THE OPTIONIST is Here!
An Ankler newsletter about available IP; I do the reading for you
Hello! Welcome to the inaugural edition of The Optionist. I’m Andy Lewis, former books editor of The Hollywood Reporter. Before that I got a PhD in history from the University of Virginia and wrote/edited multiple books about the civil rights movement, including The Shadows of Youth ("If you changed the world before you were thirty, what would you do with the rest of your life?"). I regularly review books for the Los Angeles Times. Margaret Thatcher once insulted my tie at lunch and Jerry Lewis — in his last interview — mocked my questions. But we turned that disaster into THR's most-watched video ever.
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I'm a voracious reader with an omnivore's appetite (I like Fifty Shades and Faulkner, though not equally). My goal here is to do some of the reading for you as you hunt for your next great projects to develop in these so-called streaming wars. As in all wars, each team requires resources — in this case, great intellectual property. Every Friday, I'll present un-optioned material from books, magazines, news articles, podcasts, games and graphic novels that I think deserve a look. I will attempt to go beyond hot titles on current lists from your book scouts, and pick out the hidden gems. I’ll also go into the backlists to highlight books that should have another shot. And I’ll talk with key players, and go inside the bestseller list.
Please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to help me make this newsletter as valuable and useful to you as possible. Follow @optionistankler on Twitter. The Optionist will be free for a period of time in beta; I ask only for your honest feedback in return. Thank you!
In this issue:
The Optionist’s top weekly picks that have filmed rights still available include the tales of a professor with ALS who wants to become a cyborg, an aging jewel thief lothario, and a Station Eleven-like story.
A Q&A with Adam Gomolin, CEO of Inkshares, which is disrupting traditional publishing with a writer-centric platform that has yielded projects in development at Apple, Warner Bros. and others.
BOOKS I LIKE (current)
THE CEREAL HEIRESS WHO BUILT MAR-A-LAGO
The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post by Allison Pataki (Ballantine, Feb. 15)
A fictional imagining of the life of the heir to the Post cereal fortune who became one of, if not, the richest woman in America, was married four times, built Mar-A-Lago and created General Foods. Lots of money, doomed loves, adventure and travel. As the rare female corporate leader, she turned the Post cereal company into the General Foods conglomerate (with hubby E.F. Hutton. Yes, that E.F. Hutton), crucially recognizing the importance of frozen food by buying Birdseye. In the 1930s, when her third husband was the ambassador to the Soviet Union she bought up enough Czarist Russian treasures from Stalin to open a museum. Literally. She opened a museum in DC featuring her haul. REPS: Dupree Miller & Associates/Artists First
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu (William Morrow, Jan. 18)
A contender in the hunt for the next Station Eleven: an ancient plague, released when the perfectly preserved body of a prehistoric girl is dug up, sweeps the earth causing devastating deaths. Big love from galley readers (and a big first printing) but the scope of the story — it takes place over centuries and on earth and in space — might make it tricky. Sounds like a potential Dune — big gamble, big risk, maybe a big mess, but could be incredible. REPS: Echolake Entertainment
TOO COOL NOT TO MENTION
Memory Librarian by Janelle Monae (Harper Collins, April 19)
With Afrofuturistic cyberpunk stories spun from her 2018 album Dirty Computer, Monae is collaborating with a bunch of great writers on this — Alaya Dawn Johnson (Trouble the Saints), Yohanca Delgado (“The Rat”), Danny Lore (Marvel Comics' Champions), Sheree Renée Thomas (Nine Bar Blues) — and Harper is betting big with a 200K-copy first printing. What does one do with this? Rights are still TBD but I would love to see what someone involved in Black Mirror would do with this or maybe Alex Garland or Kasi Lemmons to start. REPS: WME
THRILLER, ADVENTURE, HORROR
All the White Spaces by Ally Wilkes (Atria, March 29)
This is a post-WWI period horror that mixes a throwback look at the Golden Age of Arctic Exploration, with a tense psychological horror story about something stalking a polar expedition that evokes John Carpenter's classic The Thing mixed with an of-the-moment exploration of gender and identity. Drops in the UK in Jan and the US in March but horror fans are already buzzing about this. Yellowjackets in the Arctic anyone? REP: Oliver Munson/CAA
UNTOLD TRUE HEROINE STORY/THRILLER
Double Life of Katharine Clark by Katharine Greggorio (Sourcebooks, March 29)
