So, you want to published? Well, if you’ve read part one, you ought to have a suitable manuscript to submit. Time to send it off! But, where to? And, what does publication entail?
The following sections seek to cover the main points, but can only constitute a broad overview. Laws vary between countries, guidelines vary between publishers, and things can and do change over time. If you are uncertain, query or research further before submitting or signing a contract.
The first thing you need to do, is research where to send your manuscript. There are many publishers out there and it is a waste of both your time and theirs if you send it to the wrong one or submit it in the wrong way, and that’s before you consider which publisher would actually be the best one to approach.
Of course, while the structure of this two-part article has assumed you have a submission ready to shop around, it is equally possible to write one aimed at a specific market, for example, to meet the theme of an anthology. Neither approach is the ‘right way’ and even if you aim your writing at a specific publication, the odds are that it will be rejected and you’ll be shopping it around anyway (and, if you have something that suits the theme and length already written, it makes sense to submit it and direct your energies elsewhere).
But, whether you’re writing for a specific publication or trying to find a home for something you’ve already written, you do need to make sure you properly research the market to ensure your piece fits and that you understand issues such as rights and payment.
You may be surprised to learn how often people do something silly, such as sending a short story to a novel publisher or a horror story to a romance anthology. Of course, sometimes publishers are to blame, if their guidelines are vague or so dense that it’s difficult to locate specific details, but that generally results in errors like sending a 4000 word story when the cut-off length is 3000 words, rather than the sort of egregious errors I’ve mentioned, and a sensible writer will query if they cannot find the specifics they require.
Rights refers to what you are allowing the publisher to do with your work. Many publishers, unfortunately, insist on First Publication Rights – that is, they only want work that hasn’t previously been published. Sometimes, this may be more restricted – they may want work that hasn’t been published in print, but accept work that has appeared online (or vice versa), or work that hasn’t appeared within a specific geographical area (so First British Publication Rights would mean work that hasn’t previously been published in the UK); this latter is less common now, thanks to various print-on-demand (POD) platforms that allow a publisher to release a book in multiple regions at no extra cost.
Self-published work is considered published and most publishers consider work that has appeared on a blog or website or in publications with a limited circulation to be published, too. They usually state this in their guidelines, but, if in doubt, as always, query.
Because few publishers are interested in reprints (or, at least, unsolicited reprints – that is, reprints they didn’t ask for) and usually pay less, you do need to be sure that the publication is the right place for your work. Or, to put it another way, it makes sense to start with the better paying and more prestigious publications before trying lower or non-paying publications or posting it on your blog; you can always seek to have it republished or decide to put it on your blog later.
Of course, that decision has to be balanced by the marketability of your work. Some genres have spawned large numbers of magazines and anthologies, others are quite niche, and if your work falls into the latter, you may find there are few options open to you (just as there are fewer paying outlets for poetry than fiction).
Publication rights cover both print publication and electronic/digital publication and many publishers will seek to acquire both as they release their publications in both formats. Although many publishers, as mentioned, are seeking works that haven’t been published in any format, if they only acquire the rights to publish it in one format, then you may be able to find a publisher of the other who will regard it as unpublished. Print publication can be subdivided into various formats, such as periodical (magazine), paperback, hardback and large-print. These are seldom referred to when it comes to anthologies as most publishers are acquiring the rights to your work for an anthology that will only appear in a specific format, but will come into play where novels are concerned as it is fairly common for different publishers to handle different formats (meaning you either sell them individually or sell them all to one publisher who then resells or leases the rights to other publishers).
As well as straightforward publication rights, the publisher may also be seeking such rights as audio (that is audiobooks) and translation rights (in order to translate it into other languages). Other rights, such as film and stage rights, also exist, but publishers will not normally seek to acquire these. If you retain the audio rights to your work, you can freely record it yourself or sell it to an audio publisher (it is debatable whether this would be regarded as published, but you may find it easiest to have it published first before selling the audio rights, as most audio publishers are happy to accept previously published work). Translation rights exist for each language and do not impinge on the English language rights (so if you have had your story translated into German – or wrote it in German and then translated it into English – you can offer it as unpublished in English unless the publisher specifically mentions translations; but, note that competitions may ban or restrict the entry of translations). Naturally, film rights allow the story to be made into a film and stage rights allow the story to be adapted for the stage and performed, and will usually be sold to those in those fields (you are unlikely to have a say over how the work is adapted).
