Skip to content

They Made a Movie Out of It

The decline of nonfiction in the IP era

In early 2018, I was spending a warm West Hollywood Sunday evening on the balcony of a young director of film development, drinking a beer and hoping for an early night[1]. I had planned to sleep on his couch, but when I suggested we turn in, he said, “Nah, just take my bed, I’m probably not sleeping tonight.” I asked why not, and he looked momentarily surprised, as though it was strange I wasn’t aware of the impending event that had a small but important segment of the film and publishing industries alive with anticipation at the two ends of the great book-to-film pipeline connecting agents, assistants, film execs, and book scouts through endless emails and group chats. “That new David Grann story drops at midnight,” he said.

I expressed mild shock at this, saying it was sadistic for an agent to send out notices to otherwise self-respecting adults calling on them to stay up to read and compose notes on a magazine story instead of trying to sleep before a workday. Surely they would still be expected, as is the custom in the newly big business of turning books and magazine pieces into films, to send the regular weekly memo about recent publications their peers and bosses might find interesting enough to read, or maybe to offer on, and to be alert and shrewd at the regular meetings about the reading that everyone did over the weekend. The expectation now is to mine, on a bulk scale, for writing that producers might want to buy. In this case, the aim was to acquire a story by a staff writer at The New Yorker who I personally don’t consider one of his generation’s great talents—though living in Los Angeles in the era of book-to-film has given me reason to wonder about the acuity of my taste in literature. My friend gave me a slightly patronizing look, implying that he didn’t need, at that moment, to hear opinions about the great David Grann from a younger writer whose work emphatically does not keep execs and agents awake late on a Sunday night waiting to pull million-dollar triggers. Rather than live as a curmudgeon, I would do better to learn from this moment and start producing books and articles that would get me up off his couch and into some serious money. He knew I knew how to do it because he’d told me how, many times.

A Grann story is maybe not an event for the casual reader of American nonfiction, but it is a big deal in Hollywood. Imperative Entertainment, the producer of movies like All the Money in the World—a fitting title for the amount invested in Grann—is already developing a film based on his massively bestselling book Killers of the Flower Moon, in partnership with Paramount. Leonardo DiCaprio is to star and Martin Scorsese to direct, and Imperative had to pay $5 million for the privilege. The publication of this latest piece—an adventure yarn about a guy who dies trying to walk across Antarctica—broke no news and had no pretensions to social or literary value. But it still set off a quiet acquisitive frenzy familiar to certain story-driven works of middle-brow prose in that style that Grann has come to master. Getting a sneak of a draft of a Grann story is a point of pride in Hollywood—in this case a shaggy forty-page .docx that could serve as the seedbed for a film that makes hundreds of millions. There was more at stake in the writing and editing of Grann’s story than a magazine’s editorial process is built to handle. But, of course, The New Yorker’s readership was not the final intended audience, and it would not be its check that mattered most to Grann. So who was he writing for?[2]

America’s higher echelon of long-form journalists can now expect to make more money from Hollywood than they do from the publications that print their stories.

We are now in the mature stage of a book-to-film boom that is quietly transforming how Americans read and tell stories—and not for the better. The power of this force is hard to quantify because intellectual property is now being bought in Hollywood in such unprecedented volume and diversity of source material. Almost all written works that achieve prominence today (and many more that don’t) will be optioned, and increasingly it is becoming rare for film and television projects to move forward without intellectual property attached. America’s higher echelon of long-form journalists can now expect to make more money from Hollywood than they do from the publications that print their stories. The emergence of streaming services from Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Disney, and even Walmart has driven a demand for writing on a bulk commodity scale at a time when the business of publishing—especially but not only in the world of magazines—has largely abdicated its responsibility for paying writers an amount that would secure a decent life.

