Archive for January, 2011

More Bad News From Borders

January 31, 2011


 Borders’ troubles are deepening.  They just announced that they would not be paying vendors in January and will not be paying their rent as well.  A little knowledge of bankruptcy law is always helpful.  Borders’ unwillingness or inability to pay rent is a very dark sign. Usually landlords are the first to get paid. (Vendors are usually the last.) As the unpaid creditors line up, it increases the chances of some of them going to court and forcing an involuntary bankruptcy.  To simplify a complex legal issue, as few as 3 creditors can petition the courts  to initiate a  bankruptcy hearing. As this is being written, Borders’ stock is down 9 cents. This doesn’t sound like much, but when the price is at 76 cents per share, it translates to being down 10%.

Here is an update on Borders from Publishers Marketplace today:

Borders officially announced Sunday night that it will not be sending vendors payments due at the end of January either. And they indicate that publishers are not the only ones being stiffed, saying they are also “delaying additional payments to landlords and other parties.”

They say the non-payment (which they call a “delay” in the press release, but that’s what you call it when you intend to pay someone in full a little while later, which is not what is proposed) “is intended to help the company maintain liquidity while it seeks to complete a refinancing or restructuring of its existing credit facilities and other obligations.” The statement also adds, “Borders emphasized that it understands the impact of its decision on the affected parties, but that the company is committed to working with its vendors and other business partners to achieve an outcome that is in the best interest of Borders and these parties for the long-term.”

From a practical perspective, anyone who was continuing to ship goods to Borders has likely learned their lesson, and it increases the likelihood of a bankruptcy filing–whether forced or voluntary–if the bookseller does not meet the many conditions of its new financing arrangement shortly.

The impact of not paying rent in particular may impose a timetable on how much longer Borders has to plead for concessions before seeking court protection. While we have no direct knowledge of their lease conditions and potential grace periods for payment of rent, and laws do vary from state to state, commercial landlords are generally able to petition for eviction within about two weeks after provided for non-payment deadlines.
According to a memo on an employee web site, Borders workers were told by management to expect inquiries from unpaid landlords and vendors as well as media and customers and asked to “politely but firmly state that all questions are being handled by the corporate office and refuse to offer any other comments.” They were instructed to keep the media from photographing or interviewing within company stores, but the company also noted: “Do not suggest this, but it is acceptable for media to photograph/film the exterior of the store if they do so on public property, such as your parking lot.”

How I Came to Own Cody’s Part 1

January 26, 2011

Pat and Fred Cody and Me 1977

One day in May, 1977 I drove down to Santa Cruz to visit my friend, Neal Coonerty, who owned  the remarkable, Bookshop Santa Cruz. It was a big store for its time, about 10,000 square feet. It was in a lovely brick building on the pedestrian mall downtown. It had a little cobblestone terrace in back where there was a flower stand and a cappuccino counter.   The store was  a kind of bigger version  of Eeyore’s. Well, except that it had a water bed in the middle of the store. I met Neal at a booksellers school that year. We cut up a lot and made fun of the stuffy teachers. He’s still my best friend in bookselling, and his family still owns Bookshop Santa Cruz. The water bed is gone, though.

I was crashing on Neal’s living room couch that night. Just before going to bed, Neal asked me if I was aware that Cody’s in Berkeley was for sale.  I told him that I had heard the rumor. Cody’s was, even then, a famous store, legendary really. I knew about it even  when I was an undergraduate at Brandeis University in Boston. Neal said, “why don’t you buy it?” That seemed unimaginable to me. I was only thirty, and in my mind I felt like I was still 20. When he told me what the asking price was (it was $150,000), I realized I could probably scrape up the money to buy it. It was hard to think of myself as  the owner of Cody’s.  Cody’s was a national icon and an enormously important force in bookselling. Things were smaller then. Owning Cody’s at that time was, to the book business,  a little like  owning Facebook today.

I woke up the next morning and walked out to my car accompanied by Neal. He asked, “So are you going to buy Cody’s?”  I shook my head  and drove away. I thought about it again while driving home. It was a big decision and one that would change the course of my entire adult life. So I tried to give it more thought than  the capricious decision that  I  made to quit graduate school.  So I must have thought about it for at least an hour. As soon as I got back to my house, I called up  Pat and Fred Cody and asked if we could meet. What happened next is a pretty short story. They liked me. I liked them. A month later on July 9, 1977  I was the new owner of Cody’s.

That date, July 9, had a certain inexorable destiny in the history of Cody’s. It was the date that the store was founded in 1956, and the date that I bought the store 21 years later. It was the date that Fred Cody died in 1983. We also originally planned on closing the Telegraph store forever on that date in 2006. When we realized that would be the 50th anniversary of the store’s founding, we made the decent decision to postpone the closing till the following day.

The Codys were larger than life. Fred Cody was one of the most charismatic men I ever knew. He was about 6’2″, had wavy grey hair and looked a little like Moses without the beard. He was a true intellectual. He also got into the business because he had a  passion for books. He had an advanced degree in history, just like me. And he also was just the sweetest guy you could ever imagine. I loved him. Everybody loved him. Pat Cody was great and had a passion for books too. But she brought to Cody’s complementary strengths. Where Fred was a dreamer, Pat was practical and a hardnosed business person.

