After publishing novels and short fiction for more than a decade, Lynn Coady, like many of her peers in CanLit, found that it rarely translated into a good or steady income.
“There’s really no ‘living’ to be had as a fiction writer, unless of course you’re an international bestseller,” Coady writes in an email. “I always had to hustle with side gigs, freelance work that was ancillary to publishing fiction—contractual teaching at the university level, mentoring, freelance editing and writing (for magazines, newspapers etc), giving readings.”
Coady realized there was a way to pay her bills with her writing—just not the kind of writing she was used to. She got a job as a writer for television in 2014.
In some ways, Coady was ahead of the curve. Today, books and TV are part of the same ecosystem, feeding off each other like never before. Growing up when sitcoms like Three’s Company dominated the airwaves and television was routinely denigrated as the “idiot box,” she says she never saw television as an option. That changed in the early 2000s, when “prestige TV” started to take form on cable channels like HBO.
“The Sopranos was the first series that made me say, ‘Holy shit, the writing!’ But I think it was closer to around the time of Mad Men that I started thinking, ‘Oooohhh, if that’s the kind of thing you’re doing, let me at it.’”
After taking a course at the Canadian Film Centre called the Bell Media Prime Time TV Program, she landed a job in the writers’ room of the sci-fi television series Orphan Black. Now she’s a writer on the CBC show Diggstown.
“There’s so much love from the film and television industry for books,” says Samantha Haywood, president of the Transatlantic Agency, an international literary management company. “Whether it’s scouts or producers or buyers, there’s a huge passion for books in a way that feels even stronger at times than original screenwriting projects.”
Amid a massive international boom in TV production, prestigious and highbrow shows, like The Sopranos and Mad Men, are no longer outliers. HBO and AMC have started their own streaming services and face competition from services like Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, and Disney+, and even network TV broadcasters, such as CBC, are all looking for buzzy hits and award recognition. More and more, they’re mining bookstores for content.
With TV striving to be more literary, many literary writers are getting into screenwriting or optioning and selling rights to their work for screen adaptation. It’s changing the literary industry itself, blurring the line between two artistic fields that are starting to look a lot like each other.
Some of the biggest TV hits or critical success stories of the last few years have come from books: think Station Eleven, an adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel of the same name, or the Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
More adaptations are announced every day. Sterling K. Brown is executive producing and starring in a high-profile adaptation of Esi Edugyan’s Giller Prize–winning Washington Black. Musicians-turned-memoirists Tegan and Sara are teaming up with Brad Pitt’s production company to adapt their book, High School, with Clea DuVall acting as executive producer. Crave announced it will be turning Scaachi Koul’s book of essays, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, into a television show. And series based on books by two Indigenous authors, Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians and Joshua Whitehead’s Canada Reads–winning novel Jonny Appleseed, are also in the works.
But taking stories from page to screen is by no means only a CanLit phenomenon, with high-profile adaptations of works like Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Conversations with Friends among the most talked about or critically acclaimed series of the last few years. Literary adaptations to TV are on a steady rise. Using data drawn from Publishers Marketplace, The Atlantic found that, in 2020, TV adaptations exceeded film adaptations for the first time ever. In September 2021, the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes found more than 125 book-to-TV adaptations in progress.
It’s not just books that are making the leap from page to screen—authors are as well. More and more, Canadian writers are finding their way into TV writers’ rooms, creating opportunities for steady pay and job security that are rare in their usual field. According to a 2018 survey by the Writers’ Union of Canada, “the work of writers fuels an almost $2 billion book industry in Canada, and yet more than 85% of writers earn an income from their writing that is below the poverty line.”
Because the film-and-TV industry is more powerfully unionized, the rates paid to writers are considerably higher than those paid to literary writers. According to the Writers’ Union, English-language Canadian book authors typically earn a royalty rate of 10 percent of the publisher’s retail price, but there is pressure on authors to accept lower rates. Unlike screenwriters, who are represented by the Writers Guild of Canada, there are no set minimums. English-language script fees negotiated by the WGC for independent Canadian projects range from $13,478 for a television documentary program to $55,419 for a feature film.
