Do you really want to give up your first rights?

I told a friend the other day I’d submitted a short story to a publisher and was waiting to hear whether they were going to accept it for their anthology.  After giving me a firm lecture on why I should self-publish instead of waiting at the mercy of a publisher to make up their minds, he congratulated me and hmphed some more.  I asked him what the big deal was, why he was so against traditional publishing.

He started out by asking me if I realized I would sign away my first serial rights to the publisher if they decided to accept it.  Serial rights.  Yeah.  Heard about those and if my novel or short story finds the perfect home with a publisher, I’m okay with giving the publisher first serial rights.  But what exactly are these first rights to publication?

It’s exactly what it says it is.  If you are self-publishing, you have given yourself as publisher the first rights to publish your manuscript.  If you are going the traditional publishing route, you are giving the publisher first rights to print your story.  In the U.S., this is known as the First North American Serial Rights, and it is highly valued by publishers.  During the time the publisher holds rights to your manuscript (this will be in your contract), you are not allowed to sell it to any other publisher, magazine, movie house…nada.  At the end of that period, the copyright reverts back to the owner and you can do whatever you want with it.  While you can never get back first rights to that work again (obviously), you can sell Reprint Rights, Anthology Rights, etc.

Is is possible to give up your first right of publication and not realize it?

Yes, especially if you have posted your work in a public domain.

Some agents and publishers will tell you a work is not considered ‘published’ if you have an excerpt of your manuscript on your blog or website.  Others will tell you in big letters, YES, IT IS!  Some will tell you it’s okay to post as long as the work is in an online critique group, and password protected.  Other publishers will tell you it doesn’t matter…published is published.  Who do you believe?  And what difference does it make?

It makes a big difference if you are going the traditional route.  To avoid the issue, I suggest not posting any of your works in a public domain.  I have some of my works posted in an online critique group, but they are password protected and there are further privacy levels to restrict which members I choose to critique my works.  Call me anal, but I don’t want my chances blown with a publisher because I posted something online in a public forum and now it’s considered “published”.  

As someone who wishes to follow the traditional publishing path, keeping my first rights until I find the right publisher is important to me.  If you plan on self-publishing, then it probably won’t matter to you.  Just be aware of the buzz surrounding this issue and plan accordingly to your publishing taste.