Wednesday, January 17, 2007

More Option Clauses

Option clauses are always a matter of great discussion, and my last two posts elicited some more great questions, questions that were worthy of another post and not just answers in the comments sections. So to continue our discussion . . .

A number of you asked about the timing of an option clause. Some of you had concerns about when an option actually begins if it says something like “once current work is accepted,” while others wanted to know what to do in the case of an option clause that didn’t specify a time period at all.

To explain to those who might not have seen an option clause, most will say something along the lines of, “The Publisher shall be entitled to a period of 6 weeks after submission of option material, which period shall not commence until acceptance of final Work covered in this Agreement, within which to notify Author of its decision.”

First let me say that most option clauses, especially those at a large house, will specify a time period. The thing you should be most aware of is when that time period begins. Ideally it should begin from the time your manuscript is delivered, although most publishers are going to try to make it from the time the last book on the contract is published. Certainly not an ideal. Keep in mind, though, that whatever the option clause says in terms of time period, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t exercise their option (review your option material) before the time period begins, it just means they don’t have to.

So, if your option begins 6 weeks after acceptance, then that means whenever the publisher deems your work acceptable (at which time they usually pay you). That does not necessarily mean when the book is ready to go to the printer. On the contrary, acceptance of the book is usually made when the manuscript goes to the copy editor or when you finish revisions and your editor gives the okay. Of course, this is different for every publisher. If you have any concerns about when your publisher deems the work acceptable, simply send an e-mail, or have your agent send an e-mail, to your editor asking her if the work has been accepted or asking her to notify you when it’s been accepted. Her return e-mail, with the date, will be your answer, and the beginning of your option time period.

For those of you without a time period this can be tough. That means the publisher has as long as they want to make a decision about your option material. Your goal is to get them that material as quickly as possible and bug the heck out of them until they make a decision, letting you know that either you have a new contract or are free to go your merry way. Truthfully, most publishers will want to make a decision quickly and don’t want to hold up your career, so if you don’t have a time period in your contract, don’t worry that you’ve ruined everything. You’ll just have to be a little more vigilant to get your publisher to answer.

Definition of Next Work
Every option clause should be narrowed to your “next” work. Be wary of any that say something along the lines of "Publisher has the first right of refusal on any Work or all Works." You never want to give a publisher an option on more than one book.

So, if you are under option, does that mean you can’t submit to another publisher until your option is fulfilled? Yes and no. It means you can’t submit your next work to another publisher under the constraints of the option clause. So, what is your option clause for? If it says the publisher has the option on the next work in the series, then you can’t send any other works in that series to another publisher without giving your publisher the first look. However, if you have an idea for a fresh new series, then you can send it to anyone you want, whether it’s your next work or not. Of course, you are only under option until your publisher “exercises their option,” which means reads and makes a decision about your “next work.”

That being said, it is always possible to offer a publisher your “next work” and then submit like crazy to other houses. As I mentioned before, an option clause is easy for a saavy agent to get around, and there are a lot of ways to do it. If your option is well negotiated and narrow enough, then you can certainly submit other books that fall outside of the option anywhere you want at any time. The trick though is why do you want to do this? Is it simply because you feel that you need to be published by more than one house, or there’s a cache to multiple houses that you want? Because sneaking around an option clause could definitely affect your relationship with your current house, and if you’re happy with your editor, the money you’re making, and the way the house is publishing you, then why would you want to do that? On the other hand, if you are writing a series or a type of book for one house and want to try your hand at something completely different, then certainly, why not send it around. Give your current editor a look while taking it to other houses. Presumably you aren’t under option for this other type of work.

