Four Secrets to Publishing a Movie Tie-in Paperback
by Rudy Shur
There it was. It had just been sent to us over the Internet. The first cut of a movie trailer for director Ang Lee’s next motion picture—a movie based on our book, Taking Woodstock by Elliot Tiber with Tom Monte, which tells the story of a motel owner and his parents who helped pull off the iconic rock concert. And there they were—all the characters in our book, moving around and talking.
How amazing, I thought. It had actually happened, and very quickly at that. After watching the trailer four or five times, I thought I would share it with every living person I knew—God bless email. Now that the movie is set for a mid-August opening and I have had some time to think about it, I would like to share some things I learned from the whole experience. I would also be happy to send you the movie trailer. What’s your email address again?
Secret #1: Get in Touch with Someone in the Movie Business
After signing Taking Woodstock in 2005, I knew we had four years to track down an independent movie company, since the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Arts & Music Festival was going to occur on August 15, 2009. Of course, there would be dozens of people in the movie biz who would jump at the opportunity to create a movie based on Elliot Tiber’s memoir about how the legendary 1969 Woodstock concert came into being. It seemed like a no-brainer.
By 2006, however, we had been turned down by all the movie people we knew and lots more we didn’t.
And then it happened. Elliot was scheduled by our in-house publicist to appear on a morning TV show in San Francisco to promote the book. He arrived two hours ahead of schedule and was seated alone in the studio’s green room. An hour passed before the other guest for that morning’s program was shown into the room.
The second guest turned out to be none other than Academy Award–winning director Ang Lee. He was there to promote his film Lust, Caution. For the next hour, Ang spoke with Elliot about his stranger-than-fiction Woodstock adventure. Six months later, we received a movie rights agreement. Okay, so luck had a little to do with it. In fact, luck, good timing, and a great story had everything to do with our landing the deal.
Secret #2: Contact People Equipped to Help You Negotiate a Movie Deal
Although I have negotiated more than 2,000 agreements in my years as a book publisher, I had absolutely no idea what to expect in my dealings with a movie studio. While I was searching for a secure starting point, a friend of mine told me about a relative in the movie business who could help. I called the movie-biz vet and told him all that had happened. He said he would need to think about it, and he assured me that he would be back in touch with me in two days. When he called back, he said he would be happy to provide me with the answers I needed.
However, he also stipulated that he would have to receive billing as a co-producer in the movie. He told me not to worry because his title would be put into the contract along with his payment by the studio. Before he had a chance to offer his advice, I said that I would get back to him.
And so it went with several other Hollywood people I spoke to in the weeks that followed. This “co-producer” requirement was obviously a deal-making practice in the movie business. Since the deal was pretty much a sure thing, I elected not to go that route. Instead, I hired a qualified entertainment lawyer to represent our interests and arranged to pay him on a percentage basis, which ultimately satisfied all parties.
Lesson learned: If you are not an entertainment lawyer, go out and find one.
Secret #3: Time Your Movie Tie-in Edition Correctly
It was late October 2008, and the film’s principal location shoot had been completed a few weeks earlier. We now needed to plan the release of our book in the ever-popular paperback “movie tie-in” format.
Typically, small publishing houses sell paperback reprint rights to larger houses. And why not? The smaller house receives a check and gets to sit back while the other company does all the work on the tie-in edition. But since this was the first—and perhaps only—book that we would ever see turned into a major Hollywood movie, I wanted to see it through myself.
The conventional rule of thumb that I had learned was: Publish the “tie-in” edition one month before the movie’s opening date. Unfortunately, the studio’s release date for this film kept shifting. First it was June, then July, and finally the studio settled on August 14, 2009—the day before the actual 40th anniversary of Woodstock.
If we were going to follow the tie-in rule, our paperback edition would come out in mid-July. While I have not published many general trade books like Taking Woodstock, I do know that books with midsummer release dates usually miss every summer Recommended Reading list—nearly all of them appear in late May or early June.
The hardcover edition of our title had received terrific reviews. Why shouldn’t the paperback be given a chance to stand on its own earlier in the game? We decided to show it first during BEA in late May 2009—with a rollout to all stores in the first week of June. That way, we would have at least two and a half months to build a buzz before the movie generated the rest of the prerelease Hollywood hoopla.
My thinking was simple: Rules are always good to keep in mind, but sometimes they have to be bent to fit the circumstances.
Secret #4: Print Enough Paperbacks
It has always amazed me how untruthful a publisher’s print numbers can be—think of first print runs that are publicized as 250,000 copies; 500,000 copies; or the always-amazing 1 million copies.
I don’t know when this whole thing got started, but I guess a theory has evolved that the bigger the print run, the more important the book seems to bookstores.
Since I know that most of these numbers are closer to wishful thinking than to reality, I was not about to do something stupid. So I called a few of my fellow indie publisher friends whose titles had also been turned into movies. Two had sold the tie-in edition rights to other houses, while another had published the tie-in himself. All three told me the same thing: They were surprised that these books hadn’t sold more copies.
I have my own idea about how many books one should print. It goes like this: Look at the number of hard sales you have, and then print just a few more copies than you need for them. After all, you can always reprint.
Having listened to my friends, I decided to follow my own principle. With a very large buy from two of the chains and a strong indication that the indie bookstores would be placing solid orders, we had close to 25,000 copies already spoken for—a fairly strong number of orders to have in hand prior to publication—so I decided we would print 30,000 copies. If we sold one-third of the inventory, we would break even. If we sold half, we would be in the money. And if we sold all the books and went back to press another three or four times, everyone involved would be thrilled.
At that point, though, we did not have orders from Books-A-Million, Hudson News (for airport stores), or Urban Outfitters (the clothing store chain), and we didn’t yet have numbers from our Australian or U.K. distributors, who got excited when the movie version of Taking Woodstock was invited to the Cannes Film Festival. So at this writing, our print run is mounting up to 75,000.
The point is still simple: Don’t take unnecessary chances trying to impress anyone with print runs that far exceed what you know you have in real sales. Print only what you need—plus a little more—for a tie-in, and then keep a steady eye on sales as you drive toward that all-important movie-release date.
Taking Stock of Taking Woodstock
How will things turn out with our movie tie-in paperback edition of Taking Woodstock? At this point, it is still anyone’s guess. What I can tell you is that as an independent publisher, I feel as if we have won the lottery. It is a feeling that I am pleased to share with my authors, my staff, and, hopefully, all the bookstore owners who see our paperback sell through.
While I have just told you my four secrets to publishing a movie tie-in paperback, I suppose the bottom line is that there are no secrets. There is only a strong team effort, a sharp sense of what works, and a healthy dose of Lady Luck. We hope to see you in the bookstores this month, and then again at the movies in mid-August. And by the way—did I mention that I can email you the trailer?
Rudy Shur is the founder and publisher of Square One Publishers, located in Garden City Park, NY. He is also “a proud past board member of IBPA.” To learn more about SQ1, visit squareonepublishers.com. To see the movie trailer, go to youtube.com/watch?v=7Iq8z2WDbKo. Peace.