The importance of rights management

It’s fair to describe the ‘Finished Stories’ folder in my Dropbox as “cluttered”.

Sort your clutter

I mentioned a while ago several of my stories have been accepted for publication but have not yet appeared in print or online, for various reasons. Others have been in print for a while and the exclusivity terms under which they were sold have expired.

It occurred to me I was in danger of losing track of my inventory.

The purpose of storytelling is primarily to entertain readers preferably so much so they will go out of their way to tell me I’m a genius who changed their life. But I’m also trying to work toward being a professional writer, slowly slowly, and one of the things that pros do is keep track of their rights.

(Note: I’m only familiar with the speculative short story market, so I’ll talk about that. But similar principles apply to authors flogging their books to traditional markets as well)

(Second caveat: I am not a contracts lawyer, or indeed any other kind of lawyer. I read a lot of contracts for my day job, which serves me well for basic stuff like this. You should still consult with someone who knows what they are talking about if you are unsure what your contract terms mean).

Every publishing contract will have different terms about how a piece can be used – basically setting out what reproduction rights the publisher is purchasing from the author.

Typical contract terms might be something like “Exclusive print and electronic rights for two years from date of publication”.

Meaning – the author agrees to grant the publisher the right to publish the work in print and online, and for a period of two years, nobody else – not even the author – may publish the piece in any form. After that term expires, the publication rights revert to the author, who could then sell the piece again as a reprint, include them in a collection of stories, or chuck them on their website as a freebie.

The publisher might also decide to produce a “Best of the year” anthology, and could exercise the option to include the author’s story in it, but might need to negotiate new (non-exclusive) reprint rights.

The author might negotiate payment (cash, copies of the anthology or journal issue, or some other form of remuneration) for some or all of these rights. For me, though, the professional element is being in a position to know what rights sit with whom, at any given time, and – critically – when they revert back to the author.

For example, my first published work was ‘Imported Good – Aisle Nine’, which was published in the CSFG anthology Next, in April 2013. Under the terms of the contract, I granted exclusive First English Language rights for one year from the date of publication. So as of April 2014, the rights came back with me and I can now try to sell the story on to a reprint market if I desire.

I have about 15 or so stories out on submission or sitting in queues waiting patiently for their publication date. That’s a manageable load as it stands. But I’m writing new stories all the time, and each new piece adds to the complexity of what I’m tracking.

In addition, while most stories lose their sales value once the first-use rights are discharged, some could become more valuable. As an example, the Aurealis Award nomination for my story ‘The Lighthouse at Cape Defeat’ could theoretically make it more attractive to a reprint market, such as an anthology of Best Haunted Lighthouse Tales 2017.

But that story was published in April 2016 and the rights will not revert to me until April 2017, so I can’t sell it for publication until after that date. If the terms of the original sale had been a two-year exclusive period, I would have missed out on the opportunity to get it into that oddly specific example anthology.

So I’ve applied myself to two jobs this month. The first is a general cleanup so that I’m not mixing up unfinished drafts with submission-ready manuscripts or final edited-and-proofed versions.

(Honestly – don’t let your story folders get cluttered. It looks awful and you might accidentally submit a vomit draft to a professional podcast market, which is a completely hypothetical rookie mistake I just thought up with my own imagination based on no recent real-world incidents)

The second is to pull together a spreadsheet of all my stories – the basic details include word count, genre and when they were written. For pieces that have been accepted somewhere, I’ve included publication details like dates of acceptance, dates of contract signing, what payment terms were offered, what rights were leased, dates of publication and rights reversion dates.

It’s a small amount of work now, but I hope it will save me some headaches down the track

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