Elan Mastai started as a hired gun for movie features, wrote the rare Toronto-as-itself romantic comedy The F Word, then decided to write his first novel, the inventive time-travel romp All Our Wrong Todays. After that, he found himself in the writers’ room of one of the most popular shows on television, NBC’s This Is Us. He says that, in film and TV, writers earn money through script fees, production fees, and residuals—the screenwriter’s equivalent of royalties. Depending on the deal, writers are often paid a partial fee at commencement, upon delivery, and may have steps in place with fees for each subsequent draft or revision. Production fees can increase with production budgets and, if it gets made, residuals rise based on how successful the show or movie is—for Mastai, residuals have ranged from a couple of dollars to five figures. Even if the show never makes it to air, the writer still gets paid.
Speaking over the phone from Toronto (he splits his time between there and Los Angeles), Mastai theorizes that the pandemic has caused writers to flow in both directions. Feature film and TV writers have had more time to try their hands at books, and for novelists, isolation and precarity—already conditions of their craft—have intensified.
“I fear for the editors of the world: a glut of novels written by screenwriters who suddenly have more time than they expected on their hands,” he jokes. “Also I think, for novelists, the prospect of working with other writers and having that kind of collaboration is probably pretty appealing right now.”
But both authors turning to TV writing rooms and screenwriters considering novel writing sometimes underestimate what it takes to do the other and how difficult the transition can be.
“I think a lot of literary writers think getting into TV will be easy money, but it really isn’t,” writes Zoe Whittall in an email. Known for her poetry and novels, such as The Best Kind of People and The Spectacular, Whittall has also written for well-regarded Canadian shows Degrassi: The Next Generation, Schitt’s Creek, and Baroness von Sketch Show.
“I get asked by other novelists how to get into the business and often when I ask them what kind of TV they love to watch they tell me that they don’t actually watch all that much TV. Which is bananas. You have to love the medium and study it before you can expect to get work. There’s still elitism about TV as a lower art.”
Just because you can write a book, it doesn’t mean you can write a screenplay, and writing a screenplay doesn’t mean you can participate in a writer’s room. The skill sets overlap, but they’re not exactly the same. Not everyone is suited for working in TV. And, even if you are, you have to build experience and reputation in a whole new industry.
Whittall learned that quickly when she made the jump to TV. Good writing on the page isn’t necessarily going to translate as good writing onscreen, she warns. “The scale of absolutely everything is different, and the idea of what is good or bad writing on the page—all of those rules are opposite,” writes Whittall.
There are politics in a writers’ room that might not exist in your own writing where you have the final say on everything, she says. It was much more collaborative, yet often competitive. In fact, most of it is done verbally in a room “like a very long staff meeting.” You can’t have an ego, because you’re there to serve the show’s voice, not your own.
Mastai, who has written for television, film, and published a novel, says TV writing is most akin to novel writing—especially an epic, generation-spanning serialized family drama like This Is Us. The difference is that, in a novel, you can write anything your brain can come up with, and you don’t have to worry about executing it later. In TV, you have to worry about real-world logistics.
It can also make you develop a thick skin. “I remember getting my first round of notes on my manuscript from my editor at Dutton, and they were so nice about it. They wanted to make sure I was okay with them,” he remembers. Meanwhile, for screenwriting, he says he’s had producers literally scream notes at him.
You learn to be less precious, he says, especially when you might toil away at a feature or pilot script and then have it never come out for reasons maybe totally unrelated to the quality of the product. It might be a lack of funding, poor timing, or any aspect of development hell. If you spend years toiling away on a book that gets published, even if it has no guarantee to make a lot of money, you at least know it will come out and you can hold it in your hands.