Negotiating and Option Clause
How does an option clause affect your (or my) ability to negotiate a contract? Well, to a certain degree it doesn’t affect me at all. Of course in other ways it affects me a great deal. I can still negotiate the contract, and will still negotiate the contract, in the same way I would if it were the author’s first time out. The one big restriction, however, is that an option clause removes the ability to pit two or more houses against each other, which is what the publisher wants. That being said, I continually talk to editors about my authors, even those under option, and we have regular conversations about those clients they might be interested in “stealing.” If a negotiation is not going my way, or I’m not at all happy with it, I certainly know what my “options” are. Just because we’re under an option doesn’t mean we need to agree to the terms. If I know my author and her career well and I’m not happy with the way the negotiation is going, I’m certainly not going to just sit back and accept an offer. It’s always our right to simply walk away. And yes, walking away frees an offer from all further obligations to that publisher, or should according to your option clause.

For those of you who asked very specific questions, I may not have been able to answer them without reading your actual option clause. For example, I’m not sure if your clause is specific to your pen name or broad enough to cover whatever you’re writing under whatever name you’re writing it.

Whatever you do, don’t worry too much about an option clause. There are always ways around them, and a good agent can find every loophole possible. A poorly negotiated option clause can always be changed with the next contract or worked around. But now that you know more about them, you know what to look for.



Maria said...

Kirsch's Guide to the Book Contract covers options clauses and just about everything else in contracts. It's very handy to have--whether you have an agent or not, you can always reference what SHE is talking about. :>)

The book is well-worth buying or checking out from the library.

elysabeth said...


Thanks for that tidbit of reference material.


Do ebook contracts also have option clauses? I mean with the shift to distributing books in other formats besides just paper (although most readers will tell you they still want the book in hand, there are still quite a few people out there who do purchase ebooks), every format of being "published" has a contract. So the option clauses for the different formats would be different?

I'm just curious on this as I'm thinking of publishing ebook or with a small press (when I get to that point) and would like to know the options involved with this route.

(Okay - sorry this topic will probably be a lengthy one - option clauses - but it is very good information for all us new authors.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Jessica,

Thanks for the info. This is the scariest part of a contract for me. What about option clauses that say your "next [name of publisher's line] book" Does that mean if they're willing to accept my book for their line, then I have to give it to them, even if when I signed the contract that line was something different?

Anonymous said...

Wow, Jessica! Thanks for this information. It's been very enlightening! You've pretty much answered all of my questions. And eased a lot of my fears concerning option clauses!

BookEnds, LLC said...


I'm not sure about ebook contracts. I would imagine most of them do have option clauses, but since every publisher is different I can't answer definitively.

Anon (and others):

Just because the publisher has the option on your book never means you have to sell it to them. The option only gives them the first right to look at your next book before you can show it to anyone else. There's usually a clause that says what happens if you can't come to an agreement. Therefore, you can always just say no to whatever offer they make.


December Quinn said...

Elysabeth, all of my epub contracts have option clauses, from very simple (next book with same characters) to very restrictive (next work, period.)

Cindy Procter-King said...


I am clearly not Jessica, but I have signed some ebook contracts, have heard of some contracts that have option clauses although I haven't personally signed any and I would be fairly reluctant to do so, unless maybe the epublisher was proven as a great source of sales. (In other words, income).

I did sign an option clause with a small (print) press for a novella coming out in an anthology next winter. It was very broad, and I asked to have it restricted not only in terms of content ("next erotica novella" rather than "next novella" of a certain word length) but also to my pseudonym. That way I could continue to sub romance novellas that aren't as erotic as the first one to other publishers, under my own name.


Anonymous said...

This is great. Thank you for taking the time to explain so thoroughly.

elysabeth said...

december quinn and cindy procter-king - thank you so much for the insight into the epub contracts - I just found out today that I won a contest and the story will be published in ebook format (will be available next Wednesday and since the cost isn't that much - only $1 - I was just curious as to what to look for on the contract - it will be published on echelon press -

This is exciting news to me - the next step is to have the contract and have 5 days to edit/revise and resubmit to them - I can't wait to see what they do with the cover for the story - so these last few discussions have been helpful in a round about way for me - lol - thanks for all the great responses and postings here - E :)

Virginia Miss said...

These posts are so helpful. Thank you so much.