Everybody thinks of Berkeley as the most radical city in America. It certainly isn’t any more, but probably was back then.  But  just like every other community, Berkeley people were resistant to   change  and wary of outsiders. And they were particularly concerned about the unknown  30 year old who was taking over their beloved bookstore. I learned that one local bookseller, after meeting me, commented disparagingly  that he hoped I had good help.  Everybody came up to me and admonished me not to change anything at Cody’s. I promised I wouldn’t. The Codys knew better. They told me that the store needed new blood and a lot change. And they were confident that I could do it.

During the month of negotiations I had with them, they wouldn’t let me come into the store and meet the staff. Finally the day before the store was to change hands, I was allowed to come in. Pat and Fred stayed around for a few days to clean up their office. Then Fred came up to me and said, “I’m going home. Call me if you need anything.” I was too young and inexperienced to realize that I was too young and inexperienced. So I just started working.   For the next 30 years anybody who disagreed with me for any reason would tell me that Fred Cody would have done things differently. They usually said that they were “close personal friends with Bill Cody”. This was always a tipoff that they that they had no idea what they were talking about.   Some of those people hadn’t even been born when Fred owned the store.  People called me “the new owner of Cody’s” for about 20 years.

 When I bought Cody’s in 1977, it was considered a “paperback bookstore.”  That was when paperback books were beginning to come out of the closet. “Trade” paperbacks weren’t all that common in bookstores  until the 1950s. Bookstores mostly catered to the carriage trade and thought that paperbacks were for riff-raff and beneath their dignity. But bookstores started cropping up that had more egalitarian sensibilities and  started specializing  in the new format. The conventional wisdom is that the first 3 stores that blazed the way for the paperback revolution were in the San Francisco Bay Area. They were Kepler’s in Palo Alto, City Lights in San Francisco, and Cody’s in Berkeley, all started in the mid 1950s; and  all catering to a clientele that was long on brains and short on cash. Each of the founders were intellectual dissenters of a sort. Roy Kepler  was a pacifist and peace activist. Fred Cody had a Ph.D but couldn’t get a job in academics because he refused to take a loyalty oath.  Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who started City Lights, was a prominent poet and deeply involved in the Beat culture of San Francisco.

National Guard Outside Cody's -1969

In the 1960s all of these stores became central players in the political unrest of the times. Fred was an early supporter of the Free Speech Movement  that galvanized radical dissent at UC in 1964.  Later Fred was an outspoken peace activist. And Cody’s became an intellectual center for left wing politics, a tradition that continued after  I took over the store. FSM leader, Mario Savio, briefly worked at Cody’s.  In the sixties, there was a lot of turbulence going on right outside the doors of the store associated with the Viet Nam War. In 1969 Governor Ronald Reagan responded to the civil unrest in Berkeley by sending in the National Guard. In justifying this exercise of  excessive force, he famously said, “If the bloodbath must come, then let’s get on with it.” 

Reagan was no Abraham Lincoln, and Telegraph Avenue was no Fort Sumter. But peace activists kept marching up and down Telegraph Avenue,  and the cops were tossing tear gas canisters around to  disperse the crowds. Cody’s would always open the doors to let in the  activists fleeing  from the cops. Fred and Pat  Cody loved to tell the story of  the time that the police threw a tear gas  grenade into the store. The employees  tossed  it back out the door. The cops tossed it in again  and then it  blew up releasing the tear gas throughout the store.  Not good.  Months later you could open some of the books and out wafted  a little of the residual gas.

There is a wonderful documentary  film about the history of Cody’s and Kepler’s . It tells the story of the stores during the sixties emphasizing how they mirrored the political activism of the times   and juxtaposes that story against the struggles that the two stores  went through during the last 10 years as we addressed the challenges we faced with the growth of corporate and Internet bookselling.  The filmmaker, Alex Beckstead, came to me  in 2005 and asked if he could follow me around in order to make this film. I said it was ok. He had hoped to make an uplifting film about how these two famous bookstores triumphed over the  mass merchants. It didn’t turn out that way at all. He ended up with a poignant documentary of Cody’s collapse.  It is called Paperback Dreams. I hate watching that movie. In my mind, it is a narrative of all the mistakes that I made during the last years of the store.  Leslie, my wife,  suffered through it as well; and says I am being too hard on myself.  And  others see it differently as well, more like a classic tragedy, a  struggle against an inexorable fate.  It has been shown on PBS in most of the major markets. The DVD is available online and at bookstores.

What’s The Matter With Borders

January 17, 2011

There has been a lot of talk in the publishing trade and in the financial pages of the major media about the future of Borders Books and Music. Borders is the second largest bricks and mortar bookseller (after Barnes & Noble). There is a very good article by Pete Osnos, publisher of Public Affairs Books, in the January Atlantic Monthly.

It looks like Borders is very close to filing for bankruptcy. Their sales have been declining in double digits for several years. Their stores are down to 674 from 877 last year and many more scheduled to close in the next few months.

