Friday, December 19, 2014

Query question: repurposing your short story

I have a question for you/your blog regarding first rights and turning a published short story into a novel. My short story has not been published yet, and in the end I’d rather have it as a novel than a short story. That being said, if I send the short version out to literary magazines now, do I run into trouble with rights when, on the chance that it does get published, I later query agents with the novel version? I realize this is a “what-if” question, but I would hate to make a rookie mistake, discovering that I never should have sent the short story out if I had grander plans for it, etc.

One of the HUGE problems with the increased transparency in publishing is that a lot of terms get thrown around by people who really don't understand what they mean. Case in point: "first rights"

There's really no such thing because first needs to describe some form of a publishing agreement. First serial? First electronic? First print?

What you're asking is whether a short story can later be republished as part of a novel.  The answer is "maybe" and a lot depends on the contract you sign for the short story.  You don't want to sign a contract that gives anyone the right to post the story online forever. (The publication clause should have an expiry date for the exclusivity period, or a way for you to recapture your rights after a certain length of time)

The second thing this depends on is the offer from the publisher on the novel.  You MUST disclose that part of the novel was published previously as a short story. The good news is those things are called "writing credits" and they're good to have.

The good news? This repurposing  happens  all the time (think anthologies of short stories to start with) , so you won't have a problem "re-using" your short story as long as you've been careful about the contracts beforehand.

This is one of the reasons I insist my Fabulous clients show me every contract they sign even if I didn't negotiate it or get a chunk of their earnings from it.

Small press contracts are frequently snake pits and more than once this year I've jumped up and down about terms that my author simply can NOT sign.  (Most publishers have been gracious enough to amend the contracts to conform to my suggestions, so you should not worry about negotiating yours either.)


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Because the memoir I am querying is almost exclusively based on previously published content, with entire columns dating, current, to as far back as an actor in the White House, I have been very careful to not enter it in contests or approach anyone in traditional publishing who does not want previously published material. As far as I can remember, every contract I have signed, stated one-time publication rights only. At least that’s what I think they said because remembering and/or finding the newspaper and national magazine paperwork would be like dating my polio shot when I was kid.

french sojourn said...

I was under the impression that the rights reverted back to the author after a year. But maybe that's only for e-mags and monthly's. (that's what I've seen for short stories from most of the sci-fi mags.)

great post as usual.

(Most publishers have been gracious enough to amend the contracts to conform to my suggestions,....)

Oh to be a fly on the wall, flies love blood!

S.D.King said...

Another timely posting! I have given first serial rights to a bunch of MG stories that I hope to use later in a collection or novelization.
Thanks for clarifying some fine points.

Karen McCoy said...

Must send this to my fellow MFA students. We recently had a meeting about submitting to publications, and this is something that definitely needs to be added to that conversation.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

The other thing to be careful about are the rules surrounding contests. I once saw a shameful example of this in an otherwise reputable national newspaper, which ran an advert offering a cash prize of £1000 for a short story. Hmmm, I thought, and sent off for a copy of the terms & conditions. (This was back in the days when you had to do stuff like that by snail mail. But I bet the internet just makes this sort of sneak-it-past-you deception all the easier. Because you *know* some skullduggery is afoot, right?)

So when I got the rules and regs, I read through the list: deadline, judges' decision is final, no further correspondence, blah blah blah, the usual. And then - literally in small print, right at the bottom - came a teensy item that stipulated by ENTERING this contest (not even if you won, but merely sent in anything at all) you agreed that XYZ Company owned/had first option on the next TWO works you created and submitted anywhere for publication. I can't remember the exact wording but it was slippery and obnoxious in equal measure. And of course the form had to be signed and dated.

So I did my basketball-practice that day using their wadded-up page as the ball and my rubbish bin as the hoop. Got it in one from across the room.

In the subsequent edition of their magazine, the Society of Authors condemned this "contest" for the ripoff it was; but I'm guessing that a fair few suckers had been snared by then. It sounds like the sort of thing a lawyer could drive a coach and horses through, but I gather from the SoA's tone that this would be easier said than done.

Always. Read. The. Small. Print.

As well as what's *not* there. Didn't see any reversion clause either.

Janet said...

Three words: Flowers for Algernon. Appeared first as a short story, was later expanded to become a novel. Please note that the short story was not a chapter in the novel, it was the story idea itself that was reworked. It was a good short story, but a fantastic novel.

DLM said...

BonnieShaljean, I wanted so badly to say "that's unreal" - but, of course, not so much.

Unknown said...

Always nice to have a shark in your corner.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for addressing this. My former editor at the magazine I wrote for freelanced for a long time. As part of a project, she rode into the Pryor Mountains and followed a herd of wild horses for several weeks and then wrote about her experiences.

The articles were huge hits in the European markets and she often just rewrote one article for different venues. Then later she'd resell articles and wound up making quite a bit of money off them. This can be tricky, though, and she always had her lawyer review contracts before she sold the articles.

I, years later, sent her a link to a travel article contest I thought she might be interested in. She read all the fine print, which I hadn't. By entering, you not only gave them the rights to the article you wrote about the trip, but you also gave them first right of refusal on anything else you wrote. Yikes.

I've gotten very careful about contests since then. So careful I don't even look at most of them, which I realize is a mistake. It would be good to have a credit besides xx years writing race and human interest stories.

Jenz said...

French, it's typical that rights revert after a year, but not always. A kerfuffle just kicked up over a certain food-named site whose terms were much stricter about how long they retained rights (they claim to be redoing their contracts now).

Never assume, always read ALL the fine print, and do it every time.

Matt Schild said...

Is selling first rights of any kind very common anymore? I've freelanced for about 16 years in the magazine/newspaper/online publication world (strictly nonfiction), and virtually all but twice, I've had to sign a work for hire agreement, even when I wrote the story before submitting.

Is the literary world a little more forgiving of writers' rights than the other side of the field?