The true-life thriller how one of the first female reporters behind the Iron Curtain helped smuggle out a high-ranking dissident's scathing denunciation of the communist leadership. That writing went on to sell 3 million copies as a book and was used by the CIA as a textbook. Extra hook: The author is the reporter's great niece. The publisher name checks Radium Girls (a book club hit) and A Woman of No Importance but the better comp might be last year's buzzy The Secrets We Kept (in development with Ink Factory and Marc Platt). REP: Elaine Spencer, Knight Agency
BACKLIST REVISITED (titles worth a second look)
KOREAN REVENGE FANTASY
Tongue by Kyung-Ran Jo translated by Chi-Young Kim (Bloomsbury)
Korean fiction is hot, especially post-Squid Game. Books are being snapped up as fast as they come to market and this 2009 backlist title by a best-selling and award winning writer should get a nibble and the agents are out shopping it again. It made me think of the creepy great 1989 film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover but it has also been likened to Perfume and Like Water for Chocolate. Here a young chef has her heart broken when her boyfriend dumps her for another woman but leaves her with the dog (because the new love hates it). When the dog dies, the chef takes revenge by serving the ex a sumptuous meal including...the new girlfriend's tongue. REPS: Barbara J. Zitwer Agency/Emily Hayward Whitlock, The Artists Partnership
FORGOTTEN HORROR CLASSIC
The Beetle by Richard Marsh (public domain, 1897)
If you were piqued by All the White Spaces, consider this overlooked classic which outsold Dracula the year they both arrived. (How's that for a hook?) I was originally tipped to this by the former chair of the UPenn English Dept, a top Brit lit scholar, who calls this "the original gender fluid gothic horror story" and a scarier version of The Mummy (take that Tom Cruise and Brendan Fraser!). The Penn students who have read this forgotten gem eat it up. The hard to resist plotline: in Victorian London an enchanted shape-shifting ancient Egyptian creature of ambiguous gender stalks a member of Parliament in retaliation for the Brit killing a priestess who had worshipped the creature years earlier. A 1919 silent film version has been lost to time but an update screams (pun intended) Guilermo Del Toro or perhaps a queer filmmaker with a similar aesthetic. REPS: None. Public domain. Go at it
DOCUMENTARY, DOCU-SERIES, SCRIPTED
Harsh Reality: The Story of Miriam Rivera (Wondery, 8 episodes, Nov. 29)
The true story of a reality show with a cruel secret at its center: In a villa on Ibiza six men compete for cash and the love of the beautiful Miriam. Except there's a twist: Miriam is trans, something not revealed to the men right away. Things go very, very wrong. Hosted by trans actress Trace Lysette and produced in conjunction with Translash Media. Definitely would be a talker, buzzy and would market itself (think UnReal). The media will eat…this...up. REPS: UTA
“Angels of the Avalanche Age” by Joshua Hammer (GQ, Feb)
Air-Glaciers, based in Switzerland, is the world's most elite helicopter rescue team and with climate change making mountains ever more dangerous and adventure skiers wandering ever more off piste, these mountain rescue teams are busier than ever. Sure a mountain-set show presents challenges, both logistical and financial, but something like this that marries Americans’ love of rescue procedurals (think 9-1-1 or Chicago Fire) with the appeal of a sexy international setting seems perfect for the new streaming age that can manufacture global hits at launch. REPS: Conde Nast Entertainment
THRILLER, SILICON VALLEY TAKEDOWN
“‘Take Her Down’: Inside eBay’s Stalking Campaign against a Natick Couple Amazon. Etsy. eBay. Lots of companies appeared in David and Ina Steiner’s E-commerce newsletter. Only one tried to take them out” by Mike Damiano (Boston Magazine, Dec)
In this journalist's true account, eBay's CEO didn't like what this little homebrew newsletter was saying about the company, so its chief security officer and his team spied and harassed them in ways you would not believe — how'd you like to get a pig fetus in the mail? Now this little couple is determined to make eBay pay. REPS: Still figuring this out, email me if interested and I’ll help track it down
SCI-FI, HUMAN TRIUMPH, INCLUSION
“After ALS struck, he became the world’s most advanced cyborg: Scientist Dr. Peter Scott-Morgan is pushing the boundaries of what it means to be human” by LaVonne Roberts (Input Magazine, Dec)
“Paralysis is an engineering problem,” insists Scott-Morgan, a prominent British-American robotics scientist with ALS, and it’s one he has a solution for: Becoming a cyborg. “And when I say ‘cyborg,’ I don’t just mean any old cyborg, you understand,” he says. “But by far the most advanced human cybernetic organism ever created in 13.8 billion years.” Stephen Hawking meets — or rather becomes — the Six Million Dollar Man. The writer is working on expanding the story into a book. REPS: BDG, write to email@example.comfirstname.lastname@example.org