This new money stream can seem a godsent benediction for a writer looking to buy a home or start a family. When the rights to Nathaniel Rich’s interminably long “Losing Earth,” written for The New York Times Magazine, sold to Apple for at least $300,000 last year, according to one underbidder, it was a less an indication of the way the world is headed than it was a confirmation of a shift that has already taken place. That particular magazine—which stands with The New Yorker in a class of two as by far our most prominent outlets for long periodical writing—generally starts contributors out at the same two dollars per word that most big magazines pay, meaning that for a standard feature a writer can hope for a contract totaling $9,000 or so. This can end up breaking down to a pitifully low hourly wage. But even a smallish Hollywood option would more than double that payday instantly, and all the magazines in New York combined would be at a loss to assemble $300,000 to pay for a single story.

The paymaster for Rich’s story was a tech giant, as is so often the case now, and it was not at all a coincidence that his epic about climate change unfolded not as a polemic but as a narrative human drama. Nor was it a coincidence that Rich’s essay curiously lacked a critique of capital’s sway over American politics or the power of our entrenched oligarchy and the central role these forces played in our Losing Earth. This is because the book-to-film complex is bolstered by two imperatives that now govern our nonfiction almost without exception: foreground story as an ultimate good, ahead of deep personal insight, literary style, investigative reporting, or almost any other consideration that goes into the shaping of written work; and do not question too closely the aristocracy of tech and capital that looms over us, the same people who subsidize the system that produces America’s writing. It’s impossible to say whether Rich had these considerations at the top of his mind as he shaped the piece, but it doesn’t matter. The power of book-to-film in American writing is in how it sits at the edge of the consciousness of every writer, editor, and podcast producer, a dark energy of the entertainment market that drives wealth and reward. You just have to tell a gripping story and leave the powers-that-be unnamed.

A Case of the IPs

In January, long before I had the idea of writing this piece, I went for a meeting with Dan Fierman, the erstwhile editor-in-chief of Epic Magazine, a company that has become the poster child of this new order. My purpose was not to get information for a jeremiad against tech and Hollywood’s baleful impact on American writing. It was to try to get paid. But the meeting got me thinking.

Epic’s business model is, in part, to commission and place pieces that are designed to feed the new rapacity of tech and media companies for buyable IP. They offer a remarkably full-service product: they assign stories with an eye to how valuable they’ll seem to Hollywood’s buyers, and they negotiate magazine placement and the sale of rights in advance. The writer and Epic share the proceeds. From a writer’s perspective, this money allows for the ferocious level of focus and dedication that once seemed like a normal requirement to produce important nonfiction but which is now difficult for anyone who doesn’t have wealthy parents to summon while working for the cut-rate wages that even big outlets like The New York Times Magazine offer today. Epic then edits the pieces in-house and delivers them in more or less final form to a magazine like GQ.

The publications get a fully formed piece and in some cases don’t need to do any more work before publishing than to apply a fact-check and copy edit, a fact that anyone who has worked much in magazines could see as a dramatic illustration of the enervation of American journalism in the last couple of decades. Until recently, one of the few endearing qualities of many corporate magazine editors was the intensity they brought to shaping a piece, in the belief—which in a few cases was fair—that it was only their singular vision that could bring a story to a level of quality that made it the best possible exponent of what a publication and a writer hoped to show to the world. This feeling still exists in patches—again, largely in the rarefied precincts of publications like The New Yorker and the Times mag that are still able to regularly produce widely read feats of storytelling and reporting. The lower class of publications—basically everyone else—have mostly given up the pretense that they are actors capable of regularly producing major work without outside help, and even when streaming services aren’t subsidizing the writing they publish, they often turn to nonprofits funded by generous donors like the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, or Type Investigations (formerly the Nation Investigative Fund) to pay for the work. Not so long ago, Epic’s pitch would have seemed wildly offensive to the pride of most magazine editors. Today it represents an uncontroversial and welcome offering to outlets who can’t pretend to have other options.

