Negotiating Your Short Fiction Contracts

By Karawynn Long

Note: This post does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and advice is intended for general informational purposes only.

You’ve written a piece of short fiction, submitted it, and gotten that thrilling acceptance letter. Congratulations! But wait—you aren’t finished yet.

As a rule, the boilerplate contract you’ve received will have been crafted for the primary legal and financial benefit of the publisher, not the author. You can—and should—vet it carefully and negotiate fair changes.

Getting Past the Discomfort

The idea of contract negotiation can feel intimidating or uncomfortable at first. Sometimes the entity on the other side may be very large and bureaucratic, and you, as a single author of no particular fame, may feel powerless. In that case, remember that your relationships with other authors and your association with SFWA, if you are a member, can be leveraged (even tacitly) in a negotiation. Even the largest publishing organizations care about their reputation among the people who provide their content, providing an incentive for them to treat you fairly.

Conversely, you may have a personal relationship with the editors and/or publishers, and it’s tempting to trust that those people will always treat you well. But if it were really a good idea to count only on generosity and best behavior, then publishers wouldn’t ask you to sign a contract at all. They’re protecting themselves, and you should too.

In my experience, professional short fiction markets are always willing to negotiate contracts politely and professionally with their authors. All you need to do is ask.

What to Focus On

Here are two of the most important points to check in a short fiction contract, and what you should negotiate for regarding them.

What rights are being sold?

Publication rights may be described by naming the media type (e.g., digital, print, audio), the compilation format (e.g., serial, anthology), the language (e.g., English, foreign language), the geographical market (e.g., North America, world), the priority (first, reprint), and/or the exclusivity (e.g., exclusive [with limitations], exclusive [without limitations], non-exclusive).

It’s not a good idea to give away more rights than the publisher can show they are concretely planning to use—for example, don’t grant audio rights unless the publisher is actively creating audio versions of their stories. Don’t sign away translation rights unless the publisher already has the relationships and/or infrastructure in place to translate and publish somewhere outside of the English-language market. Does the publisher offer both a text version on the web and an audio podcast version? Great! But don’t sign away first print rights if they don’t publish print collections.

Two different publishers, each offering the same number of cents per word, may attempt to contract for very different rights—one may ask only for first world English-language serial rights, while another may attempt to tack on anthology reprint rights, foreign translation rights, and/or audio adaptation rights, without any increase in payment or any particular promise to actually produce anthologies, foreign publications, or audio versions.

The more rights you assign in a contract, the greater the per-word payment you should expect. If you do decide it’s in your interest to license auxiliary rights to a single publisher, I advise against letting them bundle everything together for a single payment rate. Negotiate one rate for first serial rights, another for translation rights, yet a third rate for anthology reprint rights, and so on. That way, it’s much easier to compare apples to apples between markets. (And if a publisher isn’t willing to pay more for those auxiliary rights, that’s a sign they are ill-equipped to make use of them, and you should strike them from the contract.)

And finally, there is no reason why a short fiction market should be requesting any kind of adaptation rights besides audio—no graphic novel, film, television, or anything of that nature. Doing so is a giant red flag that the publisher is either predatory or alarmingly ignorant.

Is there a reversion clause?

Most short fiction markets buying first serial rights will specify an exclusivity period, where you agree not to publish your work elsewhere for a period of time (typically several months up to a year) after publication. This is fine, and fair.

But what if that publisher doesn’t actually publish your story? Unfortunately, this does happen: the anthology deal falls through or the magazine folds, changes editors, or is sold to someone with a different vision. Your poor story is now in legal limbo; you no longer have the right to publish it anywhere else.

The solution to this is a reversion clause giving the publisher a specified period in which to publish the story, after which all rights, including the ones you sold them, revert to you if they’ve failed to follow through. Here’s one example:

If Publisher fails to publish the Work within one (1) year from the date of this contract, all rights granted hereunder shall immediately revert to the Author. In such event, Author will retain any payments made under this agreement prior to such reversion.

 If a publisher balks at giving you a reversion clause with a reasonable time limit (maximum of eighteen months for digital, two years for print), that’s another giant red flag. You do not want to be tying up your work for years in the future.

On a related note, if you are selling digital rights to your story, ensure your contract specifies the author’s right to withdraw the story from the publication’s public archives after the initial exclusivity period has ended. In many cases, it may benefit you to leave the story accessible to future readers on the publisher’s website…but a reprint market may require that there be no concurrently active competing publications, which you cannot grant if you didn’t work withdrawal rights into your original contract.

SFWA Can Help

SFWA offers various model contracts online, including ones for magazines and anthologies, to help you in your negotiation efforts. For members, SFWA’s Contracts Committee is happy to answer questions about contract wording. Although they cannot give legal advice, if you send a copy of your contract (preferably before you sign it!), they will vet it for you and point out any problematic language. Email

Karawynn Long is a former Writers of the Future annual contest winner who’s published short fiction and poetry in a variety of professional magazines and anthologies. Her story “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers,” about a nonspeaking autistic person and some genetically engineered corvids, is forthcoming in the July 2023 issue of Asimov’s. Karawynn lives in central Mexico with her partner and three cats, where she does freelance proofreading and is writing an epic science fantasy novel. She also writes essays at and can be found on Mastodon at