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How to Understand Publication Contracts

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Dealing With Publication Contracts

So, you are a short story/fiction writer and you finally get the email you've been waiting for, a magazine or an anthology loves your story, and they want to buy it. Congratulations, but what happens next?

What Happens When Your Short Story Is Sold?

You will now be confronted with a contract, don't panic, but certainly don't underestimate how important it is to get this part of the story submission process right. So put your business ‘head-on'.

In this article, I’ll give you the general highlights on contracts, but contracts are tricky beasts, and forever morphing into different variations, especially with the ever-changing developments in technology, and the way we consume the written word.

So, the following is for guidance only and you are strongly advised to seek legal advice (because I'm not a lawyer), regarding any contract you are contemplating signing. At the end of the day, you will decide or not to sign any contract, and therefore it is your decision.

First off, let's understand that contracts are very, very important and must be taken seriously because they determine who has the ‘rights’ to your story.

So in the worst-case scenario signing off on a poor contract could mean you lose the ‘rights’ to your story. In other words, even though you spent hours conceiving the story and writing the story, the story no longer actually belongs to you. A bit scary, isn’t it?


Key Clauses in the Contract

Okay, so you sold a story and a publication (market) want to buy your story. They will, in all likelihood, send you a contract to sign. The first thing you need to do is read it very carefully. A contract is a two-way street, just because the market has sent you a contract doesn't mean you have to agree with everything in that contract.

It is worth knowing that if there are parts in the contract that you deem unreasonable, or you flat-out disagree with, then you can request those parts to be changed.

When you are reading through your contract ensure that you are aware of the key clauses that you should look out for. Short story contracts are generally straightforward, so these should be relatively easy to pick out.

The following questions are the ones you need to be asking to find the important clauses in your contract.

What ‘Rights’ Have You Been Asked for and When Do Those Rights Revert Back to You?

Check if the rights you have been asked for are reasonable? For example, if the market is an audio-only publication and they are also asking for print rights, are you okay with that? (why would they need them) or if they ask for electronic rights, which are by default world rights? If you are not alright with the rights they are asking for, then you may want to ask them to change the contract.

In the end, it's your decision.

You also need to carefully check when any rights revert back to you because that is the date after which you can then re-license those rights to a new publisher.

Rights with magazines often revert after a specified period after the magazine is published, usually a few months, depending on how often the magazine is published. For anthologies, the rates typically revert back to you a year after the anthology is published, but these rules aren't written in stone.


This clause usually appears primarily to protect the publisher. Basically, they are asking you to declare that the story is your own work and that you haven't plagiarized it in any way, and that it doesn't break any laws, etc. Basically, the publisher wants to make sure that your story does not start a lawsuit against them. So when you review this clause, make sure you agree completely with it, as it is legally binding.

What Happens if the Magazine or Anthology Never Actually Publishes Your Story?

If the publisher does not include a clause to cover this, then you may need to amend the contract and set a time limit on when any rights to revert back to you should the story not be published within a set time frame. This could be a year for a magazine or two years for an anthology. This will stop your story from sitting In limbo for all eternity, should they not publish it for whatever reason.

Also within this clause, it is worth checking if you will still get paid should they not publish your story? You should still get paid, as you need to be compensated for the wasted time when you could have sold a story to another market.

What Happens to My Story, if the Magazine or Anthology Goes Bust or Is Sold?

Basically, if the magazine or anthology ‘goes bust’ before publishing your story and paying you, all the ‘rights’ should revert back to you. If this isn't in the contract, then you should add it.

If they sell the magazine or anthology, then you should ensure that your rights and contract are not automatically be reassigned to the new buyer without your consent.

If the new publisher wants your story, you will need a new contract from them.


What Control Will I Have Over Any Changes to My Story?

In short, this clause should include something like ‘the publisher will make no major alterations to the story or the title’ in other words, you don't want them significantly changing your story, but they may ask for small editorial permissions to make minor copy editing, which is generally fine.

What Am I Being Paid for the Rights That I Agree To?

Obviously, check how much you are going to be paid. Is it correct? Is it what you were expecting and when, and how will you be paid.

Hope the above is helpful, for more information on publishing rights and how to submit short stories to publications, you may want to check out some of my other articles.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Jerry Cornelius