Written by A Guest Author December 21st, 2023

The Innocent Loss of First Rights

By Craig Westmore

You only get one chance to make a first impression and that applies to fiction as well.

Writers need to choose carefully where their fiction first appears. Whether you are seeking feedback or posting for family and friends, uploading your story to the internet can cause difficulty when trying to get it published later. You may have unknowingly given up the chance to have it appear in a prestigious magazine.

Many editors of long-running magazines publish original fiction and only original fiction because that is what their readers are expecting. These editors insist on having the first rights to a story – they want a guarantee it hasn’t appeared anywhere else.

Some magazines do accept reprints – stories that have been previously published. However, your chances of getting a story published become more difficult if you have already given up the first rights. In a search of journals that publish genre fiction, I found only half accept reprints.

And editors differ on what a reprint is. Some are flexible and only reject stories that have appeared in other journals. Others narrowly define a reprint as a story that has appeared anywhere online.

Aphelion Webzine publishes science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. In their submissions guidelines they state, “Because Aphelion is a non-paying venue, stories published here do not count as professional publication. All copyrights are reserved to the original authors.” Technically, they are not saying anything about first rights but it implies that you would retain these rights even if you published there.

Lack of payment from a journal, however, does not mean you’ve retained the first rights to your story. Many journals do not pay authors, but once a story has appeared in a journal then any place it appears later is considered a reprint, regardless of payment.

Clarkesworld Magazine provides a link on their guidelines page that offers a definition and examples of what they consider to be a reprint. They will not accept stories that have already appeared in print, audio, or digital format; or if an internet search can find the text of the story. They will also not accept a story that has appeared on the author’s website, even if the story is removed later.

According to editor Neil Clarke, stories read aloud at a convention or shared in a classroom don’t count as publication, as well as stories entered in a contest not shared with anyone but the judges. Stories maintain their first rights if they appear on ‘private sites that exists for the purpose of providing feedback on a story.’

A site like Wattpad allows you to share your stories and find a following of readers. This is the equivalent of self-publishing and therefore would be seen by most editors as previously published.

But it gets complicated with sites like Critique Circle and Scribophile that exist for the purpose of providing feedback on a story. These sites require the creation of a login and password. However, Neil Clarke states if a site allows anyone to join then it would be viewed as a ‘publicly available website’ and you would be at risk of losing your first rights if you posted a story there.

The safest bet for a work-in-progress is to submit your story to individuals or writing groups that are not open to the public. Critique Circle is free for anyone to use but they also have an option to pay for a premium membership. At this level, you can create a private group and invite people to it. The personal invitation to the group is what makes it private and protects the loss of first rights when you post a story for feedback. With these precautions, you should be able to submit your story to any journal as an original work.

But if your story has already appeared online, one option is to do a major revision. According to Neil Clarke, if the arc of the story is substantially different and any conflict has been altered so as not to be predictable from the experience of reading the original, then it can be viewed as a new story and therefore not a reprint. But what counts as ‘substantially different’ will depend on the editor.

If you see no way of altering your story, check the submission guidelines of journals that insist on first rights to see if there is an explanation of what they consider to be a reprint. You may even find some flexibility if you contact the journal. Editors of newer magazines tend to be more open in their definition of first rights and reprints. If you tell them the history of your story and where it has appeared online, they may consider it as an unpublished work.

Timothy Green, editor of Rattle Magazine, wrote an article for Lit Mag News where he encourages editors to rethink what it means to be previously published which you can read here. He has provided a list of publishers who agree with him.

Until the writing community comes up with a standard definition of a reprint, it is best to be cautious about where you upload any story before it is ready for publication.

Bio: Craig Westmore is a fiction writer and translator of medical research articles. He grew up in northern California and resides in the southern interior of Brazil with his wife and son. He kick-started his writing career after taking on the challenge of disconnecting the TV and internet for one month.


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