Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Wednesday is all-about-writing day, no 2: option clauses

A few thoughts about option clauses and -- as ever -- this is not a comprehensive analysis, just some thoughts to keep in mind, based on my experience. The first thing that must be said is that if you are signed by a large publishing house the best thing to do is get yourself an agent, or a legal representative who will look at the contract for you. In the UK you can join The Society of Authors and as part of the membership fee they will look at contracts for you, drawing your attention to things you should be aware of, in lay speak. A very good deal. Click HERE to find out more. In the US, some of my colleagues have had entertainment lawyers go over their contracts for them, rather than get an agent, another way to deal with it

I’m really talking about small press publications here, the sort where an agent isn’t necessary, or financially viable. This is for those contracts that you can deal with yourself, but need to be sure what you are doing. It is confusing when you get all that paperwork, and it all looks so official, but it’s important to keep in mind that parts of it may be negotiable. The good news is that they are taking an option on your next work, which means they want to see more (well done you!) and also that they have to look at it! ;) As a newly signed author that’s great, knowing that there’s a set time for them to get back to you on another idea, and you’ll soon know if you have a second publication to build upon. Many smaller houses have a standard contract, and it’s up to you to negotiate, if that’s what you want to do. I’m talking about the option clause because in my experience newly signed authors are concerned about that one more than anything else. It is daunting. You want to sell this novel/novella, but what if you want to sub elsewhere as well? Will you be able to do so? What exactly are you signing away?

More often than not, option clauses state they want to look at the “next” novel or novella. So, you’re not signing away every other story you write forevermore, what they are asking for is first lookie at your next proposal. If you write them a second proposal and they take that too, (well done you, again!) and you then want to sub elsewhere, you can always renegotiate at the time of the second contract, if you choose to.

It’s also important to step back from your own perspective when thinking about option clauses. Be canny, and take a look at it from the publisher’s point of view. If they are taking options on everyone who is signed for the line you’ve just been signed for, how many books do you think those writers could produce together? Then take a look at the line itself. How many slots are there, i.e. how many are they publishing per year? Are they planning to expand? If the line has, say, 18 slots a year, and there are that many authors already writing for the line, they aren’t going to be able to buy 3 manuscripts off everyone, are they? They’ll select the best of, and that might mean 3 books from Author A, and none off Author B, if Author A is the one who is selling like hotcakes. That’s the reality, we have to face it. Your job is to make sure you’re Author A. ;) But do the sums, it’s important to be realistic about slots. If you can write more than one sub a year, and want to do that, you probably need to be writing for elsewhere as well. Your first publisher may well buy more, but the crucial thing is to make the option clause work for you, so that you can sub elsewhere if you need to.

How do you negotiate? If it’s an option clause for the next novella, for example, you could negotiate to have it be a specific length – say, 25 to 35 K, if that's the average length they publish. This means that you can write shorter or longer novellas in between, but you’re keeping the option open with the company you’ve just signed with. That’s a common way for authors to deal with option clauses. Another way to negotiate is to do it by genre – if you sign an option for the "next erotic novel,” you can still write sweet romance, crime, mystery or fantasy, for a different publisher. That might work for you. It’s important and good courtesy to you let your first publisher know you are planning to sub elsewhere, and you never know, they might be just about to start a fantasy/mystery/crime line and want to sign that option from you as well ;) Another way to negotiate options is to do it under different pseudonyms, although I believe that is less common. The bottom line is: don’t be afraid to negotiate. As I mentioned, small press companies often use a basic contract that can be tweaked. If and when you do get an agent, these are the sorts of things you need to consider then, too, so that the agent knows how best to negotiate for you, to get you the best possible deal.

Next Wednesday I’m going to talk about that bit of advice new writers hate to hear “don't give up your day job,” and the sort of payment timetable you’re looking at as a newly signed author. I may have to tell a joke at the end of that one, to keep your spirits up. LOL If anyone out there wants to throw in their own experience/thoughts about option clauses, or anything else I waffle on about here, please do comment. Any and all info welcome!


Marilyn Jaye Lewis said...

Excellent post, Saskia. I think you're sharing some really valuable info for new writers. I cannot wait to see what you suggest next week regarding hanging on to that day job!

Saskia Walker said...

Thanks, Marilyn! I'm desperately thinking of ways to keep next weeks post cheerful. ;-)