Writers’ Rights: Understand What You’re Selling

Writers' RightsToday’s guest post is by author Tracy Crump.

Tracy enjoys teaching writers through her Write Life Workshops and webinars as well as at conferences, and she serves as registrar for the Mid-South Christian Writers Conference. Tracy edits The Write Life, a popular writers newsletter that includes story callouts, and her latest foray into fiction netted her a finalist spot in the Southern Writers Magazine 2016 Short Story Contest.

Writers’ Rights

by Tracy Crump

First rights, reprint rights, all rights. Rights, rights, rights! How can I keep them straight, and what if I do something wrong?

Understanding rights is as important to the business of writing as our laptops or pen and paper. As writers, we don’t actually sell articles, stories, books, or devotionals. We sell or license a publisher certain rights to use our material. Without a thorough understanding of the different rights, we may inadvertently give away something we’ll later regret. So let’s do a quick overview of the most common rights we encounter.

Book Rights

According to former AMG editor Dr. Warren Baker, book rights boil down to nine words: It all depends on the terms of the contract. When you sign a book contract, expectations for both you and the publisher should be spelled out.

But book contracts are getting more and more complicated. Unless you’re well informed in author law, I recommend you have someone look over the contract. If you have an agent, that’s his or her job. If not, find an industry professional knowledgeable about rights. One such person is Sally Stuart.

Article Rights

Publishers purchase different types of rights for shorter pieces. You will usually receive a simpler contract, but be sure to read it thoroughly. A contract is a legal document.

First rights give a publisher the right to publish a piece for the first time. When you sell first rights, you are in essence saying the piece has never been published before. Publishers generally pay more for that privilege. Rights revert to you once the article has been published unless the contract states otherwise. Some publishers require writers to wait one to three months before reselling the article.

One-time rights are used for pieces sent to multiple markets at the same time, such as timely news articles. They give the publisher the right to publish something one time but not necessarily the first time. They are used for non-competing markets such as newspapers, regional magazines, or denominational publications in which the readership does not overlap.

With all rights or exclusive rights, you give up all rights to your work. Rights revert to you after 35 years. Until that time, the publisher may reprint the material in any format without additional payment, but you may not republish it. In general, avoid selling all rights with the following exceptions:

  • Curriculum
  • High payment
  • Outstanding credit (e.g. Guideposts or Reader’s Digest)
  • Limited market on the topic
  • Devotionals done on assignment
  • Academic, peer-review articles

You must weigh the pros and cons to decide if you benefit from selling all rights. You can request rights back later, but the publisher may or may not grant them. Don’t worry. You can’t accidentally give away all rights. It must be specifically stated in a contract that the publisher is purchasing them.

Nonexclusive rights are similar to one-time rights except the publisher can use the material in a succeeding issue of the same periodical without further payment. If you don’t have a contract with a publisher, you have sold nonexclusive rights.

Reprint rights allow you to resell your work to publications willing to reprint work used in other periodicals. Always let the editor know you’re offering reprint rights. They may also want to know when and where it was first published. Be sure to wait until a piece you’ve sold first rights on is published before selling reprints.

An experience I had demonstrates how important it is to understand rights. Years ago, I wrote for a Christian newspaper. The editor and I never had a contract. I would pitch ideas, and he would say whether or not he was interested. After several months, I wrote to clarify that I was selling one-time rights (which I’d indicated on each article). He said, “Oh, no. I paid for these articles. I own them.” It took a bit of talking and some research on his part before he conceded that he had not purchased all rights. Sometimes even those in the editor’s seat don’t understand writers rights.

Learn as much as you can about your rights. It may make the difference in protecting your work.


Author Tracy CrumpTracy loves to tell stories (the good kind) and has published almost two dozen in Chicken Soup for the Soul and other anthologies as well as numerous articles and devotionals in publications such as Focus on the Family, ParentLife, and Mature Living.

Connect with Tracy at her website, on Facebook and on Twitter.

Want to get published but don’t know where to start?

Frustrated and overwhelmed with trying to get published? I can help put an end to that. Email me today at Deb [at] DebraLButterfield [dot] com for more details.

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