Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction (Part 17 in series)

Sign Here: What to look (and look out) for in short fiction contracts (Part 1)

Welcome back to my on-going series on how to market and sell short fiction. These posts are written in a very specific sequence, with each entry building on earlier ones. You can read my earlier posts here.

In Parts 15 and 16, I dealt with handling rejections, finishing off a mini-series on how to market your short fiction that focused on helping you to actually sell a story.

This week, I kick off a new mini-series on the happier topic of what happens when you do sell a story: “I’ve Sold a Story. Now what?: Contracts, Editing, and Reality.” We’ll begin this week by looking at contracts. This will be a three-part series, which I’ll continue next week in Part 18 and wrap up in Part 19 the following week.

Some Caveats

This topic would require an entire college course to cover, so I’ll only be hitting some highlights. And to quote one of my mentors, the multi-award winning, multi-genre writer, Kristine Kathryn Rusch: I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV.

I’ll give advice in these posts on short fiction contracts, but I can’t be held responsible for anything that you sign. Your career. Your decision. You need to learn the industry that you’ve decided to build a career in. That means learning short fiction contracts.

Keeping Your Stories as Yours

Contracts are important. Many writers don’t get that. Contracts determine who controls the rights to your stories. Signing a bad contract can mean that your stories aren’t yours anymore. Other bad things can happen, but giving up more rights than you should for longer than you should sits at the top of the list.

Kris Rusch has another line that I like to quote: “There are only two things a writer can control– the stories they write and the contracts they sign.”

So, yeah…contracts are important.

The Contract as a Starting Point

The first thing you need to understand when you receive your contract is that it’s just a document. Think of it like a story draft that still may need some editing. It is not carved in stone. It can be changed.

But your contract won’t be changed if you don’t review it for what needs to be changed and if you don’t request those changes.

A contract from a publisher is a starting point in a discussion. A business-like and professional discussion, but still a discussion, one in which you request changes that you want to see.

I’m not trying to turn you into a high-powered negotiator. You don’t need to be. You just need to do the following:

  • Be informed about the key clauses to look for in a short fiction contract;
  • Know what terms you’ll bend on and what you won’t (your career, your decision); and,
  • Not be intimidated (or too timid / polite / stupid) to request changes in the contract.


Although mostly aimed at the much more complex book contract situation, Kris Rusch has an excellent series of posts on negotiation in her acclaimed “A Freelancer Survival Guide” blog series (now available as a book as well). The negotiation posts are #37-42.

Understanding Rights (Revisited)

Back in parts 4 and 5 of this series, I explained why you never actually “sell” a story, and discussed in detail the licensing of rights for your fiction.


No, seriously, stop. If you haven’t read those posts, please go back and read them NOW. In fact, even if you have read them, go back and re-read them now.

Those are the two of the most important posts in this series. If you don’t understand licensing of rights for fiction, you are going to have a very, very unhappy career, if you manage to have a career at all.

So go. Read posts 4 and 5. Now. I’ll wait.

The Key Things to Look for in Short Fiction Contracts

Ok, you’re back and hopefully better educated on licensing rights. Let’s talk contracts.

Short fiction contracts are generally straight-forward, but there are still things to look out for because the standard contract from a publisher will generally favour the publisher (surprise, surprise).

Here are the key things that I focus on in any short story contract:

1. What rights are being requested?
2. When do those rights revert to me?
3. What legal liability am I being asked to accept?
4. What happens if the story is never published?
5. What happens if this market folds or is sold?
6. Will there be a published declaration of my copyright?
7. What control will I have over changes to my story?
8. What am I being paid for these rights?

Let’s go through each of those in detail, or as much detail that I can cover in three blog posts.

1. What rights are being requested?

I won’t repeat what I went over in parts 4 and 5 (because you just re-read them, right?). You need to look at the specific rights the market is requesting and decide if those are reasonable requests, and if you’re willing to give up those rights to get this sale. For example, if a magazine is currently print only, but is asking for audio rights because they may at some undefined point in the future want to publish an audio book version, you need to decide if that is reasonable. Your career, your decision.

