Publishing — Short Story Contracts


Since the topic of book contracts was addressed at the beginning of this week, I decided to tackle short-story contracts here at the end.  Short story contracts are significantly shorter and easier to understand than a book contract; however, don’t let your guard down.  You are still entering into an agreement dealing with the licensing of rights to your work.  And while most magazine and anthology publishers are well-meaning, good-hearted people who want to spread their love of words, they are often not business people who entirely understand the contracts they’ve drawn up.  Even the best of intentions can go awry.

The basic short-story contract runs 1-2 pages.  They all should begin with a statement of who is involved, you and the publisher, and what is involved, the current title of the work and the approximate length of the work (given in word count).  Within the next 8-12 clauses, everything should be spelled out quite clearly, including that you promise the work is your own, how long you grant rights to your work, how much money and/or contributor copies you’ll receive, and at what point in time and in what form those funds will arrive.  Some contracts combine clauses, so while 8-12 is average, I have one contract written in five clauses and another that goes to fifteen.

While it’s important that you read and understand all of the clauses, most are standard and should cause no trouble.  Here are some things to understand or watch out for:

  • Exclusive Rights and Firsts — In the case of print magazines, you’ll be granting FNASR (First North American Serial Rights) or First World Rights if the publisher is outside the US or Canada.  This basically says your work will be published by this magazine exclusively for a set period of time.  For anthologies, you do the same general idea, though most don’t name them as such.  They simply state that you grant them the right.  An example from one of my old contracts: “1. You grant PRESS X the sole and exclusive right to publish this story in the English language within the anthology for a period of six months from the date of publication.”  Same idea just worded different.  When it comes to e-zines, the typical wording is for First World Electronic Rights (all e-rights are world rights since you can’t limit the world’s access to the internet).  But don’t be fooled into thinking you still retain FNASR rights.  “First” rights only happen once.  Whether it’s print or online, first is first and then it’s gone.  So even if the e-zine you sold your story to only has a readership of twenty people, from that point onward, you no longer have First rights to offer.  You can only sell the story as a reprint which is usually for a lot less money.
  • Non-exclusive Rights — With many of the larger venues, additional clauses will be added in which you grant (after the initial exclusive period is over) the NON-exclusive right for the publisher to print your work again at a later time.  Basically this is for the case where a publisher wishes to put out a BEST OF OUR MAGAZINE issue or anthology.  The terms of payment will be stated and their right to use your work has been granted in this contract so they don’t have to go through wrangling a whole bunch of authors later (particularly if an author has become famous and would want to charge a lot more for the rights).  Make sure the terms of payment are stated or you’ll be giving away reprint rights for free.  The “non” part means that even while the publisher is putting out this Best Of, you can still sell the story as a reprint elsewhere.  As long as you continue to only sell non-exclusive rights, you could sell the story to multiple venues at this point (though this is, of course, highly unlikely to happen).
  • Archiving — Because of the internet and e-zines, this is becoming a common clause to see.  Generally, the clause allows a website to archive your story non-exclusively and make it available for as long as the site exists.  This can be a bad move, so make sure that the clause allows you, the author, to require the website to take down your story if you make a formal request.  This gives you the opportunity to keep your story available for readers, if you so choose, but should you reprint the tale in an anthology or some other form which requires an exclusive period, you can comply by having it removed from the archive.
  • Kill Fees — Should something happen where the publisher no longer wants your story, this is a smaller amount of money you’ll be paid for having your story held up and then not used.  This is a very rare clause to find in fiction contracts, though it does pop up from time to time.  In my decade of writing short stories, I’ve signed only one contract with a kill fee, and I’ve been paid exactly one kill fee.
  • In Perpetuity — This is a dangerous phrase because it basically means “forever” or “with no end.”  This is a red flag phrase that I know is used by both large and small publishers but, in my opinion, should be avoided in most situations.  There’s really no reason to have these words used at all, frankly.  If the publisher wants to say that the non-exclusive rights will go on forever (and in the age of e-zines, this is why the wording pops up), that publisher should be willing to pay extra for it and be willing to spell it all out as such.
  • Royalties — This is almost exclusively for anthologies.  Most, if not all, magazines pay a single fee based on a per-word rate.  Though some anthologies pay a single fee, more often they pay royalties.  Many offer a small advance, but many more anthologies pay nothing up front and instead give you a royalty off of sales.  Don’t get excited.  Your percentage is usually based on either 1) an equal division between all the authors or 2) the number of words you’ve contributed in relation to the total number of words in the book.  Either way, it works out like this — Say the book sells for $10.00 (I’m keeping the numbers simple for the example).  Most of it goes to the publisher to cover costs and make a small profit — let’s say $8.00.  If the editor was a freelancer (which is often the case in an anthology situation), she might get a $1.00 royalty for doing all the work and making the initial sale to the publisher.  The remaining $1.00 is split between ALL the authors.  In method 1, if there are 10 authors, you’ve made a nice, shiny dime.  In method 2, you’ve made slightly more or less based on the length of your story — say 12 cents or maybe 9 cents.  Royalty-paying anthology contracts, like book contracts, will have a regular royalty payment timeframe set up (often every six months) — BUT — many will add a requirement that if the royalty payment doesn’t exceed a certain amount, then no check is issued until that amount is met.  This is meant to save small presses the headache and cost of issuing lots of small checks for amount like $1.14.  The required amount varies but most are around 10 dollars.  Early on, I was in an anthology that turned out great but the payment amount had to exceed $50.00.  To date, I’ve never seen a dime.  I imagine there’s ten or so dollars that should go to me, but it’ll never reach fifty and I’ll never see that money.

