How Are Books Adapted for the Screen? Two Agents Demystify the Process

Allison Hunter and Jennifer Weltz

Today’s guest post is a Q&A by Sangeeta Mehta (@sangeeta_editor), a former acquiring editor of children’s books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, who runs her own editorial services company.

Over the last couple of years, it’s been tough not to notice the increase in dramatic rights deals in the book industry. A quick search on Publishers Marketplace reveals a new film or television deal almost every week. Publishers Weekly’s “page-to-screen” news feed is equally active, and The Hollywood Reporter recently ran a piece on How the Publishing World Is Muscling In on Hollywood Deals.

These deals don’t appear to be limited to a particular genre or category. Streaming services and film producers are expressing an interest in a wide range of book properties—fiction and nonfiction for both adult and children’s audiences. And from the outset, it looks as though they are inviting authors—bestselling and debut—to take part in the adaptation process, at least to an extent.

During a PEN America event I attended a few months ago, Your Option on Options, one of the speakers noted that the rise in streaming companies, coupled with the pandemic, has made today a golden age for IP content. Curious to find out if this is true, I reached out to Allison Hunter of Trellis Literary Management and Jennifer Weltz of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, both of whom represent authors whose work has been or is being adapted for the screen. As with all my literary agent Q&As, neither knew the other’s identity until after they provided their answers to my questions below.

Why don’t we start by defining what a book-to-screen option is. Is it correct to say that this is an agreement whereby a producer is granted the rights to adapt an author’s book for television or film?

Is there a standard fee, term, or renewal process for options, or do these vary widely in the same way that book advances vary?

How does an option differ from a shopping agreement, and what is more common today?

Allison Hunter: Yes, an option is an exclusive right to shop the book to producers, studios, directors, writers, and actors to see if anyone is interested in turning the book into a movie, TV show or limited series. Pre-pandemic, options were usually for a 12-month period, but now we’re seeing more 18- and 24-month options, as it’s taking longer to get projects made. Option fees do vary widely, from the very low (a few thousand dollars) to the high (hundreds of thousands).

A shopping agreement similarly asks for exclusivity but doesn’t offer any payment in exchange. It’s a way to test the waters to see if there is any interest in the property without a financial commitment. Shopping agreements are generally for a shorter time period than option agreements (often six months), because there is no money offered. They are becoming more and more common, especially when it’s not a competitive situation.

Jennifer Weltz: Yes, that is correct, and there are no standard fees, terms, or renewal processes for options. These vary even more than book advances. But I would say that terms usually aren’t shorter than three or six months and aren’t longer than 24 months; they can be 6 months, 9 months, 12 months, 18 months. It’s more important to ask: How new is the book? How desired is the book? And if a producer wants to have it for a long period of time, how is the author getting compensated for that exclusive time with the book?

A shopping agreement has become more and more popular with producers because this involves no or little money. Also, the producer is already attached to the project, which gives them the safety of knowing you can’t cut them out of the deal. If you’re doing a shopping agreement, I would encourage you to do it for as short a period of time as possible. It’s basically saying that the producer has limited time to make the magic happen, and if not, you both part ways.

Does your agency partner with television and film co-agents, or do you pitch books directly to producers, production companies, studios, or streaming services?

Do you attempt to sell dramatic rights for all the books your agency represents, or only those that seem well suited for adaptation? In what cases, if any, would the publisher retain and exploit these rights?

AH: We partner with co-agents, who have the relationships in Hollywood that we do not. Our goal is to find co-agents for all narrative projects, fiction and nonfiction. We never allow the publisher to retain film rights. We consider those rights extremely valuable, and only in very rare cases can a publisher make a better deal for film rights than our co-agents can. We want to give our authors as much input and control in potential film adaptations as possible, which is why we always prefer to handle those rights.

JW: We do both. We work with some amazing co-agents, but we are an agency that’s almost 45 years old with a huge list of books, and not all co-agents are aware of some of our books. For example, just today, I had somebody contact me about a series of books from the late eighties or early nineties that had reverted, and they wanted to know if rights were available for film. We deal directly with producers who contact us directly, and we negotiate our deals in-house. But if we’re pitching them a book, we have wonderful co-agents we refer them to.

The publisher does not retain film rights. If a publisher is attempting to obtain film rights, question whether you should be doing a deal with that publisher. Sometimes that’s your only option and they have you over a barrel. Obviously, there are exceptions to every rule, such as publishers who have a first-look deal with a studio; there’s nothing wrong with this if it doesn’t bind you to the terms. But we retain film rights for almost all the books we have ever done in 45 years.

We sell dramatic rights for all our books, but not all books lend them themselves to film. The ones that we actively go out and try and sell tend to be ones that might lead to a series or to a film documentary. This means fiction as well as nonfiction books work well for the screen.

