Neil Clarke

The Award-Winning Editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, Forever Magazine, The Best Science Fiction of the Year, and More

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–be wary of groups that allow anyone to join and read your story)
  • 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.

 

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96 Comments

  1. 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

    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?

    • 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.

      • C.A.Tedeschi

        How does Clarkesworld reward the author for the use of 1st audio rights?
        It seems like it should not fall under the umbrella of 10 cents a word; or does it?

  3. Patrick

    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!

    • 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

      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. 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

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

      • 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. 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

      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.

      • 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

          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?

        • Kevin

          I know this is old, but I’m wondering if you have the submission address for Amazing Space Platypus Magazine. 🙂

          • 🙂 Sadly, they only exist in an alternate universe. They are doing quite well there though.

  6. Elima

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

    Thank you.

    • That story was published and first rights are no longer available. Removing the ability to purchase the story does not restore first rights.

  7. 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

    • 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

  8. Walt Pilcher

    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.

    • 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.

      • Walt Pilcher

        Thanks for your answer. (Sorry, forgot to say thank you sooner.)

  9. Kevin

    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?

  10. Katie

    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.

    • 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.

  11. Alexander Sison

    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

      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?

      • That all depends on how available it is to the general public.

        • Anthony

          Hi Neil. Just looking for a cautious clarification on this point, please: is a story that’s part of a thesis made only accessible to the staff and students of the university where it has been deposited (which is a minimum requirement for thesis deposit), and not the wider public, considered as first print? I expect not, but thought it’s worth asking the question. Many thanks.

  12. Alexander Sison

    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?

  13. Lef

    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?

    • 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.

  14. mike

    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?

    • Using Google docs by itself is not a problem, however, the bigger question is whether or not it has been shared and for what purpose.

      • I’ve written my story on Google Docs and made a publicly available link that I share freely with people (via twitter, mailing list, facebook, etc.) eliciting feedback. The story is still a work in progress (maybe 75% written and completely unedited). Would you consider this problematic?

        • If you are allowing everyone/anyone to read it, then you are at-risk. I would advise pulling the public share down and restricting it to a small group of trusted first readers to prevent future rights difficulties.

  15. Collin

    Hi Neil, after reading this article about first rights I still have a few questions. First, when Clarkesworldmagazine purchases these rights – first print, electronic text/ audio, and non-exclusive anthology rights what exactly does that entail. Does Clarkesworldmagazine then own my story forever and all time or is it for a time limit, say two months?
    Next, if I take my short story and grow it into a novel, and list it as having been published at Clarkesworldmagazine originally, and have waited until the first rights time limit has expired, would that be possible?
    Thank you again for taking the time to look through this, I sincerely appreciate it.

    • First rights means I get to publish it first, so that’s gone after the first use. It’s just one of many rights people need to be familiar with, but the one that tends to cause the most confusion. All the other things you are asking about would be covered by different clauses in the contract. For example, we have EXCLUSIVE rights (meaning you can’t make it available anywhere else) for six months and NON-EXCLUSIVE rights (meaning you can resell the story as a reprint, include in a collection or novel, but we can still have it on our site) after the exclusive period is over. There’s another clause providing the option to remove a story from the archives after another period of time, and another that restricts usage of the story to a specific issue and the annual anthology. I cannot, for example, create a Best of Clarkesworld without acquiring reprint rights from the author at a later date. We never OWN your story.

      • Varun Vithaldas Prabhu

        Hello, Neil, my question is quite similar. Can I set a short story in a fantasy/sci-fi verse I am building?

        For example, say, I have a short story set in a world and I intend to publish a novel in this world independently soon. Say, the story of that world is quite different but does reference to the short story I send for publishing on Clarkesworld or use its characters?

        • The characters and world in your stories are yours to do with as you please. We’ve published several stories that have later been expanded into novels by their authors.

          • Anthony Nicholas

            So would it be OK to send you an unpublished, stand-alone story that may later be used as a chapter in a future novel?

          • Yes. We have published several stories that have gone on to become novels.

  16. Collin

    Thanks Neil! Just one more quick question. Would it be possible for you to email me the contract you spoke of earlier? It would really mean a lot to me and I’d truly appreciate it.
    Thank you again for your help earlier!

  17. Sam

    If I allow you to publish my story and then want to sell it later, what are the rules on that?

    • Most publications will insist on an exclusivity period that will prevent you from reprinting the story for a fixed period of time. (Clarkesworld is currently six months.) After that, they may or may not have non-exclusive rights (we do), meaning you can sell the story elsewhere as a reprint but they still have a copy too. After the first publication, other future publications will always be reprints. First rights are burned.

      All of this should be spelled out in the contract you receive with an acceptance letter. Probably should write something up on common contract clauses at some point.

      • Sam

        Thanks Neil,
        I’m in the process of finishing a piece that I was considering submitting to you in the next month or so.
        Sam

      • ShadowCub

        Yes, PLEASE! (re: Contract Clauses)

  18. Demetrius

    And what about if the story is already published in a book or magazine of a foreign language (I e. Greek)?

