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Adaptation, Pt 3: What A Publisher Says

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?

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7 thoughts on “Adaptation, Pt 3: What A Publisher Says”

  1. My wife tidies things away. They go into the nearest hiding place.

    The treatment I’m working on disappeared the other day, I found it in a rarely used drawer when I was looking for something else.

    These spouses eh? Good thing they add spice.

    (See what I did there.)


  2. I nearly bought the rights to a short story a few years ago and was engaged in speaking to the agent of the author in question. She more or less asked me how much I’d offer as I was looking to do a short film adaptation of the story. A rule of thumb I read (and will have to look up the reference) was something like offering 10% of the overall budget. Anyway – it came to nothing in the end as life intervened as it always does.

  3. Now I’ve read the rest of the post 🙂

    Hm, I did actually contact a writer’s agent a couple of years ago and went through some preliminary discussions about acquiring the rights to a book.

    It wasn’t cheap, but it was “affordable” (about £4000) — I mean, I could see myself saving up 4K to acquire the rights.

    The writer is a recognised writer but never adapted, for whatever reason, hence the price.

    Acquiring the rights I understand, but all the info on the web is from the director/producer viewpoint. What I have trouble understanding is how you sell your adaptation to a production company, if you already own the book rights.

    Just haven’t been able to get my head round it at all.



  4. Tom: that’s really interesting to know, cheers. Can I ask what short story that was? Email me the title if you’d rather.

    Steve: as I understand it, getting a prodco interested in your adapted script is the same as a spec, though *maybe* you might have more luck ‘cos of the whole “ready made audience” thing? Tho presumably the rights would stay with you ‘cos you paid for them – though part of the deal might be they buy you out of the rights and take responsibility for them when they option your script?

    An excellent point though, we need to find someone who can answer it… Anyone?

  5. Brief thoughts: if you make an investment on a project by virtue of spending money on acquiring rights, you are involved in the production and are acting as a producer. You might write the adaptation yourself but you then have to change your thinking from trying to sell your adaptation to getting people involved in your production. This means that you approach production companies or individual producers with the aim of getting them on board as co-producers. As you (or your company) own the rights to the original material, you’ll end up in a much stronger position and likely to be able to keep more creative control than just being the writer of a screenplay.

    No doubt someone with far more experience than me will tell you I’m talking bollocks – which would be fair enough – but that’s my 2p worth.

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