With the "50 Shades of Grey" series hitting 10 million sales this week, ebooks are emerging as a sexy new source of material for Hollywood. The majors are keeping a close eye on digital bestseller lists and showing a willingness to pay traditional book-rights fees for digital titles -- provided they come with built-in brand awareness.
The hunt to option such titles is heating up after a handful of high-profile sales of ebooks, many self-published, including April's $3 million sale of "50 Shades" to Universal. Observers credit "Shades" with paving the way for subsequent sales of "Wool" and "On the Island," both of which sold for big bucks despite the fact that both went straight to Kindles and iPads without going through major publishers.
"As we've known for years and years, the studios have been much more interested in brands, whether that's a board game or video game or traditional book," said Steve Fisher, veep of APA and a literary agent who represents books-to-films deals. "The last couple of deals have really indicated a huge willingness on the part of studios and other buyers to be open to ebooks in a way they hadn't been before."
Fisher most recently repped the author of "On the Island," a romance eBook which MGM snapped up (Daily Variety, May 14). Tome by Des Moines, Iowa resident Tracey Garvis-Graves spent five weeks on the New York Times bestseller list before the Lion forked over a low- to mid-six-figure fee.
"The effect is that they're looking more closely than ever at the ebook list for the original ebook bestsellers," said Jody Hotchkiss, a literary agent with Hotchkiss and Associates.
But traditional books have a key advantage over their digital counterparts: publishers tend to get into business with known quantities, or properties vouched for by literary agents. With ebooks, it's the Wild West when it comes to identifying promising authors and material. Digital books are virtually free to publish, and there's no gatekeepers vetting their quality.
According to data from research firm Publishers Marketplace, film and TV producers bought rights to 209 books last year and 79 so far this year. Very few of those were ebooks, and nearly all sold before they were published.
That means ebooks grab the attention of lit agents only after they start rising on the charts or generate enough word-of-mouth buzz. Currently high-charting ebooks include "Beauty" by Laurell K. Hamilton; Neal Stephenson's sword-fighting epic "Mongoliad"; romance "The Marriage Bargain" by Jennifer Probst; and "Beautiful Disaster" by Jamie McGuire -- none of which have yet been picked up. Meanwhile, E.L. James' steamy "50 Shades" continues to top the ebook chart.
The New York Times began listing bestselling ebooks in early 2011, a few months before thriller author John Locke reached 1 million in sales for his ebooks. But just like with traditional book publishing, getting discovered is a big challenge for the ebooks that aren't perched atop the bestseller list.
"The tricky thing about ebooks is that there are a lot of them out there," Fisher said, pointing out that ebooks don't get promoted the way traditional books can be. Reps often catch wind of self-published material by looking at the top-sellers lists on Amazon and iTunes.
"We follow sales by looking online, just as anybody can," said Jane Dystel, president of literary management agency Dystel & Goderich. Dystel found "On the Island" author Garvis-Graves by checking online book sales, later bringing the scribe to Fisher.
"The availability of ebooks is much greater today than it was even six months ago ... as the availability of good books increases, of course Hollywood is also going to be more interested," she said.
But because many are self-published, ebooks must also contend with the stigma that they're not the same quality as traditional novels. Most agents would rather not dig through the virtual slush pile in the hopes of finding a "50 Shades."
"I'm finding that book scouts in New York are really integral to this process even more so than they are (for) traditional books," Fisher said. "It's harder for your average ebook to separate itself from the pack, but a lot of these authors are very savvy at promoting themselves."
Case in point: Amanda Hocking, the 28-year-old self-published writer whose popular paranormal teen novels landed her a movie contract with Media Rights Capital last year. After selling more than 100,000 ebooks, Hocking landed a $2 million deal from St. Martin's Press for a four-book series, turning down a higher bid from a competitor that she felt wouldn't reach as many readers.
"Studios have signalled that they don't care whether it's an ebook or a hardbook because, ultimately, they bring the same kind of brand awareness that they so value," Fisher said.
Studios are willing to pay for that brand awareness. In a non-competitive situation, traditional book rights often fetch between $150,000 to $250,000 -- a range that now applies to popular e-fare.
While agents like Fisher may not always deal with publishers when it comes to ebooks, they rely heavily on book scouts -- filters that tend to go in and out of vogue as studios cut back budgets and depend upon junior execs to bring in material.
"In-house book scouts stopped being common when the studios determined that New York publishing was less important for movies (than) 10 to 15 years ago," Hotchkiss said.
Studios, for example, often have a book scout in-house or work with an outside company. Disney, 20th Century Fox and Sony, for example, have a scout on staff, while Warner Bros. and Universal work with outside companies on an exclusive basis.
But as hot ebooks continue to go mainstream, Hollywood will surely continue to pay attention.
"Studios and major buyers out here were taking their book scouts' calls a lot more quickly and suddenly paying attention to New York in a way that I hadn't seen in years," Fisher said of the immediate effect of the "50 Shades" sale. "I think that any qualms that buyers had about getting behind an ebook ... (are) gone."
Contact Rachel Abrams at Rachel.Abrams@variety.com