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‘Show me the money!’: the self-published authors being snapped up by Hollywood

After the success of self-published authors like Andy Weir and EL James, Hollywood is scooping up the rights to books as fast as it can. But why and is it always good for the author?

After watching Quentin Tarantinos Kill Bill, self-published author Mark Dawson was inspired to create his own answer to the films heroine Beatrix Black Mamba Kiddo. And now Dawson and his character government-employed assassin Beatrix Rose are set to take on Hollywood, with his series on the verge of a major television deal, complete with a triple A producer.

Admitting he had a holy shit moment when he was told who the producer was, the Salisbury-based former lawyer said he had initially signed a shopping agreement after an approach through his website. They have attached a writer and an extremely well-known Hollywood figure and director to it, Dawson says. The people linked are all serious players household names and they have pitched it to half a dozen studios and from that they have got an agreement [to develop it] for television.

Dawson wasnt always Hollywood fodder. Sales of his first self-published novel, 2012s Black Mile, only trickled in until he took Amazons advice and offered it to readers for free. In one weekend, his novel was downloaded 50,000 times. Dawson built his audience from there, spending hundreds of pounds a day on Facebook advertising and writing on his commute. After writing 23 books in four years, he says his annual income is now in the high six figures.

Details of Dawsons TV deal are under wraps, and he says it is expected to be finalised in the next few days. But his is just the latest in a line of deals between studios and self-published authors, including AG Riddle and Hugh Howey, who have been targeted by studios after the successes of Andy Weirs The Martian and EL Jamess Fifty Shades franchise. AG Riddles Departure series was scooped up by Fox-based producer Steve Tzirlin in a six-figure deal, while Howeys dystopian sci-fi novel Wool was signed up by Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox.

Bestselling self-published authors attract producers because they have a proven track record if they stay on Amazon sales charts over time, Howey said. Hollywood is always looking for a built-in audience. They want to know theyll recoup their investment, he says. Modern films easily cost $100m to make, usually more. There isnt much room for risk here.

Another attraction in the litigious world of film, according to producer Doreen Spicer, is that these self-published books provide insurance. Theres a level of security that the story is original and not based on a pitch or idea from a writer in the room, said Spicer, whose credits include US sitcom The Wannabes and animated series The Proud Family. A producer can safeguard themselves from lawsuits by purchasing or licensing copyrights.

One of the most high-profile successes is Andy Weirs The Martian: a sci-fi thriller set on the red planet that the author self-published as a Kindle ebook for 99 cents. The 2015 film adaptation, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon as Weirs leading astronaut Mark Watney, made $630m worldwide.

The
Matt Damon as Mark Watney in the film adaptation of Andy Weirs self-published novel The Martian. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox

You never know how a film will turn out, but the film version of The Martian is incredible and I know Andy is thrilled with how it came out, says David Fugate, who became Weirs agent before the film deal went through a precaution he warns self-published authors to consider: In book publishing, the agreement licenses the publisher a specific set of rights and typically anything thats not covered in the agreement is reserved for the author. In the film industry, its exactly the opposite … the only rights reserved to the author are spelled out in a single clause. So if its not mentioned in that clause, it no longer belongs to the author, but to the purchaser of the rights. And of course, when youre licensing that broad a range of rights, having a clear understanding of what you should be paid for all those rights is critical.

As long as self-published authors take on an agent they should be fine. Otherwise they are mincemeat, says literary agent Andrew Lownie, citing the length and complexity of film and television contracts (a typical contract from Universal is around 50 pages). In that contract, an author may not just be signing away the right to adapt a book but repeat fees, merchandising, DVD rights, even every character and storyline in the book or series could be up for discussion. They buy everything up titles, characters, stories for as long as they possibly can, Nick Marston says, who heads the film division of agency Curtis Brown. If authors do not get advice, the deal they sign may prevent future films being made if the original producer fails to get their project of the ground, he adds: I have been involved with so many projects where the rights have been all tied up in a deal and it stops anything being made.

Unwitting authors can also mistakenly sign away the right to make money from future books. Ive seen film contracts that have been drafted in a way that means they have been given publishing rights to the authors work, warns publishing contract consultant Stephen Aucutt.

After approaches from everyone from an Oscar-winning director to a Disney Channel producer, Jeff Rivera has gone it alone to launch a streamed TV show, I Got You, based on his self-published novels about LGBT life of the same name. Money was not the priority, he says; the rise of Netflix and social media convinced him to take creative control.

I have readers around the world in Spanish, Arabic and English-speaking countries, he added. Streamed television was an opportunity to reach a market hungry for LGBT content but denied it by local traditional routes. There are millions of Arabs who are LGBT or open-minded heterosexuals, who dont have access to anything through local traditional media so watch things through social media, he added. It is a real opportunity to tell my stories to more people.

But for others, it is all about the cash. Thriller writer Russell Blake, who has been approached by four large production companies in Hollywood for his Jet series, said he had never reached a suitable arrangement. Self-published authors run a risk of being sold cheap, he added. Im a whore. Show me the money.

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