Monday, January 28, 2008

Short Stories as First Chapters

Two PSAs:
- If you want me to answer your question and you're fairly sure it hasn't been answered in archives, email it instead of putting it in the comments, as I'm less likely to miss it.

- This is off-topic, but if you live in New York City and you get in a cab with a TV screen, shut off the volume. It's an inaccurate weather forecast and local fluff news anyway, and they only do three or four editions of it in a 24-hour period, so the cabby has probably heard it 10 times before you got in. I asked a cabbie today and yes, it's driving him mad. Do cabby a favor and talk on your cell phone instead. At least that's new material.

So, I have a book finished, and the first chapter would make a great short story. If I submit it to you, should I tell you that I'm also shopping around the first chapter, or should I hold off until you've had a chance to look at it?

So while it is kind of neat to have had the first chapter published as a short story and it builds your writing resume, there are legal issues here. When the magazine purchases your story for print, they buy the copyright for a stipulated period, usually a year. That means that we can't sell your novel if it contains the short story to a publishing house without some difficulty because there's a copyright on part of the novel and you'll have to wait for the contract to expire and the rights to publish the short story/chapter to revert back to you.

It is possible to get the first chapter published as a short story when the novel is sold and coming out; some people do this for publicity reasons, but the publishing company is involved or at least aware of it and not bothered by it. So I would say: Don't shop the short story and the novel at the same time at all, much less mention it to an agent.


James said...

I HATE those screens in the back of the cabs. Luckily you can turn them off pretty easily.

They're the dumbest idea ever - they give you more motion-sickness than Cloverfield in IMAX.

Missy Lyons said...

I must not use cabs enough to know about that stuff. :)

Great info on the chapter versus the whole novle. I agree whole heartedly with your advice and would never have thought about trying to sell the first chapter and the novel. After investing so much time and energy to finish teh novel, I would definitely focus on selling the entire book.

Just my opinion.

Dave Kuzminski said...

I've had some good luck with short stories that are part of novels, though the short story wasn't always the first chapter. I won't disagree with you since over a year passed between the two in each case of mine so I didn't encounter any problems with rights.

Merrie Haskell said...

I'm not a hundred percent sure I agree with this assessment...

First, a year might very well pass between selling the short story and even getting an agent, let alone the rest of it... So, any period of exclusivity may've elapsed anyway by the time it becomes an issue.

Second, different short story markets have very different rules about exclusivity. No market I've dealt with buys the copyright, they're just buying first North American serial rights or something similar. (Lessee... "first English language serial rights throughout the World and non-exclusive foreign language translation rights" sayeth one contract.)

By the time a body got an agent and then an offer from a book publisher, I suspect the fact that you sold the first serial rights already could easily be worked around by adjusting the boilerplate of any contracts. And that's what agents are for, in my opinion.

From a purely writerly standpoint, I'd say that there are no guarantees, and if you have a chapter that also works as a short story, throw your bread on the waters.

Ryan Field said...

I've sold many short stories, and all the contracts are basically the ties the story up for a year. My own personal opinion (and it's just a rule I follow, so no one else has to like it or comment about it)is that my short stories were designed and crafted and executed to read like short stories and not chapters from a novel.

kelley said...

Ryan- a year? Wow.

I guess my experience has been more similiar to Merrie's. Everyone I've ever submitted to asks for one-time or first serial rights, with all rights reverting back usually on publication. I think the most I've had to wait was 90 days. (It's the e-zines and archiving you have to be most careful of...argh.)

Anyway, didn't Stephen King just do something like this? with DUMA KEY?

The Rejecter said...

Stephen King should never be used as a standard for unpublished writers.

--E said...

First, I agree on the cab thing. I wage a private war against advertising, and turning off those screens is a simple blow for justice.

As to the story thing... that has not been my observation. First, as Merrie pointed out, the odds of a story printing and a novel selling within a year of each other isn't terribly high.

Second, I know too many authors who sold pieces of their novels before selling the novels, and in some cases before finding an agent. In some cases the short story sale prompted the agent acqusition, or the sale of the novel.

The real question is by genre. SF/F probably doesn't care (those are the sales I alluded to above). Chick-lit, OTOH, might be a different story, as the book publisher might be able to garner an excerpt sale to a major womens' magazine. As that's valuable promotion, they would be annoyed to find hitches in that process.

The Rejecter said...

It all depends on the timeline. We don't want to hear, in your query letter, that you're pitching a novel to us that you don't have all the rights to and won't for a year because you sold part of it. We DO want to hear that part of it was previous published, and the rights have either reverted back to you or are going to do it soon.

Greg Lyons said...

In my opinion, Stephen King should not be used as a standard in any writing/publishing situation. He's an anomaly, and despite his success, I really don't think he's a very good writer.

kelley said...

sorry. it wasn't a "well, Stephen King did it, so maybe I could" comment. It was a general "I thought I'd heard he'd done this on his new book comment." I was unsure and asking.