Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction (Part 4)

Why You Never “Sell” a Story: Understanding rights and licensing

Welcome back. This is the fourth in my weekly series of posts on how to market and sell short fiction. You can check out my earlier posts here.

This week I’ll be dealing with one of the most important topics in the series: understanding the licensing of rights. This will not be an exhaustive discussion, but rather just the basics, just enough for you to understand how very important this topic is to you and your writing career. Even as an overview, this is a big topic, so I’m splitting it into two posts.

Before I start, I’ll steal a favourite quote from a writing mentor of mine, the multi-award winning, multi-genre writer, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who likes to preface any quasi-legal advice that she gives on her blog with “I am not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV.” You need to do your own research on this topic (and do it early in your career), and if in doubt, get advice from a pro writer or an intellectual property lawyer. Having said that, for short fiction contracts (which I’ll deal with in a future post), I’ve never needed to consult a lawyer (novel contracts, of course, are a different matter). To better understand rights and licensing, I’ll recommend that you purchase “The Copyright Handbook” (Nolo Press), which is updated every year (so don’t buy it used). It will take you a few passes to get through this but if you’re planning a writing career, it will be time well spent.

While I’m mentioning Kris Rusch, I’ll also strongly recommend that you follow her weekly blog, “The Business Rusch,” as well as Dean Wesley Smith’s two blog series, “Think Like a Publisher” and “Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing.”

Licensing and Copyright

So let’s start. First, you need to understand that you’ll never actually “sell” a story. This is not my prediction on your likelihood of success in a writing career. It means that when your first “sale” occurs, you will not actually be selling anything. Rather, you’ll be licensing a very particular set of rights related to that story to another party in the person of that publisher.

Some comments on copyright: when you write your story, its copyright is automatically protected. You don’t have to register your copyright (file with your particular government) to protect it (a recommended exception: if you’re sending anything to Hollywood, you should formally register copyright. You’re still protected if you don’t, but it will make proving your copyright easier in any subsequent lawsuit in the event of theft of copyright, something that is much more prevalent in Hollywood).

Note that the idea in your story is not protected by copyright. Copyright protects the manuscript: the form of the story–the sentence structure, how the words appear. In the US, copyright remains in place for seventy years after your death. If you want to protect it beyond that, check out some of Kris’s posts on estate planning for writers. There are exceptions to copyright law, and the most common that applies to writers is “fair use,” but those exceptions are beyond the scope of this article.

Let’s talk about rights. Okay, so you’ve written a story. The first thing to understand is that you hold multiple rights on that story, rights that you may license (or choose not to) for money (or not) to a third party. These rights have several dimensions: media (form of presentation or use), language, occurrence, geography, and time. These all combine into the particular set of rights that you’ll license for any story “sale.” I’ll go through each of these.

Media Rights

I’m using media here to refer to the format or form in which your story appears. The most common forms that you’ll encounter cover the most common methods of presenting your words in the various short fiction markets: print, electronic (web or ebook), and audio formats. For each of those forms, there are two common types of short fiction markets: anthologies and magazines. So, for example, you might be selling your story to a print magazine or an audio anthology, or a magazine or anthology that will publish both print and ebook editions.

A magazine is any serial publication that has a recurring publication schedule, issue numbers, and usually an ISSN (International Standard Serial Number, versus an ISBN for a book). When you license rights to a magazine, you are selling serial rights. An anthology is a book-length work containing short stories from different authors (not to be confused with a collection, which is a book-length work of short stories from a single author). You license anthology rights to an anthology (duh).

For the purposes of this post, I’m also using “media” to refer to other formats that your story, or your story world and its characters, could be presented in or adapted to, beyond the straight-forward presentation of your words as you’ve written them. These other formats include film, games, comics, graphic novels, products (think Star Wars action figures), and more, and all of these formats can have separate rights associated with them. The possibilities are limited only by the imagination of a marketing department or yourself.

Language Rights

Language rights are easy to understand, but are often too easily (or blindly) given away by beginners. Most short fiction markets will just be looking for rights in one language, the language in which they publish, and to start, newbies should only be submitting to English language markets (I’ll write more on selling to foreign language markets later in this series). However, some top professional English magazines legitimately ask for non-English rights as well, as they have standing agreements with foreign language magazines for those publications to translate any story that appears in the English pro market.

Occurrence Rights

These relate to whether you are licensing first rights or second rights. You can sell first rights for a particular media and language only once–the very first time you sell your story (again, duh). Any subsequent time that you sell that story, you’ll be licensing second rights, commonly referred to as selling the story as a reprint. As you’ll learn, most professional markets will not accept reprints; that is, they will only be purchasing first rights.

Critical for you to understand is that the use of first and second rights applies to a specific media and language. For example, I can license first print rights in English for a story to an English print anthology publisher, and still be able to license first audio rights in English for that same story to an audio book publisher, or first electronic rights in French to a French ebook publisher.

Geographic Rights

Another easy one to understand, and also one that is getting simpler as electronic editions (eBook, web, audio) of anthologies and magazines become more common for most short fiction markets.

Before the growth of electronic markets, you would typically be licensing geographically constrained rights. For example, a print magazine that was physically distributed only in Canada would ask for First Canadian Serial Rights in English. A US magazine might have asked for First North American Serial Rights in English. An English language anthology with plans to sell overseas would have asked for World Anthology Rights in English.

Today, any market that includes an electronic version of their publication will now be asking for World Rights in their particular language. Note that if a market asks for World Serial Rights or World Anthology Rights without specifying any language, they are asking for all languages. More on this in the contracts post later in this series.

To Be Continued…

Next week, I’ll finish off this brief overview of licensing and rights by covering the remaining dimension of rights: Time, and the all-important issue of ensuring that your rights will revert to you. I’ll wrap this topic up by running through some examples of the typical requests for rights that you’ll encounter if you sell to the most common short fiction markets.

Next week: Why You Never “Sell” a Story: Understanding licensing and rights (the conclusion)

As always, please feel free to add comments and questions, and I’ll respond as best (and as soon as) I can.



I am thrilled to announce that I have now repackaged the 32 separate posts that make up this blog series into a book titled Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. The book is completely updated and reorganized, with new material not in this blog series, plus an introduction from multi-genre, multi-award winning writer and editor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Here’s an extract from Kris’s intro:

Douglas Smith is the best person to write this book. … He’s one of the few people who has probably published more short fiction than I have, and in more countries, and more high-paying markets. He loves the short story as much as I do, and he’s good at writing them.

He’s just as good at the business side of the profession. He knows more about marketing short stories to other countries than I do. He understands how to manage short fiction contracts very well. He’s up-to-date on 21st century publishing practices, and he has a toughness that the best business people need.

We short story writers have needed a book like this for decades. I’m glad Doug decided to write it. Read and reread this volume. Because you’ll learn something each time you do. And take Doug’s advice. It’s spectacular.

—Kristine Kathryn Rusch

More information on the book, including full buying links for all major retailer sites, is available on my website here.

As a special offer to Amazing Stories readers, I’m offering discounts in my bookstore. Get the ebook or print edition at a discount by using the coupon codes AS-SHORT-E or AS-SHORT-P respectively at my website bookstore. Enjoy!

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Doug is an award-winning Canadian writer whose fiction has appeared in twenty-five languages and thirty countries. His works include The Wolf at the End of the WorldChimerascope, and Impossibilia.

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