After Christmas, Borders announced that it was “temporarily” suspending payment to publishers on the $455,000,000 that they currently owe. This is a staggering amount of money that is at risk to publishers who are suffering their own financial problems in a weak economy.  Borders has been meeting with the publishers in New York promising financial “restructuring” and making rosy predictions that they have made many times before. They have asked the publishers to convert their Borders receivables into loans to the company. Publishers are obviously reluctant to do this. A loan to a bankrupt company is a worthless asset. Border’s is begging publishers to restore credit to them and to make concessions to help the company stay in business (and presumably to protect the publishers’ receivables). Barnes and Noble, who is understandably less troubled by Border’s financial problems, has stated that any special terms granted to Borders by publishers must also be granted to them and to independent stores as well.

Borders still accounts for 8.5% of all trade books sold. Barnes and Noble and Amazon are both  about  17%.  So the uncertainty of Borders future is becoming a logistical, as well as a financial, nightmare. Publishers are having difficulty scheduling author appearances and planning for in- store promotions without knowing the future of the chain.

The story of Borders has elements of a Greek tragedy but partakes of a fair amount of farce as well. Borders originated as an independent store in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was a lot like Cody’s. In the 1980s, it developed a sophisticated inventory control system. In 1991, Borders was bought by the mass merchant, K-Mart. They began following the lead of Barnes and Noble opening 40,000 square feet superstores throughout the country.

At that time Borders seemed like the class act. They had a real book culture. Barnes and Noble seemed more like they were treating books like merchandise.  But as the years wore on, things changed. Borders brought in a lot of grocery store executives who brought their (how shall we say) unique vision to the company. As Barnes and Noble became a more robust business, Borders lost its way. They started  going heavily in music cd’s  not long before  music started being downloadable. They treated Internet bookselling as an afterthought. And now their Internet site is run by Amazon, their chief competitor, in what must be one of the most bizarre relationships in the history of modern retailing.

Meanwhile, Borders isn’t paying its bills. Publishers are not shipping books, and the shelves of the giant Borders superstores are starting to look threadbare. It’s a downward spiral difficult to turn around.

If Border’s closes, there will be some opportunities for Barnes and Noble and Amazon to pick up a portion of the business and significant relief from competitive pressure for some independent stores.  But it is going to be a heavy financial hit for publishers of all sizes, and how it will all play out in the world of books is anybody’s guess.

How I Became a Bookseller

January 9, 2011

Me in Cotati circa 1975


I became a bookseller because I had a passion for books. This is not a particularly good reason to make a life career choice.   But  my decision (if one could call it that) to enter the book business was disorderly. The critical path was filled with loop-de-loops.   I’ve never told this story before, but it goes like this. In 1971 I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon in Eugene. I was on a Ph.D track studying German cultural and intellectual history.  Most of the people with whom I associated outside of the History Department were hippies or some variation thereof. I suppose I was too, although spending one’s waking hours reading Kant and Kierkegaard created some real cognitive dissonance in my countercultural consciousness and lifestyle. I cut a kind of ridiculous figure with my non-academic friends. But people were more tolerant back then.

I was pretty focused  on  becoming a scholar and I was pretty good at it too.  I  had even  been admitted to Ph.D programs at some snooty universities.  I was writing a masters thesis on the social thought of Kierkegaard.  In my other life outside of the university, there was a lot of talk among my friends about freedom, spontaneity, communal living, feminism, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,  psychedelic drugs, astrology, free love, vegetarianism, gestalt therapy, natural childbirth and that sort of thing. Marxism was very popular too. But the Marxism being bandied about was what we  superior intellectuals in the  History Department would call “vulgar Marxism”, by which we meant people who actually wanted to change the world, not just pontificate about it. Among the vulgar Marxists, there was a lot of waving of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Bookand  some vicious disputes over matters that were of no consequence to anyone other than the vulgar Marxists.  Oh, yes. There was a war going on, and Kierkegaard didn’t have much to say about that. (One could argue that Kant did, if you could actually understand what he was talking about.)

It  also rained a lot in Oregon. And there was a girl. There always is, isn’t there?  Things weren’t going too well with us, as is often the case.  One day she walked out on me and joined a free love commune called “Earth’s Rising Family.”  I kept going out there trying to get her back. The Communards were pretty nice people. They graciously put me up  in the teepee down the hill from the privy while they were up in the farmhouse having orgies (or so I imagined).  Kant and  Kierkegaard  didn’t have much say about that either.

Somehow all this led me to the decision to leave academics and  start a bookstore.  As I said, I had a passion for books. I don’t remember much about what kind of thought  went into the decision.  Not very much at all, I believe. Maybe 5 minutes of thought. Maybe it happened in my sleep. Maybe it happened in the teepee.  It was  dumb luck, but it probably set me in the right direction for  the next 40 years and counting.

At first I talked to the guy who owned the countercultural bookstore in Eugene. I had heard that he wanted to sell it.  If my mind doesn’t fail me, I believe it was called “Koobdooga Books.” It means “a good book” backwards.  He told me that he conceived of the name on an acid trip. I thought about buying it.  But I was tired of the rain and depressed about rushing back and forth to and from the teepee at Earth’s Rising Commune.  So I moved down to the San Francisco Bay Area.

