In Hollywood, before a producer or a studio even begins filming a movie, they go through a process called “greenlighting” to figure out whether it is worth the effort.

When you greenlight a film, you do a great deal of research to figure out things like: How large is the audience for this film? What techniques work best for advertising the movie to fans? How much can we expect to make globally on box office sales, DVDs, video-streaming, and sales? How much will we have to spend to make it? Do we have the money? Who will we have distributing it? And so on. 

Literally, there are a hundred or more questions that need to be answered, such as when will we film it, when will we release it, and who would we have direct it? Lots of niggling details.

The question arises: Can you greenlight a book? 

With novels, you too have a huge outlay. You might think that all it costs is time, but the truth is your time on earth is finite. I’m at a ripe old age where I’ve had to grapple with the reaper a couple of times in the past two years, and I don’t want to waste my time writing a book no one would buy or enjoy.

So how would we greenlight a novel?

The steps for greenlighting a novel are similar to those for creating a film. I noticed that one of my students this morning had put “the end” on a novel last night. He reported that he had spent 215 hours writing the book—about 5 and ½ weeks of full-time work. He’ll spend a good deal more time in marketing and promoting it.

So, here are the big questions that you need to answer to the best of your ability as an author:

  1. Is there a sufficient audience for my novel?  To answer that question, you have to look at bestsellers where the author takes a similar approach to  similar subject matter. Now, you might say, “Ah, my novel idea is different from any other. There is nothing to compare it to.” That’s not true, exactly. 

You may be right in that the world and characters are different from any others, but there are similarities.

When I worked as a greenlighting analyst in Hollywood, we looked at screenplays and studied each line, searching for the “emotional beats” that it aroused. 

Did it arouse humor, or horror, or romance? We looked at eight different types of emotional beats: wonder, humor, horror, romance, mystery, adventure, drama, and porn. (You might notice that these are also the names of major book “genres.”) We’d consider the images that would appear on the screen, the dialog, and the potential soundtrack to analyze the beats. We’d develop a chart like this:

Horror 12, Wonder 31, Comedy 17, Mystery 15, Romance 31, Adventure 57, Drama 29, Porn 2.

Believe it or not, if you created a database of movies, we could find one in the past eight years that is a very close match. In fact, we might even match it exactly. But we don’t want just one, we’d want five. By averaging the performance numbers of similar movies, we could estimate within a few percentage points how our movie might do. If our five comparables all averaged a billion dollars in sales, we knew we were on the right track.

We’d make a lot of predictions on how the film would perform based upon our comparisons. We can do the same with books.

The truth is, it’s pretty easy to figure out what will sell in books. Start thinking about the emotional tone and beats of your novel and comparing what you’re writing to bestsellers. 

Imagine that Stephen King has a hit, and you want to beat it. Ask yourself questions like, “How many horror beats does he actually have in his bestseller? Can I add more to mine, or can I surprise my reader with beats that strike deeper at the heart?” 

Whatever genre you’re writing in, start thinking about how you could do it better. In a 300-page novel, is there a way to pack in more romance and more passion than the world’s most famous romance novelist does? Instead of having one romantic storyline, for example, can I follow three simultaneously? Exactly how many romantic beats would I need to create the most-romantic novel of our time?

At that point, you’re beginning to ask the right questions, and you can proceed to outline the book.

But should you write the book you're planning now? 

Ask yourself this: If JK Rowling had known that by writing Harry Potter she would make a billion dollars, would she have written the book?

That’s a dumb question.

Let’s get back to the costs of writing. It becomes a fairly simple matter to figure out the costs of writing. There are three major areas.

1) Do your have research expenses? I’ve spent thousands of dollars researching some books. Others I’m able to write with almost no investment. Some books require a lot of time to research, too, and you have to figure that in.

2) How much time do you estimate that it will take to write the book and revise it? This might be hard to judge. Each book brings a new set of problems. When you’ve written a hundred of them, it gets easier to estimate.

3) Will there be any costs in finding a publisher, hiring voice talent for audiobooks, or setting up distribution and marketing campaigns? 

Please note that there are almost always some real marketing costs in marketing your books. In fact, it’s downright foolish to imagine that you’ll sell books without marketing them.

4) Should I be spending my time on a more-lucrative project? This is always the catch with writers. Many of us have to try to figure out whether time would be better spent writing book A, B, C, or D? Should I spend my time on what I think is the most lucrative project or the one that I’m most emotionally invested in?

In films, movie studios disclose a lot of information on how much they spend creating and distributing a movie. We don’t have that luxury with books.

Let’s go back to Harry Potter. How much did the publishers spend to promote the book? Scholastic rented out the fronts of bookstores during Christmas season. They spent a million dollars creating a castle to use as an office at a licensing fair. They had to pre-order and print millions of copies in anticipation of hitting the bestseller list, and they had to pay fees to bookstores for setting up special displays of the books. In short, they spent millions and millions of dollars in marketing and promotion. And they made it all back, along with a huge profit.

Unfortunately, when greenlighting a novel, we’re not privy to how successful campaigns were created, so we can’t duplicate them easily.

December is still Hollywood month at Apex! We will be having Kevin Beggs, Chairman of the Television Division of Lionsgate Films talking to us on Tuesday, and producer/director Spanky Ward on Saturday. Join us in Apex!