Aspiring writers aiming to break into movies, television, and publishing face a pivotal question – should you write a screenplay or novel first? Which creative format presents the clearest path to selling your stories and making it big?
Let’s dive into the key factors impacting how sellable both options really are in today’s crowded entertainment landscape.
The Rocky Road to Selling a Screenplay in Hollywood
Writers flock to Hollywood each year with dreams of selling their cherished screenplay for a six or seven-figure paycheck and seeing their creative vision unfold on the silver screen.
It’s an alluring dream – yet one mired with immense competition and very long odds even for experienced screenwriters.
Why is selling an original screenplay so difficult?
Massive Competition Means Standing Out is Hard
The spotlight cast on breakout writers like Steve Zaillan (Schindler’s List) or Diablo Cody (Juno) obscures a sobering fact.
The vast majority of aspiring screenwriters fail to ever complete a sellable script, let alone land a manager, agent, or producer willing to fight for it.
The Writers Guild of America West alone has over 23,000 members. Think of all the wannabe screenwriters outside the guild struggling to be read in Los Angeles, New York, and film hubs globally. It’s a staggering level of competition.
Screenwriters Need Influential Allies to Be Successful
Making it as a screenwriter is as much about building relationships as sheer writing talent. You need allies higher up the Hollywood food chain to get your script onto the right executive’s desk.
The best scripts fail to sell without wealthy producers who believe in the project’s potential enough to invest years in nurturing it. Connections trump writing ability until you have major credits behind your name.
It’s Not Enough to Just Sell a Script – It Has to Get Produced Too
Selling a screenplay is one major hurdle. Seeing it made into a finished movie is a whole separate battle. Just ask writers who sold brilliant scripts left to languish due to budget issues, production delays, or executives shifting priorities.
Without an A-list director or actor attached, selling a script alone may earn nice money upfront but fall short of box office success. And box office revenues are what lead to more lucrative writing jobs.
What are the upsides for screenwriters able to beat the heavy odds?
Potential for Life-Changing Money If the Stars Align
The saving grace for making it as a screenwriter lies in stratospheric earning upside. Just one mass-market, studio-backed feature film hit can set up the writer for life.
Certain genres like action or established cinematic universes offer especially rich paydays – up to 8 figures for scripts spawning billion-dollar franchises.
Seeing Your Vision Come to Life is Unmatched
For writers focused more on storytelling art over cash potential, selling that first script creates priceless chances. Being on set helps them learn nuances of the filmmaking process.
Beyond the technical growth, witnessing gifted actors breathe life into imagined characters resonates deeply.
The Long and Winding Road For Aspiring Novelists
At a high level, publishing novels appears more accessible than screenplays for unknown writers. Take the self-publishing eBook revolution opening new doors in lieu of traditional publishing.
Upon closer analysis though, novelists chase writing careers filled with their own sets of potholes and pitfalls.
Fragmented Genres and Niches Make a Tough Market
Fiction categories have mushroomed in recent decades spanning mystery, romance, young adult, horror, sci-fi – not to mention literary and general fiction. This explosion weakens the commercial viability of any given genre.
Whereas an Oscar-bait biopic appeals broadly to worldwide film audiences despite niche themes, microfiction genres lack as clear a mainstream vial to big sales.
Story Length Restrictions Limit Creativity
Novels require far more world-building and creative heavy-lifting before the first page turns. Yet today’s publishers urge tight word counts even for established authors to reduce risk, favoring quicker, cheaper reads.
For new writers especially, conforming to narrowed expectations around word counts and story pacing challenges creative expression in books aspiring to be high literature versus disposable.
Self-Publishing Offers More Control But Sales Uncertainty
Self-publishing platforms like Amazon Kindle Direct unlocked new possibilities for unpublished authors to release titles without the stamp of approval from a major publisher.
Yet profits for the average self-published book hover around $500. Making real income from writing novels including through online platforms calls for immense marketing skills or pre-existing fan bases – both scarce for debut authors.
Upside Possibilities for Aspiring Novelists
Full Creative Control Over Characters and Stories
Unlike the rigid script templates screenwriters must follow, novelists enjoy far greater creative control during the actual writing process to flex their imaginative muscles.
This allows rendering intricate fictional worlds with layered characters not bound by budgets dictating locations, set pieces and special effects.
Length Works in Novelists’ Favor to Showcase Writing Ability
The expanded canvas of novels versus screenplays or plays gives aspiring book writers added tools including extensive dialogue, scene setting, and character development to showcase pure writing talent.
Where screenwriters have 2 hours to demonstrate skills, novelists have 300 pages. This highlights narrative rhythm, hooking readers, and ability to deliver satisfying endings – all alluring to publishers seeking breakout authors.
So Who Has the Edge: Screenwriters or Novelists?
The path to success in the arts proves rarely linear. Yet analyzing factors determining sellability reveals clear advantages to novelists – with important caveats favoring Hollywood scribes under the right circumstances.
