The Business-Minded Writer: When the Hobby Becomes the Job

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”
— Stephen King

Work. Uck. Such a strenuous word. It draws up images of toil and labor and exertion, more often than not for a pittance far below that what we deem to be our worth. Who knows that better than a writer?

Writers write because it’s what we love to do. For some, it means a job and a pretty income. For others, it’s a hobby and a pleasure. But the one thing both kinds of writers have in common is that, whether hobby or career, we tend to call our poems and stories and books by the same name: our work.

Uck. That word again.

My first published piece was a poem that appeared a year ago. “Note to Self:” was published in the March 2009 issue of Poe Little Thing, an e-zine. When I first started selling my poetry, I was happy to simply be published–getting that acceptance from a publication, hearing that “yes” was the real rush. It inspired me to keep writing, keep submitting, keep getting my stuff out there in search for another acceptance.

I am proud to say that since that first acceptance, I’ve had over two dozen more (and even earned a Pushcart Prize nomination for one of them.) While I still love that “yes” rush more than anything else, I have to admit I’ve become a bit more grounded.

More businesslike, I shudder to say. Terrible thing for me to admit, considering I began writing to get away from the rigors of my day-job. Writing was supposed to be my hobby. When did it become work?

The answer: it became a job the very first time I submitted something to an editor.

Who knew? Not me. I was a hobby writer who, like most writers, decided my stuff was too cool to keep to myself. Since I gravitate toward the shady side of the written word (dark spec fic, mainly) I was limited as to how much love I could expect from my mom, who is more of a feel-good kinda gal. I sought a wider audience, those readers who appreciated shadows and sinister grins and cheerful depression as much as I.

Another note to self: what you might think is “sharing” is actually “marketing” and, therefore, work.

Over the past few months, I’ve gradually shifted my self-perception from “hobby writer” to “freelance author.” I like the term “freelance” because it doesn’t just pertain to business or copy writers–it refers to any creative writer (fiction and literary writers included) who aren’t bound by exclusive contracts or the limitations of employment. Hey. If writing is work, I want a real title to go with it.

I’ve also increased my awareness of the business side of writing with particular emphasis on the rights involved with selling my work. While my search criteria when shopping literary markets still relies heavily on how much I like the title of a publication (seriously. I mean, if a potential sale is going to be listed in my bio, I want to love the sound of the journal’s name, too) I have begun to shrewdly evaluate the rights that would be transferred in the event of a sale.

As a freelance writer, I’ve got to know what I’m selling so knowing these rights are extremely important. While I publish primarily for the satisfaction, I want to know what rights I’m giving away when I “give away” my work.

There are several excellent online references that describe the different rights. At the end of the article, I’ll include links to those websites that I keep bookmarked for easy reference. But for the rest of us who like instant gratification (and, honestly, who doesn’t?) here is a brief summary of some of the rights you can sell when marketing your own work.

(And by the by, I’m not a lawyer and I’m the last one to ask for legal advice. Maybe some of our other Pennwriters are but I sure as heck didn’t consult any of them before writing this article. Consider this an official disclaimer.)

First things first: the copyright. A writer owns the copyright to anything he (or she) writes. Period. Print it out, e-publish it, bingo. Copyright is expressed. Registration with the US Copyright Office simply entitles a writer to monetary damages in case of copyright infringement. (When I was a newbie novelist I read a few articles whose authors were of the opinion that a “poor man’s copyright”–essentially, printing out your work, sealing it in an envelope, and mailing it back to yourself–was enough to protect your copyright. Not so. Filing with the Copyright Office is the only sure way to back up your claim in court.)

At any rate, along with inherent copyright comes a bunch of other, separate rights that a writer can sell, either in bulk or one by one. Knowing these terms will make it easier to evaluate what you are selling along with your masterpiece. Among others, the main types of rights that are negotiated when selling to the small markets are:

All rights–pretty much just what it says. It’s the right to own your work. If you sign away all rights to a publisher, you can never use the same work again in its current form. The new owner of all rights to your work is free to reprint your material or to sell it elsewhere without paying any additional money to you. They aren’t even obligated to give you a byline. These are the rights you don’t want to sell unless you really have to do it.

First serial rights–These are the rights most commonly granted in a publishing contract. These rights grant the publisher of a serial publication the exclusive right to print an article first. After the work is published once, rights revert back to the writer, who is then free to resell the work. More specific terms like FSNAR (first serial North American rights) limit to a specific area–if you sell FSNAR you can still sell to a UK publication. Watch for terms like “worldwide” because it means, well, worldwide.

Exclusive rights– The right to publish your work without it appearing somewhere else at the same time. Often publishers request exclusive rights for a specified length of time. When the exclusivity period ends, the writer is free to publish the work elsewhere. The flipside of this is non-exclusive rights.

Electronic rights– If a publisher’s contract includes electronic rights, a writer should know how long the publisher has permission to keep the work published on the web. Recent years have sparked an explosion in the number of online magazines and literary blogs so electronic rights are commonly contracted. Determine if the editor wants first electronic rights or all electronic rights. You must keep in mind that “electronic rights” doesn’t just mean web publishing–it also means CD-Roms, databases, etc.

Internet rights–Specific electronic rights to publish work on the Internet or via email (i.e. newsletter). Unlike electronic rights, Internet rights don’t give an editor the right to reproduce your work on a CD-Rom or other physical electronic device.

Reprint rights– This is the right to print a work a second time. Reprint rights imply that first rights have been sold. It’s also called second serial rights.

Knowing these definitions have made it possible for me to determine which pieces I can legally market as reprints. Reprints are my new big thing–now it’s no longer enough to have a poem published. I want to have it published in as many places as superhumanly possible. I want to spread my words around with the same vigor my kids use to destroy the house on a day off from school.

So far, it seems to be working out. That first poem “Note to Self:” has been picked up by Aoife’s Kiss (pronounced EE-fah…remember what I said about loving the sound of a journal’s name in my bio? Happy sigh) for their Cover of Darkness anthology this May.

Ooh. Anthology rights. Another shudder but, all things considered, it’s a shudder of a good kind.

Some links:

Rick DeCost’s Tripping the Muse has a great series on rights.

The American Society of Journalists and Authors has an excellent position paper from 2003 that is worth a careful look.

And because I know you are all dying to do some light reading, there’s always the US Copyright Office’s website.

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2 responses to “The Business-Minded Writer: When the Hobby Becomes the Job

  1. Pingback: See you at the Pennwriters Conference! « Pennwriters Area 6 HQ

  2. Pingback: See you at the Pennwriters Conference! « Brainripples

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