The difference between selling a TV pilot and selling a novel

…is that one will eventually see the light of day. The other may not. Ever.

Last year, for the first and maybe last time, I did both. I sold a novel to Penguin, and a TV pilot to CBS.

In both cases, the sale is only the end of the beginning of the process. You get paid, partially; the rest comes in increments, after you hand in the next draft, et cetera. You and your people edit the hell out of the thing. You prepare. You strategize. And you wait.

In the case of my novel, “Pastors’ Wives” (pre-order now on Amazon!), we have a publication date: May 2013. Since we sold the manuscript in February 2012, it’s gone through two edits by my main editor, a copy edit, and something called a pass, which is kind of like a proof. We rejected two cover designs before we landed on one we loved. I begged other authors for blurbs. We’re currently circulating it among book bloggers and reviewers. Next week I meet with my agents, editors and publicists to devise an all-out marketing strategy.

And whatever happens, it will publish in May. If the only people who buy it are related to me by blood, it will still exist in the world.

Not so my pilot.

So far, the 66 pages I bled over have been read by under two dozen people: my manager, my agents, our producers, our studio execs, and our network execs. I made my husband read it. Also a very few people with expertise in my topic, for fact-checking purposes.

That’s it. And that may be it, ever.

In a couple of weeks, we’ll know if mine is among the seven or eight drama pilots CBS will decide to shoot, among the 60 or so it has bought this season. I mention this so you know my odds are loooong.

If it should happen to hit the jackpot, then, yes, many more people will read the script. And if it should happen to win the whole lotto and get sent to series, even the tiniest broadcast TV audience would dwarf a bestselling book’s.

And in the likely event it doesn’t? Then into the bin it goes. No chance of selling it elsewhere, as the studio now owns the rights. The Writer’s Guild stages readings of unproduced teleplays, but that would just be weird.

So here I send my two babies into 2013, their fortunes already set. I love them both. I hope they make it.

I sold a TV pilot. Here’s how it happened.

I sold a drama pilot to CBS.

Although this happened in early September, it didn’t seem totally real until this past week, when I was out in L.A. and people shook my hand.

Here’s how it happened.

Plane and pilot

Not this kind of pilot.

A year ago, I pitched an idea. That was all it was at the time: an idea. And lest you think that’s totally bizarre, this is how it works in Hollywood. Every September, writers troop into network executives’ offices, and they spin a tale they think could maybe work on TV. Then the network executives buy it, or don’t. I know. It’s an insane business model.

Anyway, I failed. I completely failed to sell my idea. So I went home to New Jersey, cried, drank, and finished my novel. My book agent sold said novel in February. So this spring I found myself with some time.

“Just write the pitch up as a spec,” said my TV manager.

Let me try to explain what those words mean to a writer. It’s how I came to write my novel, which began as a magazine article, then morphed into a TV pitch, which met a horrible, harakiri ending. My book agent told me to just write it as a novel. Even though I’d daydreamed of such a project, it meant everything hearing it seconded by someone who really understood my idea and, moreover, its chances on the market. It’s the equivalent of: “I believe in you.” When someone says that, you begin to believe yourself.

And so I did. I wrote my damn pitch into a TV pilot script. If you’re in the business, this is where you laugh. Because you know it’s near impossible to sell a spec. “Spec” is short for speculative. As in, a speculative script written on the speculation that someone somewhere may want it. What I didn’t know is that the chances of a spec pilot selling are about near that of Karl Rove winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Like I said, I did not know that. So I spent the spring shaping and writing my script. My manager weighed in with note after note. We eventually had a script we rather liked. Now we had to shop it.

Last season, we’d shopped my pitch with a whole entourage. But the producer we’d worked with on the pitch declined to partner with us this time, “given how hard it is to sell a spec,” she said. That was my first hint. Oh. Maybe all this had been a total waste of time.

But my manager believed in the project. So he sent it out. CBS Studios responded immediately. After a phone meeting, they made an offer. Swiftly after that, they announced CBS, their sister network, was in.

The best part? I’ll make the Guild minimum and keep my family’s health insurance. I dream big, see.

What it’s like to pitch a TV show

Terrifying. Exhausting. Crushing. Humiliating.

Welcome to TV pitch season.

This is just my third go-round, so understand my view is that of a newbie who still kind of totally sucks at this. (For advice and a far more experienced take on pitch meetings, I’m currently reading Lynda Obst‘s wonderful “Hello, He Lied.”)

My first year, my manager managed to wrangle a blind-script deal from Warner Bros., so I didn’t have to trot out to the networks. Last year, my second try, I had a deal from Sony called an if-come, which means if I sold it, the money would come. This year, I’m pitching a spec*, so my meetings are by phone. Which is much, much easier.