With TV production booming, studios and streaming services are hungry for content, or intellectual property (IP), making books a valuable commodity for the industry: there’s potentially a built-in audience for a new show, and the original writer may be interested in shaping the adaptation. Some authors are dipping their toes into the world of TV by adapting, consulting, or collaborating on the adaptation of their own works. In 2018, Thunderbird Entertainment announced it was teaming up with Métis author Cherie Dimaline to develop her novel The Marrow Thieves for TV, with Dimaline an executive producing. After all, who knows the work better than the person who initially wrote it?
The Transatlantic Agency’s Haywood says she was increasingly finding herself in meetings with producers who had reached out to her about her authors. She became fascinated with the book-to-TV and book-to-movie pipeline. With 800 clients and twenty agents, Transatlantic has broadened its understanding of what a literary agency can do. No longer strictly representing authors to publishers in order to get books published, the agency has abandoned the siloed approach between different kinds of writers and treats its roster as storytellers—in whatever form that might take. Already, the agency has negotiated over 100 book-to-screen deals in the past few years, so its roster is loaded with authors who are already considering that the stories told in their books could be adapted to TV or film.
So, in January of this year, Transatlantic formalized its expanded focus by launching its TV-and-film division. Haywood says that, more and more, companies are combining literary agents and TV/movie agents under one house. Transatlantic’s new division brings them under the same umbrella, with Laura Cameron acting as an in-house TV/film agent—focusing specifically on book-to-TV/film projects and connecting stakeholders on both sides.
When it comes to adapting written IP, there are benefits to both the original author and the producers. The authors keep the copyright to their book and get a new stream of revenue beyond the advance for writing a book and the royalties that come with it. It gives a book—or podcast or true crime story or longform piece of journalism—a new life or afterlife. After their TV versions premiered, Station Eleven and The Handmaid’s Tale were featured on bestsellers lists, as were Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster and Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes.
For streaming companies and broadcasters hungry for content, adaptations knock out most of the creative legwork. And they know an audience already exists.
“The depth of character development in a novel or a book-length work provides such a great jumping-off point for an ongoing series because there’s just so much there to work with,” says Transatlantic’s Cameron. “The interior lives of the characters are explored in a way that can be brought to life on screen.”
Think of the HBO Max version of Station Eleven, which is filled with novelistic, human depth rarely seen in similar postapocalyptic sci-fi series. There’s plenty of episodic, puzzle-box mystery, but the feelings of the character stick with you more than the what-happens-next nature of the plot. Now, author Emily St. John Mandel is teaming with that series’s show runner, Patrick Somerville (himself a novelist), to adapt two more of her books, The Glass Hotel and Sea of Tranquility.
Occasionally, it happens in the other direction. Atwood has said The Testaments, her 2019 sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, was inspired, in part, by Ann Dowd’s onscreen performance as the character Aunt Lydia. Atwood reportedly asked the Hulu show runner to keep the character so that she could use her in the sequel. (Dowd is also one of the narrators of the audiobook version.)
For All Our Wrong Todays, Mastai got to experience the best and worst of both worlds. He wrote it first as a novel, then it was optioned as a movie. That didn’t pan out, but it has now been optioned as a television series produced by Seth MacFarlane’s company, Fuzzy Door Productions, and Amy Pascal’s company, Pascal Pictures. Mastai wrote the pilot, which means he’s now written three different versions of the story, each with its own formal limitations.
If All Our Wrong Todays gets picked up, Mastai will be the show runner. But he also wrote the book and therefore owns the IP, which, in Hollywood today, when the majority of content that gets made is adaptations of existing works, can be extremely valuable.
“No matter what happens, I got to tell my story already. And every time somebody options it, regardless of whether I’m the screenwriter, I make more revenue from it,” he says.
In the end, more watchers might mean more readers. “If we make it across the finish line and actually get the thing produced, it’s going to bring all new eyeballs to the original work and my novels to come.”