Ask Dave: A Newspaper Chain Wants All Rights to My Stories. Should I Blog for Them?

By Dave Fox

A couple of weeks ago, I answered part one of the following question about how to become the next Erma Bombeck:

laura-campanile“I’ve just been asked to sign a freelancing contract with Gannett and need advice from an experienced freelancer…. If I want to be the next Erma Bombeck, and Gannett wants all rights to the blog and all articles I write for them, how might I accomplish my goal?”

— Laura Campanile in Wall, New Jersey
Twitter: @LCampanile

Now for part two: If somebody wants you to sign away all rights to a story, should you do it? Let’s begin with a quickie primer on copyright laws.

There are dozens of variations, but as a freelancer here are the three most common terms you’ll encounter:

A copyrighted sewer? (Photo: Alan Levine - flickr/cogdogblog)

A copyrighted sewer? (Photo: Alan Levine – flickr/cogdogblog)

Exclusive Rights: This is what Gannett is asking Laura for. You write a story and the publisher owns that story forever. They can reuse it at any time. You cannot publish it elsewhere without their permission.

First Rights: Your story has never been published, and you let a publication be the first to use it. Many publications insist on this. They won’t publish anything that has appeared elsewhere. Once you sell “first rights,” you are then free to resell an article anywhere.

“Never published before” really means never – not even on a personal blog that gets six readers a month. Once you put something on a website that’s visible to the public, you have used that story’s first rights. (This leads to a common follow-up question: Should I not put stories on my blog that I think I can sell elsewhere? I’ll cover that topic in a different article soon.)

One-Time Rights: You grant a publication permission to publish your story once. Then, you can resell it whenever and wherever you want. Many smaller, low-paying publications are okay with this.

One-time rights are the legal default. If you sell a story, get paid, and there is no signed contract, all you have sold is one-time rights. If a publication tells you later you can’t reuse the story, you can tell them, “Too bad.” They must inform you before they publish your story if they want anything other than one-time rights.

So… should Laura grant Gannett exclusive rights to her columns? That depends on several factors. The first factor is pay. If somebody wants to own your words forever, you should, in theory, be well paid for those words. Many larger magazines – the ones that pay a dollar or more per word – ask for exclusive rights. With lower paying publications, the issue gets trickier.

I’ve sold exclusive rights before for low pay when I felt the exposure would benefit my career. In 2003, for example, I sold a story to Lonely Planet for their anthology, Rite of Passage: Tales of Backpacking ‘Round Europe. Lonely Planet offered me 100 US dollars for my tale about being naked and confused in a Finnish sauna. The story had already appeared on my website, so they asked for all rights to the story from that moment forward, and its removal from my site.

I bounced a few e-mails back and forth with the editors. I pointed out the pay was low for exclusive rights. They said yes, true, but it was what was in their budget. And they gently suggested something I already knew: Having one of the world’s most respected travel publishers on my résumé wouldn’t be a bad thing.

I negotiated for slightly better terms. In the end, Lonely Planet agreed I could keep the story on my website, and they agreed that while I couldn’t just sell the story wherever I wanted, I could publish it in a collection of my own stories, as long as I mentioned they owned the copyright. So my tale appears in both the self-published, first edition of my travel humor book, Getting Lost, as well as my short e-book of “deleted scenes” from the second edition, Loster.

Copyright terms are often negotiable. If you aren’t happy with the terms you are offered, ask if exceptions can be made.

Recently, an airline invited me to be a travel blogger on their website. They too wanted exclusive rights to my stories, and while the pay is reasonable for blog posts, it’s low for exclusive rights. I tried to negotiate for the right to reuse the stories, but their editor kindly explained she could not waver on company policies. I agreed to blog for them anyway – again because it’s decent exposure, and because I can hammer out a 500-word story fast. And that’s what they’re getting: quick travel blurbs, not tales I spend several days polishing to perfection. If I decide I really love something as I write it, I might save that version and blast out an alternative post for the airline. I’m still giving them quality writing, but not my best, most cherished work.

When you sell exclusive rights, you’re selling the rights to that version of the story, not the right to ever tell the story again or rewrite it. You can always create a new version and sell it elsewhere.

So, Laura, should you grant Gannett exclusive rights to your blog posts? Regardless of what they’re paying, if the opportunity will increase your exposure and bolster your writing résumé, I say go for it! Get your work out there and build your following of readers. The visibility can lead to other opportunities.

Good luck, Laura, and please keep us posted on your successes!

Got a question for Dave about humor, writing, travel, or something totally random? Send it to him via his Ask Dave page and you might see the answer in a future column.

Want to become a stellar humor writer? Dave’s online humor writing workshop, “Professional Humor Tricks for Writers, Speakers, and Other Misfits,” is packed with solid writing tips to help you write phenomenally funny stories. It’s open to writers of all skill levels and you can do it at your own pace, whenever you like. Sign up now and get started on the first lesson today!

Published on Monday, April 29, 2013

2 Responses to “Ask Dave: A Newspaper Chain Wants All Rights to My Stories. Should I Blog for Them?”

  1. Claudette Sandecki
    April 30, 2013 at 2:25 AM

    Dave, this is one of the best, clearest, all encompassing explanations I have read on rights.
    Thank you.

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