Five Tips for Working with Hollywood as a Publisher or Author

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

The importance of “key art,” how to work with co-agents, and whether or not to follow your gut.

By Edward Nawotka

movie camera

For the past two days we’ve looked at the process of book discovery in Hollywood, and as discussed yesterday, how the cultures between book publishing and filmmaking are often at odds. Continuing yesterday’s conversation with Pat Walsh, former editor of MacAdam/Cage and the man responsible for numerous rights deals over the years, we offer a few more of his “best practices” for working with Hollywood from his interview with Peter Cook.

Nobody is looking for unpublished manuscripts, says Walsh…

The reason a book is being taken seriously at all is because we’re publishing it. We’re taking all the initial risk. We should take advantage of that above and beyond the sales of the movie tie-in edition. Until somebody pays you for the book, nobody ever believes it’ll ever become a movie. Everyone talks about it. Things stay under option for years and never ever, ever get made: Look at Confederacy of Dunces…That’s the Waiting for Godot of all book-to-film…Not in my lifetime — that thing is Chinese democracy.

You need to get the key art for the tie-in book

I care about deeply about tie-ins and rights sales potential. I see it as a way, y’know editors rarely get to make money for the publishing house very often, y’know except by doing stuff like this. And a movie tie-in sells ten times better than any average paperback. So if you can do the tie-in, you can bring a whole new audience to your book. But you need to insist on getting the key art contractually obligated to you — hopefully at no cost or reasonable cost. The key art is the movie poster that you want to put on the cover of your book. There were books we were not able to do a movie tie-in edition to because we did not have the key art…The problem is these guys don’t like to release the key art until they start promoting the film which is generally like three or four weeks out from [the movie’s] release. So they don’t give it to you — ‘til everyone’s signed off and finalized on it — and you can’t print the book that fast. So you need to make sure it’s a contractual issue that you have a layered workable file [in plenty of time]…And limit the cost of it [contractually] because the partners of the studios in licensing, they don’t realize…they often charge way too much and you spend an awful lot of a time negotiating — and they want five thousand dollars for five thousand copies of the book…Then suddenly that’s almost like the author’s royalty right there…And they’re incredibly litigious, as you can imagine. So you want to make sure the key art is yours for a nominal or no fee. It’s more important than that you get to the premiere or first-class travel or any of the other things they throw in those contracts: YOU NEED THE KEY ART. And you need it before 90 days.

The actors have to sign off on the key art, too. I had to get John Travolta’s and Scarlett Johansson’s signature on a page for a book we had on-press. I had exactly 24 hours to get them to sign something. You know how hard it is to track those people down? We got real lucky, but you don’t want to have to be doing that…The key art clause is the most time-saving, money-saving advice there is about selling any book-to-film—for a publisher.

Working with co-agents:

You can get a lot out of working with co-agents, but there’s an awful lot of ways to waste your time. Find a few people you like and trust and stick to them. Always be a hundred percent up front. Tell them if the author is somebody they can put on a phone with a producer — or if the author’s somebody that they should stick in a box until after the movie premieres. And sometime you have to fire [co-agents] — and maintain that relationship. “I think I can find somebody who loves it more. I’ll send you something else later.” And then you gotta move the book to somebody else. You have to keep doing that all the time, because you can’t just let it sit there on their shelf.  You have a fiduciary job to sell those rights. If you hold rights you have to try to sell them. If you can’t sell them, or you’re not willing to, then you’ve got to give them back to the author or the agent. We’ve done that a few times — just kept striking out. So we just reverted the rights back to the [author’s] agent. Let them try. And it worked a couple of times. Which is really great. If you don’t let your pride get too hurt. Give somebody the chance to get lucky.

Follow your gut, but your gut is not always right

The books we’ve published that I thought would make great movies are not the ones [for which] that we’ve sold [the film rights]…Listening to the agents about what we’re selling and how to kind of judge that and they said, “Look at the cost: You got probably ten million dollars for every ten years you go back in time, call it a million bucks for every horse, fifty thousand bucks for every costume…So I was thinking that smaller is — period pieces are incredibly expensive. They take place in cities. Special effects are expensive. The more easily make-able stuff is a great story, but a rural piece. All they have to do is rent a farm. Don’t have to worry about closing down streets, or neighbors, or all these expensive elements. But that’s not been the case. The ones that have sold are the ones that are crazy expensive. Me & Orson Welles took place in 1930’s New York. They ended up shooting it on the Isle of Mann…Expensive?

It’s hard but it’s so worth it

[Film rights deals] represent probably 15% of our income. In a margin industry where you’re trying to shave a half a percentage point by printing in Mexico or switching printers for half a percentage point — ten percent of the gross income is huge. And the cash flow they provide is great. Some years we got nothing…some years we got half a million or a million bucks.

Tell us your “best practices” in the comments below.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.