I found a  bookshop for sale in Cotati, a small college town in Sonoma County about 50 miles north of San Francisco. There was a lot of hippies there too, kind of like Eugene  but with more sunshine. It was a very modest store, Eeyore Books.   It was started by a couple of local women a few years before. The entire space was 600 square feet, about as big as my living room where I’m writing this. The store wasn’t worth much money, because it didn’t have many books and did even less business.  But I still managed to  drive  a very bad bargain. It is a flaw that I  fortunately overcame before becoming a literary agent.  I paid them $15,000. And  the store  was mine.

I put in some new shelves, ordered up some books and opened for business a week later. It was 1972.  On my first day of business  I did $32 in sales. It was pretty discouraging. Later I learned that was the same amount of sales that  Cody’s had done on its  first day of business in 1956. The old Cody’s shop  on the north side of campus  was about  the same size too. 600 square feet.

The second day I was open, I met my first publisher’s sales rep, Maggie Castanon of Random House. Until her retirement some 30 years later, she was always my favorite person in publishing. She was a great sales person, filled with a passion for books and totally without pretension. I always felt good when I was around her. After she retired, she even came to work for  Cody’s at our Fourth Street store.   For booksellers, Random House always held a special place in our hearts. It wasn’t the largest publisher back then. That was Doubleday. But Random House had the best titles for a bookstore such as ours. A visit by a Random House rep was an event to be anticipated. This special relationship between Random House and booksellers continues to this day. Doubleday is now an imprint of Random House. And Random House is the largest book publisher in the world.

The second sales rep I met was Joyce Cole who sold books for Avon, a mass market publisher. I think she was Maggie’s best friend. Joyce was striking in appearance, sophisticated, and had a kind of  charisma that was difficult to define. I had a feeling that there was something interesting inside. But she seemed cool and aloof. I didn’t expect that we would ever be friends.  I was wrong about that.  Joyce and I  were married in 1986.

A lot of people say that the quality of books has gone downhill in the last 30 years, that literary values have been  replaced by commercial values and that American reading  has been seduced by the dark forces of  a hegemonic mass media with a fetish for  celebrity. Actually most people in the book business don’t talk that way, except maybe me, and then only at pretentious  literary cocktail parties. Nowadays  when I argue the point (and I still do 40 years later),  I like to recite the great line from Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”  And most people agree. (Although there are some who are not familiar with that poem and have to slouch off toward Wikipedia to find  the  reference).

But looking back on the bestsellers of 1972, it would  be hard to characterize that year as a literary golden age.

The ten fiction hardback best sellers were:

1. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach

2. August 1914, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

3. The Odessa File, Frederick Forsyth

4. The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth

5. The Word, Irving Wallace

6. The Winds of War, Herman Wouk

7. Captains and Kings, Taylor Caldwell

8. Two From Galilee, Marjorie Holmes

9. My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok

10 Semi-Tough, Dan Jenkins


The non-fiction best sellers were:


1. The Living Bible, Kenneth Taylor

2. I’m O.K., You’re O.K., Thomas Harris

3. Open Marriage, Nena and George O’Neill

4. Harry S. Truman, Margaret Truman

5. Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, Robert Atkins

6. Better Homes and Gardens Menu Cook Book

7. The Peter Prescription, Lawrence Peter

8. A World Beyond, Ruth Montgomery

9. Journey to Ixtlan, Carlos Castaneda

10. Better Homes and Gardens Low-Calerie Desserts

Still, as I look at this list now, I’m struck by the fact that it isn’t all that bad, certainly a good balance of fine literary titles along with the usual commercial mediocrity. A number of these books I don’t remember selling at all. They probably did  much better in the chain stores. Yes, there were chains, even then.

The other big venue for book sales was department stores. They all had book departments then. The department store  book buyers  were  towering figures in the book business with immense prestige and influence and were accordingly treated with deference and obsequiousness by the publishers.  Those department store book sections are all gone now, replaced with ladies’ accessories and cosmetics. I don’t think it was any great loss either. The department stores had very conventional taste in books that appealed primarily to rich old ladies. You’d walk into these departments and you knew that nobody there  really had a passion for books.

Book publishing was different back  then too.   As I mentioned the world wasn’t really focused on bestsellers the way it is now. At least that was true outside of the big chains. My store still had its counterculture feel. We sold a lot of books, mostly paperbacks,  on humanistic psychology,  eastern mysticism and other things spiritual. Fritz Perls, Abraham Maslow, Alan Watts, The Urantia Book,  and Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism were some of my best sellers in the mid seventies at Eeyore’s. I made a lot of money on the I Ching (Princeton University Press edition). And, of course, all things having to do with  the ever mysterious, Carlos Castañeda.

Fiction, too, was conditioned by countercultural enthusiasms: Tolkien’s  The Lord of the Rings, Childhood’s End by Arthur Clark, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, Siddhartha and Demian  by Hermann Hesse, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. There was the usual stuff by self-styled “visionaries” like Future Shock by Alvin Toffler and The Greening of America by Charles Reich. These books have not stood the test of time.  There were some other books that, though dated, I still think of  with admiration. I wouldn’t mind rereading The Last Whole Earth Catalogue.

