Why is it So Damn Hard to Sell Your Book?

October 6, 2017

Our first Hollywood Decoded question comes from author Jenny Milchman.


Jenny: “I know breaking into publishing is hard and all, but can you explain why it is so very hard to get a film/TV deal?” 


Nina: Hollywood increasingly relies on “underlying IP,” which is industry speak for buying rights to intellectual property items such as books as the basis for film and television adaptations. Given this, one would assume book deals would be easy.


With so much content available to viewers across multiple platforms (film, TV, streaming), having a property that brings with it an existing audience can justify the enormous costs associated with production. With a built in audience, the marketing department can more easily cut through the clutter of competition and get the film or show noticed. 


There is also a psychological component: a published book means that someone already recognized the material’s merit and the potential for an audience.  Hollywood is risk averse and this psychology can pay an important part in decision-making.


So why is it so hard? 


Part of the reason is that book adaptations require “a take.”  A take is a plan for adapting a book to the screen.  Some of the challenges of adaptations include figuring out how to relay a character’s interior thoughts (easy to do in a novel, much harder in a screenplay where all thought must be revealed through either dialogue or action).


Another challenge is deciding what is essential, as a film will often require compression of story beats or the loss of subplots. Or, if a book sells to television, a take would be needed to show how the book’s concept could be extended to play across multiple seasons. Coming up with a take falls to screenwriters.


But typically before any screenwriters will look at any book for adaptation, a producer has to get on board and option or purchase the rights to the book. So the first person an author needs is a producer or executive with vision, someone who may not necessarily have a take, but is willing to step up and take the risk of finding a screenwriter who does.


The next person an author needs is a buyer. Each buyer (whether in film or TV) has an existing slate of projects. To add a new project to that slate the buyer has multiple questions to consider.


1. Who is bringing the project in (is it a producer they know and respect?).


2. What else is on their slate (do they have something that competes with the project or a hole in the slate the project could fill?).


3. Where are they in their budget cycle (can they spend at the time the material comes in?).


4. Will the material attract “stars” or a heavyweight director (can they give the project prestige?).


5. Is there a strong marketing hook? 


6. Something similar in development with a competitor?


The list goes on. These considerations, not seen by the author, influence every decision. It doesn’t mean your book doesn’t have merit, and wouldn’t work for film or TV, but merit alone is not enough to make a Hollywood sale.


Coming up with a “take” that can be shared with one’s agent, even if an author isn’t interested in writing an adaptation personally is one action that can be taken by an author to up the chances of a sale. A little research into filmed content an author enjoys can also provide an edge, as an author can then ask their agent to target certain buyers based on genuine admiration (everyone likes to be flattered). If you’re lucky enough to have a book sell to Hollywood, that’s when the real fun begins: development. But that’s a whole other column.


Hollywood Decoded is where I answer your questions based on my 20 years of writing and producing in film and television. My answers will be included in my monthly newsletter and on my blog. Have a question? Submit them here.




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