Either way, you feel like the problems with your script are related to the urgency of the story itself. You’ve mined your imagination and personal experience for a compelling narrative, but you just can’t seem to get any traction. The thought has crossed your mind to adapt a book, but you discarded it, assuming the hassle and expense of optioning fiction was outside your price range. Well, guess what: It might be a lot more cost-effective than you think.
The Big Six publishers (think Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin, Random House, Simon & Schuster) are in dire straits. They can’t afford to take risks. Thus, many great books that they would have published five or 10 years ago are now ending up at small, independent presses. In many ways, this is a good thing—for authors, who now get much more attention (though smaller advances), for readers, who now have a wealth of innovative and quality literature (much of it free if they’re willing to do a little digging), and for screenwriters looking for material to adapt With a small press it doesn’t cost $50,000 to option a great book.
One of the great advantages of dealing with small presses is that they are vastly more approachable and likely to work with producers of limited means. Dzanc Books is a perfect example of an independent press that is eager to attract filmmakers. They have an impressive list of titles (see below) ready to be optioned. A one to five-year option may cost you around $10,000, though Dzanc, like many independent presses, is open to negotiation on a case-by-case basis. For example, they may accept a smaller option for a larger share of the exercise of that option. With any press, big or small, we recommend legal help when entering negotiations.
You can contact Dzanc Books directly about film rights. Some small presses, though, outsource their rights/acquisition departments. You can find this information on the contact pages of their websites. Grove and Counterpoint (the umbrella press to Soft Skull, see below) have a rights guide easily accessible, with contact info, subagents, and recent sales.
But which presses should you approach? Which publishers have consistently good titles? Where is the best debut fiction? Below we’ve tried to answer these questions, looking both at independent presses and at literary journals, which are publishing today the authors who will become tomorrow’s best sellers. We’re also particularly excited about the novella as a form ideal for adaptation. The closer your script length is to the page count of the book you’re adapting, the less you have to cut.
The publishers listed below take risks, mining the corners of our literary landscape for new voices, challenging storytelling as we know it—which is, after all, exactly what independent filmmakers set out to do.
CITY LIGHTS PUBLISHERS
Named for the San Francisco bookstore that started it all, City Lights is a counter-culture mainstay with a timeless yet progressive bent, currently trailblazing genres like LGBT literature. Still proud of having first published Ginsberg’s Howl, they now publish authors such as Rebecca Brown (The Haunted House; Annie Oakley’s Girl), Thomas Glave (The Torturer’s Wife; Whose Song), and James Purdy.
COFFEE HOUSE PRESS
Ben Lerner, Rikki Ducornet, Kenneth Koch, Sam Savage, and Patricia Smith are just a few great writers from this indie press. Newer award-winners and acclaimed books include Leche by R. Zamora Linmark and Drowning Tucson, Aaron Michael Morales’ debut (which Coffee House is calling “a southwest version of HBO’s The Wire“). Coffee House press is often experimental and dark, and always full of imagistic, lush language.
This press is full of award-winners, but is still an underdog of the publishing world. One of the reasons we like them is they give a free e-book with the purchase of any print book. Also, their books run the thematic gamut, encompassing epic tales and intimate family dramas. They celebrate debut authors like Aaron Burch (How to Predict the Weather) as well as renowned greats such as Jonathan Baumbach (Dreams of Molly). Other titles to note: The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats by Hesh Kestin (a recent sale now being readied for filming); and What the World Will Look Like When the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg.
Grove/Atlantic is on the larger side of the independent presses. Their reputation started with Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg, and extends into today with Jeanette Winterson, Jim Harrison, and Sherman Alexie. New books to look out for (that we personally think would make fabulous adaptations) are Josh Weil’s The New Valley, Ryan Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife, and Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name.
SOFT SKULL (an imprint of COUNTERPOINT)
Where celebrities shoot birds, where a killing spree ain’t no thing, and where there is nothing to eat but oatmeal that tastes like sweaters are the adventures, amongst others, you’ll find in Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet (a Pulitzer Prize finalist book), Deliver Me From Nowhere by Tennessee Jones, and Cool For You by Eileen Myles. You might also take a look at Counterpoint, their mother press.
Unlike most journals that publish award-winning fiction, two sisters run the whole Glimmer Train show. They only publish unsolicited fiction, favoring pieces by emerging writers. Expect stories with lots of emotional engagement, traditional narrative arcs, and family themes. Their summer issue featured Claire Vaye Watkins, recently chosen as one of the five under 35 by the National Book Foundation.
John Freeman runs one of the most worldly and far reaching literary journals, with authors and stories from every continent. This breadth of work is brought together under one theme per issue. Some samples: Medicine, Horror, Aliens, Pakistan, The F-Word. There’s a lot here that might be adaptable, from Vanessa Manko’s “The Interrogation” to Philip Klay’s “Redeployment.”
McSweeney’s is many things: the Quarterly Concern, one of the most innovative and lauded literary journals in the country; The Believer, a monthly literary and culture magazine; the Internet Tendency, a literary humor site; and a publishing house. Through these outlets, McSweeney’s has put out acclaimed fiction by Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, and, of course, Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s founder). This is the place to turn to if you’re looking beyond traditional narratives for work that might inspire experimental or fantastical cinema.
Narrative Magazine, edited by Carol Edgarian and Tom Jenks, is free and digital (no print edition), but don’t take this as a sign of low quality. Stories published in Narrative regularly go on to win Pushcart Prizes, Pen/O. Henry awards, and are frequently included in the Best American Short Stories anthologies. They also publish novellas. Check out Nathan Poole’s “Stretch Out Your Hand” and Skip Horack’s “The Cryptozoologist.”
In order to encourage a variety of aesthetics and literary circles, each issue of Ploughshares is guest-edited by a prominent writer. In the past, editors have included Raymond Carver, Sherman Alexie, and Richard Ford, to name a few. Check out Thomas Lee, who won the first annual Ploughshares Emerging Fiction Writers Contest. Of particular interest is Ploughshares’ new P-Shares Singles, a monthly e-book series of novellas.
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2013.