Are there certain genres, styles, or topics that might increase a book’s chances of being adapted, such as fiction with strong world-building elements or nonfiction about a current event? Does this depend in part on the type of adaptation the producer envisions, whether a limited series, a feature film, or a documentary?

Are there any instances in which you would encourage an established writer to revise their book to make it more fitting for the screen, perhaps if a studio executive has expressed interest in an early draft?

AH: These things can be a bit trendy—for a while, right after The Martian, everyone was looking for grounded sci-fi. Then we were hearing that everyone wanted Game of Thrones–style fantasy. After Big Little Lies was a big hit, female-led suspense became popular. Now, I’m happy to report that rom-coms are having a bit of a moment.

Certainly, what books the producer is looking for depends on what kind of adaptation he or she envisions, and some nonfiction projects are better suited for documentary than feature. I can’t think of a situation in which I’d advise an author to change their book specifically for the screen, since the elements that make a book cinematic—gripping story, memorable, nuanced characters—are the same ones that make it a great book.

JW: Yes, but these things change all the time. Watching streaming and films gives you a sense of what is working and what is not. Sometimes a book has a very visual element to it, like Dune, but this was a blockbuster before anyone was willing to touch it. Same with Lord of the Rings.

If you’re not yet in a situation where you have huge sales, you have to have something else about your book that is incredibly compelling. Film people do look at sales numbers, though, because they want to make sure that they have a surefire audience. Adapting for film is very expensive, so it has to be worth it to them. Historical fiction (say, with horses) and fantasy are harder than contemporary fiction because this requires an investment in creating a world. I would say that streaming services are doing the highest number of adaptations right now. Feature films are also coming back into play, but they really need to be blockbusters.

As for revising a book for the screen—the book needs to be a book. If the studio executive has some really great idea to better the actual book, that’s a whole different issue, but don’t revise it purely to make it more palatable for the screen. The screenwriter is perfectly capable of making those changes.

At what point in the book publishing process are most books optioned? Once the book deal is signed? Just before or just after publication? Or after the book has reached bestseller status or amassed a fan base? Are most of these books published by the Big Five and other corporate publishers, specifically those with celebrity-curated imprints, or are you seeing some literary adaptations come from independent publishers and small presses?

AH: The good news is that books can be optioned at any point in their life. Occasionally, a book is optioned at the same time or even before it sells to a publisher. More commonly, it’s optioned closer to publication, when the buzz has been building, or after publication, when it’s a bestseller. But sometimes it happens months or years after publication. It’s definitely easier to get a book optioned if it’s a big bestseller, but it doesn’t need to be, and it certainly doesn’t need to be published by a major house. A great story is a great story, no matter what!

JW: Film options can happen at any point in time, but obviously, the higher the visibility of the book, the more likely you are to get interest. The film world pays attention to announcements for new books, so if they hear about something that sounds amazing, they will ask to see it, and this is how books get optioned before they’re published. But by and large, it’s either at publication or after, when there are reviews and publicity. And if a book has reached bestseller status, then you have more leverage to be able to option it.

As for who is publishing these books—I’m seeing some literary adaptations come from independent publishers and small presses. It doesn’t matter who’s publishing them. It matters how visual the book is and how much potential it has to be a good film or a good series. We’ve optioned short stories as well as books, and we pitch everything equally.

In the past, once an author’s work was optioned, they had little to no say in how it would be interpreted and translated for the screen. Today, many authors are being hired as consultants, screenwriters, showrunners, or even producers. What explains this pivot, and do you think most writers are able to distance themselves enough from their book to excel at screenwriting and other related art forms?

AH: Because of the streaming services, there is more entertainment content produced than there ever has been, and because some TV and film adaptations of books have been very successful, producers are turning to books more and more. Authors then have more options for where to sell their books, and more leverage in negotiations. Most authors want to be involved in the adaptation process—their books are their babies, and it’s hard to let go! But not every author is suited for screenwriting. It’s a different skill, and some authors have it and some do not.

JW: First of all, it’s important to clarify that having consultation does not mean that you will have final say about what the film will look like in the end. Even if you’re in the writing room, you usually do not have final say. You could be an executive producer, which means that you have a say, but you might not have final say because there are a lot of people who have their fingers in that pot. All authors should recognize that their book may change when it’s adapted. If you want complete control, then the film world is not for you! Yes, there are authors that have managed a very high level of control, but that’s usually because they’ve written a huge bestseller.

If you are an author who becomes a showrunner, you are running the show. You have proven that you have the chops to be the head writer, which has nothing to do with being a book writer. It means you are multi-talented, which is fantastic.

Until the streaming era began, it was rare for a literary work to be produced, much less developed for the screen in some way. How has this scenario changed now that so many streaming platforms are competing with one another and likely need a steady influx of new content? Are there any benefits for an author who secures a rights deal from a studio that never produces their work? Or whose movie adaptation is not well received or whose series adaptation is canceled prematurely? Could they still see a spike in book sales, or be considered for other opportunities down the road due to new film and television contacts?

