I spent an enlightening few days in Los Angeles last week doing some networking and research ahead of our “Movie/TV-to-book” conference, which will take place on October 22 in Hollywood. The premise of our event is that “everybody in Hollywood needs an ebook strategy” and it was definitely encouraging to have had that idea endorsed by every person I talked to.
We got help with introductions to the local community from our friends at the Intellectual Property Group, an agency. Larry Becsey, who has the corner office there, is an old friend of mine. I was introduced to Larry in the early 1970s by Harry Sloan, who had been a classmate at UCLA. Harry went on to a very successful career that included being head of Filmways and MGM Studios. At the time Becsey and I met, Harry was Ron Howard’s lawyer and Larry was Ron Howard’s agent.I don’t think I’ve seen Harry since but Larry and I have stayed friends for four decades.
So Larry and his partner, agent Joel Gotler, made a few calls and circulated my blogpost on this subject to a few friends and the meetings I had materialized as a result of their efforts. Here are some examples of what I learned through these conversations about the new mutual opportunities for Hollywood to connect with the publishing world.
There are two entities I spoke with that are off the track a little bit for the Hollywood conference but which have serious marketing propositions for the publishing community.
The Baby-First Network, in the words of its founder, Guy Oranim, was visualized as a combination between Baby Einstein and Sesame Street. I admit I would never have imagined that a TV network for infants would make any sense, but they’re gaining audience steadily and, as they knew they would, have the moms watching along with their wee ones.
That is opening up some fabulous marketing opportunities which they’re going to exploit by making their prime-time programming parenting-centric, rather than infant-centric. Baby-First already did a multiple-book deal for infant books with Readers Digest; I think they’ll both be able to publish parenting and collaborate with one or more publishers who do, delivering unique new market reach that any book publisher would love to have.
The other marketing discovery for publishers was from Insight Entertainment where Matt Lesher, with whom I met, has collaborated with former MTV anchor Adam Curry on an author-interview program. They do it once or twice a week, primarily distributed through iOS and Android apps. Curry’s based in Austin and he does the interviews by Skype from wherever the author is. Lesher reports to me that they count sales of between 750 and 7500 copies of every book they cover. They know because their business model is to get paid with the referral income; of course there are other sales they generate but can’t see or count.
Do publishers know about this yet? Not so much, reports Lesher. I don’t know whether this works for our Hollywood conference, but it surely is something to put on stage at Digital Book World! (And any publisher who wants to can go ahead and pitch an author now: send a note to [email protected])
Part of the payoff for going to LA for these meetings was becoming aware of things going in what is already our business that hadn’t registered with me. I met with lawyer Wayne Alexander, who with Kassie Evashevsky at UTA represents the movie/TV interests for author Hugh Howey. Howey has a string of successful futurist novella which due to reader demand was expanded via several installments into a long novel under the general label of “Wool”. (Five installments have been assembled into a single novel: the “Wool” omnibus edition.)
Howey is doing so well selling his ebooks through ebook stores that even very big deals brought in by his agent, Denver-based Kristin Nelson, couldn’t entice him to trade in his self-publishing career for all that a big US publisher could offer. Meanwhile, his team has sold his book in the UK and Brazil the movie rights to 20th Century Fox. I found this story interesting on many levels, including that fans of a novella could encourage extending the story to full-length.
I don’t know what Howey had working for him besides the strength of his story (I’m trying to find out) but his commercial tale will definitely interest Hollywood because it proves that something can become a success through ebooks alone. One thing that distinguishes Hollywood-originated “self-publishing” stories from all others, probably including Howey’s, is that everybody who might publish in Hollywood has five friends who, among them, have half-a-million Twitter followers. He got his ball rolling, but imagine how much easier it would be for a Hollywood entity to do that.
Another publishing-centric discovery I made last week was the Hollywood development arm of Penguin, run by Pete Harris. Called the Penguin Development Group, it is an in-house team assigned to identify and generate originals ideas and opportunities for books and series to be published in imprints across the house. Penguin expects many of the books from this source will be developed commercially into feature films, original television and video games.
When I was (successfully) recruiting Peter Gethers, the head of Random House Studio, for the Hollywood conference, he talked about their recent movie-based-on-their-book, “One Day.” According to Peter, the movie was moderately successful financially, but the book sales skyrocketed (in Germany and the US, where they were Random House, Inc. publications) bringing the company substantial profits. And, as he points out, they’ve also established an author who will produce other successful books for them in the future.
I spoke to trans-media producer Zak Kadison both before I went out there and after I got back. Zak is a big believer in the value of self-publishing. He is developing a project with multiple components and was deep into a publishing deal for it when the major house he was negotiating with started to demand contract terms he couldn’t live with. He walked away, confident that he can self-publish the book he wants out to spearhead the project even if he doesn’t succeed in engaging another publisher. Of course, he’d like the big advance and the clout of a big house, but only if the tradeoffs aren’t onerous. Self-publishing is an acceptable alternative.
A central point to the conference is to show Hollywood what becomes possible in a digital book world that wasn’t possible before. I found a very unusual example of that in a meeting with Trond Knutsen of L.A. Theatre Works. L.A. Theatre Works produces audios of plays with a very unusual model. They “stage” performances (with scripts, without sets or costumes) of plays which is repeated five times in front of an audience of about 300 people. Then they edit the recording and deliver the output as a show on public radio, a podcast, and an audiobook.
Because of their 25-year reputation for quality, they get professional actors to do these readings for compensation they’d find unacceptable anywhere else. (Recently, they had Calista Flockhart in their version of Romeo and Juliet.)
When I met with Trond, I asked him “why not put the audio together with the script as an enhanced ebook.” Turns out that’s exactly their intention. They have already launched a series of these for plays for which rights either weren’t an issue or were a resolvable one (several plays by Shakespeare, Importance of Being Earnest, She Stoops to Conquer). In other cases, they’ve worked with a summary of the scenes rather than the scripts (The Crucible).
I told Trond I loved this as an example of what could be done: they’ve leveraged their core competency (producing these audios). It turns out there’s another reason for L.A. Theatre Works to be on our program. Trond believes that same core competency can be leveraged on behalf of other ebook producers who might have scripts they want to present with audio themselves. They now do about 10 of these productions a year, but they could do 20 or even 30 if there were “call” to do so. That makes them an even better presentation for our audience because they’re not just showing “what can be done” but offering a resource to help others do it.
Part of why I went to LA and had all these conversations was to learn how Hollywood thinks about these issues and how I should frame them so that our potential audience will know what we’re talking about. I got two great suggestions in that regard.
One is to say “now everybody can pursue an Alloy Entertainment strategy.” Alloy is the bi-coastal media company (The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) that packages books to get projects rolling as a core strategy. Alloy sells them to publishers, which requires proprietary expertise and contacts that are not broadly distributed. But the core concept of establishing a project as a book so the IP can be controlled for movies, TV, or games is one they’re identified with that everybody in Hollywood understands.
The other phrase I was instructed to use was “development Hell”. That describes the projects that have made the rounds and show no signs of getting made (or “greenlighted”, in Hollywood jargon.) These can be in various stages of development — treatment or screenplay, optioned or even bought — but, from the producer’s point of view, they look like write-offs at the moment.
Projects in development Hell could well be rescucitated by being novelized and launched as a book. All of these projects are stories that a producer once fervently believed in and invested in. Often that won’t have changed. A book could provide a new path to success. And, as publishing is now, a book can be developed and launched for what in Hollywood terms is a minimal incremental investment.
Hollywood is a town full of creative people. They have stories; they have writers with time on their hands; and they have more local people who can reach the public on a per-capita basis than anyplace else on earth. Once the creative executives there wrap their minds around the opportunities offered by digital publishing, I think we’ll see many bestsellers coming from them.
Tony Schulte, one of the kindest and most decent people I ever met during my life in publishing, died this past weekend at the age of 82. When I met Tony he was second in command at Random House. That followed his long stint at Simon & Schuster and preceded his time as a banker, consultant, and executive recruiter. He had been in the business for about 60 years and he kept meeting people until the very end. Everybody who knew him will feel some pain at his passing. Somebody’s going to have to find a pretty large hall to accommodate all of us who will want to attend his memorial, which it is said will take place in September. It is safe to say that Tony’s friends-to-enemies ratio would put him in the Hall of Fame. It approached infinity.