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Option and Right of Refusal Clauses in Book Contracts

A guest post by Scott Boone.

In Nancy DiMauro’s excellent post on reversion clauses from a week or so back, she mentioned the four critical clauses in your book contract: the granting clause, the payment clause, the indemnification clause and the reversion clause. This is the fifth critical clause with which you need to be extremely careful. Nancy knows all about option-type clauses, but she was nice enough not to steal the thunder from my post today.

Option-type clauses are the clauses in your publishing contract that refer not to the work being published, but to the work or works you create after the one being sold in that contract. Essentially, what rights does the publisher have in your next work or works? I’m going to talk about three main types: options, rights of first refusal, and rights of last refusal.

Publishers believe that they will not make any money off your first book. That is the received conventional wisdom. So in publishing you, they are investing in you as an author as much as or more than they are investing in that particular book. If they are going to take that risk and make that investment, they have a legitimate reason for wanting some sort of rights in the works you create after that first book. However, too often, these clauses put all the risk on the author without any risk on the publisher.

There is a question of how enforceable these types of clauses are in court. One that is unlimited in time and scope might stand a good chance of not being enforceable. The more limited in terms of time and scope, the more likely it is to be enforceable. However, you don’t want to put your eggs in that basket. None of them. If you end up in court fighting one of these, then in the big picture you’ve pretty much lost even if the court finds in your favor. Get it right on the front end during the contract negotiation.

So here are the three main types and how you need to think about with each one.

Options

Option clauses give the publisher the right to purchase a later work at already set terms. They do not give the publisher the right to look at them first and make the first offer; instead, the publisher just has the right to purchase your next work on already specified terms. You’ve already agreed to it by giving them an option.

In their worst (and perhaps too common) incarnation, they specify that the publisher has the right to buy your next work on the same terms as the first. This is bad for you for at least two reasons. First, it means you cannot get any better terms, including royalty rates and advances, in your next contract. Remember that with a true option clause, the publisher can exercise it without any need to negotiate with you on terms. Those are already set. Second, if the option clause states that they can purchase the next work on the same terms as the first, those same terms include the option clause. The option propagates forward with each book, with no escape for the author. This can be incredibly insidious, and if you dig deeply enough, you can find horror stories of new authors stuck in these sorts of traps.

Look, it is not uncommon for a new author to get a relatively bad contract as their first contract. But an option clause that locks in future terms means that every contract after that will be a bad contract. Avoid these at all costs.

To make it clear, let’s look at them from another angle. An option clause obligates you but not the publisher. Therefore, you bear all of the risk and the publisher bears none. Let’s say your first book bombs. The publisher is not obligated by an option clause to buy your second book. On the other hand, if your first book is a big success, the publisher can buy the second book without having to give better terms. That’s a risk you bear. So you bear that risk while the publisher bears none.

If a publisher wants to lock in the right to your next work or works at set terms, then make them buy them with a multi-book contract. That way both parties bear some risk and it’s not all on you the author.

So what do you do if the contract you’re offered has an option clause? First, get rid of it. Get them to switch it to a right of first refusal or get them to make it a multi-book contract (if you are happy with the terms). If you can’t get rid of it, then either walk away or try to get the terms for the second work that are much better than the first and make sure an option clause will not be included in the contract for second work.

Further, make sure the clause is more limited than simply “your next work” or “future work.” That would include short stories, books in different series or even in different genres. If you are going to sign one, make sure it is limited to a certain form (long vs. short) and to that genre (or even better that series).

Finally, as with any clause conditioned upon the publisher doing anything, make sure the publisher has an objectively defined timeframe in which to exercise the right before losing that right.

The final word on options: Be very wary. Don’t even think of signing a contract with one unless the terms are good, do not include another option, and improve with the next work.

Right of Last Refusal

The right of last refusal is a clause that gives the publisher the right to match any offer for your future work made by another publisher. It’s a bit deceptive in how bad these are for the author. On first glance, they might seem to be not as bad as a straight option clause, but once we dig into how they work, we’ll see how they can actually be worse.

The right to last refusal basically gives the publisher the right to match any other offer. That means they have the right to buy the book at terms that match the other publisher’s terms.

They don’t seem too bad until you start to think about what such clauses do to your ability to get another offer. Put yourself in the shoes of the editor at the other publishing house. In order to make an offer to buy a book, you have to put in a lot of work. You have to read and evaluate the book. Then you have to champion that book to several other constituencies in house. Are you going to want to invest in that book, both in terms of time and workplace capital, if the first publisher can snipe the book out from under you for the same terms? Not likely.

So, while it appears that a last refusal clause gives you the ability to improve the terms of the next contract by getting a better offer somewhere else, that’s not a very realistic option.

Additionally, because the original publisher does not have to make a yes or no decision as they do with an option clause, you might actually get worse terms in the second contract. An option clause at least locks terms in. If your ability to go anywhere else is blocked because no other editor wants to invest the time to make an offer on a book subject to a last refusal, the original publisher can actually offer you worse terms because they know you don’t have any other options.

