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A Writer's Complete Guide to Rights in the Print Media


As a writer, have you wondered what sort of rights you have on your work? Have you wondered which of these rights give you maximum advantage and earning? A literary agent can help you choose your contracts or discard them according to the rights specified by the publisher. If you are careful enough, you can choose the rights yourself. Here is your complete guide to print rights in the physical print media. Electronic media rights warrant a separate post itself, as there many disputes over copyright there.

The Rights Available to You as Writer

You are the owner of the work. And you have all the rights to let anyone publish or not publish your work in any form. Here are the major rights you can sell.

1. First Serial Rights

With this right, you can enable a publisher to publish your work for the first time. You can impart this right to only one publisher, and is usually limited to any geographical area. The most common example of this is FNASR (First North American Serial Rights), which gives the publisher right to publish the work in North American geography, which includes also Canada.

Another type of First Serial Rights is First Word English. It’s a right to publish in all the English-speaking countries. However, if you give out only the FNASR, you can retain the rights to publish in other English speaking countries such as the UK, South Africa, Australia, etc.

First Serial Rights sold to an online publication is not limited by geographical area.

Today, most of the book publishers are interested in the World Rights, which give them international first-time publication license for the work.

2. Second Serial (Reprint) Rights

This is the license given out to any publisher after the work has been published originally anywhere. So, the publication is going to be a reprint. This can be either exclusive or non-exclusive. In the former, the publisher can own the work for a specified period. For more information on exclusive and non-exclusive rights, please read below.

3. One Time Rights

With this right, the publisher can publish the work only once and cannot reprint. Also, the work may be retained in their archives for a brief period, specified in the contract. This work should be removed from the archives once the period in question is over. However, in the electronic market, there is a confusion going on as to the removal of the work. This is a hotly debated topic. One Time Rights may be given as exclusive or non-exclusive.

4. Anthology Rights

Sometimes, publishers collect short works of various authors to roll out an anthology. Mostly, the publishers collect the materials already published in magazine issues for that year. This is a separate contract with the writer even if the writer has already sold to the publisher the First Serial Rights, since the First Serial doesn’t enable the publisher to reprint the work.

5. All Rights

This is when you dethrone yourself as the possessor of the work in every sense. However, you are still proclaimed as the copyright possessor of the work. A garbage of a copyright! You are not allowed to reprint the work anywhere, sell it to anyone, make any profit from it in any way, or even use some part of your work in any of your future works. This means you are out of business of your work.

As writers, you are not really expected to sell all rights to the publishers, though the publishers may recommend it, since it is highly profitable for them. Please read below for the guidelines as to choosing the right license.

6. Excerpt Rights

You can see the excerpts of various novels by reputed writers in the Best Seller Lists of the New York Times. These are due to the excerpt rights sold to New York Times for their novels. These rights are separate from the First Serial Rights, though some writers may confuse it with that. Excerpt right sale doesn’t revoke your First Serial Rights sale at all.

Subsidiary Rights

Even after selling your first and second serial rights, you have got rights to sell; in fact, several of them. These are generally included under a single banner, ‘Subsidiary Rights’. They include the movie rights, CD, DVD rights, music rights, translation rights, language rights, etc.

You are the creator of the work and you retain all the rights unless you have already sold all of them. If a movie rights purchase proposal comes your way, you can allow that, since it entirely rests with you, and the publisher cannot interfere at all.

Subsidiary rights are a great way for authors to continue to make money from their work. It is hence always recommended in writers’ advantage that they not sell all rights for any of their works.

Translation rights are another great way for making further money. There is a huge international market for English novels. Sidney Sheldon’s works have been translated to almost 51 languages. A very small fraction of 300 million copies he sold was in English speaking countries. Agatha Christie, the most successful writer in history, has had her books translated to 56 languages, and got nearly 2 billion of her books sold. How much do you think were sold to the English speaking countries?

There is a huge potential for writers outside their traditional market, and you should wisely tap your resources. Look at another example in Stephen King. Most of his revenue comes from the movies produced based on his novels.

Work Made for Hire (WMFH)

These are the works in which your role is that of a ghostwriter. You own neither the copyright nor any reprint or subsidiary rights. Once written, you sell all your rights to the entity you are writing for, and dethrone yourself from all subsequent troubles. And it is an entirely rotten contract for writers. You are not even credited with a byline in this case. The purchaser of your work, after paying you a measly sum, may enthrone himself as the author of the work, distribute it in any way he wants, and earn all money the work makes. You are entitled for nothing more than your upfront fee.

[This sort of a publication option is what you get when you publish with Associated Content with all rights (their recommendation); the only thing is that there, the sum and exposure you get is too meager.]

