First Rights: what they are and how you risk losing yours

Photo credit Jake Melara

Photo credit Jake Melara

The topic of "first rights" may be one of the most overlooked subjects for writers. And, yet, understanding what first rights are and how they affect your marketability as a writer is all-important, especially for those who might be trying to build their readership. So, I am going to explain first rights and why you need to protect yours.

What are "first rights"?

The term "first rights" refers to publishing rights and who has the right to publish your work first, before anyone else. There are multiple levels of publishing first rights. Here are the 3 most common:

  • Print
  • Electronic
  • Audio

First rights example: Let's say you write a short story, and you send it to Apex Magazine for publishing consideration before anyone else. Suppose that sometime later, you receive an email from Apex's editor-in-chief saying Apex wants to buy the print, electronic, and audio first rights to your story. If you agree, Apex has now purchased the first rights to publishing your story in print, on the web, and in audio form (i.e. in a podcast). These rights are often considered exclusive to the purchaser for a specific frame of time, as defined in the author contract.

How does an exclusivity period affect you?

It means you cannot submit your story to anyone else for publication as a reprint during this period of time. For example, Apex retains exclusive rights for 6 months after a story is published in their magazine. So, if you sell it to them in June, but they don't publish it until October, you cannot seek a reprint contract with another publication until April of the following year. There are often exception clauses in author contracts, in case your story is selected for an anthology by an outside publisher.

This is why it is crucial that you read and fully understand a publisher's author contract prior to signing it. You must understand what your rights are, how long until your publication rights return to you, and what happens in the event your story isn't published or the publisher folds.

How do you risk losing your first rights without realizing it?

Wattpad is the biggest problem for authors and their first rights. Nowhere on Wattpad's site does it tell users that they forfeit the chance to sell their work as anything other than a reprint, if the work is posted on the Wattpad site. However, the moment you post a story or all chapters of a book, or even more than 50% of it, you've just burned your electronic first rights - for free. It can only be sold as a reprint now.

Except in select cases, publishers will not purchase the print or audio first rights on stories/books for which the electronic first rights have been already used. Since most publishers don't take reprints, or they only offer 1 cent per word for a reprint, it just isn't in your financial best interest to burn the electronic first rights on a freebie.

What are some other ways you might accidentally forfeit your first rights to your story or your book?

  • Posting the story on Facebook or in a Facebook group (unless the group in which you posted it is both private and very small - less than a dozen members - and you've made it clear the post is intended to generate feedback prior to you making major edits)
  • Making the story or book a free gift for signing up for your newsletter, or offering it as an incentive for a crowdfunding campaign (i.e. Patreon, Indiegogo, etc.)
  • Making the story or book a free download on Amazon or Kobo or anywhere else
  • Serializing the book on your blog or website

I know that some writers think making their work available for free is a great way to increase readership, but that's rarely the case. In most cases, the readership bump is very small. So, really, you're just burning your first rights for nothing.

You know what's a faster and more lucrative way to build readership? Sell your story to a magazine or publisher first.

A.M.