You might have noticed that some of the most successful films and TV series from the last few years have been adapted from books – from Heartstopper on Netflix based on Alice Oseman’s graphic novels, to Bridgerton, to the much-anticipated TV adaptation of Lessons in Chemistry. Book adaptations can be a great bet for producers, channels and streamers, as they’re a source of great plots and characters, and they often come with a ready-made fanbase.
The Penguin Media Rights team, made up of two rights executives and an in-house media lawyer, are responsible for pressing our books into the hands of producers for film, TV and stage. They’re constantly in contact with producers across the globe and pitching them books they think they’ll be excited about – whether that’s a future bestseller or a backlist gem – they then negotiate the option agreements and try to help the development process go smoothly.
Want to know more? Here, the Media Rights team share what makes a brilliant adaptation, the process of selling media rights and how involved (or not), an author can be.
Which books translate well to film and tv?
Some adaptations, such as the TV version of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, stick very closely to the script, while others use the book as a springboard for their own ideas. The Girl on the Train was transplanted from a London commuter train to New York, for example, while others have famously altered endings, characters and storylines.
So, what are producers looking for in a book? Of course, big sales figures help, but there’s such demand for intellectual property (IP) that many books are optioned before they reach the shelves. Trends come and go, but just like book editors, producers have different tastes and ways to market – an intimate coming-of-age novel might suit an independent film, for example, while a thriller might lend itself to a Sunday night BBC drama or flashy Netflix series.
A hooky, original concept is always sought after, as are great characters and specific stories that would appeal to international audiences. And at Penguin we don’t just focus on new and upcoming books – we have a huge backlist catalogue and love finding a producer who will give older books a new lease of life.
How do producers know what books are out there?
Because there’s so much demand for adaptations based on IP, many producers are plugged into the publishing ecosystem and are keen to hear about the hottest new properties (books and brands), long before they’re published. Some production companies have dedicated book scouts, who are paid on retainer to know what agents are submitting to editors, what the latest trends are, and to report on the buzziest books on the market.
Producers also have relationships with book-to-screen rights teams both at literary agencies and at publishers like ours (when an editor acquires a book, an author’s agent will either retain the dramatisation rights, or they’ll be included in the publishing deal and our media rights team will represent them on the author’s behalf). We’re also involved in acquisition conversations across all of the Penguin publishing houses and are always looking for books we feel have great screen potential and that we’d be excited to work with.
If we do acquire dramatisation rights in a book, we coordinate with the other teams to decide on the best time to start sharing it with producers. This could be straight after it’s acquired, once it’s been edited, around publication, or at another strategic point – whatever we feel would build the most buzz.
Producers also ask us about backlist books that may have been published many years ago, and we often delve into our archives to pick out books we think would fit current trends.
What does ‘optioning’ mean?
Getting a film or TV series off the ground can be a very long and complex process, both creatively and logistically as the producers source high-profile talent and piece together funding from multiple sources. So, rather than buying the rights outright at the start of the process, producers ‘option’ the rights for a period of 18 months or so.
This gives them the exclusive right to begin development work, which might include attaching a screenwriter, or writing a treatment and pitching to a channel or streamer. They pay a flat fee for the option, and then another fee each time they renew. It’s rare that everything comes together in the initial option period, so options are often renewed several times over a few years. This can make a TV or film deal a useful, if unpredictable, source of income for an author.
If all goes well and the producers get the ‘greenlight’ from a broadcaster, they would ‘exercise’ the option, at which point they pay a greater sum to secure all rights needed to produce their adaptation and bring it to audiences across the world, and often in many languages. The price of exercise is usually a percentage of the production budget – so in some cases, this can be a substantial sum!
As development on the adaptation progresses, we’re also on hand to help both author and producer – asking for updates, providing useful information on book sales, publicity and other milestones, and later liaising on things like covers for the book tie-in.
How much is an author involved in the TV or film adaptation?
How much an author is involved really varies – it depends on factors such as the production company’s creative vision for the adaptation, how closely they’re planning to stick to the original, and the author’s professional background. An author who has screenwriting experience might be involved in adapting it themselves, while a journalist who has written a non-fiction book on their area of expertise might have a consulting or producing role. Either way, our aim is to find the perfect producing partner who has the capability and the vision to make an adaptation the author would be happy with, and we always try to foster a warm, collaborative working relationship.
Take a look at some of the best screen adaptations, and how they made the story reach an even bigger audience.
Illustration: Mike Ellis for Penguin