Exclusive Rights Vs. Non-exclusive Rights

Exclusive rights give the buyer the option to keep the work with them for a brief period, mentioned in the contract. This period makes them the owner of the work, with all the rights to reprint, create derivative works, and other ways of profiting from the work, in accordance with the contract. In this period, the writer is not allowed to resell any right to any other publisher, exclusively or non-exclusively.

At the end of the period, the publisher should return all the rights to the creator and should remove any archived copies of the work. The sale begins again.

Non-exclusive sale is quite the opposite. Here, several publishers can share the rights of the work. Most of the reputed publishers do not approve of this. They want exclusive rights for the material.

Writers’ Tips

1. About Selling All Rights: It is not at all recommended that you sell all rights for your work. Many publishers may encourage you to submit all rights, or may even not accept your work without that at all.

When you sell all rights, any way of making money from subsequent reprints, movie rights, translation, etc., is gone entirely. You are just credited as the owner of the work and nothing more.

You should read the example of Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Their creation, the great superhero, Superman went on to be one of the greatest fictional characters of 20th century, and they had to watch him break all records with a measly sum of about 20,000 dollars a year, in their last years. They had sold all rights of Superman during the early days of its creation to National Comics, now owned by Warner Bros. They had thought that Superman would just remain a simple comic character. But that was not to be the case. It sore to fame, broke bestseller records, and was adapted into movies.

Siegel and Shuster fought in the court against National Comics several times over the copyright of Superman and they failed due to the simple mistake they had done. National Comics had retained them as employees, as per the original contract, to create more of Superman stories and artwork. However, since they started legal war with them, the company terminated their employment and refused to reinstate them. In their last years, Shuster and Siegel were hard up and were almost bankrupt, while their character made millions and millions for the publishers.

When Warner Brothers realized their situation, they made a statement that though they were not legally bound to give Shuster and Siegel any emolument, they were morally obliged to do so. Warner reinstated their credit over Superman with a statement in every Superman recreation as: “Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” and established an annual pension of $20,000 for them. Their families still fight for the rights of Superman.

I hope their condition is not reproduced anywhere. So, writers, don’t sell all rights of your work anywhere. People sell all rights only in specific situations in which the content doesn’t have any big market value.

2. Retain maximum rights with yourself for the future. Always make sure you sell the best rights. Your literary agent can guide you in this. And the market value of the work will be known once it is published. If the work gets popular, you will get better offers for other rights of your work. Never sell all rights for a highly popular work, and wait for the best one.

It is also true that not selling enough rights for a non-marketable material may not get you enough profits. Analyze how much sales and buzz your work makes after selling its First Serial Rights. Then you will have a better idea of subsequent right sales. If it becomes popular, then selling second serial, movie, and translation rights can make you a bounty. On the other hand, if the response is lukewarm, then why not consider giving it out to the next best deal you get other than waiting longer?

3. Don’t write for WMFH, unless the return is substantial or you urgently need some money. Yes, WMFH tend to give you more than normal articles or books may make, but only once. However, you are selling your soul in this way. You are not authorized for any return even if your work makes a fortune for the buyer. He can keep all the money and is not even morally obliged to consider your part in it.

4. When selling exclusive and non-exclusive rights: Exclusive right makes your buyer the owner of the work for a brief period. Make sure you are parting with as few rights as possible. When you sell exclusive, your buyer may ask you to give them extra rights like electronic reprint, archiving, CD, DVD, or even translation. All for a single price. You should know that your buyer may make extra profit from the work buy creating DVDs, translations, and films from your work. So, it is always good not to part with exclusive rights for marketable material.

With non-exclusive rights, you can publish the work with as many publishers as possible.

You should consider exclusive rights only if the publisher is highly reputed and the time span is short enough for you to recapture the rights over the material.

5. Make sure you read the contract carefully. Most of the contracts start with a genuine First Serial Rights clause. But there may be some place within the contract that allows you to give all rights to the publisher. Don’t choose that option unless absolutely necessary. Make sure you read the contract carefully and consult with your literary agent when signing up. This is why I recommend literary agents.


Selling rights is a very tricky arena in writing business landscape. You have to be very smart to choose the best option for your publication of your work. Your negotiation skill can bring in a great deal from your publisher. All the best.

For information on electronic rights and the issues associated with them, please be current with the blog, and await that article. Subscribe to the RSS feed.

Related Entries:

Guide to Getting Published: Primary Steps
Book Promotion Online: How to Do That?
How to Promote Your Books on Facebook?
How to Format Your Typescript (Manuscript)?

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008


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