When granting rights to a publisher, you need to be aware of how long you are granting the rights for and whether or not they are exclusive. One-time publication rights is most common with periodicals and means that a single print run will be produced – although back issues could potentially be available for a long time, once the last copy is sold, no more will be produced without a new agreement being negotiated. Exclusivity refers to the work being restricted to appearing in only that publication (or, for novels, only with that publisher). One year from publication is the most common period for exclusivity, although it may range from three months to three years. Some publications only ever seek non-exclusive publication rights (although they may request the courtesy of exclusivity for a short period). Longer periods of exclusivity should be considered carefully as they will prevent you from reselling or republishing the work elsewhere. Non-exclusive rights refer to how long the publisher may keep the work in print.
In the past, you might sell a work for a single printing or allowing reprinting within a certain period, but with print-on-demand publishing, a publisher can keep an anthology or novel in print indefinitely and this presents something of a problem for the writer as many publishers are now asking for open-ended non-exclusive rights, which may affect the ability to resell work in the future if a publisher is seeking exclusivity. Of course, if you are receiving royalties, this isn’t a bad deal, as you’ll receive royalties for as long as the book sells, but if you sold your story for a one-off payment, the publisher is far more likely to benefit from the deal than you.
Payment can be a contentious issue! The sensible writer will, of course, avoid vanity presses (those publishers who charge you for the pleasure of seeing your work in print) and will generally avoid those publishers who offer no payment or contributor copy of any sort, as you’ll be paying them if you want a copy (although I do not class with these those webzines and ezines that are freely available to access or download, as you can get a copy for free). But, should a writer submit work to a publisher that only provides a contributor copy or to publishers that offer only royalties (or those webzines and ezines I mentioned)? That is a decision the writer alone can make.
When deciding where to submit work, the writer needs to consider multiple factors such as rights, length, effort, exposure, prestige, personal satisfaction and saleability. Firstly, the more rights you’re offering up, the better the payment you should expect. If a publisher wants audio and translation rights in addition to print publication rights, they should be prepared to pay more. The longer the period of exclusivity they request, the more they ought to offer, and an open-ended period of non-exclusive publication should offer more than one-off publication rights. If the publisher wants to wants to acquire the copyright to a piece outright, the payment ought to be good as you will lose all rights to exploit it yourself in the future.
When a publisher pays by the word or line of poetry, length will, obviously, have a direct effect upon how much you are paid (and allows you to easily compare payment – 2c per word is more than 1c per word). But, you also have to consider length and effort (frequently, but not always, closely related) when deciding what a piece is worth. You may be happy to put a limerick you dashed off in five minutes on your blog, but the epic poem that took you months to get right should be given more respect. Generally, the more time and effort that has gone into your work, the more you want to earn from it.
While the size of the readership will affect pay rates, as small presses with small readerships generally lack the income to pay well, if at all, you might equally be willing to accept lower pay for the opportunity to get your name out there. I’m not talking about those publishers who offer ‘exposure’ under payment (every publisher should be offering that!), but situations such as having a poem on a non-paying webzine that is read by lots of people or in a local newspaper for free. It may be that not being paid or paid less might help you to generate a readership that will increase your income in the long term. Equally the prestige of a publication may affect your decision – is it better to earn $50 from a midline publication or $10 from a prestige publication that will look good on your writing CV? Again, you’re making a call based on long term gain – can a publication credit leverage you better pay rates or more readers in the long term?
