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–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
First rights, once used, are gone forever. There is no undo.
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.