Last night, I posted a rather lengthy comment to a post in Lit Mag News about rights and reprints. It was so long that I thought it would be a shame for it to be seen only there and so I thought I would post an expanded and refined version here for your enjoyment and possibly enlightenment.
I publish one small online magazine (thechambermagazine.com) that has been online since December 2020 and am toying with maybe starting one or two more. I see rights as being important if the author being published is well known.
If I publish one of my stories (one that I authored) for the first time anywhere, the general reaction from the reading public will be to the effect of “who cares?”. If Stephen King publishes a new story in, let’s say, the New Yorker, then it’s a big deal. Everyone and his brother will want to read the new Stephen King story the moment it is out and will be willing to pay whatever it takes to read that story. And the way for the New Yorker to maximize their profits on that story is to ensure they are the only ones to have it for a certain period. That is where rights come into play.
But for most writers, even if they are paid at pro rates, they don’t stand to make a lot of money off short stories. The money has been in novels for a long time. The only real value in a short story for a writer is exposure. It keeps that author’s name and talent in front of the public, so they don’t forget him when his novel comes out. They can also help expand the writer’s readership by introducing that writer to a part of the public who has never seen his work.
The key to the entire writing game is exposure. The bigger the readership an author has, the bigger his income is. So, when authors submit stories to my magazine knowing that I cannot pay for them, they do know they will get exposure and another publication credit, and their reputation is bolstered a little for being published among other high-quality authors.
Do I care if a story I publish is a reprint? No. Like someone said elsewhere in the comments, having a previous publication credit is a sign the story is of decent quality (depending on the mag of course). I like publishing a story by a well-known author for the first time, but it’s not critical to me. Anything I print, so long as it is quality material, builds my mag’s reputation and draws more attention to the magazine and ergo increases my readership, who will hopefully come to the website and buy something or make a donation.
Do I care if a story printed somewhere else the next day? No. There are thousands of magazines out there in the literary ether and odds are slim that someone who read a story in my mag (The Chamber Magazine) will read it in another mag the next day. Besides, would seeing a story you know is previously published and is a reprint stop you from reading the mag that reprinted it? Probably not. There will probably be a lot of other stories in that mag that you haven’t read. If someone were copying my magazine issues story by story and publishing them under a different name, that would be another matter, but I have never heard of anyone doing that.
All this would change for me if my circulation were to jump to over 500,000 next week. Then I would want to be a magazine in which all the stories were by nationally known authors and were all being printed for the first time. That would draw a huge readership and involve a lot of money. Rights would be everything then. But in my current very low position on the literary totem pole, rights just don’t mean a lot. I just need good-quality stories that will draw an audience whether or not they already been published. Besides, if a well-known author (we’ll use Stephen King again as a theoretical example) wanted me to reprint one of his short stories, I would say “HELL, YEAH!” Because I need to build my mag’s reputation and place in the public view and having Stephen King listed among my authors would garner me a much larger audience. When an author is printed in a magazine, that story will attract that author’s readership to that mag.
I could go on like this for a while, but I think you get the idea that I am trying to get across. Rights are primarily important if you are publishing a lot of well-known authors whose followers/fanbase want to read his/her stories the instant one is out. Then you want to have a stranglehold on the exposure for all those stories for at least a little while, so that everyone will buy your mag to read those stories they can read nowhere else. But at my low level, it’s a different world.
This was only a first draft (the only difference between what is above and the original is that I corrected one unintended omission and maybe a couple of typos), which will probably raise more questions than it answers. Because I was just commenting on someone else’s post and there were a lot of other comments, I tried to keep my response reasonably brief, which left out a lot of perspectives I would have preferred to address. For that reason, please feel free to ask questions or to comment below. Maybe at some point in the not-too-distant future, I will be able to expand this into the discussion I feel it should be.