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How Hollywood Handles Book Options

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Q: I'm curious to know how a novel gets optioned for a movie. What's the process and, as an author, what can one expect?—Marlon Sanders

A: The first step in this process, of course, is to write an amazing novel. That’s how Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) did it. That’s how Christopher Paolini (Eragon) did it. And that’s how you’re going to do it.

Let’s say that your book is brilliant and is quickly gobbled up by a publishing agent. After he sells it to a publisher, he’ll typically turn around and call another agent who specializes in selling movie and television rights. This agent (whom I’ll call a Hollywood agent to differentiate the two) will read your book and decide whether it has blockbuster potential or would be better served holding up the short leg of his dining room table.

“If I decide it’s something I would like to get behind, I call the agent back and say, ‘I like this book, I really see it as a feature film, a TV movie or a TV series,’” says 15-year industry veteran Steve Fisher, who’s currently an agent for APA Literary Agency in Los Angeles. “If they’re open to my vision, then I’ll take on the project and start marketing it.”

The next move is for the Hollywood agent to go after producers. Producers don’t buy your work, but they shop it to studios that do. The key here, according to Fisher, is finding a producer who is not only appropriate for your book but also well-liked enough at one particular studio to get the job done. For example, if Johnny Producer carries weight at NBC Universal, but doesn’t have nearly the connections at FOX, he’ll be asked to shop it only to NBC. Hollywood agents may share the rights with several producers at one time, but each producer will only be allowed to solicit one specific studio.

“Once a studio gets behind it, someone from the studio’s business affairs department will call you and say one of two things,” Fisher says. “They’ll either make an offer or, more often than not, they’ll say, ‘What are you looking for?’”

Option prices are really all over the map—from $10,000 on the low end to seven figures and up. Occasionally bidding wars break out and help drive up the price, but not as often as you’d think. And sometimes the bidding starts so low that the “high” bid is about as impressive as the sales tax on a pair of jeans, so you (and your agent) have to decide whether it’s worth making the deal or telling Tinseltown to buzz off.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about the movie business,” Fisher says, whose duties also include managing authors’ expectations. “One of them is that virtually every book gets optioned. Another one is that studios—being businesses that spend an awful lot of money—are willing to throw around an awful lot of money in almost every case, and that’s not true. There’s something about the movie business that causes people to have outlandish preconceptions.”

The final step in the optioning process is to be patient. Things rarely happen as quickly as you’d like them to. It can be a long road to getting a book set up as a movie, and that’s just the original sale. Then it’s a much longer road to getting that movie made, with a lot of bumps (sometimes even boulders) along the way. There’s not really a good reason for that, it’s just how this business works.

“But if clients write a good product and manage their expectations and are patient,” says Fisher, “I think they may well have a positive outcome.”

Take care of yourself and your writing,
Brian A. Klems

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at with “Q&Q” in the subject line.

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