Learn How a Book's Film and TV Rights Get Sold

Get Dramatic Insights from Rights Agents

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Film and TV agents know the book, the market for it, and the right producers. Getty Images / exdez

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

Dramatic rights agents like Curtis Brown's Holly Frederick have the highly specialized task of selling a book's film, TV and/or stage rights to books to producers. Here, Frederick shares with us her pro insights into the process of selling a book's movie and film rights.

Holly, thanks so much agreeing to be interviewed! So tell the readers: What exactly is the role of a film and television agent?

In almost all publishing contracts, the film and television rights are reserved to the author rather than the publishing house. That's where I come in. I work exclusively with Curtis Brown clients (and Curtis Brown clients are exclusive to me) and I specialize in dealing with producers to sell that small subset of rights called dramatic rights — that is, book to film, book to television, book to stage.

How does it fit in with the roles of the other literary agents at agencies like Curtis Brown?

At Curtis Brown, we refer to my type of role as that of a "secondary agent." 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.

Curtis Brown is 100 years old - that's a lot of clients for one film and TV agent.

Well, 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.

So, how do you select the books that are suitable for a dramatic rights sale?

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.

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 buyers.

There are at least a zillion people in Hollywood who call themselves producers these days. So 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.

An obvious example — I can't sell anything with a vampire to film or television anymore — there's been a total saturation. Boy wizards, same thing. And then, more recently the marketplace is saturated with dystopian and post-apocalyptic material for both YA [young adult] — and for the adult market and that's really hard to sell, too.

As a result, 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.

So what is the right time? Can you give some insights into what producers look for — for example, the differences between what film and TV producers want? And what can authors expect from a film or TV deal?

Read the more of this interview with Holly Frederick for an agent's eye view of:

Read more insights into the children's, young adult and general book publishing landscape and actionable advice on how to engage a literary agent in these additional interviews of Curtis Brown Litd agents. 

Holly Frederick, film and television agent for Curtis Brown Ltd literary agency, began her career at the Susan Schulman Literary Agency. For many years she was a development executive for the Academy Award nominated director Alan J. Pakula. She attended Barnard College and the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

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