How a Book's Dramatic Rights Get Sold

Some insights from a pro

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You know the names of today's richest writers: J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Dan Brown. There are a few other names but the list is short and none of them got really rich by publishing their novels. They got really rich when the subsidiary rights were sold.

Books are often the source material for movies, television shows, and stage plays and, like all subsidiary rights sales, film and TV rights sales represent additional income and exposure for the book they are based upon.

How It's Done

One crucial point is that the author, not the publishing house, almost always owns the subsidiary rights. And that includes the so-called dramatic rights. Nevertheless, the publisher may arrange for the sale of the dramatic rights.

Dramatic rights agents like Holly Frederick have the highly specialized job of arranging the sale of a book's film, TV, or stage rights for adaptation. Frederick works exclusively with authors whose books are published by Curtis Brown. 

"At Curtis Brown, we refer to my type of role as that of a secondary agent, she said. "What I mean by that is that I'm not involved in that primary publishing deal — it's the primary agents who sign the clients and sell the clients' work to the publisher. I get involved with the book once it's been sold to a publisher and is — literally! — walked down that long hallway by my primary agent colleague into the back office."

Not every book published by Curtis Brown makes it down the hall to her desk. "Of course, you're going to take cookbooks and cholesterol diet books out of the equation. But even after that, not every book is going to be a film, not every book is going to be a TV show. That's where my expertise comes in," she said.

So, her first task is to select the books that are suitable for a dramatic rights sale.

The Winnowing Process

At the start, it's a reader's job. "If you've ever read a book, finished it, and put it down on your lap and said, "That would make a great movie!" then you know a bit about what it's like to do my job," Frederick says.

Of course, it's more nuanced than that. You have to keep close tabs on the market, you have to know what the marketplace is looking for, And you have to know the potential buyers.

"There are at least a zillion people in Hollywood who call themselves producers these days," she said. "My job is largely about knowing the right producer for the right piece of material, whether a piece of material is best adapted for series television, for long-form television, for a feature film, or for the stage. And then you have to know what the marketplace will support. For every 10 books that we sell here, I can probably put aside nine because they're not right for the marketplace."

No Boy Wizards!

Timing is everything in pitching dramatic rights. Frederick says she can't sell anything featuring a vampire or a boy wizard these days. The market for them is totally saturated. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories are really tough to sell lately, too.

And that means some really good stories won't make it to the screen, at least not in the near future. "I have wonderful, wonderful books on my shelf that I'm just not able to find buyers for at this moment because the book hit the marketplace at the wrong time," she says.

Sale of a book's dramatic rights doesn't mean instant millions. That movie might never get made, or if it does it could flop. But the sale helps in other ways, Frederick notes. Even a modest success means additional book sales. And the dramatic rights sale increases interest from foreign publishers, who will be more interested in taking on a book that might be dramatized.