Selling Rights for Articles and Short Stories
by Deb Brammer
When you begin writing for publication you may not care what rights you are selling to the manuscripts you submit. You just want to get published any way you can. But the rights you sell determine how widely your article or short story can be used and how much money you make from it.
I’ll start by defining the various rights you can sell. These rights extend to many kinds of material such as articles, short stories, fillers, devotionals, poetry, etc.
First rights are the same as First Serial Rights or First North American Serial Rights. If a publisher buys first rights, it has bought the right to publish your material for the first time only.
This means the publisher can reprint your work.
This is also known as exclusive rights and means the publisher can publish your material any time it wants in whatever form it wants. You have to sign permission before a publisher can buy all rights. Sometimes when you sign your check you are giving permission for the publisher to purchase all rights.
First and Reprint Rights
This means the publisher has the right to be the first one to publish your material and that he can reprint it anytime after that.
Let’s say I send an article to Publisher A who buys first rights for it. I can’t sell the article again until that publisher has printed it. After Publisher A has published it, however, I can sell the reprint rights to anyone else.
For example, I sold a short story to a teen magazine in 1989. They bought first rights and paid me well for it. Later I sold the same story to a different publisher who asked me to shorten it. That publisher bought reprint rights, used it three times, and paid me each time.
If a publisher buys all rights to my article I can never sell it again or use it myself without permission. This is why many writers never want to sell all rights. But I have sold all rights to many articles and have been glad I did. Actually, it seems to me that publishers who used to buy all rights are moving away from that now and purchasing first rights instead.
In my early days of writing, Regular Baptist Press bought all rights to their articles. I sold them many articles that I could never sell again to anyone else. During that time I gained a feel for the kind of article they needed. I fit their doctrinal position and had a good relationship with my editor. Soon they accepted most of the articles I submitted. When they reprinted my articles they often paid me again, though a lesser amount, for the reprint. They weren’t obligated to do this, but they did. On occasion I asked permission to have my article reprinted in another publication for a special purpose and they graciously allowed me to do this.
Other times I submitted similar articles to other publications who purchased first or reprint rights. My fit with these publications was not as good and I had much less chance of acceptance. Though it was a way to broaden my publishing experience, it worked well for me to send most of my material to the one publisher most interested in it even though that meant selling all rights.
First rights does allow you to sell reprint rights after that, but many publishers only buy first rights. You can only sell first rights one time. Once you have sold first rights to a publisher, first rights to the same piece is no better than all rights.
So if you have a really good chance to sell an article to a publisher who buys all rights, that may be better than trying to sell reprint rights to many publishers who are less interested.
Today many publishers buy first and reprint rights. They may use your article many times and pay you every time they do it. You can also sell reprint rights to your article to other publishers after the article has been published the first time with the one who owns first rights.
How do I know what rights I am selling?
When you submit a manuscript you can show what rights you are offering by typing it in the heading on the right hand side. On the left side, single spaced, at the top you will have your name and address. On the right side, at the top you can put your word count and target audience. Many writers also put the rights they are offering there. If you leave this blank and don’t mention rights, they will likely assume you will consider selling any of the rights.
In your cover letter you can explain what rights you are offering. For example, you could say, “I can only offer you reprint rights because I have sold first rights to ABC Publications.”
Many publishers have a standard policy about what rights they buy. You may find this stated on their website. If you offer them reprint rights and they only buy first rights, they will reject your manuscript. They may not even read it because it will only waste their time.
When you receive a check for your article, it should state clearly what rights the publisher has purchased. Make note of that. It will tell you if you can sell the article to someone else.
Things to think about:
You can sell reprint rights for the same article to several different publishers, but you should avoid selling the same article to two publishers who have largely the same readership. You may submit it to both publishers, but do so one at a time.
Only submit to publishers you know something about. Make sure your article is the kind the publisher wants before submitting it. Otherwise you waste an editor’s time because you have not done your homework. Editors don’t like having their time wasted, and for good reason.
Some conservative writers are glad to sell their articles to denominations or groups that are very different from their own position. They may find, however, that the publishers who are closest to their position then lose interest in them. An editor may be afraid that once a writers’ name is associated with publishers of a very different position, readers of their own position may not accept their articles well.
In the beginning you probably don’t want to be picky about what rights you sell. Gaining publishing credits can be helpful, even if it means writing for markets that don’t pay. But as you earn your credentials, if you do it right you can multiply your time and profit by submitting material wisely, so that each one has the potential of selling more than once.