jennifer Klepper

Film adaptations aren’t typically in the plotline of a debut year, but two new thriller/suspense authors—Kathleen Barber (Are You Sleeping, 2017) and Rea Frey (Not Her Daughter, 2018)—have capped their debut dreams with film contracts for books seemingly written for the screen.

Barber’s Are You Sleeping is described as “Serial meets Ruth Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Wood in this inventive and twisty psychological thriller about a mega-hit podcast that reopens a murder case—and threatens to unravel the carefully constructed life of the victim’s daughter.”

Suspense and plot twists continue with Frey’s Not Her Daughter, described as “Gripping, emotional, and wire-taut, Not Her Daughter raises the question of what it means to be a mother―and how far someone will go to keep a child safe.”

I chatted with the authors about what it’s like to have their debut novels go Hollywood.

What’s the current film status of your book?

Kathleen: I’m thrilled to say that Are You Sleeping has been picked up by Apple for a 10-episode series! Produced by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine and Chernin Entertainment/Endeavor Content, the series will be written by Nichelle Tramble Spellman and star Octavia Spencer. To say that I’m over the moon about the amazing team working on the project is an understatement. There’s not yet a premiere date for the series (or for any of Apple’s original programming, as far as I’m aware), but things are moving behind the scenes!

Rea: We literally just closed the option deal for Not Her Daughter, so it’s in early stages! On my initial call with Argent Pictures, they asked me if I’d like to see this as a feature film or a series. Though I am open, this reads to me more like a film to me, so that’s the direction I hope we take.

When during the publishing process did you get your film agent? Who procured the agent?

K: Shortly after I sold my book, my literary agent (Lisa Grubka of Fletcher & Company) called to say some film agents (Michelle Kroes and Michelle Weiner of CAA) were interested in the book. It was such a surprise to me—I was still getting used to the idea of this story I’d written actually becoming a book, and so the notion that someone thought it might make a good film made my head spin.

R: I have been incredibly lucky. The head of Holloway Literary, Nikki Terpilowski,, happens to be the film agent for the agency, so I didn’t have to do a damn thing. From what I do know, it’s a pretty hands-off experience with the author, but this deal came to me very organically (through a friend who thought my book would be perfect for Argent), so nothing about it has been by the book.

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Once you have a film agent, how is submitting a book for a film adaptation different from submitting to a book publisher?

K: This was something my film agents handled for me, so I’m not totally sure on the process, especially in the early stages. Later on, after my film agents had identified some parties with interest, we had a series of creative calls. These reminded me of the calls I had with editors during the book submission process, in that it was a chance for me to see what they had in mind for the adaptation and also a chance for them to see what I might be like to work with.

R: I was actually asked to help create a logline for the book, some comps, and a description. It’s very similar to how your literary agent pitches an editor for your book. They send the packet and wait to see if anyone bites. For me, I had a friend who knew the CEO of Argent. She had an early draft of the book and let him read it. He reached out two weeks later and wanted to schedule a call with the entire team. The author is usually not involved in initial calls, but I’m so thankful I was, because I really got a feel for who Argent is and what they stand for.

Wait, what’s a film option?

K: Rea explained the option concept perfectly! The option gives the production company exactly that—the option to create a film based on the book.

R: Think of an option like renting a book. A production company has a period of time to essentially hold your book. They pay you to “rent” the book. If, in that period of time, they start to make the movie, they then purchase the book based on the set price. There’s usually a clause to extend the option as well if they don’t make it in the first option period. So, just because someone options your book doesn’t mean the movie will get made. However, in my case, Argent works on one or two projects at a time. They don’t just purchase projects and sit on them. So, while so many factors have to fall into place for a movie to get made, I have confidence they’ll get it done.

How long do you wait before you know one way or another? So much waiting in publishing!

K: Because selling the option doesn’t guarantee the film gets made, I tried really hard not to think about it while I was waiting to hear news … but I didn’t often succeed, ha. I don’t really know how long these things usually take (or if there even is anything that can be considered “usual”), but, in my case, I think it took about a year from the time I orally agreed to enter into the option contract until the announcement that Apple had requested the series be developed, and then another four months or so until Apple made the series order. It certainly felt like a long wait to me (mostly because I had been instructed to keep things under my hat and all I wanted to do was tell people!), but I know that, on the film side of things, everyone else was working really hard. Film is a much different beast than novel writing and involves so many more people and moving parts.

R: Writing is waiting. And apparently film is waiting too. For me, my initial option period is 18 months. However, it can take years for a movie to get off the ground. And they have the option to renew for another 18 months if they don’t get it off the ground within the initial period.

[Online Course Grammar and Mechanics]

How does payment work for authors whose books get optioned? Does it change if it’s actually made into a movie, or is that all covered in the option?

K: I can’t speak for everyone, but my contract states a purchase price of x. When I sold the option, I received 10% of x. Assuming production commences as defined in the contract, I’ll receive the other 90% of x. Like a publishing contract, my contract includes royalties and bonuses if certain conditions are met.

R: In my deal, I get paid an initial fee for the option period of 18 months. This is essentially like placing a hold on the book. If they begin to make the movie during that time, they purchase my book (minus the initial fee).

