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.

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14 thoughts on “Do you really want to give up your first rights?

  1. A very informative post Jenny! I’ve heard that posting a sample chapter or a few pages on your website is acceptable to give readers a taste of your story. I didn’t realize it was such a hot button issue. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. 🙂

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  2. Great advice! I have only ever put very first drafts online, and probably wouldn’t put final manuscripts online anyway, but it is interesting to think about this aspect of becoming published too, so I might stick to what I was already doing! (Actually, I should get back to writing my novels/novellas full stop!). I think there are pros and cons to being both self published and traditionally published, but I think I would opt for traditional publishing if I could, when the time comes. 🙂

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  3. Thanks for sharing this. I’d heard varying things about this, so it’s nice to get someone else’s take on it.

    I’m going the traditional publishing route too, so I say pshaw to the people who harumph when you say you want to go the traditional route. Usually, it’s just “hating.”

    Good luck on your submission!

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    1. Thank you. I hope to hear something soon. The waiting is driving me crazy! 🙂 I’m with Jennifer. I don’t mind giving away my first right of publication to a reputable publisher in exchange for experience and publishing credits. There’s validation in being picked from a sea of submissions. I have my fingers crossed.

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  4. Don’t you love how self-published people “humph” like you are an idiot for wanting traditional publishing?

    Keep doing what you are doing. Personally, I check to see if a novel is self-published before I buy it. It may sound “snobby” but I have been burned too many times by self-published authors who were not ready for publication. I look at a publishing house as a means to say “yes, this is worth your money”. It’s like a seal of approval that someone with some knowledge thought it was good.

    That is not to say that there are no self-published books out there that are great…there are some that are very good. The problem is they are swimming in a pool of novels that are there because no one else wanted them. You need to be very selective to find the good stuff.

    I may want to self-publish in a few years, but for now, I want someone to tell me I’m ready so I don’t put out anything of poor quality that will haunt me forever. I don’t mind “giving away” my first right of publication in exchange for all they can offer me.

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    1. I’m with you, Jennifer. I know some self-published authors with some really great books, but they are in the minority. I am thrilled for them and the success they are having. Maybe someday for me. If so, it’ll probably be a book of poems or short stories that I have no idea where to submit for publication. But that’s a long way in the future. One hurdle at a time.

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  5. All great advice! 🙂

    The only fiction I publish is stuff I know I’m never going to send in. Most of it is experimental and I’m just having fun.

    I was poking around the classifieds in writer’s magazine, when I noticed some publishing houses make the distinction that previously published material is acceptable . . . the options are endless. 🙂

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