“You have a look and a story,” a producer once told me when told him I felt uncomfortable tailoring my writing to the needs of tech and media companies. “Maybe the IP you should be selling is you.”

But there is a wrinkle: almost none of these stories get made into films or television shows. The IP gets bought, and then it disappears into the huge vaults of literature vacuumed up in the short time since the arrival of streaming services sent the market into hyperdrive. Of all the stories Epic has placed since its founding in 2013, only one—bought, again, by Apple—has been filmed. It would be reasonable to wonder how anyone is making money off this business, and the short answer is that they aren’t; Epic is just one more publishing vehicle that can’t make money by actually publishing. The company’s real money comes from presenting itself as a curator of elite content, which it offers to brands like Ford and Google in the form of long-form reporting: “Epic story hunters travel the world in search of true stories that reflect a brand’s spirit and ethos,” their business description read until recently, when Vox Media completed an acquisition of the company for an undisclosed sum.[3] “Epic turns the stories into documentary films, magazines, books, video games, photo essays, live events, and speeches that express a brand’s values.” This is, of course, the logic of this moment—that what you might have once thought of as literary publishing is, when you get down to it, just high-status corporate content generation.

This can extend all the way to the commodification of your own personal existence. “You have a look and a story,” a producer once told me when I told him I felt uncomfortable tailoring my writing to the needs of tech and media companies. “Maybe the IP you should be selling is you.” And what’s wrong with shading content a bit toward the needs of a production company looking for neo-Westerns, or to the “brand values” of Ford and Google, if they’re willing to pay money for it that a publisher will not? Fierman was very clear-eyed about all this, and I rather enjoyed talking to him, given that so much of being a writer these days (and to be fair it has always been thus) involves sitting around talking about how hard it is to make money being a writer. It would be untoward to quote him here, but he had a cold-blooded focus on getting people paid and a frank willingness to say that the entire model of how writers get paid is broken that I appreciated. I left with a spring in my step, already turning over three or four ideas that I thought were sure-fire option bait.

The Format is the Message

But what kind of writing does this machine want? This is where it gets tricky. Epic has a decent description of it right there on their website, and presumably they know what pleases Hollywood, since they only assign stories that get optioned. “As fun as fiction, but full of facts,” it starts.

“You know that feeling you get when a good true-life tale grabs you right from the start? You can’t stop turning the page—because you realize incredible things happen to real people—and it’s hard to believe that what you’re reading is nonfiction. That is the kind of story we like to tell. Epic writers travel the world searching for encounters with the unknown. Wartime romance, unlikely savants, deranged detectives, gentlemen thieves, and love-struck killers: stories that tap into the thrill of being alive.”

This is more or less how most editors I know describe what they want these days. One—clearly hoping to land stories that would get bought for film since he was hardly offering enough money to make writing a feature for him worth it otherwise—recently sent me a call asking for “ripping yarns, stories of true crime, of loves lost and won. Rivalries in sports, tech, and entertainment. Chronicles of dreams realized and broken. We want to take readers on spell-binding adventures, introduce them to powerful jerks they don’t know (or don’t know enough about), weirdos, eccentrics, and folks in search of redemption.”

This email almost made me throw my laptop off my balcony. We all know this kind of storytelling, even if we don’t exactly have a name for it. It is your non-friend’s favorite true-crime podcast. It is the magazine story that the documentary you just watched was based on, and it is the novel that was based on the real event that the even-better magazine piece described and that will soon be a television show. It is the books that now dominate the bestseller lists by writers like Grann or Patrick Radden Keefe or Gillian Flynn, which have all been pre-engineered to read like movie thrillers long before anyone even sat down to start on the script.

