Monday, January 12, 2009

Selling Your Rights- Part 1

In the next two posts I’d like to start the discussion on selling rights to your writing. If you are a full time writer, you've likely realized that to make a living from writing, your work must be published as many times as possible. You must sell it to a publication and then be able to sell it as a reprint to other publications as many times as you like. In this way a story, article, or poem can be earning you an income while you are busy with new work. For this to happen, you need to pay strict attention to who you submit to and what rights they are buying.

Selling a piece of writing to a publisher who demands 'all rights' is like cutting your legs off. Your work is gone and unless the money the publisher is offering is enough to set you up for life, or as near to that as possible, you'd rather give it a miss. Let's take a quick look at the various options for the rights that publishers can buy from you.

Let's start with the worst case scenarios:

All rights
When a publisher buys all rights it means just that- they own everything. You hold the copyright to that work, but it belongs to the publisher. The publisher can do what you might have done with the work had you not signed over all rights. They can reuse that story or poem as they like. They can even sell it to other publishers if they want, without giving you a cent. They can put it on the internet, they can record it on a CD, they can do what they want, when they want, and they don't pay you anything. At the same time, you can't do anything with that story or poem. If you publish it anywhere, even on your website, you are violating the publisher's rights.

If at all possible avoid selling all rights to any of your writing.

Work For Hire
In a work for hire agreement, a company would hire a writer to write something for them and that writing would now belong to the company- completely. They can do anything that they want with it including removing the writer's name and putting the name of the company, for example. The company owns the work and the company owns the copyright. The writer gets money and then should forget about it. This can also become a bit tricky if the writer then goes on to write something on their own which is similar to the work for hire. There is a grey area where the company might demand that the writer is now infringing on their copyright. This is a bad situation. The company has bought the writing, the copyright and, in some cases, any future writing around those similar topics.

Avoid work for hire situations whenever possible.

Electronic Rights
Because of the pervasiveness of the internet, when you sell electronic rights, even one time electronic rights, you are almost selling world rights since the whole world has access now to your writing. If you have a piece of writing that you are selling, you'd rather first sell it to a few print publications before it appears on the internet. Many publishers would not want the writing if it has appeared on the internet and would consider it published on a world stage. This also extends to a writer's blog or website, so take care about what you put there.

First World English Rights
This is another one to avoid. In this case, the publisher will have the right to be the first publication to print your piece in all English speaking countries. It means you have lost your first USA rights, first British rights, first Australian rights, first Canadian rights, etc. Avoid this agreement if possible.

Well that’s the bad news. Stay posted for Part II where I look at the rights you should be selling- the good news!
Lauri Kubuitsile is a full time, award winning writer living in Botswana. Her writing has appeared in publications in Australia, United States, Canada, South Africa, England, and Algeria, to name a few countries. She writes for radio, television, and the page. Read her blog, Thoughts from Botswana.

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  1. This was a good blog, Lauri, good information to know as a writer. I look forward to installment two.

  2. I'll have to keep this info in mind for my next contract.

    Morgan Mandel

  3. Great information. And I just turned in a work for hire book. I'm saving this for future reference.


  4. I initially wrote this article for our writers' association newsletter and adapted it for here. I'm glad it's turning out to be helpful.

  5. Very useful information, Lauri. I got roundly scolded from a publication recently, who had paid me $1 for a flash story, for having then printed that story in my own collection, because I hadn't understood that the rights they asked for when they published the story, over a year ago, precluded this. If I had understood this, I would of course never have let them have the story. You just don't look properly or you assume certain modes of behaviour that shouldn't be assumed, such as the freedom to have your own story in your book. In the end, it all worked out ok, but for $1...not really worth it.

  6. Good information, Lauri. Thanks for taking the time to pass it on. I have done a few works for hire, and I guess I was lucky that the publisher paid me well for the work and the books still have my name. I think your cautions are good as there are so many people out there willing to take advantage of writers desperate to get their work out there.

  7. Interesting and informative, Lauri.
    I know next to nothing about this side of the writing world so look forward to reading about the positive aspects of this issue.

  8. Tania- your story is a nightmare for many reasons, not least of which that they paid you $1 and thought they owned everything!? Webzines are notoriously mad. They want exclusives and pay diddlysquat.

    Shelley and Maryann- I'm so glad you find the post helpful. I'm swimming in a pool of big fish editors and I often struggle for what I should post here.

    I, too, have done work for hire and have sold all rights to stories. I'll be honest, in the beginning I was desperate to get any work. I still sometimes give stories to webmags, even if they don't pay, if I know I can get other benefits- usually some type of prestige or important exposure or a story submitted to a contest. There are always many factors to consider.

  9. Terrific advice, Lauri. Rights can be so confusing.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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