Type of sales

All rights When you sell an article all rights, the buyer is entitled to use your article any way he or she chooses – for example, print it and reprint it in special issues, or publish your story in the magazine’s foreign editions. You can’t sell the story on again.
Many big-shot magazines automatically assume you’ll be selling them all rights, and include this clause on their contracts. Remember, you are entitled to ask to sell them first rights only (see below) – thereby freeing yourself up to sell your article to other publications after it’s been printed, and make more money from your work. The law protects writers to an extent, in that you automatically retain copyright to articles you’ve written.

First rights A magazine buys the right to be the first to publish a story you’ve written.

Second rights This means you sell a publication the right to print a story which has already been published in another magazine.

Q. They’ve bought my story but haven’t published it! What now?

Writing for magazines that pay on publication can be risky – you only get your long-awaited payment if and when they use your piece. If you’re hoping to sell your story on after publication, this can be a major bother.

Magazines rejig their booklists (the line-up of articles for the month) at the last minute, and certain stories are sometimes dropped or put on hold. Yes, it can happen to you! Months tick by as the editors wait for the right place to slot your story in.

I’d advise you to wait a bit – six months or so – and if you still haven’t seen your story appear, ask if they will indeed be using it. If they’re not sure, ask if they’ll return the rights to you. (You should keep the money, since they bought the story with the intention of using it, and then didn’t, which isn’t really your problem.) If you secure the rights to your story, you can resell it, first rights, to another magazine.

It’s wise to include a line in your contract stating that, should the magazine still not have used your story after a year, rights automatically revert to you.

Q. I wrote the story they commissioned, but they’ve rejected it. Will I still get paid?

Most magazines will pay what’s called a ‘kill fee’ for a story they’ve commissioned but ultimately rejected. This is usually a percentage of the initially agreed fee, ranging from 20% to 50%. This situation happens when a writer has basically delivered what was asked for in the brief, but the story nevertheless isn’t suitable, for various reasons. Sometimes, editors just fall out of love with a story. Sometimes they ask a new writer for more than he or she is ready to handle. Sometimes the story meets the brief but simply doesn’t work for the magazine. This doesn’t happen often, but if it does, the rights to the story revert to you, the writer. So, if you ask me, you should pocket the money, smile graciously (after all, you may want to write for them again), and sell your story on.

How to maximize your earnings

Write one story many ways. Using the same basic research, you can write a number of different stories for a variety of publications. You simply find a new angle, expand or reshape your original story, and – ta-daa! – you have a new feature to sell, without the schlep of writing and researching from scratch. And if you sell your rewrites as first rights only, you can then sell them on again, unchanged.

Being the savvy businessperson I know you secretly are, you might research a commissioned feature with rewrites in mind: you gather extra information and quotes because you know you’ll find homes for them in subsequent articles. In fact, research thoroughly enough and write enough different articles on a particular subject, and you may end up turning your body of work into a book. (By the way, whether it’s horse riding or healing from trauma, it’s best to put this kind of energy into a topic you’re passionate about.)

Here’s an example. Let’s say your original story is ‘The Dummies’ Guide to Eating Healthily’. You speak to a few dieticians and nutritionists for this piece, but only use one or two lines of quote from each. Later, you might expand on what one expert has said about which supplements and foods to consume when stressed, in a story for another publication, entitled ‘Food can help you fight stress’. Another expert launches into an interesting tangent on obese children, giving you great quotes for ‘Healthy or heavy? Is your child overweight?’ for a parenting magazine. You also have the bones for a story on the best diets for athletes, and another on the dairy controversy (‘Dairy: the best – or worst – way of getting calcium?’) You get the idea.

Suggest stand-alone stories as they come up. You may be writing a story on couples who work together and manage to stay happily married, when one interviewee mentions his spiritual turnaround after a microlighting accident killed his best friend and left him paralysed. Make use of such gifts from the gods of journalism! If your interviewee is keen to tell his dramatic story of despair and courage, sell the idea to another magazine.

Sell a story more than once. This is important, so listen up. Every writer (actually, make that everyone) needs a source of passive income. Without it, you earn only when you’re sitting at your desk. Get smart: start selling second rights (reprint rights) to your stories in the country they were originally sold, and first rights (exclusive rights) to other countries around the world. Just remember not to sell on in a particular country until the first buyer has published your story. Buyers pay less for reprints: expect to be paid a third to half of what you made selling the story first time around (which is better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick, as my mother would say).

Write for other formats. Once you’ve accumulated a stock of knowledge, research, statistics and quotes on a certain subject, use it. Written material can quite easily be modified to suit other media – TV, film, radio, educational CDs, theatre, and more. Could you easily whip out a talk to present to a local club, for which you’ll get paid? Or compile course material for a seminar on a subject you’ve written a slew of articles about? Or write for a website? Think creatively, and make money from your research and experience.