Thursday, September 22, 2011

Lesson 9: How Did I Become an Indentured Servant?

Remember this paragraph from my January 27, 2011 contribution to this blog?

"[W]hy do you care what the contract says? If you're desperate to publish your book, maybe you don't. At least not at the time. But somewhere down the road it will matter. Like when a large house accepts your second book and then you discover your earlier contract says you have to offer it to that publisher first. (More about these clauses in a later post.)"

This is a later post.

Most book contracts contain an option clause, or a least a right of first refusal. While some people distinguish those terms, others use them interchangeably. For our purposes, we will lump them together and call them all option clauses.

An option clause basically says you can't sell your next book to a different publisher unless the current publisher doesn't want it.

The publisher is taking a chance on you and investing resources in a book that may bomb, so shouldn't the publisher have the right to benefit from subsequent books if its gamble pays off? That seems logical. Still, the option clause has no benefit for the author, so you'd rather eliminate it.

But if you can't negotiate it away, what provisions should you look for in the clause?
  • When you can submit the next book. Ideally, the contract should allow you to submit your next manuscript shortly after you have delivered a satisfactory manuscript for the contracted book. If the contract doesn't allow you to submit the next one until the publisher can see how the first is doing, you may not be able to seek a publisher for the second book for another two years (or possibly even more).
  • What you can submit. If the clause requires a completed manuscript, you will have to write the entire book first. The better clause will let you submit a detailed outline and one or two chapters.
  • How soon the publisher must respond. Sixty days is good. If the time is open-ended, the publisher can tie up the next deal indefinitely.
  • The terms of the next deal. Some contracts state that the author grants the publisher the right to publish the author's next book--if the publisher accepts it--"on the same terms" as the current deal. That means even the option clause carries over, so the author will never get a better deal until the publisher finally rejects a book. "On the same financial terms" is marginally better: at least you may be able to negotiate the option clause and other non-financial issues. "On terms to be mutually agreed upon" is best.
  • The scope of the clause. A clause that simply refers to your next manuscript means any manuscript, regardless of genre. See if you can narrow it to your next novel or your next children's book or your next nonfiction book on the same or a related topic.
  • How many manuscripts the clause covers. One book is more than enough.
  • Is there a "no less favorable terms" provision? The worst case scenario is when your contract allows your publisher--after it has already rejected the manuscript--to match an offer from another publisher and get the book after all. That practically kills any chance you have to sell the next book elsewhere. No publisher wants to waste time and resources preparing a book for committee and negotiating a contract only to have another publisher take it away.
In colonial days, indentured servitude let many European immigrants pursue the American dream. It was a voluntary choice by people with a strong desire to come to America but no money to pay the fare. Yes, sometimes the conditions were atrocious, but the indenture was means to an end, and the end was freedom in this country.

For writers, option clauses are another type of indentured servitude. If that's the price of getting published, you may be happy to sign the contract anyway. Just make sure that the terms of your indentured servitude are ones you can live with.

Kathryn Page Camp

1 comment:

  1. SOOO, as you may have noted -- I've refused to become "an indentured servant"! I recently rejected a contract for all my books (about the 6th pub I've rej), plus parted ways (reluctantly) with my agent of three-plus years, and am now continuing on my own (which so far has been a great experience, thanks be to God). Just this week I completed preparing my novel Hungry River to be converted into an e-book. It should soon be released by Amazon's Kindle program. YAY!
    THANKS for more great info, Kathryn! I ALWAYS read your posts, even if I don't always comment. . . :-)