When a Publisher Asks for Nonexclusive Rights to One of Your Articles …

We recently had a bit of excitement behind the scenes at New Hampshire Writers’ Network. The publisher of a new textbook asked Jamie if they could reprint one of her L2W-W2L posts. Her very popular 10 Ways Journaling Makes You a Better Writer to be exact.

This was no small self-publishing effort. The publishers were planning a first print run of 150,000. More good news, they were not looking for exclusive rights and were willing to pay. Without suggesting a figure, Jamie was asked to submit an invoice. Maybe they forgot or maybe they were being coy but the company never specified a figure. The word token was bandied about in describing said payment.

As we often do, the Writers quickly held a virtual discussion via email to exchange a few ideas. After a few woot-woots! for Jamie, her good work and good fortune, we all agreed that token could mean anything. So first and foremost, we agree if anyone offers $$$ but asks for an invoice without agreeing a figure, go back and ask for a figure first and send the invoice later. Jamie was glad she asked and was well satisfied with their answer.

During our email discussion we shared some of our experiences with nonexclusive contracts to help Jamie evaluate their answer and proposed payment. In case you are wondering what we came up with … here goes:

Syndication is the ultimate in non-exclusivity. You sell your work to many, if you are lucky thousands, of publications. Maybe you have a gardening or technology column that you’ve been selling to your local newspaper for peanuts. If that’s the case, you may be thinking of syndicating or selling the column to every newspaper within a 1,000 mile (or more) radius and websites from here to infinity and beyond.

When you syndicate your work you retain the rights and the individual payments are small. If you self-syndicate you can expect payments of $10-15 per article. If you work with an agency, they will take a percentage but don’t begrudge them their cut. If they are any good, they have considerably more marketing, sales and admin muscle than you have on your own. You may make less per insert but you should more than make it up in the volume.

But what about what about Jamie’s situation … non-exclusive rights to an article? A non-exclusive contract saves a publisher money so many don’t mind if you re-sell it. Of course there is a catch. (There’s always a catch.) While a text book may pluck articles from blogs and magazines, most magazines want first dibs to your work.

They don’t mind if you re-sell but their contracts usually stipulate exclusive first North American Serial Rights. The period of exclusivity will be stated in the contract, usually three, six or twelve months. At the end of the exclusivity period you are free to re-sell the material to another client.

However, it can be difficult to re-sell a piece without a significant rewrite or new hook. As much as the next editor loves your idea, chances are her contract will also insist on exclusive first North American Serial Rights. Her ardor for your story will quickly cool when she learns that another magazine ran it verbatim six months ago.

But don’t despair, you’ve done some research and put a story together. You can always rework and reuse parts of the original story. Plus quotes and information that didn’t make it into the final version might come in handy in a new story. While it’s not instant money, it’s better than starting from scratch.

For this short-term exclusivity, regional magazines are apt to pay 25-50 cents per word. However as little as 10 cents per word (and unfortunately sometimes even lower) is not unheard of. On the plus side, national publications will usually pay more (and sometimes much more).

What’s your experience with non-exclusive contracts? We’d love to hear from you?

Susan Nye is a corporate dropout turned writer. Her favorite topics include food, family, marketing, small business and green living. Feel free to visit her food blog Susan Nye – Around the Table or Susan Nye 365 her day in a life photoblog.
© Susan Nye, 2012

13 thoughts on “When a Publisher Asks for Nonexclusive Rights to One of Your Articles …

  1. On contracts, I’ve only signed two publisher contracts since 2004. I’ve never been a offered a “nonexclusive rights” for anything. I do think this is an important post and within is the information that many new writers here are not aware of. And it Brings back stinging, Yes, stinging memories. I had typed in the top write corner of every short story manuscript – “First North Ameican Serial Rights.” This in the hopes of a sale, for, gee, how many years since 1979? What is quietly hilarious is that when submitting to several regional journals, I would have, we all would, “give the rights” for issues, or for “nothing.” Hopefully the writing got better through the years. But, the main thing is, one must have written something worth selling. I leave it at that. And kudos to Jamie. Quite marvelous.