    • Assuming the story hasn’t been previously translated and published in English, you should be fine. All the major English language SF awards also consider translations to be like any other story published in English for the first time that year.

  19. George Matiasz

    What about a story that is available as a downloadable ebook or pdf from a document sharing site, blog, or facebook group? The text is not google-able, but the ebook/pdf document is.

    • I would say published and likely covered by “it appears in a book, magazine, pamphlet, postcard, etc. (self-publishing and school journals included) that is freely available or sold.”

  20. N

    I’m so glad I stumbled upon this. I found the article informative and the questions and comments hilarious. Had it been me, I might’ve grown exasperated at having to clarify clarifications, (Sorry/Not Sorry… I chuckeld at some of the questions) but you maintained professional decorum. Great article and great job! L’chaim!

  21. VHT

    Hi Neil,

    I just wanted to clarify something that I’m unsure about.

    I understand that First Rights means you have the right to publish first. But does that mean, for example, that if I wanted to publish on my own site after you’ve published, I would be able to?

    • What you are asking about is actually covered under exclusive rights. In our case, we have six months of exclusive rights and non-exclusive after. Some publishers have shorter. Some have longer. Anyhow, during the exclusivity period, the publisher gets to be the only one making it available in the formats their contract specifies. After that, you can publish it yourself or sell it to a reprint market.

      There’s one important exception to exclusivity that should be in a contract and that’s an exception for best of the year anthology reprints. Most already make this exception, but there are some that add strings. The more conditions/restrictions, the better you should be paid.

  22. Terence Vickers

    Seems to me that the definition of the word “publish” goes a long way towards answering most of the questions here. To make available to the public. If it is made available to the public it can be considered published. This includes putting a letter or notice up on a bulletin board where passers by can view it.

    • Typically, yes, but there are some cases where private distribution crosses the line too. Given as a Patreon or Kickstarter reward, for example.

  23. Paul Clayton

    Is there a timeline on reprint rights? If I published in a sci-fi mag like Clarkesworld, how soon afterwards would I be able to reprint that story in, say, a ‘self-published’ collection of my short stories?

    • You are asking about the limits on “exclusive rights.” Those aren’t necessarily restricted to first rights, but very common when they are in the mix. Clarkesworld is exclusive for six months, some publishers have longer exclusivity periods, a few less. It’s common to have an exception to that exclusivity clause for “year’s best” anthologies and sometimes even a single author collection. After the exclusive period is over, you are free to reprint/resell anywhere you want.

  24. Mr. Green

    Hello, if I have posted portions of a short story on facebook does this disqualify me from submitting said short story under the “first rights” clause?

    • It could. It all depends on what percentage of the story that portion represents and how much of the plot is spoiled by it. In this situation. different editors will see different amounts as acceptable. Best to be up-front about it and ask the editor before submitting the story for their consideration.

  25. Sonora

    Hello,
    If a story was published in a high school literary magazine years ago, does it lose First Rights?

    Thanks!

  26. David Smith

    Hi Neil,

    Would a story that is mainly horror but contains ample elements of science fiction count as “dark sf?”

    • David Smith

      Sorry this isn’t about “First Rights.”

      I’m curious though.

  27. Jesse

    Neil,

    Thanks for this forum to answer questions. What does the statement below mean? It’s in my agreement.

    We purchase first rights to the use of original, unpublished material in The Secret Place and unlimited rights for use in related electronic material.

    • I would advise against signing a contract that asks for rights in such vague terms. “Unlimited” and “related” could cover a wide variety of things, many of which aren’t good. It doesn’t mean the publisher is evil, but that language would certainly allow them to be. Ask them to be more specific and if they won’t do it, walk away.

  28. R . D . MILLER

    I posted my story in a Reddit forum for critique almost a year ago. The post was delete just as long ago and i have reworked the story since. Does this make the story ineligible to be considered for first rights?

    • Posting a story to a public site like Reddit would cost you your first rights. The story would have to have been substantially revised to be considered a new original work. Substantially will vary from editor-to-editor, but I’d expect the plot to be different enough that reading the previous version wouldn’t ruin it for me.

  29. Dear sir,
    I am a Chilean SF writer (well, at least I am trying to). I would like to submit a story to Clarkesworld, that I have translated. But the story, in original Spanish, has been published in several websites, and one anthology, and also it has been translated and published in a French anthology. In the event that you would like the story, never before published in English, is it first right or not? Even more important, would you be interested in such a story, if it has some merit?
    Thank you.

    • Apologies for the delay in responding. The comment notification went to spam and I missed it last time I checked this post. I don’t know anyone who is looking for first rights across all languages. When I say first rights for my projects, I’m actually looking for first English language rights, meaning that an English language translation is acceptable assuming the story hasn’t been translated into English and published previously. (I know we’ve sort of settled this privately, but it’s a good one to have stated publicly.)

  30. Nicoletta Vallorani

    Neil, I’m sorry, I’m a bit confused. I’m in the process of translating in English a story of mine that has already been published by an Italian journal (Robot, by Silvio Sosio). Are you going to accept the translated version in this case?