Personal satisfaction is that nebulous element of just how happy you are to see your name in print. Some writers are only really interested in writing as a hobby and will be more than happy to see their poem or story in print (although, no matter how pleased, I would recommend they should avoid paying for a copy). Some writers are full-time professionals and would place a paycheque far ahead of any sense of satisfaction. Most are somewhere in between. Only you can decide how satisfying any given publication credit is. This may even change over time. A beginning writer may feel that building up a portfolio of publication credits is their main aim, but once they are established will look mainly at the income they make. Equally, a beginning writer may be hardnosed in pursuit of money. It’s entirely up to you.
Saleability is the last thing to consider. That is, the question of how much would you expect the work to make you. Generally, a reprint will earn you less than an unpublished piece, but a piece that has proven popular may sell better as a reprint. Often, the more niche a piece is, the less it is likely to earn you due to the smaller audience, although if there is sufficient demand and few writers, the reverse may be true. The actual quality of the writing will affect the saleability – the better you are at writing, the greater your chances of being accepted by the higher-paying markets as you will usually have far more competition. And, of course, the more popular and famous you are, the more people will be willing to pay for your work.
By considering all these aspects, you can decide what a reasonable pay rate for any given piece of work is (and you may decide that different pieces are worth different amounts).
The same issues apply to self-publishing when deciding how much to charge for your book. Obviously, you’re keeping your rights, so they don’t factor in, and exposure will either be guesswork or based on experience, but you will need to balance your sense of satisfaction, the book’s saleability and the amount of time and effort (and any costs, such as paying for a cover image) that went into it.
The problem with publishing contracts is that 90% of them cover amounts far too small to make enforcing them worthwhile (especially when publisher and writer are in different countries). Only if the writer goes on to become famous or the book sells really well is it worth pursuing any breach. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop publishers from issuing contracts for piddling amounts, often with pointlessly complex language and more clauses than necessary, meaning that you will almost certainly have to deal with them.
Of course, where larger amounts of money are involved or specific duties covered (for example, the publisher has promised to provide a certain level of publicity or the writer has agreed to write a novel to a set deadline) then a contract is a must, but many are nothing more than an inconvenience.
Unfortunately, whether a contract is offered and how complex it is has little to do with the amounts involved. Most small press publishers that offer only a complimentary copy work solely on an informal basis of acceptance letters or emails, but you could still receive a lengthy contract for exactly the same offer.
Generally, you do not need to have a lawyer look over publishing contracts, as the issues are straight forward – what rights are you granting the publisher and for how long, what format will it be published in, when it is due to be published, what happens if publication is delayed or cancelled, and how much will you be paid and when.
But, you do need to read them carefully to be certain nothing slips by you, especially if the language is convoluted and flowery. The last thing you want is to discover you’ve given away more rights than you intended. Most publishers are decent, honest folk, but this might happen unintentionally if the contract is poorly worded (I had to ask for one contract to be reworded because if implied I would have to pay the publisher if I wanted to reprint the story in my own anthology).
Given that most contracts cover such small amounts, the cost of having it looked at by a lawyer will be prohibitive. But, if you aren’t sure a contract is legit or you just don’t understand it, you do have options that don’t cost a penny. If you know a professional writer or publisher, they may be willing to look at it for you and offer their opinion (but bear in mind they aren’t an expert and can only offer a layman’s advice, and remember they are busy people and may not be able to spare the time). If you are a member of a body such as the Society of Authors, you are likely to have access to professional legal advice provided by the body. There are also sites online where you can post legal questions to get lawyers’ opinions (some are free and rely on whoever, if anyone, looks at your question, others charge but guarantee your question will receive an answer; of course, there is no guarantee that the person who answers your question will be an expert in contract law, but they should at least be able to offer some guidance).
If you are lucky enough to be offered a substantial amount of money, then do seek professional legal advice to make sure everything is legitimate.
Today, it is common for contracts to be signed electronically, using Adobe, or for scanned signed copies or even a typed, emailed declaration to be accepted. These methods are held to be held legally binding.
You now have a basic understanding of all the key points, so what are you waiting for? Go, submit your work.