The Rise of Must-Read TV

From The Atlantic:

If you want a preview of next year’s Emmy Awards, just take a walk past your local bookstore. According to data drawn from Publishers Marketplace, the industry’s clearinghouse for news and self-reported book deals, literary adaptations to television have been on a steady climb. The site has listed nearly 4,000 film and television deals since it launched in 2000, and both the number and proportion of TV deals have increased dramatically in that same period. Last year, reported TV adaptations exceeded film adaptations for the first time ever.

. . . .

Literary adaptations are big business. For streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, they provide a reliable source of content for limited or multiseason series; Publisher’s Weekly reported in 2019 that Netflix was on a “book-buying spree,” and the company has shown no sign of slowing. Rotten Tomatoes cites 125 literary adaptations in development right now.

. . . .

All of this has had a profound effect on the literary world. As you might expect, becoming a TV show increases a novel’s popularity enormously. Adaptations can drive book sales, as in the case of this winter’s breakout hit Bridgerton. The Regency-era bodice-ripper is not alone: A number of backlist titles, such as The Queen’s Gambit, have enjoyed a late-in-life revival thanks to Netflix’s attention.

We see evidence of the adaptation effect in other measures of literary success as well. We compiled a list of about 400 21st-century novels that met certain criteria—inclusion in top-10 best-seller lists, critics’ picks, publishers’ comp titles, and so on. Within this group, a novel that becomes a show will receive about four times as many ratings on Goodreads.com as a novel that has never been adapted to TV or film. (Film still has a bigger effect, boosting a novel’s Goodreads ratings more than 1000 percent; TV nonetheless dramatically improves the fortunes of a novel.

. . . .

Television adaptations are influencing every stage of a book’s life, including how it’s acquired in the first place. Scouts from networks and streaming services are talking more and more with publishers about big- and small-screen options at earlier stages of negotiations, in many cases before the ink on a book deal is even dry. Production companies such as Anonymous Content are bringing publishing-industry veterans on staff, and agencies and scouting firms are hiring specialists in literary development. Clare Richardson, a senior scout for film and TV at Maria B. Campbell Associates, one of the firms that works with Netflix, told us, “An important part of my job is having long-standing connections with literary agents and editors—what they’re reading, what they’re liking, what’s working. I’m trying to dive deep and find things as early as possible.” Richardson adds that simultaneous submission—that is, when a book deal and a screen option are negotiated at the same time—is common. Writers, agents, and editors have more incentive than ever to craft novels with TV in mind. The system rewards the adaptable.

So we wondered what kinds of novels were most likely to end up on screen. What qualities—of genre, structure, or style—make a novel seem most adaptable? We coded our sample of contemporary fiction not only for what has been successfully brought to TV, but also for what producers and scouts have optioned in the belief that it could be.

Reviewing that larger sample, we noticed several common features that unite texts as seemingly disparate as A Visit from the Goon Squad (which Jennifer Egan herself said she modeled on The Sopranos),N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (all of which have been optioned for television). Although not every novel under contract for potential adaptation shares all of these features, they do seem to possess a consistent set of what we call “option aesthetics”: episodic plots, ensemble casts, and intricate world-building. These are the characteristics of contemporary fiction that invite a move from the printed page to the viewing queue.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

7 thoughts on “The Rise of Must-Read TV”

  1. I found this post interesting, especially in light of my having recently received my first TV/movie option offer for my birth-of-New-York-City historical novel: NEW YORK 1609 (my debut).

    Having not only read all of KKR’s posts on Licensing, but also having a good friend who’s a Hollywood entertainment attorney and who agreed to both represent and advise me, I was ready.

    Which made the decision to walk away from this poor offer easy to do. It would have locked up too many adaptation rights for way too long for a pittance. Better to walk than to do that.

    And in terms of “thinking about TV/film” in the creation phase, I don’t worry about that as I write in a “cinematographic” style anyway. And movies are a better fit for me. A movie typically has 15 “beats” in 3 Acts, which lines up nicely with a novel’s four Parts (in 3 Acts), at least as I write them. Endless TV episodes without endings would require a very different approach, and I’m not there yet. But complex and compelling settings? Oh, yeah! 😉

  2. Off topic – but it always interests me how long a word can linger after it is long obsolete.

    Nothing has been produced on “film” for many, many years now. Theatrical releases (which is what is actually meant) is all digital now.

    The line between “film” and “TV” is also blurring rather badly. I just read this evening about Scarlett Johannsen’s lawsuit against Disney for releasing “Black Widow” in theaters and on Disney+ the same day. Apparently her contract pays far less for streaming revenue than for theatrical revenue. (Being a post on mass media, the comments were as usual full of pronouncements from people that are a) unlikely to be IP lawyers, and b) highly unlikely to have a copy of her contract even if they are. Sigh… I at least know enough to know that I don’t know anything near to enough to opine.)

    Oh. Just thought to look – apparently some “art” pieces are on real film. (Hopefully not “artistic” enough to use the old acetate formulation that burned down some theaters.)

    • Good points, W.

      These days, it’s all digital, bits and bytes.

      I hadn’t seen that story about Ms. Johannsen. A definite miss by one or more of her advisors.

      And yet one more lesson to always read the definitions section of any contract and don’t skim.

      Be ready to flip back and forth between contract provisions that include any defined terms and the definition of those terms. I can assure you that few people do and it’s a great place to hide gotcha’s where they’re unlikely to be found.

      If you want to get really cute, define two terms that, when combined in the main body of the contract end up meaning something much different than the combination of the two terms would mean if they were undefined and used with their common English definitions.

    • Well, to get more into the weeds on terminology, here are some wordings from this actual offer to me:
      * RIGHTS: “… throughout the universe, in perpetuity, including motion picture (film or television, scripted or unscripted) … theatrical, nontheatrical, network/pay/cable, OTT, AVOD, SVOD, TVOD, VOD, DVD/Blu-Ray, videograms, xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx”
      [NOTE: I was disappointed to not see: “throughout the known universe and any universes yet to be discovered” 😉 — and my attorney explained what all those acronyms stand for]
      * CONTINGENT COMPENSATION: “… Feature Film, Interactive/Digital, Other Media Adaptations: xxxxx xxxxx xxxxxx

      So “film” is still a word being used. But it’s all those other words, in their totality, that really count.

    • Disney’s *public* reply didn’t address Johannsen’s plaints; they just tsk-tsked and said she wasn’t satisfied with her $20M (nominal?) payday. So far no leaks on their court filing.

      For comparison, when WB put their ’21 slate (for “free”) on HBOMAX they renegotiated their contracts with co-funders and “share of gross” talent. Published reports at the time said Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins got an extra $10M each.

      Disney on the other hand bragged of BLACK WIDOW getting $60M in first week sales (about 2M units) which substitutes for anywhere between $20-80M in box. Maybe more since the $30 digital sale gives “infinite” re-viewing to any audience size. But Disney gets to keep pretty much all the streaming revenue instead of only half the reported box office ($80M). They should’ve bit their tongue, considering the revies and 75% drop in box for week 2.

      Johannsen isn’t the only one fuming. Theater folks are too.
      This one has legs.
      At a minimum they may have killed the day-and-date goose over a movie that has the worst reviews and lowest box of any of the Marvel movies. Right down with AntMan.

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