    • Tim – thanks for stopping by … yes – the work must be worth publishing before we worry too much about rights … exclusive or otherwise. Not sure why you type “first … rights” on your manuscripts? Good luck to you, Susan

  2. I’ve got a great staff writer’s gig. Four to six articles per month – 500-800 words per article, $75 for an unquoted topic, $150 for each article that contains a quote or reliable source. It’s for a website and the “Content Writing Agreement” states: “Release of Rights: _____will have complete an proprietaryownership of all the delivered articles. Once delivered, the writer will have no rights to them and won’t be allow to use them for any purpose. It is expressly agree the writer is actiing solely as an independent contractor in performing services. ”

    Honestly, I have no idea what that means. I love the editor. She has been forthright, generous with feedback, accepts almost all my articles with little to no corrections or major revisions, publishes them all and many have been syndicated by Hearst, Gatehouse News and McClatchy. Gatehouse published in more than 300 publications – newspapers, online, etc. I got no compensation for the syndications, but assume the contract excludes payment. I was grateful for the exposure because I am building a resume for myself.

    Should I be asking for more? I am not sure about the whole topic of what I should/should not charge, what the “going rate” is, and what should or should not be included in a standard contract.

    Why does it seem that there is little consistency for these things in publishing? As a relatively new writer (in terms of doing it for a “real” living), it appears to be a field where there are no set guidelines at all. I find this extremely confusing.

    • Laura – It sounds to me that all content which the company purchases from you is owned exclusively by them. That $75 or $150 buys them exclusive rights to the article and you can not resell or republish in any other outlet. However, since they are the owners of the content, they can resell it and obviously do.

      The part about being an independent contractor is to clearly state that you are not an employee. It protects them from paying you benefits or unemployment if they stop using your work.

      If you are uncomfortable with or unsure of the contract, you should speak with a lawyer. As another writer, I can only share my experience but it would be irresponsible for me to offer any legal advice or interpretation.

      Industry standard rates don’t exist because there are so many different types of media outlets, all with different earning and therefore paying capacities. A publication is a business and they need to make money or they’ll go under. Fees vary drastically because a tiny village weekly pays what it can afford … as does a huge national magazine or blog.

      If you have a good relationship with the editor, I see no harm in having a discussion about fees. Ask yourself – what’s the worst that can happen? If she says no, you’ve already described your situation as great so big deal. I’ve asked for rate increases a couple of times and so far I have not been turned down.

      I don’t have experience with a publication reselling my work without compensating me. My gut response is I wouldn’t like it. However, I know nothing about the website or their business model so I can’t comment. Just remember if want to negotiate compensation for the resale of your articles, it will not be $75 or $150 per outlet. If you succeed, you will be paid a percentage of the website’s earning or profits from the resale of your work.

      Good luck to you – Susan

      • Well, my gut response is I don’t really like it either. They get additional exposure and I get nothing. They syndicate it under their name, but the advantage to me is that I get to take advantage of the exposure as well, since I stipulated they cannot syndicate the article without my name attached.

        I expect that as I gain experience I will be getting paid for this type of thing. For now, I count myself lucky that this editor took a chance on me. She had advertised for a writer who was previously published. I sent her a sample article and she jumped on it and called me the next day to hire me. It’s not the ideal work, but it helps pay the bills while I try to gain more lucrative work and again, it’s exposure. I asked for a raise, she said that was what they paid all their writers. I negotiated for more past a certain word count. She agreed.

        I’m not complaining. I suspect all writers have done a gig or two or three that were not as lucrative or as fair as they would’ve liked them to be and a number have had very poor experiences. This editor is good to work with, and I have no complaints about that at all.

  3. Love your perspective on this, Susan. Thanks for sharing!
    For my own experience, I’m so grateful that the inquiring publisher was, in my case, so professional and forthcoming … AND that I had this excellent group of writers more seasoned in terms of traditional publishing to turn to for practical advice. You guys are the best!

  4. It has been so long since my work was published in magazines and journals that I am not sure I remember accurately: I THINK there was a non-exclusive contractual agreement. Anyway, I am going to aim at getting my allegorical adult fairy tale series published by a small, very GOOD publishing house. I will work with them on publicity and then go from there. I am still shopping for some smart, affordable literary/entertainment industry law firm because I dream of selling movie rights: YES, I DO!

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