Apologies for the delay on this article, an MTC (that’s a Minor Tidying Calamity) occurred and my notebook with my course notes in somehow ended up in the outhouse with the washing machine and freezer. I blame The Husband…
A recent conversation thread on the Shooting People Screenwriters’ List revealed that it is considered pretty bad form to adapt material without having the rights to it. This is not a problem when certain stories are already in the public domain, but what if it is protected by copyright? We hear a lot about producers acquiring the rights to certain books and certainly it would seem they are the main people looking out for such deals. But what about writers? Can’t we do this too? With the bigger production companies reported to have “first look” deals with many of the bigger publishing houses, it would seem a writer [or smaller, “starting out” producer] getting hold of good material to adapt is pretty hopeless.
Not so. Jan Rutherford and Hugh Andrew of Birlinn Publishing came into speak to us about this and it proved very enlightening to say the least. Like many writers, I had thought trying to gain rights would be a fruitless exercise – as many Bangwriters seem to, since the only adaptations I ever seem to get are those texts that are well out of copyright. (Alice In Wonderland, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks seem to be particular favourites). Copyright now runs for the writer’s lifetime plus seventy years.
So how does a writer or smaller producer approach a publisher? Well, the answer may just be in approaching a small publisher, rather than one of the giants: Birlinn has had about 8 projects adapted, but they’ve actually published over 1000 projects: “The phones are not exactly hot.” They said. Working up a relationship with a publisher is absolutely paramount in gaining the rights to a project. Whilst most enquiries come from producers, writers are welcome too; Jan and Hugh explained they are ONLY TOO DELIGHTED to receive approaches. Apparently the best thing to do is find out who a publisher’s rights person is, then email your CV -remember, they don’t know who YOU are. This of course lends the belief that a writer is *more likely* to obtain the rights to a project if they already have a proven track record but – nothing ventured, nothing gained!
But how much is an option on a novel? This really depends on the status of the author and/or project: apparently rights can go for as little as a few hundred pounds or many thousands and are always up for discussion at smaller publishers where there is not as much comnpetition. Renewal is usually two years; part of the deal can sometimes be a more substantial renewal deal based on the notion that by then things should have moved on – you may have talent attached to the project for example or have secured development money. Basically all an option does is buy you TIME to develop the project sufficiently.
Other interesting titbits came to light too. Though certain texts might be out of copyright, it’s worth remembering that certain VERSIONS might have forewords or introductions that are still in copyright, so those would not be able to form part of your adaptation. In addition, copyright can change country to country, so it’s always worth doing your homework.
Birlinn published Graeme Obree’s book I mentioned in the previous post (also called The Flying Scotsman), but also poignantly Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number One Ladies Detective Agency: we were shown a clip of Anthony Minghella’s upcoming film that will be broadcast here in the UK this Easter Weekend (and it looked, as expected, excellent – I will be tuning in). Jan and Hugh explained how hard it is to tie books in with the film adaptations: for example, publishers like to reprint books with the same cover as the film poster, but bad communications between the two can mean this sometimes isn’t possible.
Some great stuff there I think – suddenly I feel like getting out there and optioning a book! I think I might have a coffee first though. If you were going to option a novel and money was no object, which would you go for and why?