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.