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.

FIRST RIGHTS

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

REPRINTS

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.

 

36 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…

    • 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?

  4. 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.

    • mike says:

      How can the rights revert back to you? If the story is accepted, and when you take first rights then how can it revert back to you? I’m just very confused at the moment.

      • Neil Clarke says:

        First rights can only revert back to you if the rights are purchased/contracted but never used. For example, you sell a story to Amazing Space Platypus Magazine. Before they can publish your story, ASPM goes out of business. Assuming they were reasonable (which I can since I made them up), terms of their contract specified that if that should happen, all rights revert to you.

        Money changed hands, contracts we’re signed, but the story was never distributed to readers. First rights remain intact.

        • mike says:

          I asked because I had it on wattpad at one point but I ended up deleting it as it was unedited…is there a chance I can still submit my MS to you if at one point that it was on wattpad at one point?

  5. Elima says:

    Quick question…does this also include stories that were self-published to extremely limited distribution, and no longer available for purchase?

    Thank you.

  6. Richard says:

    Hi Neil, What about the situation where an early version of a story is available on a website. If it is subsequently heavily edited and expanded (and the title changed), would this exclude it from first right?
    Thanks,
    Richard

    • Neil Clarke says:

      Hi Richard,

      “Heavily edited” means a lot of things to different people. I would expect the arc of the story to be substantially different and any conflict to have been altered so as not to be predictable from my experience of reading the original. Every editor will look at this differently, so it would be best to be up front about its history when submitting the story. If someone wants to publish it, they might ask to see the original just to be sure it passes their own sniff test before issuing a contract.

      -Neil

  7. Walt Pilcher says:

    Thanks for this article, but I would still appreciate some specific clarification. My collection of short stories and poems was published last year by a trade publisher (not self-published or vanity press, if that matters). By contract with that publisher, after six months I’m allowed to submit material from that book to other publishers, such as Clarkesworld. Does Clarkesworld accept submissions of such previously-published work? It sounds like the answer is No, but, again, I want to be sure.

    • Neil Clarke says:

      Since the stories were previously published, that means that first rights have been used and are no longer available. Clarkesworld requires first rights, so no, we would not consider any of those stories.

  8. Kevin says:

    Neil, many thanks for this helpful description. Would you consider a story that has been excerpted to be available for first rights sale, or does its partial publication (on a blog, for example) use up first publishing rights?

  9. Katie says:

    Hi, I do most of my writing on Wattpad and have several stories I’m working on there that I would like to eventually publish. If we take them down so they no longer appear on Wattpad, can we submit to you? I do know Wattpad does not receive first rights for anything we post there.

    • Neil Clarke says:

      Sorry, once they are posted , first rights are gone and you can’t get them back by deleting that copy. Whether or not Wattpad claims first rights, doesn’t matter. You’ve used them by placing the story there.

  10. Alexander Sison says:

    Hi Neil. I suppose my question has been partially answered already but I’d just like to confirm so I never have to ask again. I presume first rights also take into account independently published works as well, do they not? So if I wrote a story and sold it on my own to a few dozen people, then that would no longer be eligible for Clarkesworld, correct?

    • Alexander Sison says:

      Okay, never mind. Just saw that part where the article mentioned it. Okay, um different question. What if the story has appeared as part of a collection of works for a graduate thesis? Does that count as disqualification for First Print Rights?

  11. Alexander Sison says:

    Also, what if, say a 3-page excerpt for a 50 page work was put up on a site that asks for funding to have the work published, like say, Kickstarter? But then for some reason, it never pushed through, and only the three page excerpt was ever glimpsed?

  12. Lef says:

    These clarifications are really useful, but I ‘m still in doubt as to my case. Do “Language: English” and “Translations are welcome” stack? That is, do you consider a story that has been made available in a language other than English as unpublished?

    • Neil Clarke says:

      We’re technically looking for First English Language rights, so yes, a story written and published in another language will still have its First English rights until it has been translated and published in English. I’ve published a lot of stories like this.

  13. mike says:

    I have my work on google docs it hasn’t been seen on any site like wattpad but will I be allowed to submit it to you?

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