“Missing jewels and art: A lawsuit against a retired professor is ruffling the well-to-do from Georgetown to Newport, R.I.” by Paul Schwartzman (Washington Post, Jan. 18)
A fabulously fun read. “The story is about the Cary Grant who wasn’t — who was just a creep,” says one person involved in this tale of an aging jewel thief lothario. A retired professor — a suave debonair worldly type — romanced a wealthy widowed Georgetown socialite and then moved into her posh brick manse. When she died, he refused to move out and started surreptitiously pawning her valuables, alleges the son in a lawsuit. And oh yeah, the son also claims the lothario ripped off nearly a dozen of her friends when the two of them were overnight guests. The story has definite Patricia Highsmith vibes — think The Talented Mr. Ripley plays canasta — but another spin could lean into the absurdity to yield something more like Bad Education. REPS: Storied Media Group
THE OPTIONIST Q&A:
WHO: Adam Gomolin, CEO Inkshares
SAMPLE PROJECTS IN DEVELOPMENT: Astronaut Instruction Manual (Alcorn), Mr. and Mrs. American Pie (Boat Rocker), A Gentleman’s Murder (Endeavor Content)
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: The rise of non-traditional publishers from Amazon Kindle Direct to digital magazines like Truly Adventurous and Epic Stories to Wattpad and Scribd have disrupted legacy publishing by offering alternative paths to production and a new source of IP for Hollywood. (Recall that two of the biggest original hits of the last decade — The Martian and Fifty Shades of Grey — started out in this new world.) One player is Inkshares, based in the Bay Area, which bills itself as a platform for serious literary creatives.
We talked to Gomolin, who came from a background in the law, about Inkshares' foothold in Hollywood, and what the streaming wars look like from his point of view.
Q: What is Inkshares?
We're an online platform for serious literary creatives, where writers can post for free and readers and writers can read and engage with material for free. We have a series of algorithms that we collectively call Story Machine whose job it is to look at data to separate signal from noise and help us understand how valuable a story is. [It aggregates and analyzes a variety of metrics – likes, follows, shares, reads, orders –to get a sense of relative engagement]. Not to take the human out of the loop, but to make sure that we're always looking at the stories that are most likely to resonate. From there, we publish books, including print books in brick-and-mortar, and license to the other publishers internationally.
Q: How did it start?
The earliest version of Inkshares began in 2013. One of my co-founders, Thad Woodman, had this idea for a literary community that would advocate for incredible stories from people you had never heard of. There were all these great young writers who couldn't get a deal at the major houses or even the smaller houses. Reading was beginning to contract, the mid-list was taking the brunt, and the ability to take bets on new writers was going away. The first idea was a Kickstarter-meets-Random House type thing. The year that we were founded, over $20 million for books and comic books were funded on Kickstarter. We thought if you were to marry the social-financial engine of Kickstarter with the resources of a traditional publisher, what would that look like?
Q: How did you get to where you are today?
By late 2016, there was really a battle inside the company: Do we continue to grow slowly and 20 books becomes 30, or faster and it becomes 200 or 300? Do we listen to VCs, optimize for scale, and sell these books off to Random House or whoever? Or do we really focus on a higher caliber of literary creative? The recent exits for Wattpad and Radish really speak to the value they’ve created ($600 million and $440 million, respectively). But for us, I think the vision that won out was to become the place for really serious literary creatives on the internet. Now, serious does not mean MFA or Melville House. Tom Clancy was an insurance salesman in Baltimore and the story goes The Hunt for Red October ended up with the United States Naval Institute Press because everyone in New York thought it was too technical. I wanted those insurance salespeople on Inkshares. I was lucky enough to sit with [Anonymous Content’s] Steve Golin a few times before he passed, and I said I wanted to prove that the internet could stand for the same quality and curation as Anonymous. That's been something that's been born out in the starred reviews, in the best-of-the-year lists, the major sales, the consistent praise in places like The New York Times and NPR that tend to be a bit more wary of “things from the internet” when it comes to reading.
