We've all read a great book that made us think, "Wow, this would make an incredible movie!" How many of us have considered adapting a book for the screen? How would you even do that? What kind of rights would you need to secure? Keep reading to find how to get the rights to write a book adaption!
Where to Start on a Book Adaptation
When it comes to writing a book adaption, you need to concern yourself with obtaining the rights. You cannot just write a screenplay based on a book or pre-existing work and expect to sell it later. If you plan to sell your screenplay, you must have rights to the story on which it is based. Often, gaining the right to adapt a book to the screen is referred to as an option agreement.
What Is An Option Agreement for a Book Adaptation?
An option agreement grants you the ability to purchase the rights to a book at an agreed-upon price for a period of time into the future. Options often last a year, so for the time period of one year, you're deciding whether or not you're going to buy the rights. Maybe you use this time to explore the story as a screenplay or see if there's a market for the story as a film or TV show before you start screenwriting. If the year mark is up, options can often be extended.
Research the Book You Want to Adapt
Search the U.S. Copyright Office's database for the book that you're interested in adapting. You're looking to make sure that there is a copyright registration for the work, who the rights belong to, and that the rights haven't already been optioned to someone else.
If the rights have already been optioned, then, unfortunately, that's that. You'll have to wait for their option agreement to run out and hope that whoever's holding the rights doesn't exercise them.
If the book hasn't been optioned yet, then you should proceed to get in contact with the rights holder!
Who Owns the Rights to a Book?
In America, the author is commonly the rights-holder when it comes to film and TV rights. Reaching out to them or their agent via email or by phone will get the ball rolling to get an option agreement. When you speak to them, you want to double-check that the rights are available.
Pitch Your Adaptation Idea to the Book's Author
When you begin your talks with the rights holder, you're going to have to pitch your take on their book and what your plans are for the screenplay. Your pitch needs to show your relationship to the material and your passion for it. It would be best to convey how you'll take the book and elevate it to a marketable screenplay.
Negotiating Price For a Book Adaptation
I mentioned previously that the price of an option could vary, and that's true. Likely, if you're pursuing these rights on your own (and not with an attached production house), the book will either be older or not well known. That works in your favor when it comes to negotiating the option cost. The WGA's Basic Agreement doesn't cover books, meaning there is no minimum rate for a book option. This means your option agreement could be as low as $1 if both parties agree.
Keep in mind that at this point, you're not buying the rights; you're merely paying for the exclusive ability to buy the rights in the future and keep those rights out of someone else's hands for a specified period of time.
The cost to option is almost always later deducted from the cost of buying the rights down the road or is a percentage of the cost to buy as mentioned above.
Get a Lawyer
It would help if you got a lawyer to draw up your option agreement. As a writer, I often find the legal side of things stressful. I'd much rather pay a professional for the peace of mind that my investment into this project won't be lost and that once the script is finished, I'll be able to do something with it.
A reminder, I am not a lawyer, but I hope that this was a helpful overview on how to gain the rights to write a book adaption. Gaining the rights to adapt a book can be challenging, and I don't want to discourage you. Less popular and older books are often easier to secure the rights to, and don't overlook books in the public domain! Good luck, and as always, happy writing!