We think less about what this kind of writing isn’t. These editors asking you to rip the yarn never talk about politics beyond a possible desultory nod toward wanting stories from writers of “diverse backgrounds.” They do not talk about voice or literary style. They do not ask for excavations of an inner life or the forces of history or any of the things that once would have made a work of writing lasting. A writer may find clever ways to worm these things in, but in the end they are ancillary goods. The desire is always for work that puts narrative ahead of all other considerations, and this is the kind of writing that now dominates our literature: it describes the world without having a worldview. Which is a workable definition of the kind of writing most easily converted into IP.

This circumstance didn’t emerge because a handful of tech companies suddenly started competing to buy all the stories that American writers can produce. Anyone with an interest in the history of American letters already knows how in the 1950s the rise of the MFA workshop system produced an imperative toward a show-don’t-tell, narrative-first formula for fiction writing. This was, in large part, because the first prominent director of the first prominent workshop program wanted to cultivate a kind of writing that supported American political orthodoxy—a detail that has important echoes for today. Work that placed story ahead of political or moral considerations had the convenient feature of being unthreatening to power, and it was this kind of writing that the program managed to make into the unquestioned standard for quality in American fiction. More than half of the MFA programs that arose in the wake of Iowa’s rise—funded by donations from the CIA and by America’s mid-century corporate patricians—were founded by graduates of this program. Over time, many readers and critics came to see workshop-style writing as the standard for quality fiction, and many still do—a fact that writers are aware of, ambiently or otherwise. Writing has always involved some level of accommodating power and public taste.

Like any youngish American writer, I understood this implicitly just after I graduated college in 2010, at a moment following the financial crisis when American magazines were shutting down almost faster than it was possible to keep track of. There was a general panic in New York that the reading public no longer actually wanted to read, and this produced a frantic search for new forms and delivery mechanisms for American literature. Life was speeding up, the world was getting more serious, and nonfiction reporting delivered express, to new devices, writing that would help readers understand the swirling chaos around them.

We are now in the mature stage of a book-to-film boom that is quietly transforming how Americans read and tell stories, and not for the better.

This was also the moment that Amazon explicitly set out to destroy the system by which books were published and sold in this country, and when Facebook and Google began their colonization of the business of American journalism. In short order, these companies became the windows through which almost all writing gets delivered to readers, leading to a situation where nearly 70 percent of internet advertising dollars go to Google, Facebook, and Amazon, while the portion that accrues to the outlets who produce the work is “barely a rounding error,” as Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery wrote recently in Mother Jones. We live in a time when our writing finds its audience not through the publishers and journalistic outlets that commission writing, but through a handful of unregulated monopolies that siphon off most of the revenue this work produces and that are almost entirely in control of its delivery to its eventual readers. For years as a young writer working in magazines, I was baffled by the new economy, trying to figure out why even publications that had survived the crash and stabilized their readership still couldn’t afford to pay writers what they earned before the Great Recession, or how all the companies that had been expressly engineered to succeed in the new media world couldn’t seem to do it either. It turned out that people did still want to read books, and they even wanted to read them in print. So why had book advances not recovered? Many new forces of that era, like Vice, were glad to have an excuse not to pay decent wages, as they treated their writers as a cadre of interchangeable hustling losers, lucky to be writing at all. But mostly the answer was even more banal: Facebook, Amazon, and Google took all the money.

Phrases from the accompanying story appear in a twisted ribbon on a pink background, the sentences entering and leaving the frame, reading, in part, “the rewards that come from this system, but it’s the part of me good writing is meant to kill.”
© Kiel Mutschelknaus

Service Journalism

It should be a lasting mark of shame for most publishers and editors working in the post-crash era that they were active collaborators in the emergence of this state of affairs, pretending that the publishing crisis was created not by a cabal of profit-seekers but by a shift in the desires of American readers. The result has been a dramatic impoverishment both of the quality of our literature and of the lives of the writers who still bother to try to write it.

