People commonly talk about the sale of fiction rights as if they were a bulk package. In reality, there is a broad spectrum of marketable rights that stem from a single work of fiction, one subset of which is electronic rights. Understanding how rights work is crucial for navigating digital publishing.
What Publishers are Looking For
Online fiction magazine sites differ slightly in terms of the rights they are looking for. Clarksworld wants first world electronic rights, first print rights, and non-exclusive anthology rights. Asimov’s Science Fiction wants First English Language serial rights, and Strange Horizons wants first-printing world exclusive English language rights. For beginning writers trying to publish online, deciphering these requests can require a little clarification.
An Author’s Rights Under Copyright
To better understand what rights publishing companies are asking for, it helps to understand what rights an author has under copyright in the first place. According to the Digital Media Law Project, there are six key rights protected under copyright which are: the right to reproduce, to distribute, to create derivative works, to perform a work, to publicly display it, and the right to perform it publicly for recordings. Electronic rights merely refer to how these rights protect an author’s work in electronic media.
Jerry Cornelius, in an article for Hubpages writes that authors don’t sell their rights but license a specific right or rights to a publisher. Yen Cabag, in an article for TCK Publishing, notes that when authors license their work rights are often broken up into specific parts. An author has a variety of marketable rights from one single work including the right to print their work electronically.
Defining Electronic Rights
Cornelius defines licensing print rights as allowing publishers to reproduce a work in any form of printed media. Licensing electronic rights allows a publisher to be the first to distribute a work electronically. Freelance Writing’s article Publication Rights for Freelance Writers discusses how granting all electronic rights gives publishers the ability to do anything from record a work on CD’s or post it on the internet. However, a publisher who only has electronic rights for a work cannot publish the work in print. Web rights give the publisher the right to post your article on the web but cannot reproduce it by CDs or similar means.
Claire E. White, writing in A Novice Writer’s Guide to Rights, advises that writers clearly define which electronic rights they are licensing and which they are not, as electronic rights themselves can be broken down into subcategories that are continually expanding due to advances in technology. Due to the broad scope of rights that authors possess, clarity of what you are offering and what you are not is key when negotiating contracts.
First Rights and Electronic Publishing
Brain A. Klems describes First North American Serial Rights (FNASR) in an article for Writer’s Digest. FNASR gives a publisher the right to be the first to publish a work in North America before any other publication.
While licensing first rights may seem straightforward, Cornelius writes that first rights are media-specific, allowing an author to sell first print rights and first electronic rights separately. An author can sell first electronic rights even after their work has long been in print, provided electronic rights were not included when they sold print rights. This gives authors an added stream of income and helps further monetize their work.
How to Keep from Losing First Electronic Rights
Writers also need to be aware of the consequences of posting material online. The editor of Clarkesworld Magazine Neil Clarke writes that editors consider a story published if it appears on your site or another publicly available website. While this might not fit many writers’ conceptions of publication, from an editor’s standpoint, the work has already been viewed, and first serial rights can no longer be sold. Taking care of what you post can save your first electronic rights.
When negotiating a book deal, it is important to know what rights you have and what they are worth to a publisher, allowing you to better understand your assets and the needs of the market.