When should the option period for my next book start?

Q. I’m okay with the provision in my new contract giving the publisher 60 days to tell me if it’s interested in publishing my next (as yet unwritten) book. I’m not sure, however, when it’s appropriate for this 60-day option period to start. What do you suggest?

A. Many (if not most) publishers’ standard contracts provide that the option period begins when 1) the author has submitted a complete manuscript of the new book to the publisher for its consideration, and 2) the book covered by the current contract has been published and on sale for a specified period, often a month or two.

Both criteria overreach. Authors should change them as follows:

  1. Instead of a full manuscript, you are only required to submit an outline and one chapter (or two).
  2. Instead of having to wait until the book has been published, change this to x weeks (four is reasonable) after your current manuscript is accepted by the publisher. (Those contracts which say that the manuscript is considered accepted if the publisher hasn’t rejected it or given comments, suggesting how it should be revised, within a specified time period should add “(or deemed accepted)” after “accepted”.)

Most publishers will readily agree to these changes.

Your publisher shouldn’t have to wait until it sees how reviewers and the marketplace receive the book to decide whether you’re a good writer or not; it should rely on its own judgment. Besides, how the marketplace receives the book is dependent to a large extent on how the publisher markets your book, and we all know how good most publishers are at that. And the book’s publication date is essentially in the publisher’s control, not yours. You have to eat in the meantime, and I’m betting that whatever advance the publisher gave you did not cover your living expenses during the time you wrote the first book, let alone the year or so after you submitted the manuscript that it generally takes for the publisher to ready the book for publication.

Since most publishers will make these suggested changes if the author or agent simply knows enough to ask, it’s disappointing that so many persist in retaining these criteria in their standard form. It simply means that the authors principally subject to these stringent conditions are the ignorant or the naïve. While the editors and even the business people at publishing companies are not the kind of people who would place stones in a blind person’s path, I often think the same cannot also be said of their corporate employers.

Note that these recommended changes are only two of many that should be made in the typical option clause; others will be discussed in future columns.

(Originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin. © Mark L. Levine)

Answers to questions on this site are general in nature only. You should consult a lawyer for information about a particular situation. For more information about book publishing contracts and issues, see Levine’s book.