Thursday, April 18, 2019

What to license when you sell a short story

On Monday, Emma posted a comment about a rights grab from a journal that wanted to publish her work.
I feel like there needs to be a separate blog on short story contract language. For example, thanks to bits and bobs from this blog, when I received a six page contract for a 5K story that stated that they wanted all rights, US and International FOR THE LIFE OF THE COPYRIGHT, PLUS ALL EXTENSIONS THEREOF, and not only that, rights to all derivative work from that story, I knew this was scary ass nonsense.

I replied with an updated contract, the editor nixed me from the journal, and I immediately sent the contract to Writer's Beware.

But what's even scarier, was that when I told my writing group about this, most of them shrugged and said, "yeah, a lot of publications want that." And my head exploded.

Even if a publication asks for something that insane, nobody in their right mind should ever sign it, no matter how hungry for pub credits they are.

If anybody wants to know the name of this journal, let me know, and I'll be more than happy to say.

And on that note, IS there a list of acceptable rights to sign away for a short story? Somewhere?

The "life of the copyright" etc. language is not the problem.
It's whether the rights grant is EXCLUSIVE.

Life of the copyright is too long in general for anything, but it's standard language for a publishing contract for a full length BOOK.

Plus, there's also a clause that outlines how the rights can/will revert to the writer: out of print is one way;  there are a couple others.

But, for a story, to give anyone exclusive rights for the life of the contract means they have to pay you for the value of that license. Often that's not the figure they're quoting.

Thus: exclusive for a specified period of time, such as a year.
Then: non-exclusive ever after.

No grant of translation at all.
No grant of movie, film, tv, merchandising.

Audio is a case by case. There's a lot bigger market for audio rights for short stories now and sometimes the publication will have an offer to license those.

In that case, the contributors (ie the writers of the story) should share in the money from audio, and that should be written into the contract.

Often that sharing is divided among all the contributors, so there's language about how that will happen.

In the course of reviewing contracts for my clients who write short stories, I've seen some real doozies so I now expect it.

There's a lot of info about contract do's and don'ts out there. Be very careful about who you listen to. And remember contracts are a negotiation. Sometimes you get what you want. Sometimes you don't. What you need to start with is a list of bottom line things that are deal breakers:

1. Transferring copyright. The key word to look for is the publisher is licensing the right to publish.

2. Payment. If the publisher fails to pay, the rights must revert to the Author upon notice.

3. Duration. Must be specified.

4. Exclusivity: must be specified.

5. What the contract covers ie title of the short story. NOTHING ELSE (no derivative works for example)

6. Editing: they can't edit your work OTHER than for grammar or spelling without your consent. 

Any questions?


E.M. Goldsmith said...

Yes. Questions. Which is why I really want an agent. Even for looking over short story contracts. Contracts scare me. All that fine print. Did I sell my first born? My soul? How do I get those back?

What am I being paid for vs what did they get? When I get a contract, I want to know line by line what I am signing and if it is equitable for me, publisher, and agent. When the time comes, these contracts will require long discussions with my 'To be named later' agent.

These posts are super helpful in the what to expect realm. Thanks for sharing, OP.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

Yes, this is helpful, thanks.

CED said...

Very helpful, thank you! I haven't sold a short story yet, but I feel like I'm getting close (knocks wood, makes warding sign, does demon dance), so this may come in handy when the day comes.

Amy Johnson said...

Add me to those who found this very helpful. Thanks, Janet and OP.

OP: Hope your story finds a home you're happy with.

Katja said...

Sorry to be off-topic right now, but I tried to comment again, last night, on yesterday's post but it just didn't work.

I wanted to say thank you to Jennifer and Julie for your comments on my news. Very kind!!

Emma said...

Thank you Janet! this is so helpful, I'm printing it and hanging it on my wall. Back in the day I used to write contracts myself as a photography editor, and I was very, very careful about what rights the photographer was selling. But as a writer, reading the contracts can be intimidating, especially if they're nearly as long as the short story itself.

My confusion I think all along was with exclusive and non-exclusive rights, and I'm still learning what each means. You'd think it would be obvious, but for some reason it isn't to me.

As for the journal in my original question, they weren't paying anything, and they wanted world rights, translation rights, forever and ever. The derivative works clause really scared me, and the fact that they were unbending (to my very politely worded updated contract) proved I was right to be scared of them.

Thank you so much for this post!

Morgan Hazelwood said...

Yikes! I know I should write short stories and submit them, but stressing over unfair contracts sounds pretty intimidating.

Thanks for sharing!

Craig F said...

Not a lot more to be said, this pretty much covered it. Most shorts are a lump sum payment, usually by the word. Sometimes the balance will lean toward verifiable pub creds, rather than the monetary amounts, but it is your work and you should be paid what is agreed on.

If you ever see the word perpetuity anywhere in a contract, create a smokescreen and run.

John Davis Frain said...

Craig, that's twice recently you've mentioned "perpetuity." Makes me wonder if you're familiar with the story of the Spirits of St. Louis and the greatest (read: most lucrative) contract in sports history. It was the words "in perpetuity" that made it the greatest. Or, I suppose, the worst and costliest if you take the opposing side.

Two words. Each worth hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Aphra Pell said...


As for the journal in my original question, they weren't paying anything, and they wanted world rights, translation rights, forever and ever.

[Can someone help me find my eyeballs, as they just popped right out my head and rolled off.]

What exactly did they think was in it for you? The dreaded "exposure" I suppose, but jeepers!

Stephen G Parks said...

Janet, over the years this blog has been really helpful. I've used what you've taught me to ask for changes to short story contracts and also to reject a contract that wouldn't change.

A few ideas I'd add to your list:

1) A firm publication date.
One contract I saw wanted a year exclusive from date of publication but wouldn't commit to an actual calendar date. It could've taken them years to publish and I'd have basically lost that story for that long plus one year.

2) A reversion of rights if the publication date is missed by a specific margin (I've seen 60 days in contracts, but I've also NOT found this clause in contracts).

AJ Blythe said...

And this is why I want an agent. I will read and work through a contract myself, but I know I won't pick up on the nuances a single word might make. Scary stuff but essential to know. Good luck with finding a home for your story, Emma.