Thursday, 28 May 2009

Trios: Diary Of An On-Call Girl, by E E Bloggs: Selling TV Rights

This latest Trios offering looks at Diary of an On-call Girl: True Stories from the Front Line, the memoirs of an anonymous police officer, P. C. Bloggs. This week Dan Collins, Bloggs' publisher at Monday Books, discusses how TV rights to her book were sold; the next piece in the series looks at the importance of title and cover design; and the final article, written by P. C. Bloggs herself, considers the problems of writing her book while still working full-time as a police officer.

P. C. Bloggs will be interviewed by Woman's Hour on BBC Radio Four on June 15 (the program begins at 10am), and her book is then going to be serialised on Woman's Hour every day that week. You can listen at 10.45am and again at 7.45pm each day, but I bet there's a listen again option if you miss it. Which, of course, you won't!

I'd hate to give the impression that I know a great deal about the alchemy involved in selling book rights to TV, because I don't. It's not like we're experts—we've sold the rights to just two books, and been approached for the rights to three others (details below). But based on our own experiences and those of friends in the industry, this is what we know—or what we think we know, anyway.

Just selling the rights doesn't mean your book will make it to TV. Usually, you (meaning the publisher) will have been approached by an independent production company looking to buy an option to the rights to a given title. They then hawk the idea round the broadcasters and hope for a bite. No bites means no TV show, and that's pretty much where it ends. I don't know how many books get optioned and never make it to the screen, but I think the answer is probably 'a lot'. This means that there's not much money to be made out of this unless your book actually gets made. The option fee, which gives the purchaser the exclusive right to look at ways of adapting the book, is typically quite small.

We turned down an approach for Wasting Police Time by a company approaching us on behalf of the 'Pub Landlord' Al Murray because they were only offering £1,500 for the option. We thought that was derisory. Turns out it's quite normal. Well, you live and (hopefully) learn.

If they get their 'bite', the TV company will usually then pay you a rights fee—a one-off payment of perhaps double or treble the option fee (this is either 'on account of' or 'not on account of' the option fee; one of these phrases means that the option fee comes off the rights fee, but I'm not sure which one it is. The former, I think). Then you ought to get an additional fee 'per half hour of TV'—say £5,000.

Thus, if you sell the rights to your book and it gets made into an eight-part series of 30 minute episodes you can expect to clear £1,500 for the option, £3,000 for the rights and £40,000 for the show itself. I say 'clear', but obviously you have to pay the author (and the taxman).

How such income is split between the publisher and author varies. Some publishing contracts pay royalties on a 90/10 split in favour of the author. Ours are 50/50. We justify this in two ways. As with most small, independent publishers, our authors tend not to have the sort of following which makes them hot properties before they even put pen to paper (compared with—say—Ross Kemp, whose book about gangs was nailed-on as a TV series from the moment it was conceived). Additionally, the books themselves tend to need quite a lot of editing work. Thus, we argue, if TV are interested it will be in some (possibly quite large) part down to the work we do. If we involve lawyers—which we do—then we pay their fees. The legal bill for reading and amending the contract for the rights to Diary Of An On Call Girl cost more than we have made out of selling the rights, so far. Given that there is no guarantee it will ever get made (and thus that we will ever recoup the difference), I don't think it's unfair that we defray those costs out of the upfront fee. We could, of course, not use lawyers—but with all the additional stuff to think about, like repeat fees, DVD rights, internet rights, other broadcast rights, what credit the author and the book get if the darn thing makes it to telly and so on, it's a brave publisher who simply trusts his own judgment. We have sold the rights to two of our titles—Frank Chalk's teacher's lament It's Your Time You're Wasting (to SMG, who own Chris Evans' Ginger Productions and make Taggart, Goodbye Mr Chips and lots of other stuff), and the aforementioned Diary Of An On Call Girl. We're currently in negotiations with Alison 'Lily Allen's Mum' Owen's company to sell the rights to Wasting Police Time and Perverting the Course of Justice, and a writer has just started work on Curse of the Al Dulaimi Hotel (And Other Half-truths from Baghdad) in the hope of being commissioned directly by one of the major broadcasters.

My thanks to Dan Collins, publisher of Monday Books, for this piece.


Maggie Dana said...

Thank you, Dan and Jane, for this very informative article. I may know a little about fonts and layout, but am witless about film and TV rights (or any other kind of rights), so this is all extremely useful stuff to add to my growing collection of publishing information.

JP_Fife said...

There are tales of some authors making a decent living on TV and film options, which get renewed every twelve to eighteen months.

The reason it's called an option is that it is basically a holding fee, which is why they're so small.

You're right to go with a lawyer but you can do a lot of the leg work yourself. There's a fairly famous book which I'm sure is called 'negotiating rights' which gives a run down of rights available to sell and some more detailed information.

Sailing a bit close to the wind on the justification aren't you? No need to say you made their book better by editing it. Just tell authors you want to make a profit. I always thought 90/10 in favour of the author was standard for subsidiary rights.

Jane Smith said...

JP, I'd be very surprised if book-authors could exist on option sales alone: there just aren't enough options bought. Perhaps screen-writers and TV-writers could, though, as the whole setup is different. Mind you, with the average income of authors being so horribly low, perhaps they can live on just three £2,000 option fees in a year!

As I specifically asked Dan to explain how, and why, TV options and sales work from the publisher's perspective, he's not trying to justify himself at all: he's just working to my brief.

And I'll confirm that a 50/50 split of subsidiary rights is fairly standard when the publisher sells them: I know I've signed contracts with that split, and I've issued them too. Generally, those rights should remain with the person with the best chance of selling them on: so with the author, if his agent has a good subsidiary sales department; or with the publisher, if it has a better chance of making those sales. Because even at a 50% cut, 50% of soemthing is still better than 100% of nothing (as my grandfather used to tell me, bless him).

JP_Fife said...

Thanks for the clarification Jane. I may be thinking of film rather than TV rights: I do have a distinct memory of reading about an author who had a nice income from options continuously renewed but a film/TV series never being made - though I can't for the life of me remember the author.

I bow to your wisdom on the rights split, although I wonder if the 50/50 split is standard because it's always accepted and never negotiated. I've also seen the best suited to sell argument elsewhere and it makes sense.

David Dittell said...

My two cents as a screenwriter who has recently adapted a book: you can make a living off of options if what's being optioned is already popular enough, since someone is always going to want to be in control of that property. Big series, like The Lord of the Rings, The Wind and the Willows, and Tintin get passed around a lot, and each new optioning results in new income for the author/owner of the rights. Of course, at that stage you're probably not relying on film options as anything close to your primary income anyway.

I would also consider any additional sales resulting from the show/film's publicity as a benefit of selling the TV/film rights. Obviously that's not direct new income, but it's something to additionally weight if, for instance, you're facing two offers, one for more cash and one with a higher certainty to get made.

JP_Fife said...

The book I was thinking of is Selling Rights by Lynette Owen, Routledge. Every author should have one.