Why Selling Novels Proves Somewhat Easier
The TLDR case for novels edging screenplays in sellability boils down to three advantages:
- Multiple publication platforms from major publishers to self-publishing open more access points
- Full creative license during writing unlocks imagination over formulaic script constraints
- Demonstrating writing mastery easier through subtle literary techniques not found in scripts
Self-publishing in Particular is a Game Changer
Two decades ago, selling a novel meant impressing some New York editor enough to take a risk on an unproven voice. Securing a book deal as an unknown felt as hopeless as selling a screenplay minus connections.
Enter eBook self-publishing revolutionizing who gets to release novels to global audiences. Platforms like Amazon Kindle Direct spawned whole new genres while allowing authors to retain rights and earnings.
Self-published authors with only a few thousand true fans can earn $50,000-100,000 annually from eBook sales alone, owning the relationship with readers. Compare that to fighting for fleeting attention in Hollywood’s thirst for the next hot screenwriter.
While initially self-publishing won disdain from literary gatekeepers, breakout successes led by Amanda Hocking’s million-selling Hollowland vampire series showed the model’s commercial power. Now respected novelists from Andy Weir to Hugh Howey leverage self-publishing in tandem with publication houses.
For new writers facing a sell decision, self-publishing in theory offers lucrative opportunities with lower barriers to entry. Top platforms make uploading professional eBooks simple while handling thorny issues like distribution.
Caution remains warranted, however. Beyond writing skills, effectively self-publishing novels mandate substantial marketing abilities plus reader segmentation insight to drive sales.
Most indie authors fail to ever recoup costs, much less profit significantly. Yet for diligent, business-minded scribes, it broadens possibilities.
Scribes Dreaming of Box Office Billions Have More Direct Paths
Despite openings for novelists unseen several decades ago, screenwriters boasting the next killer concept retain the potential for absurdly outsized compensation given Hollywood’s global reach.
With tentpole blockbusters smashing $1 billion in box office routinely now, associated upfront and residual payouts hit previously unfathomable levels.
Where self-published novelists must meticulously build audiences book-to-book, screenwriters surfing hot cinematic trends face quicker access to household-name status and A-list riches. Consider Shane Salerno earning $1 million upfront to spec script a reboot of James Cameron’s Avatar.
Yes, these jackpots go to tiny writing pools with access. But dangle eight-figure payouts and enough ambitious scribes will bang on studio doors seeking entry for years on end based on market signals.
The emergence of streaming video on demand (SVOD) via Netflix and Amazon joined to cable and premium channels like HBO also expanded content pipelines.
Their insatiable need for fresh stories to stand out positions talented writers well. Weighed holistically around income scale possibility, selling screenplays in absolute numbers remains exponentially more lucrative despite roadblocks.
Conclusion: Consider Taking a Hybrid Publishing Approach
Emerging self-publishing channels continue leveling the playing field for unpublished novelists based on platform data and financial outcomes. Selling fiction you pen directly to reading fans nurtures personal brand control.
Yet restricting efforts solely to novels risks leaving serious cash on the table should your creative genius pen the next blockbuster screenplay concept. Savvy authors should leverage multiple formats.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do novels or screenplays make more money?
Screenplays have greater earning potential if they sell and become a successful movies, especially a major blockbuster. However, selling a screenplay is much harder than selling novels, where self-publishing opens more opportunities. Most novelists earn more modest amounts.
How hard is it to get a screenplay sold?
Extremely hard. Industry stats estimate only around 1-3% of all screenplays registered with the Writers Guild ever get produced and sold. Competition is immense, and selling scripts relies heavily on industry connections.
What percentage of screenplays get sold?
About 1-3% is the accepted statistic – so over 97% of all written screenplays fail to ever sell to a major studio or production company. Those are daunting odds for any writer trying to break in.
Should you be a screenwriter or a novelist?
It depends on your goals. Screenwriting offers higher potential film/TV earnings but much lower odds of selling work. Novel writing grants more creative freedom and various publication avenues, although incomes tend to remain modest on average.
Is 1 million book sales good?
Yes, selling 1 million copies of a book is a major success indicating strong reader demand. Very few fiction and non-fiction books ever reach such elite sales figures.
What screenplays sell the most?
High-concept, franchise-potential scripts in popular genres like sci-fi, superhero movies or suspense/horror tend to secure the highest spec script sales in multi-million dollar territory, especially to major studios.
How much do first time scripts sell for?
Most first-time screenwriters earn less than $100,000 selling their debut scripts, with average prices around $35,000-$65,000. Established writers with credits command higher quotes of $100,000-$500,000+.
How much does Netflix pay for a script?
For exclusive streaming rights, Netflix is said to pay around $75,000-300,000 for an original unproduced spec script. But to acquire movies or first TV window rights, sums can reach many millions.
What studios accept unsolicited scripts?
Accepting unsolicited materials from unknown writers is very rare now, but boutique production companies may be more receptive. The Black List hosting service also aids discovery. Major studios mainly access spec scripts via agents/managers.