Don’t be afraid to negotiate these clauses.  The only thing you’ll find it difficult/impossible to change is the amount to be paid.  But if you have a problem with archiving, for example, most publishers will be willing to work something out as long as you approach it in an open, friendly manner.  After all, if you’re at the contract stage, they want your work.

That’s the basics.  If there’s a specific question or concern, go ahead and ask.  I’ll do my best to help you out.  And remember, with all contracts, don’t let your enthusiasm to be published diminish your brain power and cloud your judgment.


16 comments to Publishing — Short Story Contracts

  • Thanks Stuart for posting this. I am looking at making my rounds in the Short Story Market and this really helped. I hope to see more Short Story topics in the future.

  • Thanks for putting this together, Stuart. I agree with Mark — more stuff on the business and craft of short story work would be great. We should all look into including more of that in our posts. I think your very first paragraph raises an interesting point that dovetails with my observations: Obviously we need to read our contracts carefully whether they’re for novels or short fiction. But whereas when dealing with book publishers I am constantly looking at the contracts wondering “Ok, how are they trying to screw me?” with short fiction contracts I’m far less likely to question motive, and for more likely to look for ambiguities that might create inadvertent problems down the road. Again, it’s not that I read the contracts any less carefully, but I do feel that intent is less of an issue. If that makes any sense….

  • A $50 minimum for payment? That’s a new one to me. Frankly, it sounds like a sneaky way of making sure authors never see their money. On the other hand, it may have also just been one of those well-intentioned, overly optimistic thngs some small presses do without knowing any better. It can be really hard to distinguish, at least until the publisher establishes some kind of a track record.

    Regarding the archiving of stories, I feel like at IGMS we HAVE TO have archival rights, largely because we are selling a subscription and not giving story content away for free like the vast majority of online magazines. If you bought an issue of Asimovs or F&SF, you wouldn’t expect someone to come to your house to take away your copies, would you? That’s what we would be doing if we sold someone an issue of IGMS and then started deleting content. But again, we’re relatively unique in our business model.

  • Mark — Will do. And best of luck with your stories.

    David — Only once have I ever come across a short story contract where I felt the publisher was trying to screw over authors. Needless to say, I didn’t sign. And just like all things in this business — it’s a small community, people talk. That publisher no longer exists.

    Edmund — The $50 thing was early in my career and I didn’t know any better. Nowadays, I’d negotiate that or not sign, or if I really wanted to be in that anthology, I’d recognize I won’t ever get paid. As for archiving, I didn’t mean to imply that archiving is a bad thing. I just wanted to point out that it’s something to be aware of what you’re agreeing to. For most authors, actually, archiving is a bonus. Since reprints are generally not very lucrative and generally don’t occur very often, I like having my stories archived and available to my readers. I even link to the archive from my website. I know some authors who, when the exclusive rights are done, will make little booklets of individual stories and hand them out for free at Cons. After all, the short story market is not about making big bucks. It’s about the readers.

  • Stuart, thanks for this. I only recently (last few years) began to think about short stories as a part of my market. Mystery Writers of America used to put boilerplate contracts for novels and shorts up at their website. I went there several times in my career to see what the differences between pubs were. It was interesting reading. Maybe I should think about doing even more research now.

    And Ditto here: >>After all, the short story market is not about making big bucks. It’s about the readers.

  • Thanks Stuart! I have a question relating to self-publishing or publishing on a blog. I’ve been looking into submitting a few short pieces to various contests and magazines, most of which require first publication rights. If I’ve “published” a story online, via Scribd or my blog (for free public access), would that disqualify the story from the contest due to first publication rights? What if I’ve posted an excerpt, but not the whole story?

