Writers are often advised never to sign “all rights” or work-for-hire contracts. I say “never” is too strong a word.
Of course, we should avoid these contracts as much as possible. After all, when we sign away our rights, we lose the ability to sell reprints, which can be a freelancer’s lifeblood.
However, my policy is “if the price is right, I’ll sign.” A few months ago, a writer’s organization proudly proclaimed that one of their members had turned down a $2/word contract because of the publication’s rights-grabbing contract. I say that member was a fool.
How many places were going to reprint that article of his? I believe it was for Skiing magazine; a specialized market to say the least. He couldn’t have sold to another national magazine afterwards, since almost no nationals will buy reprints of articles that have already appeared in other nationals. So, fine, he might have sold it to a few local or regional publications at drastically lower rates… but was it really worth it to turn down this assignment?
Let’s say he lucks out like crazy and manages to sell it to another national publication instead. This publication will buy first North American serial rights, but they’ll only pay $1/word (half of what he would have been paid before). Now he has the right to sell reprints, so he does—he researches markets, sends out cover letters and copies of his article, and he manages to resell it to a newspaper (for $100), a regional magazine (for $.10/word), an overseas publication (for $.25/word), and a website (for $.15/word). He still hasn’t made as much money as he would have if he’d signed the original contract, and now he’s put in much more work in researching markets, sending out his article, corresponding with editors, invoicing, etc.
I think these unions and writers’ organizations have missed the point when they insist that writers should never sign these kinds of contracts. The whole point of retaining rights is so writers can earn a decent wage from their articles. It’s presumed that a writer can’t earn a living wage merely selling each article once, so they need the right to resell each article. However, if every publication paid $2/word, would we really need to worry about reprints at all?
The price must be right, and it must be appropriate for the work involved. I’m less hesitant to sign all rights contracts for timely news articles that I likely won’t be able to sell again next week; I’m also less hesitant to sign when the article is so specialized that it only fits a few magazines (for example, an article for a trade magazine for window washers). If I won’t be able to sell the reprint anyway, why bother fighting to keep that right?
When I think I could sell the reprint, I add up what I think I could reasonably expect to earn from the piece if I sold only non-exclusive rights. For most articles, I would only sell about 2-3 reprints. There have only been a handful of articles that I continue to sell time after time; for articles with that kind of potential, it would never be financially feasible for one publication to pay me enough to make it worth it for me to sell all rights.
But for most articles, I’ve made about $.50/word for first rights, and between $.10/word and $.25/word for reprints in small-to-mid-sized magazines and e-zines. So, when I’m done, I’ve made between $.70 and $1.25/word altogether. Now, if a magazine comes along and wants to pay me $1.25/word for all rights, I’ll likely sign. Why? Because that’s the maximum of what I think I can earn for that article otherwise, and because they’ve just saved me the time and effort of having to sell reprints.
All I ask is the opportunity to earn a decent living; I would almost feel greedy trying to resell that $2/word article. I don’t need to make more than that; if I got paid $2/word, I’d only have to sell about two feature articles a month to earn a very comfortable living.
Who could ask for anything more?
Jenna Glatzer is the author of OUTWITTING WRITER’S BLOCK AND OTHER PROBLEMS OF THE PEN, available at http://www.absolutewrite.com/jenna/books.htmm. She is also the editor-in-chief of Absolute Write (http://www.absolutewrite.com) and a friend to small furry creatures everywhere.