Are Options Optional?

For this month’s column, I’m going to try and unpack the question of how “options” work in publishing contracts. I’m guessing this will be more relevant to writers publishing books with traditional presses than for magazine/journal articles, but it can come up in either contract. And if you’re self-publishing, you don’t have to worry about it at all.

Often when you sell a book—and sometimes an article or essay—the publisher will insert an option clause in your contract, which typically gives them first right of refusal over your next book, article, or essay. These clauses can be drafted in different ways, but they usually say something like the publisher takes an “option on the author’s next work”. This means that you have to offer them your next work before you offer it to anyone else. If they want it, they get it. If not, you can try to sell it to someone else.

Sometimes this can be a good thing. If you like the publisher and you form a good working relationship on the first project, and they like the second project, you’re all set in terms of placing the piece. Of course, you may still haggle over payment, assignment of rights, and other publishing issues. Some option clauses will tie you into the same terms as the original sale, and you may want to try to negotiate so that the clause doesn’t lock you in so narrowly. For example, you might ask for the clause to say instead that payment and licensing terms on a second work will be negotiated if and when the publisher exercises the option (i.e. decides to publish the second piece).

Additionally, if you write in multiple genres, you may want to try to limit the option to certain kinds of work that you think would be the best fit for the publisher. If you write both fiction and nonfiction and you are offered a contract for a nonfiction work, you might try to negotiate the option so it’s limited to the next nonfiction work you write. This leaves you free to try to sell your fiction elsewhere.

You might also write for different market segments (e.g. children’s books versus adult books; mystery books versus travel books) so, again, you may try to negotiate with the publisher to limit your option to particular market segments if you think it’s appropriate.

The other thing to look at is how long the option lasts. It may last for the duration of your relationship with the publisher: for example, until the contract ends (if it does) and the rights are reverted to you (if they are). It might be limited for a certain number of years. Or the contract may be silent about how long it lasts. Be aware of time limits on options. If you’re worried about being locked into a right of first refusal years after you sign the original contract, think about negotiating a time limit into that contract.

This is a very sketched out overview of what options are and how they work. If you’re concerned about a particular contract, it’s always a good idea to seek the advice of an agent or attorney, or other person knowledgeable about publishing contracts. (And of course the usual disclaimers apply—this blog post is not intended as formal legal advice.)