  • Faith — A Jane Yellowrock short!!! Please!!! 🙂 BTW, almost done with Blood Cross and loving it. Great sequel.

    Megan — For the contest, the best thing to do is contact them and ask. As a general rule, though, if you’ve published your story online in any complete form, the answer is Yes, you’ve used your First rights. Edmund might be able to tell us in more detail the whys of it all or if the answer has changed, but as far as I know, most venues paying for First rights expect that the work has not been presented to the public in any way. As for the excerpt question, that becomes a matter of how much of an excerpt. A few paragraphs or the opening page shouldn’t cause any trouble. Anything more than that, I’d be double-checking with the editors to make sure they’re okay with it.

  • Always good to hear about this stuff from you, Stuart. I know nothing about the short story side fo teh biz, so this is invaluable. Thanks.

  • Young_Writer

    Thank you, I really need this. I’ve never really written short stories before, but I need to publish them if I want to get into a writign course at my library. This helped 🙂

  • Thank you for spelling it out, Stuart. I’ve been involved in a few non-paying webzines as the “person who acquires things to post” (using “editor” here would probably cheapen the word). I had very little idea of what I was doing. I could edit and give feedback on submissions, but I knew nothing of the legal side of things, and the question often came up. My latest almost-foray, where an acquaintance asked for help and I told him I could give advice but not put in much work, led to me trying to list the webzine with for him. I’d done it once before, again as the lackey. In seven or so years, Ralan has become very stringent about contacts that protect the writer (even just having some contract at all). I try to stay away from webzine work in general, now, but it’s nice to know these details regardless.

  • Awww. Thank you, Stuart. (blushes). And yes, I have several JY shorts up at the website under *freebie*. One short (Cat Tats) is a serial, and will be coming down Oct 1.

  • Glad this is helping you all out. I make the mistakes, so you don’t have to!!! 😀

  • Tom G

    Ah, royalties. I sold two stories to Marion Zimmer Bradley, for the Sword and Sorceress anthologies. I must admit, even though I was an unknown and had very short stories, I made for more than I ever dreamed in royalties over the years. In fact, this past week I got a royalty check. Sixty-six ($0.66) cents. Wow. It just keeps on giving. I savor every cent.

  • Tom — Hey, you can buy a whole . . . um . . . well, nothing, but you could put it in the bank and watch it grow until the bank fees hit. I mentioned in the post that I once received a kill fee. Sadly, the kill fee was for more money than I’ve received for some stories. You just never know.

  • Okay, so I’ve been thinking about something related to this topic: specifically concerning the issue of “firt” rights…

    Let’s say there’s an unpublished writer who has a blog. Said blog is not a very highly-trafficked site, because said writer is not yet professionally published. Let’s further posit that this writer (who is probably but not necessarily me, as there are surely others in a similar situation) has a few ideas for short stories and writes up some bits of flash-fiction that he or she publishes to his or her blog, which is read by maybe a dozen fellow unpublished writers.

    So, this writer likes some of these little flash stories, and thinks they have potential, and decides to revise and expand upon those stories, and thinks, maybe, hey, I’ll try to shop these in the short story markets and see if I get any bites.

    The question is: what risk is there in this, since a “version” of these stories was technically already published – albeit an early, flash-length draft of what would later be a longer, though still short work? If the story has changed form, has the prior publication still used up the “first” rights? Does the fact that an unpublished writer’s blog has very little traffic factor into this equation? What if the stories in question were taken down or removed before the later version were sent out to the markets?

  • Stephen — You have several different things going on here. As a general rule, published is published whether it is for an audience of 10 or 10,000 or 10,000,000. Understand that event the smallest e-zine gets loads of submissions. If I’m a publisher, why would I even bother trying to sort out whether or not First rights exist when I’ve got a hundred other stories to go through and I’m sure at least one of them will be as good or better than yours? That’s the reality. My best advice is don’t put anything on your blog you want to use professionally. Having said that, I do think you’re fine submitting a short story as an original and not a reprint that came out of some flash bits you’ve already published. As long as the two are different enough that the short story is truly it’s own thing. Still, best thing is to move on, write something new and submit it. Only put on your website/blog when you’ve decided to retire the work from the submission process or, if it get published, when rights revert back to you. Finally, nothing is ever “taken down or removed” from the internet. You can delete something from your website, but it’s still out there, somewhere. I tell everyone to live by that rule. Once on the internet, always on. Hope this clears some things up for you.