The following advice is aimed chiefly at authors contracted to write their own book-length work or poetry collection. If you're asked to sign a contract as a translator, ghost writer or scriptwriter which includes an option clause, you should ask for this provision to be removed.
We are frequently contacted by members who have signed option clauses that they later come to regret. These are clauses that give the publisher first refusal on your next book(s) and, unlike a multi-book deal with advances on all the titles covered, they do not require the publisher to secure this right with proper investment at the time that the original deal is signed.
When such clauses are exclusively to the publisher’s advantage, you shouldn't feel compelled to agree to them. When you receive that contract, it's easy to get swept along in the expectation of a long and fruitful partnership with your publisher. But that’s no reason to sign without questioning. If things are working well, you are likely to offer them your next title without being contractually obliged to.
If you're worried about souring your relationship with your publisher right at the start of your working relationship, don’t be. It is perfectly routine to request the removal or modification of this clause, and most publishers will agree to do so if asked.
Most importantly, you shouldn't agree to the option clause on the assumption that it doesn’t need to be taken seriously. It is just as binding as any other term in the contract.
If you are not being paid an advance, and/or your book will be published only in print-on-demand/ebook formats, you shouldn't agree to any option.
However, if a publisher has provided significant investment in your first title, you may feel that it is reasonable to grant an option. Even so, we would strongly advise that you insist on limiting it to first refusal on only one book, on terms to be agreed (not ‘on the same terms’ or including the ‘same rights and territories’), and with the publishers being required to come to a decision within, say, six weeks of delivery of the completed work or of a synopsis and specimen chapter.
Specify the type of work covered - for instance, your next work of adult non-fiction, or the next book featuring the same characters. Exclude works you may be invited to write for a series published by another firm, and ideally specify a time-limit after which any option lapses.
Finally, watch out for any provision within the contract stating that the option remains in place even if the original agreement terminates – sadly, such sneaky wording is not unheard of!
Some things don't change
This isn't a new issue, as you'll see from this passage in The Author circa 1897:
Information has reached the secretary of several attempts recently made to entrap authors by the old trick, regularly denounced in these pages, into binding themselves down for future books with the same publisher. The worst feature about these cases - there are at least three publishers concerned - is that they occur with first books.
The victim is offered low terms - perhaps to be excused in consideration of its being a first book - with the condition that the publisher get to have the second book, if they please, on the same terms. Take the case of Charles Dickens. His ‘Sketches by Boz’ were sold, I believe, to Bentley for £150: what if he had bound himself down to let that publisher have ‘The Pickwick Papers’ for the same sum? Experience shows that the same tricks - always the same tricks - are tried on time after time: and that the same vigilance must be kept up to expose them.
In 121 years, some things have not changed. We advise you strongly to treat such clauses with caution.
Our advisors are always happy to answer any queries you might have on this subject. For a more in-depth look at the kind of option clauses that cover film and broadcast rights, see our members-only Guide to Film Options.