Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction (Part 18 in series)

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

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 part 17, I kicked off a new mini-series on what happens when you finally sell a story, by talking about contracts. This week, I’ll continue that topic, finishing it up next week in part 19.

The Key Things to Look for in Short Fiction Contracts (continued)

Last week, I provided a list of the eight 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?

Last week, we revisited the importance of understanding the licensing of rights for your fiction, and then discussed #1. Now, let’s go through #2-4. I’ll finish up the list with #5-8 next week in Part 19.

2. When do these rights revert back to me after publication?

Next, you need to check when the rights that you’re licensing revert to you. That is, when can you license those rights again to another publisher or exercise those rights yourself in any other way such as self-publishing.

For a magazine contract, rights typically revert to you after a specified period following the publication of the issue containing your story, a period which usually matches or slightly overlaps when their next issue appears. This is only fair–they don’t want your story appearing in a competing market as a reprint until they’ve had a chance to sell their issue with the same story.

For anthologies, a one-year post-publication reversion clause is typical. Book publishing has higher costs and so requires a longer period to get their investment back, compared to magazines, which also have an existing subscriber base.

All you need to do here is to ensure that there is a clear reversion clause and that the reversion period is in line with the above guidance.

3. What legal liability am I being asked to accept?

Every contract will have a clause, intended to protect the publisher, that asks the author to warrant that they are the sole author of this story, that they haven’t plagiarized any of it, that it does not contravene any laws, etc., etc.. With this clause, the publisher is asking you to declare that nothing about this story is going to prompt a lawsuit against them.

That’s fair. But you need to ensure that any such clause also includes the underlined part in the following example (which is an amalgam of multiple contracts I’ve signed):

“You, the Author, warrants that the Work is original; that you are its sole creator and owner; that you have full power to make this agreement; that neither the Work nor any part of it is in the public domain; that neither the Work nor any part of it infringes on another’s copyright; and that the Work does not invade anyone’s right of privacy nor is contrary to law. You agree to indemnify and hold harmless the Publisher from any and all costs and expenses (including reasonable legal fees) arising from any claims, suits, judgements or settlements resulting from a breach of the above warranties that are sustained in a court of law.”

The underlined part protects you from being hit with covering legal fees and expenses required to defend nuisance suits brought against the publisher and you by your bitter ex-spouse or some random nut job who is convinced you stole their story idea of possum shape-shifters. Without the underlined wording, even if those suits are thrown out of court, you’ll still be on the hook for covering costs up to that point and likely would remain out-of-pocket for some of the costs. With the underlined part, you’ll be liable for claims that are upheld against you in court–that is, you’ll only pay for situations where you are proven to be in the wrong.

4. What happens in the event that the story is never published?

This is another form of the issue of reversion of rights. If the contract’s reversion clause is based solely on the assumed publication date of the issue or anthology containing your story, then what happens if that market never publishes your story? What if they just decide to hold onto it for a while? And then a while longer? And longer?

If you signed a contract that didn’t deal with this situation, then you’re stuck. The publisher has the rights to the story, and there they will sit.

So you need to look for (or request) a clause that specifies a strict time limit on when rights will revert to you regardless of whether the story is published. I’d suggest something like one year after the date of the signing of the contract for a magazine, or two years after for an anthology.

You can pick any time period that you’re comfortable with, but be reasonable. For most magazines, a year is reasonable; less than a year not so much. Some magazines buy well in advance of expected publication. For my twenty-five cent a word market I mentioned above, I’d be fine with giving them two years, since they pay so well.

The other issue to deal with in this situation is payment. Most markets that include this type of reversion clause will also agree to pay the author even if they don’t publish their story. The logic here is that they’ve tied up the rights for that story for all that time, so the author deserves to be compensated for not being able to market the story elsewhere. If your contract does not deal with the issue of payment on delayed or non-publication, then you should add that as well.

Putting this all together, you should look for (or suggest) a clause something along the lines of the following: “If the Story remains unpublished one year after the date of signing of this agreement, then all rights granted under paragraph xx above shall revert to the Author, and the Author shall remain entitled to all payments under paragraph yy.”

Next Week

I’ll be wrapping up the contracts topic next week in Part 19, covering points #5 – #8 in the above list.

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

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!

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