What we got, instead of resistance, was a body of criticism and a publishing system servile to technology capitalism’s influence. The iPad-ready long-form essay was suddenly celebrated as America’s great new literary contribution, and magazines, publishers, and businessmen who participated in publishing these savagely slashed the rates that writers could expect to earn, even as they presented themselves as being part of a noble crusade to save American writing. Twitter-averse fogeys like Jonathan Franzen and the idea of the ambitious novel became objects of intense derision from a body of young commentators, often long-form nonfiction writers themselves, who supposed that they were realists about the new tech-driven order. Almost no writing from this aluminum age of essays and long-form reportage survives as an important literary document. What has lasted instead is the fetish for story-driven writing; and a wave of new vehicles designed by bro-ish entrepreneurs rose up to deliver it at a moment when it looked like the entire superstructure that encouraged people to make literature in this country might be about to collapse. Content aggregators and online-only magazines sprung up, curating or publishing long, rich narrative pieces that had succinct, web-ready hooks. All of this was designed to drive reader engagement, to generate clicks and shares—today’s true determinants of the value of a piece of writing. At a very small distance from the publishing world, programs like This American Life were perfecting a formula for the aural delivery of a story in an easily digested narrative capsule—becoming the model for a whole ecosystem of podcast companies like Gimlet that churn it out on an industrial scale.

It turned out that the people who were still publishing American writing did not want literature, at least not in the quaint sense that we might have understood it a few decades ago. They wanted shareable writing in forms that were easy for publishers to reproduce and that were easy to absorb. Books and magazine pieces had, above all, to be simple to describe and package online, otherwise no one would click on them. The New Yorker, which already had a grimly rigid house style and was in theory economically insulated from the crisis by Newhouse money, moved further this way. All New Yorker stories are now edited to be largely voiceless and precisely formulaic documents, and every time I have a reason to pull up a piece from the archives, I am shocked at how strange and outré the older pieces read—less like work from a different magazine than documents from an alien society, as indeed they are.

Other magazines perfected their own feature formulas. When the film Argo—based on a Wired piece by Epic cofounder Joshua Bearman, and assigned and edited into the platonic ideal of the new story-first journalism by the Atavist co-founder Nicholas Thompson—won Best Picture in 2013, every journalist and producer in America woke up to the fact that this new long-form writing could be turned into real money if you crafted it to suit the needs of Oscar-bait film. The demand for writing powered by formula-driven narrative techniques that did not challenge too much the interests of buyers became a material economic force. Only a few years before, voice-driven and structurally ranging essays had briefly been held up as a great new American form of writing, but these were discarded from the pages of American magazines almost overnight. Magazines did not start paying anything like pre-crash money for this newly prominent form of writing, and many media companies like Vice and Condé Nast began to take the sinister step of insisting on their ownership of the film rights to work by the writers they published, profiting from the new order even as they stole money from the writers who produced the work. But better-established writers were able to redline these contract clauses and set about making money. The other winners of major Oscars that year—Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Life of Pi—were all book-to-film projects, too, and the business was then still barely in its infancy. Production companies in L.A. began hiring refugees from publishing faster than they could pack their stuff and leave Brooklyn. Bookish, young English majors who might once have hoped to spend their careers publishing literary fiction became dead-eyed hunters of writing that could be easily turned into a product, obsessively seeking out sneaks of drafts by magazine bros like David Kushner or genre writers like Don Winslow, whose work the new system best rewarded. Young writers, meanwhile, had figured out it was still possible to get paid. You just had to produce IP.

Dispirited Away

The imperative to create convertible IP is now omnipresent. This can be hard to see from outside the now-synonymous worlds of publishing and film—people have after all been making books into movies for as long as movies have existed. And it can be obscured from within; for many younger writers this appears as just the way things are. “Options aren’t even that big a deal!” one very successful book scout texted me recently. “Avg is like $25k for a magazine story.” I wondered later whether she knows many writers for whom twenty-five thousand dollars don’t represent a big deal.