But I couldn’t give up on my ponderous German philosophy.  We also sold the works of Karl Marx, One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse, and anything by and about Friedrich Nietzsche. As you can tell from all these titles, things were different back then. People were interested in understanding life’s big questions. What is truth? How do we lead a just life? How do we make a better world? How to we find happiness and contentment.? I don’t believe we are asking these questions so much now, but maybe I am just blinded by nostalgia.

Eeyore’s was a one person operation. We did grow over the years. By the time I left Cotati, I think it had become a two person operation. I had moved the store to another space. It was about four times as large as the original location. I’m still pretty proud of that store. I think it had a kind of perfection, just right for its time and place.

If you want to read more about my life in bookselling, check out these links:

How I Came to Own Cody’s Part 1

Cody’s as It Was in 1977

How the Computer Came to Cody’s

Bookselling in the 80s at Cody’s Part 1

Bookselling at Cody’s in the 80s Part 2

Remembering the Rushdie Affair Part 1

Remembering the Rushdie Affair Part 2

Fighting Against History Part 1

Fighting Against History Part 2

The End of Cody’s


Books into Movies: Everything You Need to Know Part 2

January 4, 2011

Today we are continuing our interview with John Marlow, author of Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood. We are discussing the mechanics of the Hollywood dealmaking process as it applies to book adaptions.  If you want even more information about this subject, I highly recommend John’s Self-editing blog.

 Andy:  What is an “option,” and what are the steps that get taken before a decision is made to make a film or tv show?

  John: In the case of a book or manuscript or screenplay for that matter, an option is just that—an “option” to secure all film-related rights to the work, for an agreed-upon price, at a later time. Let’s say you have a story that I want to option as a producer. I pay you—or provide some valuable service to you—in exchange for exclusive permission to buy the film rights to your story at a later time, typically within 1-3 years.

 The option payment itself is relatively small, but if the option is “exercised”—that is, if the film rights are actually purchased before the option expires—you get paid a lot more.

 Why is it done this way? Let’s say you’ve written something like Nano, my own first novel. That might cost in the neighborhood of $100 million to film, which means it’s not going to be a tv series; it has to be a movie. As a producer, I don’t have that kind of money, so I’m going to have to take a hard look at this book, and figure out how to adapt it in a way that appeals to multiple buyers who do have that kind of money.

 I may want to approach other producers, directors, or actors to get them interested in the project, because if they’ll “attach” or commit to being involved—and if I’ve chosen them well—that makes the project more attractive to potential buyers.

 I might want to involve a manager or agent to help “package” (attach desirable people to), pitch or sell the project. I might hire a screenwriter and work with them to develop the story and adapt it into a screenplay, so I have something solid to show to the people I want to involve. Because unless the underlying property—the book, in this case—is already very well known and very successful, I’m unlikely to sell the project without having a screenplay.

 If I’m looking at independent financing, it’s almost impossible to approach investors without a screenplay—because what are they investing in? My notion that this book would make a cool movie? Amateurville.

 Doing all of this takes time and money. Having an exclusive option allows me to invest the time and money required to make things happen, because I know that if I can pull it all together before the option expires, I can sell the project, get my name on the screen as producer, and maybe make some money in the bargain.

 Andy: So let’s go through the steps between the option and the decision to produce.

 John: Again, let’s assume I’m the producer. When everything goes right, what happens is this I secure the option up front, do the producer thing, and find a buyer. That buyer then pays me a producer’s fee and exercises the option by paying you the full purchase price. Then they make the movie. The process is much the same for tv series.

 Books are almost always optioned, not bought—because as you can see, there’s a lot of work to be done downstream. Screenplays are often optioned as well, but you also have the opportunity to sell the script outright—which almost never happens with adaptation rights to books, unless the book is already huge.

 Andy: What are the typical deal points in an option contract, and what is a good negotiating strategy?

 John: Real Hollywood “long-form” option contracts run about 20 pages, with far too many deal points to cover here. What it boils down to is this: the eventual buyer (the one who exercises the option) wants to acquire all rights, except those specifically exempted or “reserved” to the author by the terms of the agreement.

 You typically get to keep book rights; live stage and radio rights; sequel, prequel, and character rights in book and ebook format; and so on. Everything else (movies, tv, merchandising, soundtrack, etc.) belongs to the studio. You might get to keep additional rights if you’re already massively successful, or wind up dealing with a very small or very independent company. But when it comes to the studios–to whom many of the small indies sell their movies–it’s their way or the highway.

 Andy: This is a little bit of a problem if you have a published book. Typically a book contract will grant to the publisher all print and electronic verbatim book rights but also a bundle of subsidiary rights: abridgements, serial rights, sometimes merchandise, non-verbatim multimedia rights (being used in “enhanced e-books or aps), and audio for verbatim. Which of these rights should the author try to reserve if they are seeking a movie deal?

John: It’s only a problem when you don’t know any better, which many new writers don’t. As you know from experience, publishers are almost always willing to back off on things they ask for in the first contract they send out. Things like—for example—film and merchandising rights A good agent will know which of these rights can and should be reserved for the author.

