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.


60 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?

    • 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.


  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?

        • Anthony says:

          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.

  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?

  14. Collin says:

    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.

    • Neil Clarke says:

      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 says:

        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?

        • Neil Clarke says:

          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.

  15. Collin says:

    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!

    • Neil Clarke says:

      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.

  16. Demetrius says:

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

    • Neil Clarke says:

      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.

  17. George Matiasz says:

    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.

    • Neil Clarke says:

      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.”

  18. N says:

    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!

  19. VHT says:

    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?

    • Neil Clarke says:

      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.

  20. Terence Vickers says:

    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.

  21. Paul Clayton says:

    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?

    • Neil Clarke says:

      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.

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