Kathleen, as a lawyer, you have a background working with contracts. Did that come in handy at all during this process? Do you have any advice for non-lawyers going into this sort of thing?

K: My familiarity reading contracts came in handy only in the sense that I was familiar with how wordy contracts can be, ha. I’d never seen an option contract before this—much like I’d never seen a publishing contract before I sold my book—and so I didn’t know what I should expect to see there, what I should I want to see there, or what I should be wary of. I chose not to retain an entertainment lawyer to review the contract for me because the contract was undergoing legal review on my literary agent’s end and my interests were aligned with hers—after all, the more rights I retain means more rights for my agent to sell to other parties—but I encourage anyone faced with an unfamiliar contract to consider consulting an attorney with expertise in that area. I would urge all authors, whether facing an agency, publishing, or option contract, to read EVERYTHING and ask questions before signing. Don’t just read the exciting parts and assume everything is fine; make sure you understand what you’re agreeing to if things don’t go fine. If you have any doubts, consider consulting an attorney.

I’ve heard that some authors retain virtually no rights relating to a film adaptation, while others negotiate different levels of involvement. Can you tell us if you have any input on the adaptation?

K: Like Rea, I was asked how involved I wanted to be in the project during the creative calls. I didn’t pursue a role in the adaptation process—I want to focus my time on writing more books, and I also felt that the project had the largest chance of success if it was left in the hands of film professionals. Everyone I’ve spoken with at Hello Sunshine and Chernin has been amazing, and I have the utmost faith in them. Moreover, the writer, Nichelle Tramble Spellman, is brilliant. I know the adaptation will differ from the novel, but I’m really excited to see how my story is reimagined by these extremely talented women!

R: Argent asked me up front what level of involvement I’d like to have—if I wanted to be hands-on or hands-off. While I’d love to learn about film, I also trust that they are professionals and they will do their job. I would hate it if someone didn’t trust me to write my book or do my job. However, as the author, it was important to me to read the screenplay. I know this isn’t standard, but Argent was nice enough to write into the contract that I get to read all drafts of the screenplay.

Rea, as a brand expert, I’m sure you’ve thought about the value of an author’s brand going into a potential film deal and how it will be important after getting an option and beyond. I’m sure you could write a blog series on this topic, but what quick advice do you have for other authors?

R: As a former nonfiction author, I quickly realized it was ALL about an author platform (which I didn’t really have at the time). It’s changed so much in such a short period of time, and these days, even fiction authors need an audience to sell books.

It can be daunting every time you log onto social media and see these influencers with 100k+ followers, and you feel totally out of your depth. Gone are the days when writers can just write. Now, we have to be publicists, salespeople, social media gurus, etc.

However, there’s a difference between scrambling to get a brand built and doing it in a way that feels authentic. I can’t stress enough that you need to start MONTHS in advance of your book launch. My advice would then be to pick ONE medium that feels good to you. Don’t try to do it all. That’s not only overwhelming, it can feel forced.

For book sales, Facebook is still king, though personally, I enjoy Instagram (and it’s where I have my biggest audience). It’s also not about selling—it’s about ENGAGING with real people (i.e. readers) and doing that well before you have a product to sell. At my branding agency, we do something called the hologram, which focuses on who you are, what you do, how you do it, and why it works. If you’re a writer, what do you like about writing? What can you talk about intelligently? What do you have to offer an audience besides your book? People want to connect to people, not products.

Adapting Novels, Memoirs and Short Stories: What to Keep and What to Cut

Another piece of advice I’d offer is if social is not your thing, focus on an INFLUENCER campaign for your launch. Chances are you know 1-5 people who have big brands and would be happy to push your book if you can’t reach a large enough audience on your own.

Lastly, I still think word-of-mouth is the most successful aspect of selling anything. You are trying to build a readership as much as you are trying to sell your book. Think of your first book like growing a business. You’re building slowly and putting the work in now so that when your career grows, your readers will be waiting.

Sorry that was not quick advice, was it?

Do you have any fun Hollywood anecdotes from your experience so far? (Please feel free to name drop or mention fancy restaurants—I won’t judge.)

K: I spoke with Reese Witherspoon on the phone! Definitely one of the more surreal experiences of my life!

R: Okay, she just took my dream answer! (I have such a girl crush on Reese!) We’re too early in the process, but I hope to have some fun stories about rubbing elbows with major celebs, talking shop.

What is a book-to-film that you’ve absolutely loved?

K: I was really impressed by the adaptation of The Girl on the Train. Having read (and loved) the book, I was interested to see how the story translated to the screen, especially since it had three different POV characters, and I thought they did a great job with it. I also really liked the adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, which is one of my favorite books.

R: Oh, there are so many. To Kill a Mockingbird, No Country for Old Men, Fight Club, Brokeback Mountain, White Oleander. It’s always such a thrill when you read a book and then see it come to life in just the way you imagined it...I’m hoping the same happens for Not Her Daughter!

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Jennifer Klepper is a member of Authors 18, a group of novelists debuting in 2018. Her debut novel, Unbroken Threads, releases August 21, 2018. You can connect with Jennifer at or on Facebook.

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