These economic forces now work on the decisions of every writer I know. You can still do important political reporting or literary writing that expresses a distinctive voice and sensibility, especially if you were born rich enough to be able to do it as a hobby. But anyone who wasn’t has to think about the marketplace, which above all rewards safe and simple narratives. “It reminds me of when I was at Harvard,” a friend who is one of the best and most passionate magazine journalists I know said about this recently. “It wasn’t that people suddenly quit humanities or writing so that they could get a job in finance. It was that everyone knew that working in finance offered the biggest rewards and that the most talented people just naturally gravitated that way. It was an unseen pull.”

This is exactly descriptive of the situation. It may be that, in the average case, Hollywood options don’t pay wild sums. But often they offer a payday that makes writing worth it, and no one I know is stupid enough not to have taken note of this. Hollywood and big tech have not yet entirely merged, and there are interesting and original producers, screenwriters, and directors who do good work in the film system. But it’s true that in the last ten years, Hollywood has begun to morph into a business designed to develop content that fits easily into delivery systems designed by Amazon, Netflix, Apple, and Google, and that it was their entry into the market for IP that kicked off the book-to-film buying frenzy. They run the market, and from my desk, it looks like it is the same people who wrecked American writing—by colonizing the ad dollars, by seizing control of how books get delivered, by deliberately designing highly addictive devices and streaming services that pulled our attention away from writing and toward phones and forgettable, mass-produced Netflix shows—whose tastes and desire for palatable content I now get told my writing ought to be serving.

We have a perfectly good word for the kind of writing and reporting this all encourages: trash.

At least some of my peers are now handing over their working lives to producing cynical content rigged to fit the desires of streaming services, which, when you think about it, is a small tragedy for a world as fucked as ours. Most of the good writers are not. But how could you not at least think about these imperatives when a strange new amalgam of Hollywood and tech offers the greatest rewards for a hit second novel and when magazines pay below rates that were standard three decades ago? Almost all notable book-length nonfiction written in this country emerges as an expansion of work that was first published by a magazine, so—whether they admit it or not—magazines are the incubators for the nonfiction writers who describe our world. But these outlets generally make not the barest pretense of trying to pay writers enough to build a life. Instead, editors at prestige outlets increasingly view writing as germinal IP.

We have a perfectly good word for the kind of writing and reporting this all encourages: trash. Trash is how we once thought of work designed above all to fit commercial demands and generic narrative forms. The imperative to produce it isn’t going away soon. But I don’t think we have to accept it. For one, we (especially me) should all stop writing for magazines. Everyone (especially me) should have stopped writing for magazines years ago. With few exceptions, these places have become formula-driven content dumpsters willing to outsource the obligation of paying their writers to companies in L.A. The problem, like in any bad relationship, is that I still love them.

And we can name the trash this system encourages for what it is. It isn’t that we lack writers who can write well—just like many trash novels written to fit market demands in the fifties hold up well today. Writers have always had to work with and against a marketplace designed by the rich and powerful. But I personally can’t help feeling alarmed and enraged by the ways writers are now driven by incentives to fill the needs of creative executives working in Amazon’s film studio. It feels wildly dispiriting to see how much my friends and I casually accept the idea that we should craft our work to fit a commercial imperative—the entire system of our writing and reporting now being market-tested and data-driven and robbed by financial forces of much of its lasting value. There is a part of me that wants to grab all the rewards that come from this system, but it’s the part of me good writing is meant to kill.

[1] Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the time frame when an advance version of David Grann’s New Yorker essay “The White Darkness: A Journey Across Antarctica” became available. This took place in early 2018, not “last spring.”

[2] Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that David Grann received $5 million for the rights to his story “The White Darkness” and an additional $5 million for the rights to his book Killers of the Flower Moon. Mr. Grann received $5 million for the rights to Killers of the Flower Moon, while the amount he received for the rights to “The White Darkness” remains unreported.

[3] Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the date that Epic was acquired by Vox Media. The company was acquired for an undisclosed sum in April 2019, not 2013.