Wednesday, February 17, 2016

You Can't Get Something For Nothing

Good news! You finally receive the email that you've been waiting for: A publisher has offered to publish your book. Then your joy turns to apprehension when you actually read that contract:

Rights, sub-rights, territories, escalation, reserve? What’s that? You don’t know the rules, the customs, even the vocabulary. Should you accept the offer?

One of the provisions that causes the greatest angst among new authors, is the so-called option clause. The publishing-advice websites are abuzz with conspiracy theories and horror stories from inexperienced authors who feel they got robbed by it. Yet most publishing contracts have one, and it generally goes something like this:
Author agrees to submit to Publisher his next book-length work before submitting the same to another publisher. Upon receipt of such work, Publisher must either accept or reject the same in writing to Author within 60 days. If Publisher fails to give such notice, Author shall be free to offer said work to other publishers. If Publisher accepts the work for publication, the parties shall negotiate in good faith for 30 days. If within 30 days the parties cannot agree on terms, then Author may offer the work to other publishers. But in no event shall Author accept any offer from another publisher, under terms less favorable than those offered by Publisher.

This short paragraph can elicit many disparate emotions from authors. Some will think “Yippee! They want to publish every book I will ever write!” Others will tell you that it’s a clever trick to take control of your career. (Much like the old Hollywood “studio system” where actors had to sign an exclusive deal with a studio, yet never got any work.) “I’m stuck with these idiots for life!” But neither of these is true.

The reason for this clause is simple: If your book takes off like wildfire, they’ll want to ride that wave with you a bit longer. This is perfectly reasonable; they will make a big investment in your project, so they naturally want to maximize their ROI. (If you were Clive Davis and you discovered Janis Joplin, wouldn’t you want to produce her next album, and the next? Of course you would.)

Let’s break it down, line-by-line:

First, it says they want your next “book-length” work. What does that mean? This can vary widely from place to place, but generally a “book” is 50,000 words or more. Anything less than that (if fiction) is a novella; most publishers don’t handle such, and when they do, it’s generally romance. When in doubt, ask.

In the meantime, if you want to submit a short story to an anthology, or an article to a magazine, go wild. Want to enter a poetry contest, or submit an anecdote to Reader’s Digest? More power to ya. In fact, the publisher should encourage you to do so, because all of these outlets can only build an audience for your book.

Now, what if you write in more than one genre? Your current book is a mystery, but your next will be How to Rebuild a Transmission. Are you still bound by this clause? Technically the answer is yes, but you can limit the scope now (and avoid hassles later) by revising it to “book-length mystery,” or “book-length fiction.”

Next, it says that the publisher must make a decision on book #2 within 60 days. (I’ve seen contracts that give them up to six months, so a two-month review period isn’t bad.) It’s only fair to give them time to make an intelligent decision. Don’t forget, they turned down hundreds of other projects to choose yours. If this is your first or second book, your negotiating power is very limited. If you make too many demands, they can easily choose someone else before you reach the end of this sentence. Such is the nature of a buyer’s market, no matter the product.

(Before we go on: You might be a prolific writer, with a dozen books in search of a good home. This clause might cause you to lose momentum. But after the release of book #1, you might want to slow down. After six months or so, have a look at your royalty statements. Have you sold thousands of copies? If so, you will be in a stronger negotiating position for #2, no matter where you go.)

Lastly, it says that if you turn down their deal, you cannot accept a lesser offer from someone else. But what, exactly, constitutes a “lesser” offer? This might not be as simple as it appears at first glance. Much of this analysis is purely subjective, or even unknowable.

The subjective part: If you’re like me, you want to spend your days writing. An option clause can save you from the hassle of starting from scratch to pitch each successive book to dozens of editors. I have a friend who has published 20 novels with the same publisher, with more to come. Could she get a better deal elsewhere? Maybe. But she doesn’t care; the certainty outweighs the maybe.

The unknowable: Which is better, the higher royalty rate, or the higher advance? If you take the long view, it may seem that you’ll be better off with the former; you just need to wait longer to collect the money. But will you sell enough copies to surpass the higher advance at the other place? For the first (or second-) time author, this is impossible to know. You just don’t have the track record to guide you. Again, a certainty versus a maybe.

Or maybe you’re an experienced author, and your previous ten books sold well. There are no guarantees, of course; but if past is prologue, you’ll probably do better with the higher-royalty deal. However: Suppose that your car just died, and you need to buy a new one today. That fat lump-sum advance check looks pretty good about now, doesn’t it? You might earn less overall, but you got the book out there and didn’t have to go into debt for the car.

At the end of the day, an option clause is neither good or bad in itself. It’s up to you, to weigh the options and negotiate it to your advantage. And then, once you’ve done so, to sell those books like crazy. And earn (yes, earn) the better deal on the next one. And the next.

Don’t let the hype of the conspiracy theories steal your joy. Educate yourself and make an informed decision.