Q: Unlike Wattpad, which is a mass consumer-facing platform, you guys are more focused on writers as your key user and then helping midwife those projects to iterations in other media. Right?
I think we would be an OBGYN rather than a midwife [laughs]. One of the most compelling things that we saw when we looked at the data for our first few years was that there was a subgroup of users — writers — that interacted with stories at about 10 to 20 times the rate of other users. They wanted three things: A community of talented and like-minded individuals to interact with, resources on how to become a better writer, and some type of transparent access to a deal. We really self define as at the locus of those three places. Our genre is vibrant and edgy debut fiction.
Q: How did you get traction in Hollywood?
We have had a wonderful advisor early on named Matt Guma who's a literary agent. He's represented the likes of Derek Jeter to some of the biggest literary-fiction writers. We were in Los Angeles to meet with CAA and WME, and Matt said, you know, you have to sit down with Howie Sanders at UTA. He's gonna understand you better than anyone else. We ended up taking a meeting with UTA and it just felt like he, Howie, understood us. You know Howie (now at Anonymous Content), of course, and when he claps his hands together, the train leaves the station. And, at the time UTA was the only major agency without a literary department — in the sense of selling books to publishers — so we felt that our value proposition was really pronounced there in terms of feeding book-to-film.
Q: What have you learned about pitching?
We have built a really great young UK slate, and when I think of pitching, I prefer the British way of doing things. Here, you sit opposite the network at a table, and you pitch, and it feels like, kind of like a settlement conference in the law. It has a lot of oppositional elements. What I've found really interesting in Britain is that people just tend to have conversations, as frequently at a pub as in an office. It is much more about saying: Here's the types of things that we're doing. Do our pegs look like your holes?
Q: Tell me about a pitch that went well.
I remember pitching Kill Creek to Showtime with Katie O’Connell in 2017, in the early days of what is now Boat Rocker. It was this incredible group we had put together. Executive producer Misha Green has this gutsy idea, which was to ask for windowless rooms and turn out all the lights when we walk in. We would just put a candle on the table and light it. Misha would say “We’re here to tell you a ghost story” and (screenwriter) Scott Thomas would start the pitch in the dark, the only light being from the candle. Showtime was our first meeting, and we got a script-to-series offer in the room.
Q: What do the streaming wars look like to you?
I think the market was a lot frothier two or three years ago. From midway 2018 until essentially the pandemic began we had multiple executives saying, “We need to stockpile — if you love it, then we’ll buy it.” I think that's probably inconceivable to most companies today, sadly. Maybe this is a little bit of a strange thing to say, but with greater competition, greater material takes on greater value. Also inevitably there's fewer directors as they're all tied up. Showrunners are increasingly locked into deals that make it tough to develop material because the people you'd wanna develop with are only at this place or only at that place. I think it's created a lot of complexities that require a lot more of a kind of strategic and organizational framework.
Q: What does Hollywood get wrong about Silicon Valley?
Ever since the famous House of Cards sale, the series order has been the goal, and for some pretty obvious reasons — but that's like Silicon Valley writing Series C or D checks to seed or A stage companies. We all want series orders. It's more money and more creative freedom. But the reality is that we now have massive platforms replete with users and data that can be used to test whether episode one works. What I am sure of is that there is a lot to be said for spreading $25 million across 10 ideas rather than spreading $50 million or $75 million across one show. I'd like to see the financiers start to put money down on pilots the way they have traditionally on features. Maybe there's a new festival associated with it. Of course, it won't work for every type of show, but it will work on a lot. Squid Game was like, what, $2 million an episode, and is a great example. I think if you show up with Squid Game in the can, you have a lot of leverage, even in this market.
Thanks for reading! Have a great weekend and happy reading.