Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction (Part 19 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, continuing that same topic in Part 18. This week I’ll finish up that topic.

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

In Part 17, 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?

Parts 17 and 18 covered points #1-4. Now, let’s finish up the list.

5. What happens if the market folds or is sold?

A contract should also deal with what happens to your rights should this market suddenly cease to exist. The easiest way is to include a clause that states something like “In the event that [magazine name] ceases to publish (or the publication of [anthology name] is cancelled), then all rights granted under paragraph xx above shall immediately revert to the Author.” You can also include the clause about still getting paid, but if they’re folding, good luck on collecting.

The contract should also deal with happens to your rights when the market or publisher that bought your story is purchased by another publisher. The safest option is to include a clause stating something along the lines of “No assignment of this contract by the Publisher shall be binding without the written consent of the Author.” That way, the original publisher cannot assign your contract (include your contract and the associated rights to your story in the assets they sell) to the new publisher. You get to decide if you still want to sell your story to the new kid on the block or just get the rights back. If the new publisher wants your story, they’ll need to offer a new contract.

6. What control will I have over changes to my story?

I’ll be covering the editing and copy-editing process in an upcoming post, but for now just know that it doesn’t hurt to include something along the lines of “Publisher will make no major alterations to the Work’s text or title without the Author’s written approval.” It’s reasonable if the publisher wants to include something like “The Publisher reserves the right to make minor copy-editing to the text of the Work to conform to our customary form and usage.” This latter relates to things like house style, US versus UK spelling, etc..

7. Will there be a published declaration of my copyright?

Look for a clause along the lines of “The Author’s copyright will prominently accompany the Work when published identifying the author as [Author’s pen name].” This is especially important if the name that you publish under differs from the name under which you will be signing the contract. I go by “Doug” in casual correspondence, but I always publish under “Douglas.” A small thing, but with my last name, I want to at least be consistent with the use of my first when my by-line appears.

8. What payment are they offering for these rights?

Yes, I list payment last. It’s the easiest thing to check for, and it’s the one thing in this list that doesn’t carry any on-going or after-the-fact downside potential for a writer.

Check the dollar amount shown against the word rate in their submission guidelines and the word count for your story (make sure you know which word count method the market is using. See Part 11 for an explanation of these methods).

Also check on the promised timing of that payment. When will they send you your money? Most markets pay on publication, meaning at some point after the magazine issue or anthology is physically published and available for purchase. The “at some point” can vary by market, but a couple of months after publication is not unusual. Keeping track of who still owes you money is another part of a writer’s life. Get used to it.

A few markets will pay on acceptance, which generally means when you’ve signed the contract, but can also mean when you and the editor have agreed on any changes requested to the story.

Finally, if this is a sale to a print market, check to see the number of contributor copies (copies of the issue or anthology containing your story) that you’ll receive. You will generally always receive at least one copy, sometimes two. If they only offer one, I ask for two–one for my brag shelf and one for my files. They can only say no.

Is That All There Is?

Have I covered every clause that you could possibly find in a short fiction contract? No, but I’ve covered the most critical ones (in my view) that you should always check for.

One other point: please don’t ask me to review any contract you’ve been given or to answer any questions on a contract you have in front of you. I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. It’s not my job to figure out your contracts. It’s yours.

And that’s a perfect setup for me to close with yet another reminder on anything that you are asked to sign as a writer…

Your career. Your decision. Try to make it an informed one.

Next Week

Next week, we move to the next stage, after you’ve negotiated and signed a good contract, when you’ll be working with an editor on getting your story ready to be published.

Next Week: I Love Your Story. Now Change It: Working with an editor

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.


    1. Once they accept your story, they will send you the contract. Most contracts will align with whatever they lay out in their guidelines, and you shouldn’t expect to change most of that (such as pay rate, for e.g.). And if their guidelines state that they’ll be expecting an unreasonable package of rights, then you probably shouldn’t submit there to start with. But many aspects in a contract are not covered or related to submission requirements, such points #2-#7 on my list).

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