I’ll mention a couple of other common possibilities.

First, if you sell to an online magazine, they may request the rights to maintain your story in an online archive, even after rights revert to you. I never agree to this. First, they generally don’t offer any additional fees for this right. Second, why would any other editor ever agree to purchase reprint rights for my story if it’s freely available online?

The second possibility you might see from a magazine publisher is a request for anthology rights. I’ve sold several stories to a professional magazine that pays twenty-five cents a word, which is a fantastic rate for genre fiction. Their contract requests non-exclusive rights to republish the story in an anthology (likely a “best of” volume). They offer 50% of the original fee (twelve and a half cents a word) or a 50% split of fees they receive if a third party publishes the anthology.

I signed all of their contracts containing that clause. First, the pay rate is better than you’ll find for any reprint market (and better than most first rights sales). Second, they ask for non-exclusive rights, meaning that granting them these rights does not restrict me from reselling the story as a reprint to another market, once the original first rights revert to me.

And that is a great segue to next week’s post where we’ll start by talking about ensuring the reversion of your rights in a contract.

Next Week

Contracts are a big topic, so I’ll be continuing it next week in Part 18, covering points #2 – #4 in the above list, and then finishing it up the following week in Part 19.

Next Week: Sign Here: What to look (and look out) for in short fiction contracts (continued)

As always, please feel free to add comments and questions, and I’ll respond as best (and as soon as) I can.



I am thrilled to announce that I have now repackaged the 32 separate posts that make up this blog series into a book titled Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. The book is completely updated and reorganized, with new material not in this blog series, plus an introduction from multi-genre, multi-award winning writer and editor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Here’s an extract from Kris’s intro:

Douglas Smith is the best person to write this book. … He’s one of the few people who has probably published more short fiction than I have, and in more countries, and more high-paying markets. He loves the short story as much as I do, and he’s good at writing them.

He’s just as good at the business side of the profession. He knows more about marketing short stories to other countries than I do. He understands how to manage short fiction contracts very well. He’s up-to-date on 21st century publishing practices, and he has a toughness that the best business people need.

We short story writers have needed a book like this for decades. I’m glad Doug decided to write it. Read and reread this volume. Because you’ll learn something each time you do. And take Doug’s advice. It’s spectacular.

—Kristine Kathryn Rusch

More information on the book, including full buying links for all major retailer sites, is available on my website here.

As a special offer to Amazing Stories readers, I’m offering discounts in my bookstore. Get the ebook or print edition at a discount by using the coupon codes AS-SHORT-E or AS-SHORT-P respectively at my website bookstore. Enjoy!

Please take a moment to support Amazing Stories with a one-time or recurring donation via Patreon. We rely on donations to keep the site going, and we need your financial support to continue quality coverage of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres as well as supply free stories weekly for your reading pleasure.

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  1. Thanks again for a great post! It was really interesting to hear that you don’t sign permission for websites to keep your story in their free archives because no other magazine would buy a story that is already available for free. That had never occurred to me because a lot of online magazine request such permission in their contracts and I thought it was just standard. I was wondering though if you were willing to give more away more rights to certain markets (like Asimov’s or Analog for example) than other less recognized based on how big their name is. Also, if a market accepts your story and you don’t like the contract they offer you and they are not willing to budge will refusing to sign put you on some sort of black list?

    1. Thanks for the comment. About giving up additional rights for the top markets, for me the answer is yes. As an example, Asimov’s and F&SF (I believe) both will ask for world rights, meaning non-English rights as well as English. IIRC, both of these have agreements with various non-English magazines who will buy stories that have been published in these mags, and then translate and publish the stories in their own publications.

      Re your second question, if a market is offering an unreasonable contract that I don’t want to sign and they don’t want to change, I’m not interested in selling to that market, so I don’t care if they put me on their black list. But seriously, as I mentioned in one of the posts covering submitting to markets, these places get far too many subs to remember individual authors unless you do something really horrible. And disagreeing on contract terms doesn’t qualify.

      Best, Doug

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