 Short version: the studios want everything that moves; they are not, for the most part, interested in any format that consists primarily of words and letters—unless it’s a screenplay, or a novelization or other adaptation based on the script or the movie itself. So whatever you want to do with your book is fine—print, ebooks, serializations, audiobooks, sequels and prequels, live stage, musicals for the most part, non-dramatic adaptations and so forth.

 Whether dealing with New York or Hollywood, it’s always a good idea to involve an attorney familiar with the field; in most cases, an “entertainment attorney” is what you want, and they’ll be very familiar with Hollywood’s requirements. Non-entertainment attorneys will be clueless, because it’s a very specialized field of law. If you can’t afford their hourly rates, many—including some of the best—will work for a 5% commission if you already have a deal on the table. They should save or make you more than that.

 Andy: What does a production company need in order to make an option offer? Do they need a manuscript?

John: That depends on the production company or the individual producer. Some will option books without scripts, some won’t. Hollywood is very heavy into adaptations right now, which is good for authors. At the same time, it’s important to realize that there is a vast difference between the amount of money you will be paid for film rights to a manuscript or book, and the amount you will be paid for a screenplay.

 Rights to unpublished manuscripts generally fetch the least, unless the manuscript just sold for a bundle. Film rights for an unknown or modestly successful book may—and may not—fetch $50,000 if the option is exercised and the movie is made, which takes years. The average price for a first-sale screenplay, on the other hand, hovers between $300,000 and $600,000, with some going well north of $1 million. And you get quite a big chunk of that—typically a third or more—up front. That’s yours to keep, even if the movie is never made.

 Andy: Can you describe the process that a writer should take in order to convert his or her novel into a film script?

 John: There are three basic approaches: do it yourself, hire a consultant, outsource. The basic differences are time, money, and quality. Doing it yourself costs nothing but time—and it will take an enormous amount of time. Very few writers are capable of doing both books and screenplays well. This is why so few famous novelists adapt their own books, and also why virtually no screenwriters pen novels.

 The formats are almost mutually exclusive, and demand opposing skills. Authors must expand upon things, provide rich detail, and delve into the minds of their characters over hundreds of pages; screenwriters must compress a story into 120 pages or less, guide the director but avoid stepping on his toes, avoid minute detail, make everything visual, create compelling characters while externalizing thoughts and portraying them through actions—all while showing deference to the actors and being ever-mindful of budget.

 The hardest transition of all is going from novelist to screenwriter, because most of the things that make for a good novelist make for a lousy screenwriter. This can be overcome, but—like learning to write novels—often takes years. If you have that kind of time, read good, recently-sold scripts and lots of adaptations, and give it your best shot.

 The second option—hiring a consultant to guide your adaptation—will speed your learning curve, and might just save you years of work. He or she can evaluate your book, help develop an outline for the adaptation, and act as a coach along the way. While it’s possible to do this with a pure screenwriter, you’re likely to get better results with someone who writes both books and screenplays. Ideally, you find someone who’s done that and also specializes in adaptations—an “adaptation specialist.”

 If you can do that, you’ll have someone on your team who not only knows where you’re going, but also where you’re coming from—and how to get from there to where you need to be. This doesn’t mean your job will be easy, but it will be easierThe consultant approach will cost you a bit of money, but save you a lot of time.

 The third option is to outsource the writing entirely—find a screenwriter or, preferably, an author-screenwriter adaptation specialist. Work with them to develop a detailed adaptive outline you’re happy with—so you know where things are going before the writing begins—and turn them loose. Let them write the script for you, checking in every 30 pages or so just to make sure everything’s on course. After a few months—viola!—you have a finished script in your hands. Which is where most successful Hollywood stories begin.

Doing it this way is also a fast-forward learning experience, because there’s nothing quite like seeing general principles and specific techniques applied to your own work by someone who really knows their stuff. This is of course the most costly option in terms of money, but the least costly in terms of time.

 Andy: Can you talk a bit about your work as a developmental editor and adaptation specialist, and specifically what’s involved in the process of turning a book into a screenplay?

 John: I do a lot of development and editing work on books and screenplays, and I write both. I’ve done adaptations going both ways—book-to-screen and screenplay-to-book. The first one I did was my own, adapting the Nano novel into a screenplay. I was fortunate enough to get some recognition for that from the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships Program, which got me and my script mentioned in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and the Los Angeles Times, and led to a development deal with Jan de Bont, who directed/produced Speed, Twister, Minority Report and other films.

 That interest helped sell the book to Macmillan. And it taught me that there can be a kind of synergy between New York and Hollywood, where interest on one coast can be used to bump up interest on the other. Which is why it’s best to have both a book and a screenplay to sell.

 When it comes to helping others with adaptations, I do a number of things. The most basic service is an adaptation evaluation; I look at what the author has—let’s say it’s a book or manuscript—and give them my take on the work’s adaptability:

 Does this look like it would make a good movie? If yes, how can we make it a great movie? If no, could it be a good or great movie—and what kinds of changes would we need to implement to make that happen? How can we make those changes while remaining true to the heart of the story or—if it’s nonfiction—the actual events? When you’re talking about taking a 300+ page book and turning into a 120-page screenplay, even a book that’s cinematic to begin with is going to undergo a significant transformation. Books that are not obvious movies will require bigger changes.

