A World Where All Escalators Go Up - Part 2

By Richard Curtis

In Part 1 of this two-part article, we introduced a term commonly heard in discussions of book deals: "escalator." Escalators are additional advance payments made by publishers to authors if and when certain contingencies occur. What are those contingencies? How much are they worth? And what, if anything, is their real value? We homed in on bestseller bonuses. In this concluding segment we focus on paperback reprint, book club, awards, movie and other types of escalators.

One form taken by escalators is book club or paperback reprint, wherein your publisher agrees to pay you additional advance monies if a book club or paperback reprint deal on your bookexceeds a certain amount of money. As we've seen, such escalators are almost invariably of the pay-you-with-your-own-money variety, because your publishers are guaranteed recoupment of the bonus out of the money they will eventually collect from the book club or reprinter. The only thing they lose is interest on the prepayment to you of money they would otherwise have paid in the normal six-month royalty cycle.

Then there are movie bonuses, which are usually payable upon national release by a major distributor of a theatrical motion picture based on your book. There's a mouthful of contingencies crammed into that sentence, so let's analyze it. First, the movie has to be released. Of course! you say, but many authors believe that merely signing a contract for a movie deal ought to be enough to garner them a handsome bonus from their publishers. I'm sorry to tell you otherwise. Although there is some promotional value for a publisher to be able to boast, "Acquired for motion pictures by Universal," it scarcely does a thing for sales. Thus, escalators are usually not payable when movie rights to your book are optioned, or even when the option is exercised. In fact, they are not even payable when your movie goes into production. Publishers have seen too many movie deals fall through to get excited when a star actor or producer takes an option on a book property. They have learned to their sorrow that many movies that go into production are not completed or released.

So, in order to trigger that escalator, your film must actually be distributed. And it must be distributed by one of the big distributors, Universal or Warner or the like, rather than any one of the thousands of little ones that service the movie community. And finally, the movie must be released nationally, as opposed to locally or regionally. The premiere of a film, even a high-budget one made by a great director with superstar actors and actresses, is not going to boost sales of the book from which it is adapted if it's shown only at a few elite showcase theaters in New York and Los Angeles. In order for the film to have impact on mass market book sales, it must be shown at hundreds or thousands of theaters around the nation.

Again, the prices for movie escalators vary widely, from modest - in the low five figures - to very large in the case of authors with long track records in the area of books made into hit films.

Related to theatrical movie bonuses are television-movie escalators. But while the market for television adaptation of books is a very active one, the stimulus to book sales is usually minimal. Even though the exposure is tremendous, far greater than that of a theatrical movie, it is also ephemeral: an evening or two (repeated once, six months or a year later) and it's gone. For publishers this presents serious problems of distribution and promotion. The books must be in the stores precisely on the day of or the day after the airing of the film, and the film must be so heavily publicized that consumers will be motivated to buy the book at the time of the airing. This is expensive, inefficient, unpredictable, and usually, therefore, unsuccessful.

For a television movie to mean anything in terms of tie-in value, it must first of all be an event, one absorbing a minimum of four hours, but preferably spanning a whole week of evenings or, like the blockbuster miniseries Rome, a season of Sunday evening. It should also be based on a bestselling book so that viewer recognition of both the book and movie stimulate each other: you've read the book, now see the television movie, you've seen the movie, now read the book.

Because very few books are converted into television events of a enormous magnitude, the prices for escalators in this medium are considerably lower than they are for release of a major theatrical film adaptation of your book. The conditions are that the TV film be of at least four hours, run over an extended period of time, and be aired originally on a major television or cable network.

There are other contingencies that may trigger escalator payments. Some contracts call for bonuses to be paid if a book wins a major prize or award that has promotional value: Pulitzer, National Book Award, and the like. In some science fiction book contracts, I have negotiated bonuses for winning Nebula or Hugo awards, and in a few cases I even worked in bonuses for nominations for those awards. To science fiction fans the words "Nebula" or "Hugo" on the cover of a book are powerful inducements to buy that book, even if the word "Nominee" is printed beside them.

Obviously, not all books are suitable for escalators. Midlist books, most genre books, and books in category series seldom have escalation provisions in their contracts. For the occasional wunderbuch, the midlist novel that becomes a word-of-mouth bestseller and gets made into a hit movie, the author who did not have escalators in his contract can nevertheless look forward to royalties in the usual course of things. Of course, the next contract he or she negotiates will, you can be sure, contain more escalators than Macy's department store.

There's no harm in your trying for escalators when you negotiate your next contract, because it's no skin off your publisher's nose to give them to you: they only have to pay them to you, as they say in Las Vegas, "on the come." So what the hell; go for it. That way, you too will be able to brag that you have sold your book—with escalators—for a million dollars.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

Richard Curtis is president of Richard Curtis Associates, Inc., a leading New York literary agency and founder of E-Reads, a leading e-book publisher dedicated to bringing out-of-print books back into electronic and printed forms as well as publishing new titles. He is an author, as well as an author advocate and writes a blog on the future of publishing, Richard Curtis on Publishing in the 21st Century.

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