Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction (Part 5)

Why You Never “Sell” a Story: Understanding rights and licensing (conclusion)

Welcome back. This is the fifth in my weekly series of posts on how to market and sell short fiction. You can check out my earlier posts here.

Last week, I began an overview of one of the most important topics in this series: understanding the licensing of rights. I explained that you never actually “sell” your stories, but rather license specific sets of rights to a publisher. Then I outlined four of the five dimensions that rights can have: media rights (the form in which the story appears), language rights, occurrence rights (whether it’s the first or a subsequent appearance of the story), and geographic-based rights.

This week, I’ll cover the remaining dimension of rights: time, including the all-important issue of ensuring that your rights will revert to you. I’ll wrap this topic up by running through some examples of the typical requests for rights that you’ll encounter if you sell to the most common short fiction markets, and finally, end with a simple rule for you to apply to any rights situation.

The Time Dimension: Reversion of Rights

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is (or should be) an explicit time period to the rights that you license. After this period has passed, the rights that you licensed to the short fiction market that published your story revert to you–unless, of course, you were dumb enough to sign away all of your rights and dumb enough not to include a rights reversion clause in your contract. I’ll deal with this in more detail in the contracts post later in this series, but just let me say now that if your contract doesn’t explicitly state when the rights revert to you, you need to add that clause.

Typically, for a magazine (serial rights) sale contract, rights will revert to you based on the magazine’s publication schedule, and will usually be tied to when the subsequent issue (the one after the issue in which your story appeared) is published. For example, a magazine that publishes four times per year or every three months might not revert rights to you until four to six months after they’ve published the issue with your story. This is only fair–they don’t want you selling your story as a reprint (second rights) and have it appear in a competing market until they’ve had a chance to sell their issue containing your little tale.

For anthologies, it’s typical to have a one-year post-publication reversion clause. Again, this longer period is only fair, as book marketing and distribution has a longer ramp-up period and requires a longer period to get their investment back, compared to magazines, which have an existing subscriber base.

Some Examples

Okay, let’s look at a few possible examples of what rights you would reasonably expect to be asked to license for some common types of short fiction sales (all of these are “first rights” sales or non-reprints):

  • A print magazine in the US that does not take reprints and has no eBook edition and no distribution outside of North America will require First North American Serial Rights in English;
  • The same magazine but with additional distribution in the UK will require First World Serial Rights in English (yes, they might ask for just UK and NA rights, but not likely–if they’re selling outside of the US, they’re probably selling outside to other English markets, too, or plan to);
  • If the same magazine starts to offer an eBook version of each issue, they will then also require First Electronic Serial Rights (you can and should specifically exclude audio rights from the definition of “electronic”);
  • An anthology that plans to publish both print and eBook editions in English will require First World Anthology Rights in English and First Electronic Rights in English. If they plan to sell foreign rights to the anthology, they will ask for First World Anthology and First Electronic Rights (no language specified).
  • A web-only magazine will require First Electronic Rights (world rights are implied) in English. Note that if they don’t take reprints, they will expect that you have not previously sold first print rights either.
  • A pod-cast or audio magazine will require First Audio Rights in English. Note that most (but not all) audio magazines and anthologies will not care if the story has appeared before in text format (print or electronic). In fact, many of the pro audio markets prefer stories that have already been published in text.


What is Fair?

Notice that in the above examples, I use the term “require,” meaning these are the minimum set of rights that the market will need from you to legally publish the particular magazine or anthology in the formats and geographies specified.

That doesn’t mean that they won’t ask for additional rights. It’s up to you not to sell them rights that they don’t need and that you could possibly sell separately to another market. An example that is becoming more common is for a market to request electronic and audio rights even if they only currently publish a print edition. These are “just in case” rights grabs, and you should request their removal from your contract.

Another rights request that you’ll find in short fiction magazine contracts is for anthology rights along with serial rights, to cover situations where the magazine publishes an annual or periodic “Best of [Magazine Name]” anthology containing stories selected from their prior issues. Sometimes there will be an additional fee offered for these rights, sometimes not. You’ll have to decide if you’re okay with that request. For me, if it’s a major market paying pro rates, I’m usually quite happy to leave that clause in and have a chance to get the visibility of appearing in the anthology. (Note that these additional anthology rights will typically be identified as “non-exclusive” since they are second (reprint) rights, meaning you can license those rights again. Yes, that’s right–you can sell reprints of a story as many times as you’re able to find markets willing to buy them.)

A Simple Rule

For the beginner, the issue of rights can be confusing, especially when a market is asking for more rights than you expected to have to give up. You’ll learn with experience, but a good test to apply is whether you feel that a rights request is fair, from two perspectives.

First, is it fair for this market to request these rights? Do they really need those rights to publish in their current form? If they currently only publish in English, for example, why are they asking for all language rights?

Second, is the price they’re offering fair for any requested additional rights? If they’re a magazine requesting anthology rights because they might publish an annual best-of anthology, are they offering additional fees at a professional rate for your story should that anthology be published?

That’s all I’m going to cover on rights. Remember my quote from Kristine Kathryn Rusch: “I’m not a lawyer nor do I play one of TV.” It’s your responsibility to understand the licensing of rights for fiction. And remember, what I’ve covered here, even if it took two posts, is a very high-level overview. Do your research and learn about rights, because in the end, it’s your story, your decision, and your career.

I’ll cover more of this when I post about short fiction contracts. For now, you should have sufficient knowledge to at least be able to read the submission guidelines for short fiction markets more critically, so that you’ll understand which rights the market will be expecting from you if they decide to publish your story.

Next Week

Next week, I’ll start a series of posts on the actual marketing of short fiction, taking you from knowing when you’re ready to send a story out to when you actually sell that story.

Next week: But How Do I Know It’s Ready?: Dealing with submission fear

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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  1. Can one sell the first electronic rights and then the first audio rights or are any rights after the first even in different form the second rights

    1. Nevermind. If you read my comment on 6 you know I got to 6 and started over taking notes and I answered my on question.

      1. No problem. But in case someone else has your question above, the answer is yes — you can slice your rights up as you wish and as you are able to sell them. So you could sell a story to an online or electronic magazine (first electronic rights) or you could sell those rights when you sell first print rights, and then as long as you retained audio rights, you could sell first audio rights to another market. I deal with selling audio rights separately in part 27.

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