AH: I don’t know that I agree that it was rare—books have always been appealing to Hollywood, since the era of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (both books first!). But, as I said earlier, the streaming era means that there are many more buyers than there used to be. Authors have more choices and can thus make better deals.

Frustratingly, it is extremely common to have a book option and not to have an adaptation made—things can fall apart at so many stages in the process. I always tell authors not to believe it’s going to happen until they physically see it on the screen. Generally, book sales are not affected until the movie or series actually gets made—most people aren’t reading Deadline or learning what’s getting optioned. But depending on how involved the author is with the option process, there certainly can be other opportunities that come out of it.

JW: I think it’s a combination. Yes, there are competing streaming services that need content. But I also want to give credit to Netflix. When they entered the scene, one of their biggest hits was Orange Is the New Black. This series—a book adaptation—put them on the map. From then on, book adaptation was king. It has been proven again and again that books add to the interest and viability of a screen project. The Enola Holmes Mysteries by Nancy Springer was an older title I’d been trying to get adapted for years, and it was supposed to be a feature film, but then the pandemic hit. It later ended up with Netflix. It became a film because the actress Millie Bobby Brown came onto the scene, and the stars just aligned. It’s true that streamers need a great deal of content, but books are a perfect way to find content. Books have also provided them with some of their biggest hits.

Will an option help with book sales? Probably not, but the author will have earned some money. It’s when the movie gets made that you start to see a spike in book sales. As for gaining a new contact from the person who optioned the book—I couldn’t say. I mean, they might want to see the author’s next book, but I have no idea.

Is there anything unrepresented or unpublished writers can do to take advantage of Hollywood’s book boom? For example, should they create a logline or a one-page pitch about how their work would fit into the current entertainment market, in addition to writing their query letter? Come up with a screenplay or film treatment to accompany their manuscript, if they have the time and the resources? Or would such projects come across as presumptuous?

AH: At the stage when they’re querying literary agents like me, it would be presumptuous. At that stage, the author’s job is to write a fantastic, cinematic story. If they can picture it as a TV series or movie, they’re doing something right. But if they’re interested in screenwriting, they will need a spec script, and adapting their own book is the easiest way to do that. That’s something they should discuss with the film co-agent much further down the line, however.

JW: I would not recommend creating a screenplay at the query stage. But you can place a log line at the top of your query letter. Being able to describe your book in one line is always a helpful skill. Remember that agents are looking for books, so that’s what the author should focus on.

Do you have any other advice for writers who dream about one day seeing their work adapted for the big or small screen?

AH: Be patient! The process can take a very long time, but you never know what will happen. My former agency represented the rights to Michael Punke’s 2002 novel The Revenant, which sold modestly at the time of publication but became a bestseller when it was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, 13 years later. Don’t give up hope.

JW: Keep in mind that everything you see on a big or small screen is a miracle! If it was adapted from a book, there are hundreds if not thousands of other books that have been optioned and not ended up on that screen relative to that one. The odds are better today than they were 10 or 20 years ago because we have so many streaming services, and because book adaptations have become so successful. Also, producers and show runners have a growing respect for books. But it is still incredibly hard to get a book to screen. So be kind to yourself, try to make your book the best it can be, and make sure that people know that your book exists. By doing all of this, you are more likely to gain somebody’s attention who might be able to make your book into a film or show.

Allison Hunter (@AllisonSHunter): A founding partner of Trellis Literary Management, Allison is actively acquiring literary and commercial adult fiction, focusing on upmarket book club and women’s fiction, rom coms, thrillers and domestic suspense. She loves great storytelling and unforgettable characters, and is always looking for female friendship stories, campus novels, great love stories, family epics, and books about class and cultural identity. She would especially love to find a smart beach read by an author underrepresented in that category.

In the nonfiction space, Allison is acquiring select memoir, narrative nonfiction, and the occasional prescriptive project. She loves working with journalists and with experts in their field, and is always looking for pop culture, women’s issues and for books that speak to the current cultural climate.

Allison has a B.A. in American Studies and Creative Writing from Stanford University and a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, she now splits her time between upstate New York and Austin, Texas. She loves to cook, host dinner parties, watch all medical TV shows, and brainstorm new book ideas and plots with her authors.

Jennifer Weltz (@JVNLA): As President of JVNLA—and newly elected President of the Association of American Literary Agents—Jennifer Weltz has sold books domestically, internationally, and for film for over two decades. Coming from a mediation background, Jennifer sees herself as a liaison between her author and the editor and publishing house that acquire her author’s work. This role takes on a myriad of forms—business manager, confidant, task master, preliminary editor, and matchmaker—to name a few. Since Jennifer takes up an author’s career and not just a project, she is very careful and selective about signing on new authors. At present she would love to find an adult novel by an author from a diverse background that makes her laugh until she cries. A little magical realism is always welcome as well.

Share on:
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments