I have learned a lesson the hard way.
NEVER EVER LET SOMEONE ADAPT YOUR NOVEL FOR A SCREENPLAY UNTIL YOU FIRST HAVE AN AGREEMENT IN WRITING!
Some time ago I wrote here that the daughter of a friend was adapting an unpublished manuscript of mine into a screenplay. He told me about it over dinner at their house (surprise!), and my reaction (since I’m an idiot) was to be flattered. She’s a young struggling actress in New York and he believed a screenplay would open doors for her. I was happy to help.
I assumed, however, that this screenplay would be a mere “calling card,” meaning a producer/ whoever doesn’t want this screenplay but likes what they see and hire her for another job. In reality, of course, the odds against selling a screenplay are astronomical, even tougher than getting a book published. I myself wrote a couple screenplays years ago that got nowhere.
Anyway, his daughter finished the screenplay and needed a contract with me in order to show it around. I checked out the Writers Guild of America website, found what I thought was a suitable adaptation contract, tweaked it and sent it to her father.
OMG, what he sent back to me…
It was completely rewritten and, while most of it was standard fare, he had added two shockers. First, if “in any way” his daughter’s screenplay helped to get my book published (yes, he was that vague), she was entitled to 25% of my book royalties. Forever. And since my book is the first in a planned series, she was entitled to those royalties for my ENTIRE SERIES!
The second shocker was that if her screenplay didn’t sell but another person was hired by producers to write it, she and I would share any payment for that new screenplay 50-50.
In other words, he saw his daughter and me as being 50-50 partners, never mind that it’s MY story, MY characters, MY scenes, MY dialogue, MY backbreaking amount of historical research (the setting is1867-1868). His argument? “Nobody wants your book”—a slap to me and a conclusion he came to because he had sent my manuscript to a few people he knew to help me get it published, but not one of these people (as far as I know) was a literary agent or book editor or publisher. I had appreciated his efforts, but I’d never suspected that he wanted this kind of payback.
While it’s true that if this young woman sells the screenplay that would help my book, the cost to me would be terribly steep. Yet when I refused to accept the contract, her father was furious and insulting (okay, so he was being the protective father) and emphasized that we might all make a great deal of money on this deal but if I didn’t go along with it I would have nothing. Because nobody wanted my book. He would not change a single word in his contract.
To make a too-long story shorter…
We’re no longer on speaking terms, our long friendship is over, but his daughter (who’s pretty innocent in this mess) has contacted me so I’m trying to work out something with her. I mean, if I hadn’t been encouraging to her I wouldn’t feel obligated, but now I am. So I’m going to have to hire an entertainment lawyer to look over the short contract she and I are negotiating, because everyone I’ve consulted and everything I’ve read says that this is essential. And it’s going to cost me.
Only one good thing has come out of this ugly episode: I am now determined to find an agent and traditional publisher for my novel, which I have let sit around for too long. If that doesn’t work I’ll self-publish FAST. I’ve had raves from a few readers and I know it’s a good book, but I need to have some faith in myself.
So let that be a warning to you, my fellow writers. NEVER let anyone do anything with your writing without first getting specifics down in a legit contract.
P.S. Short of a huge change for me and my books, this is yet another reason why I’m swearing off writing, with the exception of one very short non-fiction work I will complete.