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Author Topic: Option on next book  (Read 1767 times)
wumingshi
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« on: November 20, 2012, 5:29:49 PM »

Forum Friends:

I was fortunate enough to get my first book published about a year ago. The contract includes an "option" on my next book. That is, they get first consideration, all that.

Right now I have two questions about this:

1) Do publishers actually enforce these contract clauses? If so, do I need to wait until my next project is complete or close to complete before submitting it to the press that holds the option? Or, is it common to submit a prospectus and sample chapter and, if they don't offer an advance contract on the next book, take it somewhere else?

2) When applying for grants and fellowships, does the option really mean anything to readers? I have served as a reader for research grants and am not impressed by the many applications that say "so and so Press has expressed interest" in a project. Often this just means the person writing the grant has gotten a tired editor at a conference to agree to think about maybe reading the book prospectus for thirty seconds. Is talking about this option or right of refusal just another way of blowing smoke? I am pretty far into working on my second book, so as I prepare to write up fellowship and grant applications next fall, I wonder if I need to do something more specific like getting that prospectus under review.

Oh, and: I am in an MLA field.

Thanks for your advice.
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yellowtractor
Vice-Provost of the University of the South-East Corner of Donkeyshire (formerly Donkeyshire Polytechnic) (a Post-1992 University) and also a
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« Reply #1 on: November 21, 2012, 2:32:29 PM »

Hi Wumingshi,

Right-of-first-refusal clauses are standard in contracts from many presses (large, small, university).  We've had several threads on them in the past, over on the "Research Questions" forum (where this thread should migrate to, incidentally--when the Mods get around to noticing it).

1a) Typically academic publishers do not "enforce these contract clauses," if by "enforce" you mean "take legal action."  There's not enough money in it.  But if you blithely ignore the clause--if you violate it by sending your next complete manuscript elsewhere--then you run the risk of alienating both Old Press and potential New Press.  I know a number of stories of authors doing this; some ended with the author happy and unscathed at New Press, while others were debacles, professionally and emotionally.

1b) Usually the right-of-first-refusal clause is keyed to the presentation of a completed manuscript.  I do know of at least one colleague, though, who submitted a prospectus for his next work that Old Press turned down, clearing him to submit it elsewhere.  (He did double-check on this, with the press.)  If I were you, I would send the acquisitions editor at Old Press a note at some appropriate point and ask about this.

2) You do none of this.  Presses "express interest" all the time, and invoking your old contract's right-of-first-refusal clause as some kind of substitute for describing the progress of a new manuscript is worse than "blowing smoke."  If you want, you can state something like this in your grant and fellowship applications:  "...I am currently about 3/4 of the way through completing my next manuscript, Semiotics of Tarahumara Hashtag Effigies, which upon completion in 2013 I will be submitting to Old Press."  I wouldn't even do that, though.  There's nothing to be gained in stating where you hope to send the manuscript!

Congratulations on your first book, and on being so close to completing a second!
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It is, of course, possible that what I remember as terror was only a love too great to bear.
hiddendragon
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« Reply #2 on: November 21, 2012, 3:48:10 PM »

Crap!  I'm gonna have to check my contract for this claus.  My current press, to entice me to remain with them, had wanted to set up for all of my books to come--I've got two lined up to do next.  I DO NOT want this, but forgot about it.  I may want to go to a more prestigious press first and if nothing else, return to them, but not to tie myself now.  So, I had better check before signing.
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yellowtractor
Vice-Provost of the University of the South-East Corner of Donkeyshire (formerly Donkeyshire Polytechnic) (a Post-1992 University) and also a
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« Reply #3 on: November 21, 2012, 4:08:46 PM »

Mine and several of my friends' experiences suggest that some presses who include this clause as contractual boilerplate don't really care--they are perfectly fine releasing the author if s/he requests, or allowing authors to strike the clause out of the contract upon signing.  Others care very much about this clause and zealously police it.  The horror stories I know involve scholars who surreptitiously sent new manuscripts to New Press, hoping Old Press wouldn't notice, and then at some point in the process Old Editor and New Editor found out about the situation, scotching both options (and both presses, for the author's immediate future).

There are ways to get out of this if you've already signed such a contract and want out--but they are often bridge-burning ways.  One we used to discuss (fondly) when I was in graduate school--perhaps a scholarly urban legend--was to send a manuscript you know the press will reject, such as your great-aunt Hilda's recipe collection photocopied haphazardly on 8.5x11 paper, with a title page proudly announcing you "edited" the volume.  (the "cookbook option")

A more professional way, if applicable, would be to write to Old Press and explain you think your new manuscript would not fit in with any of the press's existing series/editorial foci and that you would like to try it elsewhere.  I did this between my first and second books, amicably solving the problem.
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It is, of course, possible that what I remember as terror was only a love too great to bear.
hegemony
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« Reply #4 on: November 21, 2012, 4:44:16 PM »

I always just cross out the clause before signing the contract, explaining politely that my next book will be on a much different topic and most likely not suitable for the press anyway, though I will keep them in mind, etc. etc.  No press has objected or taken offense.  Of course it's too late to do this at the OP's juncture, but something to keep in mind for the next time around.
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wumingshi
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« Reply #5 on: November 21, 2012, 5:08:24 PM »

Thanks for your advice, and for preventing me from sounding too silly in my next grant proposal!
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flotsam
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« Reply #6 on: November 21, 2012, 8:52:24 PM »

yellowtractor's comments are so reasonable and wise that I hesitate to add anything, but this: Like hegemony, I politely cross out the option clause of contracts.  Were the press to insist upon it, I'd probably still sign, but obviously I don't want to limit myself in the future.

I, too, am in an MLA field, and I've heard (but do not know), that it may be prudent to publish with multiple presses, particularly if the first book did not appear with a top-rated publisher. (That way, at least in theory, no one later can easily assume that you had an "in" with just one editor/publisher, thus discounting your work.) Again, this may be nothing, and I hope it is, but most of the multi-book authors I know did publish with a few different presses.
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meritocracy
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« Reply #7 on: November 28, 2012, 6:39:12 PM »

My first university press book had a focus that was so narrow I never thought the option clause would apply to any further book. I then submitted a proposal just to see what would happen, they sat on the proposal for a few years and then emailed to say they were thinking about it. It's been at least another year and no further word. I mean, I was willing to write it, but I submitted all my other books to other presses. That clause seems so strange for university presses. It would make more sense at a big time  non academic publisher...
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yellowtractor
Vice-Provost of the University of the South-East Corner of Donkeyshire (formerly Donkeyshire Polytechnic) (a Post-1992 University) and also a
Distinguished Senior Member
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Posts: 19,592


« Reply #8 on: November 29, 2012, 12:41:39 PM »

My first university press book had a focus that was so narrow I never thought the option clause would apply to any further book. I then submitted a proposal just to see what would happen, they sat on the proposal for a few years and then emailed to say they were thinking about it. It's been at least another year and no further word. I mean, I was willing to write it, but I submitted all my other books to other presses. That clause seems so strange for university presses. It would make more sense at a big time  non academic publisher...

The right-of-first refusal clause typically refers to manuscripts, not proposals.  You should check your original contract for the language.

Some right-of-first-refusal contracts also decorate the clause with a period of review, for instance, 90 days' or 6 months' exclusive consideration.

If I were you I would have e-mailed them about the proposal after six months (there is absolutely no legitimate reason to hold a proposal longer than six months) asking whether they were interested and, if not, whether in their view you had satisfied your contractual obligations via the proposal.
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It is, of course, possible that what I remember as terror was only a love too great to bear.
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