The final word on rights of last refusal: Don’t.

Right of First Refusal

The right of first refusal gives the publisher the right to be the first publisher to see your next work and the right to make the first offer on it. Unlike the option clause, the publisher cannot unilaterally purchase your next work. You have to agree to their terms. That’s not a bad deal for you as an author provided the right is limited.

You want a good and prosperous relationship with your publisher that spans multiple books. One in which both of you do well. And if you are writing a series, you really don’t want to switch publishers mid-series.

While the presence of this clause should not cause you to reconsider the contract, you should seek to limit it in at least two ways.

First, you should limit what works it covers. It should specify novels and not short works, unless your publisher does in fact publish short works and on terms you would like. It should also be limited to that specific series, or if you can’t negotiate for limiting it to that series, it should be limited to books in that particular genre.

Second, you should limit how much time the publisher has to respond once you have submitted the new work to them. The traditional publishing process is incredibly slow as it is. You don’t want it slowed down even further.

The final word on first rights of refusal: Fine if properly limited.

The Takeaway

Work to limit a right of first refusal in scope to a particular series or genre and in the amount of time the publisher has to make the offer. Avoid options and rights of last refusal.

 

Guest Writer Bio:
M. Scott Boone lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where he works as a law professor in order to support a clowder of cats. He writes about legal issues affecting writers at writerinlaw.com. When not writing or teaching, he is a self-proclaimed soccervangelist.

Reversion Clauses – or when do I get my story back?

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-recycle-dollar-image26790944There are four critical provisions in your contact: the granting clause, the payment clause, the indemnification clause and the reversion clause. All four provisions work together to set out what you’ve given up (granting and indemnification clauses), what you get in return (the payment clause) and when you get your stuff back (the reversion clause). I’m only going to talk about the last one today but keep in mind that whether a reversion clause is unreasonable depends in large part on what you’ve given away and what you received for it.

What’s the issue?

Your work has value. After all, that’s why a publisher wants it. The value of the work is why you get paid. In return for letting the publisher print your work (and, hopefully from the publisher’s prospective, earn more money off it than they pay you) you give the publisher an exclusive right to use your words anyway that falls into the grant of rights. Start to see the problem?

No?

Okay, let’s look at it this way. I was recently shopping a story to some E-publishers. Before submitting, I checked out the contract terms as stated on the webpage. Buried in the mumbo-jumbo about submission guidelines and other facts was this gem: “Length of grant of publishing rights: Life of copyright.” What the heck?

A copyright lasts your life and another 70 years (in the US and UK. There some other countries which the copyright only lasts 50 years after your death, but it’s still a darned long time.). If you signed a contract with this “reversion” clause your publisher OWNS YOUR STORY for your life, the life of your kids, and a good chunk of your grandchildren’s life. The publisher can do whatever it wants with your story until it has no commercial value (i.e. is in the public domain) and, most likely, not pay you a penny more.

Now do you see the problem?

You might shake your head and say that “well, that was an e-publisher, the traditional houses aren’t like that.” Oh yes, they can be. If you let them. Publishers of all kinds are trying to grab as many of your right as possible, keep them for as long as possible and return as few of them to you as possible. This doesn’t make the publishers “evil.” It just means they are better at looking out for their businesses interests than most writers are. After all, they make money off the stories other people write. Of course, the publisher wants to keep those words for as long as possible.

“But wait!” you say. “Isn’t there something about my getting the rights back if the work goes out of print?”

Most contracts will have a provision that says something along those lines but the words really matter. Ambiguity is not your friend. Reversion clauses often have no definitions or meaningless ones. I’ll just highlight a few terms that MUST be clearly defined. If “out of print” isn’t explicitly defined the publisher can, and likely will, win on the argument that because your book is available on a “print on demand” basis, whether or not any copies are actually sold, the work isn’t “out of print” and the publisher still owns it.

What does “sales” mean? Can the publisher “sell” 1,000 free copies and meet the “Sales” threshold, if your contract even has one? Courts will read an undefined word consistent with its dictionary definition or its “plain meaning” as it is ordinarily used. If “sales” isn’t defined a court will likely rule that giving away free copies is a “sale” as the “plain meaning” of “sale” includes the “transfer of something to the ownership or use of somebody else.” In other words, no money or anything else of value has to change hands for a “sale” to occur. So, many of the new “reversion” clauses won’t let you get your book back until either the copyright expires, or you pay an attorney a lot of money to argue about your contract and rights. Either way, this is a lose-lose situation for the writer.

The “New Normal” of contracts is that if you aren’t careful you may never get your book back, or worse, you might pay the publisher far more than it every paid you to get your story back.

