This post, by Mike Shatzkin, originally appeared on The Shatzkin Files blog on 5/14/12.
As a result of spending my college days at UCLA, I had a handful of contacts in the Hollywood community when I came back East to live in 1969. When I started becoming familiar with New York publishing in the 1970s, I found myself, on occasion, shopping movie or TV tie-in projects. Armed with a script and a release plan, one could make the rounds of editors at the mass-market houses that had been assigned specific responsibility for this kind of acquisition.
At the time I was doing this kind of thing 30 or 35 years ago and more, the book business was growing wary of tie-ins to TV movies. They didn’t have the same promotional life as theatrical releases, even in those days when about one-third of the country was watching any network broadcast. Films that ran in movie theaters were definitely preferred as desirable book properties.
In the decades since then, the link between Hollywood and New York publishing has not exactly been severed, but it certainly hasn’t strengthened. One agent I spoke to told me that interest from Hollywood can definitely help raise the profile of a book project being peddled in New York, but the same agent agreed that the tie-in sale, where a script is novelized to just take advantage of the exposure the title and story will get through the movie, is all but dead.
Another agent, one with strong Hollywood connections through his office, had a slightly different point of view. He says it is still “humbling” to see how much being tied to a movie or TV show (“or even radio”) can “move the needle” on a book sale.
To the extent that the agent who believes in the power of Hollywood exposure to move books is right, the relative reduction in interest by New York publishers only increases the opportunity for Hollywood entities who exploit publishing through ebooks (and judicious and selective use of print) on their own.
(I recall two specific deals from my past relevant to this post. In around 1977 or 1978 I sold the book tie-in rights to a TV movie called “Cotton Candy”, which was produced by Ron Howard. In 1985, I sold the rights to two books to tie into the third “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie: one was a novelization of the first three films and the other a heavily-illustrated “making of…” book. I’d say the “Cotton Candy” deal today couldn’t possibly happen and “Nightmare”, which went to a major publisher, would be a real long shot.)
New York’s interest in Hollywood-originated content was, of course, centered on big properties. Hollywood’s enthusiasm about getting a book deal was often not very great. It didn’t add a ton of revenue (big publishing money for a big movie was small money to the movie producer) and the “promotion” done by publishers was trivial compared to what the movie studios did for the film.
In fact, there were often rights issues that got in the way. Even if the screenwriter had conceded the tie-in rights to sell the script, the studio might still be required to get clearances on the novelization, which would be a nuisance for a book project that often had annoyingly tight deadlines and not much benefit. If the screenwriter had held the tie-in rights and was the one selling to the publisher, it could become a bureaucratic nightmare to get art and logos from the film, which would be controlled by the studio, to promote the book.
New York’s incentives were often too limited to interest Hollywood. Hollywood’s unpredictability on things as basic as release dates, as well as the diminishing likelihood over time that any particular movie property would enjoy enough theatrical success to give real legs to the tie-in book, made systematic efforts unproductive for publishers. There haven’t been dedicated tie-in editors for decades.
But digital publishing changes many things. The relationship between Hollywood and the book business, because of the changes brought on by ebooks, will almost certainly be one of them.