Freelance Writing Mini-Series - Part 4

Selling Publication Rights

In this part of our mini-series, you will learn about the different types of publication rights. Our focus in this module is on the sale of regular freelance manuscripts such as articles, short stories, essays, and poems. 

The Importance of Publication Rights

It is vital that all freelance writers understand the different types of publication rights. If, as a freelance writer, you do not understand these rights, then it is possible that you could:

  • sell rights for too low a price,
  • get in legal trouble for breaching the terms of a contract, or
  • lose all of the rights to your manuscript!

Who Owns Your Manuscript?

When you write a manuscript, the copyright automatically belongs to you. You own all of the rights to it. 

The exception to this is when you write the piece as an employee, and then it is a "Work For Hire" and your employer owns the rights to it.

When you have written a manuscript to which you own all of the rights, it is up to you how you sell those rights.

If you like, you can sell it once by "selling All Rights" and relinquish all of the rights to your manuscript. That's not usually a good idea, though. 

A smart freelance writer will try to sell their manuscript multiple times by "carving up" the rights. They will sell the right to publish a manuscript to multiple publishers under specific, and non-conflicting, circumstances

For example, you may sell First North American Serial Rights to one publisher. The publisher is purchasing the right to be the first to publish your article in print form in North America.

Next, you could sell Second North American Serial Rights or reprint rights to another publisher. 

You can also sell First British Serial Rights to a publisher in the United Kingdom. 

And so on. 

  • Whenever you sell the right to publish your article, there should be a written contract, or at the very least, an email that clearly specifies the precise terms of the sale. 

Dividing Up The Publication Rights

Some of the ways that the publication rights to a manuscript can be defined, or divided up, include by:

  • Time (First Rights, Second Rights, etc.)
  • Geographic territory (North American, British, Australasian, etc.)
  • Language (English, Spanish, Chinese, etc.)
  • Medium (Print, Electronic, Online, etc.)

Note: "Serial rights" refer to periodical print publications such as magazines.

Definitions of Publication Rights

Let's take a closer look at some definitions:

  • First Rights: the right to be the first to publish your manuscript. It is better for you if the geographic territory or medium is also defined so that you will still be able to sell First Rights in other territories or mediums. 
  • Second or Reprint Rights: the right to reprint a manuscript which has been previously published by another publisher. 
  • One-Time Rights: the publication buys the right to publish your manuscript once, although not necessarily first. The manuscript may have been published elsewhere. 
  • Electronic Rights: this term came into being before the days of the Internet, and refers to the right to publish your manuscript in any electronic form, such as CD-ROMs and DVDs. These days, a publisher may consider electronic rights to include the Internet as a form of digital or electronic media. 
  • Online Rights: the right to publish your article on the Internet or in emails. These rights are also sometimes referred to as Digital Rights, Internet Rights, or Web Rights. Some publishers may consider Online Rights to include Electronic Rights, such as the right to publish your manuscript on a DVD or other storage device. 

The following two situations involve relinquishing all rights to your work:

  • All Rights: it is not usually a good idea to sell all rights to your manuscript. Once they own all of the rights the purchaser may not only publish it but they can do anything else they want to do, such as change it, resell it, charge for access to it, turn it into a movie, etc. Whatever they decide to do with it, you will never receive another payment because you have given up all rights. 
  • Work for Hire: when a person is hired as an employee to write manuscripts, the law in many countries recognizes the employer, and not the employee, as the owner of those manuscripts. As a freelance writer, you should avoid writing under "Work For Hire" agreements. "Work For Hire" agreements are worse than selling "All Rights" because the "employer" can represent your work as their own and not even mention you as the author of the work. 

 You will also sometimes come across the following rights:

  • Exclusive Rights: when a publisher purchases exclusive rights it means that your manuscript cannot appear anywhere else during the specified timeframe. Exclusive rights may be further defined by the medium such as Exclusive Online Rights, in which case you could still sell the manuscript for print publication somewhere else. 
  • Simultaneous Rights: multiple publishers can publish your article at the same time. 
  • Archival Rights: the right to archive, or the right "to make the manuscript available online", is sometimes requested. This permits the publication to keep your manuscript accessible by their web visitors. Be careful because as long as your piece is available online it is considered to be "in print" and it can be harder to sell under other terms to other publications. 
  • Excerpt Rights: the right to publish a portion or excerpt of your manuscript. 
  • Anthology Rights: the right to publish your manuscript in a specific anthology or compilation of manuscripts. 

Did You Sell All Rights?  

  • If you sell all rights to your article, you might still consider re-working the piece with a different slant or angle for another publication. 


What's Next?

Now that you understand the types of publication rights, we can look at how to sell your manuscript.

In the next part of this course, we'll look at how to approach editors, by either submitting an article or writing a query letter. Watch out for the next email soon!

About this Course

This module is part of our mini-series on Freelance Writing sent by email to our subscribers. If you've landed on this page from somewhere else, and would like to sign up for this entire mini-series, please click here.

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