 I often consult with my significant other at this point, because she’s worked as story editor for a major producer, and also worked for Nielsen, which does most of the film marketing research for the studios. And she wrote and produced a number of tv documentaries. She provides a female perspective, as well as added story savvy.

 Then I generally get on the phone with the author and bat things around. If they want to go forward with the adaptation, and want me to consult/coach or adapt it for them, then we’ll work together to lay out the structure and “beats” or significant events of the existing story. We do this with what I call a digital outline or “beatline,” which is a lot easier to work with than a standard outline. For more on this, see my recent post The Digital Outline: Creating a Beatline for Your Story.

 Starting with that, the author and I will develop a working outline and a 7-point story structure. My recent post Story Structure: Laying Down the Bones goes into great detail on this.

 After that, we put our heads together, brainstorm and create an adaptive outline or beatline of what the script story should look like. Working in this format, where each significant event is a simple bullet-point, allows us to move quickly and change, rearrange, add or delete things on the fly. It also enables us to take in the whole story in a few minutes, instead of repeatedly plowing through 300 or 500 pages to see how many things any given change is going to affect.

 I’ll often bring my story editor in on this as well, so it’s a bit of a two-for-one deal for the client. We work ten feet away from each other, so it’s no big deal.

 If the author wants me to write the script, I go off and do that—and we check in every 30 pages or so to make sure everyone’s happy. In either event, we’ll put together a final logline and pitch sheet, do a final polish—and the author is ready to rock.

 Andy: John, thanks so much. There is so much in this interview. I hope readers will take the time to read your Self Editing Blog to go into this more deeply. Now if you will excuse me, I have Spielberg on the other line and have to give him my pitch pack.

 John: Tell him to wait.

MARLOWE (1 of 1)



You can learn more about adapting your book to a movie by reading John’s new book: Make Your Story a Movie. St. Martin’s Press, 2012

Purchase from:    Indiebound   Barnes and Noble   iTunes

Books into Movies: Everything You Need to Know (Almost). Part 1

January 2, 2011



MARLOWE (1 of 1)A lot of writers I speak with  think of  their book as a story  that would make a good movie. It’s nice to think that Stephen Spielberg is waiting in the wings to scoop up your book, but it really doesn’t happen all that often. The movie business is like the book business, only with fewer movies than books. There are a fair number of “option” deals going around, but the real money most often comes with production, not with option.

 Today I am going to interview John Robert Marlow. John is the author of  Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood.   He is also the author of Nano, a technothriller  that he adapted for film. The script  has been honored by the same Academy that hands out the Academy Awards. The Nano script then went into development with a major Hollywood director. John optioned another script to the producer of Collateral, who wanted the script so badly that when she couldn’t reach John herself, she hired a private detective to track him down.

 John has written numerous articles about writing, self editing and adaptation, both for the Writer’s Digest Books annuals and for his wonderful Self Editing Blog  This interview is going to be in 2 parts. Today we are going to talk about the how Hollywood deals get pitched and put together.

The next interview will be about book-screen options and how we move from a book to a screenplay.

 Andy: John, let’s say you have a novel. How do you determine whether it has any dramatic potential at all?

 John: Hollywood’s been at this game for a while now, and most of these folks are very clear about what it takes to make a book appealing on the screen. Some of the things that are important to Hollywood mean nothing at all to publishers—so the fact that a book is appealing to publishing houses doesn’t mean it will interest Hollywood. Which is one of the reasons that so few books are seriously considered by filmmakers.

 At the same time, if you know what Hollywood wants, you can incorporate those elements into your story as you write it, or make sure they’re included in any screenplay adaptation you may write or commission, so it’s never too late.

 Andy:  So what exactly are those elements?

 John: Hollywood looks for 10 things in any story, fiction or nonfiction: a cinematic concept that can be communicated in ten seconds; a hero that a large segment of the moviegoing public can relate to; strong visual potential; a three-act structure; a two-hour limit; a reasonable budget; low fat (no unnecessary scenes); franchise potential; four-quadrant (young and old, male and female) appeal; and merchandising potential.

 Seasoned vets with proven track records can sometimes skate the two-hour limit and budget points; newcomers cannot. Franchise and merchandising potential aren’t always necessary but are good to have, particularly at higher budget levels. The same goes for four-quadrant appeal; the more your movie costs, the bigger your audience needs to be to earn that money back. Avatar and Titanic are four-quadrant movies.

 I’ve covered these ten points extensively in my article,  What Hollywood Wants: 10 Things Studios Like to See in Adapted (and Original) Scripts 

Andy: What is the first step you take in getting interest from a production company?

 John: I can  pick up the phone or send an email. But for those who don’t have industry connections, it can be hard. The reason is simple: Hollywood, like New York, is full of people trying to sell things that aren’t ready to be seen. Some need a bit more work; others are train wrecks. And then you have the translation issue: some books are movies; most are not. Many could be movies, if carefully adapted—but until you see the adaptation, you don’t really know.