Hand in glove with the “new” non-reversion clauses are “buy back” provisions. Under these provisions you can “early terminate” the contract for a fee. One of the more egregious of these clauses I’ve seen recently was part of a horrible contract where the writer gave up all rights to her story (which was supposed to be put in an anthology) for 7 years for no advance – just a small royalty percentage. The publisher was going to reprint the story as a stand alone arguably under the same payment terms – 7.5% of the price sold. In order to get the story back before the 7 years expired the writer had to pay the publisher a predetermined amount. Given the sales-to-date this meant the writer had to pay the publisher more than 18 times what she received from the sale to get her rights back. Does this sound wrong to you? It should.

Also keep in mind that many established writers are making LOTS of money self-publishing or reselling their back list – books once in print with a publisher that have reverted to the writer. Publishers know this. For obvious reasons, publishers would prefer to keep the bulk of that money too. With a “life of copyright” grant the income from reissuing those older books would go to your publisher if the publisher even felt like reissuing your work.

What should you ask for in a reversion clause?

1. A reasonable term for the publisher to recoup its expenses and make a profit off you. This is going to vary from an e-book only, to paperback, to hardcover publishers. Hardcover publishers have more legitimate expenses in publishing your book than an e-book publisher does. Generally, the more rights you give a publisher the shorter you want the contract’s term to be. Three years is probably reasonable for an e-book only publisher. Seven to ten years may be reasonable for a print publisher.

2. Clear language as to when and how you get your rights back. Again, ambiguity is not your friend.

3. A definition of “out of print” that sets a sales threshold for e-book publishers, and excludes e-books (for traditional publishers), and print on demand copies and audio books for all publishers.

4. A definition of “sales” that excludes the transfer of your work for no monetary consideration and has a specific number threshold.

5. A renewal clause so the publisher can keep using your Work if it is selling and has to pay you a set amount (an additional royalty) for renewing the contract.

6. If there is a “buy-out” provision, a purchase price that takes into account the publisher’s actual costs, potential lost profits and what it paid you. The reality is if your book is selling well with Publisher X you are unlikely to want your rights back. These provisions come into play when you disagree with what your publisher is doing with your work or the work simply isn’t selling.

7. You don’t want a lengthy notice provision. If you opt to take your rights back, you should get them almost immediately upon notice. This keeps the process from being drawn out and keeps a vengeful publisher from trashing your work – bad cover, bad press – while you wait to get it back.

8. The term “Notice” needs to be defined. The Notice of your intent to take your rights back and the actual return of those rights should not be dependent on the publisher’s actions. Let’s say your reversion clause says you get your rights back 30 days after you notify the publisher: what happens if the publisher doesn’t pick up that certified letter or respond to your email? You might be stuck. “Notice” may mean “actual notice” and you may have to show that the publisher actually received your letter or email. All ambiguity does here is open the door to litigation or an extortion attempt by your publisher who now wants you to buy back not just your rights but also all the copies of your book in the warehouse. If you think I’m exaggerating check out Doranna Durgin‘s post on Writer Beware at http://accrispin.blogspot.com/2011/10/guest-blog-post-fitzhenry-and-whiteside.html

9. A provision that automatically reverts your rights if your publisher files bankruptcy, has an involuntary bankruptcy filed against it, has a receiver appointed or makes an assignment for the benefit of creditors. If any of these things happen your publisher has or is likely going out of business. You don’t want to be caught up in lengthy and expensive litigation to reclaim your rights from a Bankruptcy Trustee or receiver. The likely result if you are pulled into the bankruptcy or receivership is that you will have to buy your story back to help pay off your publisher’s creditors. Again, getting enmeshed in a legal fight is something you want to avoid happening.

What’s the solution?

While a new writer won’t often have the clout to get everything he should in a reversion clause educated writers will push the publishers to stop overreaching. You MUST know what your contract says and how it affects you. Consult with an Intellectual Property (IP) lawyer. This is a very technical and niche area of the law. Your agent likely doesn’t have the knowledge he needs to advise you. The average family law or traffic lawyer does not have the knowledge to advise you. I’ve been practicing business law for nearly 20 years and I still check with an IP lawyer. Consult with a lawyer. Yes, we charge a lot. An IP lawyer may cost you $500 an hour or more. But, the alternative is potentially giving away thousands, if not millions of dollars, over your writing career. The expense of a lawyer is worth the investment.

But the most important solution –

Don’t accept bad contracts.

Don’t accept ambiguous contracts.

Don’t accept “reversion” clauses that don’t actually give you the rights back to your work.

Here’s the secret – Shh – You don’t need traditional publishers as much as they need you.  You can self-publish. Publishers need writers to give them content. See, the power has shifted. We can still get our stories to an audience without a publisher. The publisher can’t operate without writers. Don’t get me wrong. I want to be traditionally published. I understand the finances that drive Publishers (e- and traditional) to ask for the provisions they do. But that doesn’t mean I have to accept all proposed terms.

Sometimes walking away is the best thing you can do for yourself, your story and your career.

The bottom line?

Know when and how you get your rights back. If this isn’t clear, hire an attorney to help you understand. If the contact still isn’t clear or acceptable renegotiate it. If you can’t get reasonable terms you may want to walk away.

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