Dear Miss Snark,
When a publisher retains "all rights" and the option clause grants "first look" -- is this bad? Specifically, does "all rights" mean that should the novel under the contract be made into a movie (or an audio book, ebook, plastic candy dispenser, micro-print tee shirt, or bad Spanish translation), the author gets nada and all profits belong to the publisher? Or does it simply mean the publisher gets a slice of the pie? (Assuming, of course, that the publisher attempts to sell said rights.)
Also, "first look" just means that you must allow the publisher to consider publication of your next novel in the same genre (or whatever the contract specifies) before you submit elsewhere, does it not? Or am I completely uninformed, and should I just go back to blindly signing important-looking documents because they promised to put my name on a book cover?
Ok, you know I'm yelling "understand what you sign" here but let's just get past that.
"All rights" doesn't mean they own it, it means they CONTROL it. You get a slice of the proceeds but you're dependent on someone else to sell the rights to the movie (or an audio book, ebook, plastic candy dispenser, micro-print tee shirt, or bad Spanish translation). That can be ok if you sell the rights to a publisher who can exploit them. It's stupid to do that if the publisher can't do anything. (This is one of those hidden benefits of having an agent--all contract terms are not created equal).
There's probably something other than "first look" in your contract. It should specify what they get to look at (second novel in the series; next work of fiction; next work using same characters); what form (outline, chapter, full ms); and how long they have to get back to you. It probably also says they have the right to match other offers.
(insert endless loop of Miss Snark chanting 'do not sign what you don't understand')
If you want to know more about what you've gotten yourself into invest in a copy of Kirsch's Guide to the Book Contract. Don't get a copy from the library. Buy one. You'll need it. Everyone I know owns one, even those of us who send our contracts out to review specialists.
Never ever EVER sign what you don't understand. NO reputable agent or publisher will balk at answering questions like this. NONE. If they do, that's a HUGE red flag.