 There are more buyers for adapted screenplays than for book adaptation rights, so if I really want to get the attention of someone who’s got thousands of other people vying for their time, I’m going to do one of two things—and this applies equally to those with and without industry connections: approach them with a finished screenplay, or put together one hell of a good pitch pack.

 Whichever path you choose, you must have something professional to show, or there’s nothing to set you apart from the sea of amateurs with little more than an “idea” they think would make a great movie. And while some of those amateurs may be right, you can’t copyright an idea, and no one’s likely to pay you for it. Ideas are common; fabulous execution over the length of a screenplay (or novel, for that matter) is not—which is why New York buys books, Hollywood buys scripts, and no one buys “ideas” from strangers.

 Andy: Why is it best to have a screenplay?

 John: Because it’s closer to being a movie—the people looking at it can “see” the movie as they read. That’s vital, because the purpose of a screenplay is to roll a movie in the reader’s head, and to get them to take the next step.

If the screenplay is ready to go, the producer can skip a lot of costly and time-consuming development steps and go looking for attachments or buyers right now. Less trouble, fewer headaches, and a faster sale if things go well.

If you can’t write a dynamite script, or afford to hire someone else to do it for you, then you’re better off with the pitch pack—because a bad or even mediocre script is a swift path to rejection. There’s too much competition to get by with that.

 Andy: So what’s a pitch pack?

 John: The pitch pack is an attempt at a happy medium between raw idea and polished screenplay: unique enough to protect, and hopefully strong enough to generate real interest.

 It’s similar to a book proposal. It includes a pitch sheet with logline; synopsis or summary; an informal treatment or “scriptment” that’s basically a longer summary with perhaps snippets of dialogue or actual scenes; a bit of info on the major characters; box office figures for similar films already released; a “dream” cast list of the actors you’d want to see in the major roles, a few other things. And you let them know there’s a beatline available on request.

 If someone bites on that, you follow up with the beatline to demonstrate that you really do know what you’re doing; you’ve mapped out every scene in detail, nothing is vague or conflicting or unresolved. This kind of approach puts you light years ahead of the guy who bangs on Hollywood’s door and says, “Hey, I have a great idea.” It also makes it more likely that, if they do option or buy your pitch, they’ll give you first crack at writing the script—because it’s obvious you’ve worked this out in great detail.

I’ll be posting about this on my blog in the near future.

Andy: Okay. So you have your script or pitch pack Then what?

 John: If I didn’t have film industry connections, , I would either look for someone to team with, —someone more familiar with the territory—or go ahead and contact the producers and production companies myself.

 Keep in mind, though, that if you have a finished script, you can approach reps—meaning agents and managers. . If you find a good one to take you on, they will then approach producers and production companies on your behalf. And they’re likely to get faster, more serious reads from those people than you would, acting on your own.  So even if it takes you a while to land a rep, the total time needed to reach your target buyers could still be much shorter.

 Also, there are some very good reasons to avoid approaching producers or production companies by yourself—not the least of which is overexposure. A good rep—agent or manager—can get your script into the hands of all the right producers in a matter of days.

 Those producers will not have heard anyone talking trash about your script, because they’ll all get it at pretty much the same time, and they’ll feel pressured to get to it quickly because they know that the rep has also put it in the hands of their competitors, who may be reading it at this very moment.

 Some low-end producers also do bad things, like “shop” your script to everyone in town, hoping someone, anyone, will bite. This doesn’t help you, and can do quite a bit of damage when you later try to approach those same people with your project—particularly when you don’t know they’ve already seen it. I learned this the hard way.

 Q: How does the pitch in Hollywood differ from what is expected in book publishing?

 The Hollywood pitch happens in steps, because no one has time to listen to long pitches or read material that hasn’t been pre-screened or pre-qualified in some way. The first step is the logline, which boils your story down to a 10-second pitch. It sounds ridiculous, but it can be done, and is in fact a sort of art—one I cover in a blog post called Building the Perfect Logline 

For example, this is how I would pitch The Fugitive: “A fugitive doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife struggles to prove his innocence while pursued by a relentless US Marshall.” Or, to pitch a more complex adaptation with multiple protagonists: “A family struggles to escape a remote island park whose main attractions—genetically restored dinosaurs—have been set loose by a power failure.” Which is, of course, Jurassic Park.

 What you leave out of the pitch  is as important as what you put in. An agent or producer can read 700 to 1,000 loglines in the time it takes to read a single script. So, obviously, that’s what they do. If the logline grabs them, they take the next step, and ask for more info or the script itself.

 If they ask for more info, you give them a synopsis or a pitch sheet teaser, which is the equivalent of a movie trailer in words: your story in one minute. I recently wrote about pitch sheets in a blog post called The One-Minute Story: Crafting a Pitch Sheet for your Book, Screenplay, or Other Tale 

If they like the pitch sheet, they’ll usually ask to see the script. In some cases, you can get by with a pitch pack in place of the script. In other cases, not. Without a script, for example, agents and managers have nothing to sell—unless they’re interested in selling the film rights alone, which is less profitable and therefore less attractive from their perspective. Though if you’re brand-name author, this may not apply.

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