If it were this easy… (Credit: Lucidio Studios)

But who wants to hear about easier? Let me tell you about last year!

I started with an idea. I started with a lot of ideas, actually, but only one that my manager and agents thought passed muster. Then began the laborious process of matching me up with an entourage.

The reason I needed a team is that I’m Lisa who? If a David Shore (creator of HOUSE) or a Shawn Ryan (creator of THE SHIELD) wandered into a network exec’s office with a germ of an idea, chances are they’d walk out with a bid. If a mom from New Jersey wanders in…well, she wouldn’t, because she wouldn’t get past the security guard at the gates.

Someone like me needs back-up, because back-up confers legitimacy. That means before I even hit up a network, I needed to first land a show-runner. And a production company. And a studio.

Show-runners, as you probably grew up knowing but I didn’t, are the rare breed who make a living orchestrating TV series. One of those meetings occurred a few hours after I stepped off a Jet Blue flight to Burbank (because it’s cheaper than flying into LAX). I was staying at a crack motel east of the 101 in Thai Town. My room smelled of nail polish and fish sauce.

Dizzy with fatigue, I arranged to meet the show-runner at a restaurant in West Hollywood. I parked nearby, and, as I crossed the street, I fell. I mean I fell. An honest-to-goodness, movie-stunt wipe-out—the one in which the girl in heels flies knees first into the asphalt, with three cyclist dudes watching, and her iPhone flies out of her hand into the puddle at the edge of the road.

I walked into the meeting shaking, my knees bloody. This show-runner was a man in his 50s, the award-winning executive producer of one of the most successful dramas in TV history, one that had recently ended its run.

“I just fell down,” were my first words. You’ll be stunned to learn the pitch that followed was incoherent garbage. He ordered a plate of fries, then sent it back because they weren’t crispy enough. That’s me, I thought. A pile of soggy fries.

“If he agrees to do it,” I later told my manager, “it would be a miracle.” Miracles happen. He agreed.

Albert Brooks

That’s me, pitching. I swear.

Then came the production company. I drove all over town for many meetings in offices big and small, one in a tiny cabin hard by Barham Boulevard, another in a hip renovated warehouse in Santa Monica. One of the last meetings was in a nondescript three-story building in Burbank. The exec and her assistant were young, warm and enthusiastic. They asked smart, probing questions. But they were also insanely busy covering one of the hottest TV dramas on cable, one festooned with awards and approaching its final season. Somehow, they too agreed.

Next, the studio, Sony. They agreed, too, albeit with the aforementioned deal. And for whatever reason, the deal took a long, long time to finalize, putting us at the tail end of pitch season. The result was that, by then, only two networks agreed to see us; the rest had fulfilled their roster of shows like mine.

Nevertheless, we gave it the old college try. My show-runner, producers, studio exec and I sweated to shape and polish the pitch. My pitch document (otherwise known as my crib sheet) grew to five pages, single-spaced. I’m not supposed to read from it…but you try memorizing 20 minutes of choreographed blather.

Let me just stop right here and tell you about my frame of mind at the time. I’d dashed back and forth from New Jersey to L.A. for two months, squatting in whatever crappy accommodations Expedia packaged with my el cheapo flights. My sudden disappearances did not raise my popularity with my spouse and small children. And now my family’s health insurance (I’ll explain this later) and a large chunk of our livelihood depended on how I performed on a single day.

Then: show time.

At the first network, I hit it out the park. I’m telling you. I was chatty, I was funny, the execs laughed, my team smiled. Leaving the room, we high-fived.

At the second, later the same day, I all but threw up on the coffee table. I blame the bottle of Orangina I carelessly swigged pre-meeting. I was working so hard not to belch like a trucker that I broke out in a sweat. You know that scene in BROADCAST NEWS? The one with Albert Brooks and the flop sweat? Yeah.

Bottle of Orangina

Whatever you do, don’t swig this before a pitch.

The execs were lavish in their praise, as is the habit in Hollywood. I heard words like “smart” and “surprising” and “different.” My team was enthusiastic after the first meeting, consoling after the second.

And in the end, neither bought. The flip side of an if-come deal is that if the pitch doesn’t sell, then the money doesn’t come. So I wound up with nada.

That’s what it’s like to pitch a TV show. In case you were wondering.

* This year, like I said, I’m pitching a spec, which is a script I already wrote on the speculation that someone somewhere would buy it. Specs are notoriously hard to sell. But a major studio has just given us a deal. Now they’ve got to sell it to network or cable. All digits crossed.**

** UPDATE: A network bought my pilot! More on this shortly.