What Authors Need to Know Before Selling Their Book’s Film Rights

As a writer, you see your book in your mind as you write it; the way your protagonist raises her eyebrow, which books she keeps on her nightstand, what kinds of trees are outside her office window. You may find yourself thinking it would be incredible to see your creations brought to life in film. And you’ve almost certainly played casting director and daydreamed about which actors would best embody your characters.

But if the opportunity for your book to become a movie or TV show comes around, do you know what you’re getting into? Will the adaptation be another Schindler’s List, or the next Queen of the Damned (shudder)? Here’s what you need to know before Hollywood officially gets its hands on your precious literary baby.

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Make sure you own the film rights

First and foremost, if you’re being published, make sure your contract stipulates that you retain the film rights. Never give up your copyright to the publisher. You have to be careful about which rights you retain, and cover your bases by stipulating that any rights not specifically mentioned in the contract are yours by default. For more about what to watch out for when signing a contract with a publisher, check out this article by the Authors Guild.

You’ll need an agent to do the deal

Even if you self-published and are used to being the one who handles the business aspect of your writing, do not go the DIY route when it comes to selling the film rights to your book. Rights contracts are incredibly nuanced. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you could end up making a cringe-worthy mistake, such as accidentally relinquishing the rights to your main character. Tony Hillerman made that exact mistake, inadvertently selling the rights to his main protagonist, Joe Leaphorn, from his series of Navajo Tribal Police detective books.  

You’ll need an agent who specializes in book-to-film projects to help you protect your interests through the process. These agents have established working relationships with producers and will know if your book is best suited for film, TV, or stage. They’ll also know the market trends and what they can and can’t sell; just because your book is fantastic and has the makings of a great movie, doesn’t mean the marketplace is ready for it right now.

For example, say you’ve written a vampire book. In the wake of book series like Twilight, The Southern Vampire Mysteries, The Vampire Diaries, Vampire Academy, and a slew of others being made into films and TV shows over the past decade, the vampire market is tapped out for a while. In ten, fifteen, twenty years, the cycle will come back around, and we’ll be begging for bloodsuckers again, but the timing has to be right.

Selling your book’s film rights does not mean there will actually be a movie or your own private island in the future

When you sell your book’s film rights, what you’re really selling is the option for the buyer to use those rights. They sort of rent them from you for a certain length of time—usually eighteen months to two years. This gives them time to get some funding and a script together (and no, you probably won’t get to write it).

The good news is, you get paid for doing nothing. The bad news is, you don’t get paid much—anywhere from $500 to several thousand dollars for the option, and there’s a good chance the project will be burning away in Development Hell forever.

If the project gets the green light, meaning it’s going into production, you’ll get a much more substantial chunk. That’s where the real money comes from. Authors may also receive royalties after the movie is released, which it won't be, the majority of the time. Few optioned projects ever make it to production, let alone become successful. But if the adaptation of your work gets released and does well, it not only means a nice payday, but also a big, fat publicity boost for your book.

 

Creative control may involve some sacrifices

You may think you want some level of creative control over how your book is adapted, but many authors warn against being involved once the rights leave your hands. Ernest Hemingway famously said, "You throw them your book, they throw you the money, then you jump into your car and drive like hell back the way you came."

Filmmakers make all sorts of promises to authors about how involved they’ll get to be in the movie. But the fact is, the direction a movie goes in once it’s in production can be akin to a runaway train that you (the author) are powerless to stop. Some authors feel it’s less painful in the end to just stay out of it.

However, if you’re more interested in creative integrity than notoriety and a big payday, there are more outlets than ever to bring your work to life on the screen … just maybe not the big screen. With the rise of social media and a growing number of companies like Netflix offering original programming, you may be able to find the perfect outlet to bring your vision of an adaptation to life.