    • No matter what, if the story has never been translated and published in English before, then you still have English first rights. That’s all I need.

      I will add one thing you have to watch out for in this situation. If the story has been originally published in another language, make sure the contract for that story does not include foreign or English language rights. If it does, they may have a claim on the English language version. Even though English language first rights are still available, they may not be yours to sell. Sadly, I have seen this happen.

  31. JC

    Hello Neil,
    Suppose a story I submit is published in Clarkesworld. How long after publication can I publish the story elsewhere?

    • You may sell the story as a reprint (first rights having been used by us) six months after publication. An exception is made for Year’s Best reprints.

  32. J Burns

    Hi, How is “exclusivity period” measured? Is it from the public release date of the first publication to the public release date of the reprint? Thus negotiations for reprints can begin during the exclusivity period, before the reprint is officially published? Thank you.

    • The exclusivity period starts on the date of publication and the contract should be clear about that. You can certainly talk to other publishers about reprinting the story at any time, but it cannot be reprinted until AFTER the exclusivity period has ended. The publisher can grant you an exception, but they’ll be very selective about what they’ll allow it for. The most common exception is for publication in “year’s best” type anthologies. I tend to encourage authors to make sure this specific exception is spelled out clearly in any contracts they sign.

  33. If an author has a story published in your magazine/website who owns the copyright? Does copyright remain with the author?

    • We never make a claim on the author’s copyright. Be wary of anyone who tries.

      • Can I suggest clearly stating such on your “Submission Guidelines” page as after reading that I was unsure and hence the reason why I asked a question here.

        • It’s uncommon for a market to list the rights they are not acquiring.

          This one in particular is so rare, that I don’t know of any English-language markets that actively acquire copyright. Any magazine attempting to do so would soon find itself on the wrong side of a very angry internet mob. SFWA would likely have a few words for them as well. No doubt, the warning flares would be visible from space.

  34. mike

    if your story is an ongoing one like a short story series under the max word count, will it be possible if its only on your magazine? my story is an ongoing one its offline and no ones read it.

    • I’m not sure I follow. I’m going to make a guess, so please let me know if you meant something else.

      If your story is part of a series and one of the stories is considered published for any of the reasons previously mention, it does not automatically take away the first rights of the others. That said, many editors prefer stories in a series to be able to stand on their own–meaning someone can read story 5 and understand what is going on without needing to read stories 1-4. It should also have an ending that doesn’t require the reader to track down story 6. This isn’t an absolute. If you do find someone who wants to publish the entire series, they might be willing to consider publishing the previously published installment as a reprint.

      In 13 years, we’ve never published a true series, but we have published a number of stories that were set in the same universe as some of the author’s previous work–even some featuring the same characters. In a few cases, the previous stories weren’t in our magazine. They stood on their own though and that made it work for us.

      • mike

        its like resident evil but for young adult and older. but yes its a stand alone each book.

  35. Aleksandar Žiljak

    I am a writer from Croatia and I write in Croatian. Suppose my story is already published in Croatia in the Croatian language. What happens if I translate that story into English and submit it to you? Did I lose the first rights that way? Or do you mean the first rights only for English? I am an author already published in English, but mostly in various non-exclusive venues.

    • You no longer have first Croatian rights, but you do have first English language rights for the translated version.

      Most US magazines and anthologies asking for first rights would consider it eligible for submission. I know that all the major English language awards consider translated works original to the year they were published in English. It’s also becoming more common to see this spelled out in submission guidelines. When in doubt, you can query the editor or simply include the information in your cover letter.

      • Aleksandar Žiljak

        Thank you. This clears things, and later I saw the same answer to a query from Greece.

  36. Darion

    What’s the process if the following scenario happens (hypothetically):
    You purchase a short story that I wrote and a movie studio shows interest in it.
    Who gets to decide what happens? And in terms of payment from them, how does it work?

    • This has happened with a few stories we’ve published and it has been a pretty consistent process. We don’t acquire any film/tv rights, so they are all yours. In fact, no magazine/anthology should be doing this. All discussions with them will be directly with you (and hopefully your agent, which you should have in this situation). (Sometimes they may contact me for your email address, but that’s just a technicality.) They will want to know the publication history of the work. They send everyone (even reprints) on that list a form to confirm that they don’t have any claim on the rights they seek from you. I sign that form and send it back. After that, I’m out of the picture. That is unless you count me cheering when it finally gets made into a show/movie. They pay you (or your agent) directly. I earn $0.

  37. Camden Hine

    If I want to publish an English translation of a story that has been published in a different language, is that alright? Or is it only possible to submit stories that have not been published in any language?

    • If the story has not been published in English, then you still have First English Language Rights.

      (NOTE: If the contract with your original publisher included foreign rights, which I have seen happen, you need to get those rights reverted to be able to sell the story in the markets they’ve tied up. Even if they haven’t used them, they could still have a legal claim. You should have that in writing for your own protection.)

      The majority of markets–Clarkesworld included–aren’t concerned with whether or not it was published in other language first. I have published many translated works and the overwhelming majority of them were published in another language first.

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