I received an email from an acquaintance who received a contract offer with an alarming clause, and he wanted to know if this was a standard clause.
In a nutshell, the clause forbids the author from submitting subsequent similar stories to other publishers – or self publishing it. All stories that are deemed “similar” fall under the jurisdiction of that publisher and must remain with that publisher.
Now, this is entirely different from a First Right of Refusal clause, which simply states that the author must give their publisher the first right to review subsequent manuscripts, and reject it or offer a contract. I wrote about it here,
This is far more overreaching, so I’ll explain the pitfalls:
Definition of “Similar”
There is no definition of “similar,” in the contract, so how is the author supposed to understand what falls under the current publisher’s purview and what he can submit elsewhere? Are they talking about genre, plot, characters, setting? Further muddying the waters is, how does the publisher possibly enforce that clause with such dubious wording?
Many authors write in the same genre, so if an author writes YA distopia, does this clause grab all of the author’s future YA distopia? Or are we talking the characters? Without having this clearly stated in the contract, the author is walking a tightrope without a safety net. The worst of all is that the publisher has ultimate control over what they deem “similar.”
Authors can’t be held to a moving target. Define by what is meant by “similar,” then maybe there’s something to work with. However, at that, I would never, never, never suggest an author sign such a ridiculous clause in the first place. And, frankly, I would question any publisher who would put that into their contracts.
My friend’s acquiring editor told him this clause is meant to help grow the author’s career by cutting down on cases where the author could find themselves competing against their own work by having similar books at different publishers.
Personally, I think this is a load of camel slop because first and foremost, the publisher is inhibiting the author’s freedom to do what he wants with his writing career. What this really does is help the publisher corner the market on that author’s “similar” works, therefore ensuring maximum sales for the publisher…which, in theory, is good for the author.
And sure, I can imagine the frustration a publisher would have seeing one of their authors give another publisher a similar book. The original publisher worked hard to establish the author’s platform in the marketplace, and now they have competition. And my answer to this is that it’s incumbent upon the publisher to be so freaking fabulous that the author wouldn’t think of going anywhere else. It should be a relationship of fabulosity, not force.
You do not, not, not take away an author’s freedom. It sends a terrible message, and…well…it’s rude. A publisher is either up to the task of doing good things for their authors, or they’re not, and the author should have the ability to move on if they want. Good publishers don’t keep their authors by force.
And this brings me to another point. Publisher suckosity. What if you sign a contract with this clause and you find out down the line that the publisher isn’t doing a good job in promoting, marketing, distributing, and selling your book? The clause makes you their writerly slave.
Signing a contract is a happy happy time, filled with daisies, puppies, and rainbows. Authors never imagine the possibility of a Dark Lord of Suckosity surfacing, bringing slobbery, murky, bloaty gnomes whose sole job is to make you wish you’d never picked up a quill.
So the worst case scenario is that not only have you discovered the Dark Lord of Suckosity, but this lousy clause ties you to them with lightning bolts.
Any clause that gives the editor control over deciding what “similar” means is meant to favor the publisher. Trying to insist that these clauses are meant to protect the author is publishy-speak for, “Gee, I hope they didn’t see through my smoke and mirrors.”
This clause puts you in a Demilitarized Zone – you’re not free to take a step forward or backward because they own your soul and tell you what you can and can’t write.
My advice to my friend was to run. Far and fast. And if you see a clause in a contract, I urge you to join my friend. Stay safe, dear writers!