First Rights

Earlier today, I engaged in a Twitter conversation about first rights for short stories/novelettes/novellas. Over the course of the conversation, it became clear that it would be nice to have a single page I could link to from the submissions guidelines of the various projects I’m involved in.

There was some debate on this topic, so I will start by saying that I am not the final authority on this issue for anything but the magazines and anthologies I’m editing. This includes The Best Science Fiction of the Year, in which case my definition will overrule that of the editor of the publications I select stories from.


In over-simplified terms this means the person/publisher that gets to publish the story first. If there are restrictions (First English Language, First Electronic, etc) then it is the first to publish to that particular subset. NOTE: Obviously unrestricted first rights are no longer available the moment a subset of those rights are sold.

These days, there are many ways to publish a story. It’s not always as clear-cut as appearing in a book or magazine. You have to think of publishing as distribution. There are some obvious situations that make it clear that the story has been published:

  • appearance in a book or magazine (print, audio, or digital formats)
  • money has changed hands (barter too) in exchange for a copy of the work
  • anyone using Google or another internet search tool can find the text of the story

Here are a few examples of situations where a story has been published:

  • it appears in a book, magazine, pamphlet, postcard, etc. (self-publishing and school journals included) that is freely available or sold
  • it appears on your website for visitors to read (no matter what size your audience is)
  • it appears on a publicly available website (like Wattpad or a forum, even one with membership restrictions)
  • it is distributed as a Patreon or Kickstarter reward (money has changed hands, no different than selling an ebook)

Here are a few example of situations that don’t count as publication:

  • story is read aloud at a convention (unless that is recorded and distributed)
  • story appears on private site that exists for the purpose of providing feedback on a story (only editors and writers participating, covers various private critique groups)
  • story is shared in a classroom or given to teacher as part of a class
  • story is entered into a contest (wins or loses) but is not shared to anyone outside the judges (this is just like a slush pile, a business process)
  • story is purchased by a magazine, but the magazine folds before the story is distributed to readers (in this situation the rights should revert to the author and they can sell them to someone else or use them on their own)
  • a copy of the story is placed on your mom’s refrigerator


Stories that have already been published can be sold or published again as reprints. (The original publisher may have a fixed period of exclusivity on the story that prevent you from selling reprint rights before a certain date. Some even limit where it can be reprinted. Pay attention to your contracts.)

Publishers looking for first rights or original stories are, by definition, excluding reprints.

When a story is reprinted, the first publication is usually credited (Originally appeared in XXX, edited by YYY, YEAR) so make sure you include that information with any submissions that are open to reprints.

Please ask questions in the comments. I will update the document as additional examples are brought to my attention.


12 thoughts on “First Rights

  1. Ranylt says:

    Under “Don’t Count,” I would certainly, as a publisher, never count stories that circulated in print or over email between members of a critique group (not just private blogs). Heck, I like to assume most stories we buy HAVE gone through some kind of critique process!

  2. Sandra M. Odell says:

    What are your thoughts on audio markets when it comes to publishing? Is a story considered “published” if it appears in an audio only market? Could it be sent to a market that only accepted “unpublished” works?

    • Neil Clarke says:

      They’ve used their first audio rights. For Clarkesworld, I want those, so it would be a problem.

      For my YB anthology, I would consider the story published in the year the audio was published, even if they text hadn’t been published.

  3. Patrick says:

    Hey Neil,

    Valuable perspective here, thanks for laying this subject out like this.

    One additional distinction I’d like you to clarify: would websites like Critique Circle or Scribophile fall under ‘private site[s] that exists for the purpose of providing feedback on a story’ or ‘publicly available website[s] (… even one with membership restrictions)’, in your opinion?

    I would GUESS they fall-in with the former, but it’s not as clearly private as the above mentioned email groups, or say, a website that only gave out its password to the dozen or so members of its critique group.

    Work on sites like Scribophile or Critique Circle doesn’t seem to get picked up by Google search crawlers, and neither are the sort of public site that say, FictionPress obviously is, but also any one can sign up, log in, and, theoretically, view any non-hidden materials posted there (and to others in this vein), even if searching out a specific story may be difficult.

    They seem to straddle a sort of public/private line. As someone who’s considered posting prospective short stories to these sites for feedback, what’s your personal ruling as an editor? Thanks!

    • Neil Clarke says:

      I’m not familiar with either of those sites, but I think a good rule of thumb is that if all it takes is filling out a form or paying some money, then you are at risk of losing your first rights. They are essentially public but not indexed.

    • Charlie says:

      I am not familiar with Scribophile but I know CC and Critique Circle has the option to create private critique groups open to a limited number of members and inaccessible to members outside of invitation, so that should fall under ‘don’t count’. However, if you submitted an early draft of a story to the public queues and then significantly changed the text, it wouldn’t be the same piece, technically. Of course, you wouldn’t be able to then put up the final version for critique in those public queues…

  4. Patrick Rochefort says:

    Neil, can you explain why publishing houses are still focused on First Rights, in an era where the collaboration tools of the internet are so important and pervasive?

    • Rachel Swirsky says:

      Stories printed as originals instead of reprints get a lot more traffic, according to editors of online publications that I know.

      • Neil Clarke says:

        Yes, Rachel is correct. Originals attract a lot more eyeballs. That means it has significantly more value to a publisher.

        I’m curious why you would think collaboration tools would count as publication. (I’m thinking of co-writing stories in Google Docs for example.) Are you thinking of something that is open to the public?

  5. Neil Clarke says:

    Based on a conversation I had today, I’ve added a couple of things that are definitely not published.

    1. Contests where a story is read by judges but never distributed to the public. This is a lot like the slush process magazines and anthologies go through. In the end, they might even pay you, but if they aren’t publishing it (on their website, newsletter, anthology, etc.) it’s a lot like:

    2. A magazine or anthology buys your story. They fold before publishing the issue that would have contained your story. Rights revert to you. Story is not published, so you still have first rights.

    (back to 1) because the story has never been distributed and the rights are still in your hands.

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