Navigating Literary Magazine Contracts

Posted on 21 April 2011

Want to read the scandalous details (okay, SVH is still on my brain from the other day) about the literary journal that accepted my short story for publication only to unceremoniously drop it after a contract dispute? If so, head on out to a bookstore and pick up the May/June 2011 issue of Poets & Writers magazine and read my article “The Dotted Line: Navigating Literary Magazine Contracts.” (Sorry, no link; it’s print-only.)

In addition to disclosing yet another humiliation in my writing life, the article offers advice about copyrights and journal contracts. I spoke to an attorney at the Authors Guild and two lit mag editors to learn more about what writers can expect when their work is accepted, potential consequences of signing away certain rights, which rights you should always hang onto, and more. I approached these issues from a short fiction standpoint, but they should apply to most literary writers.

And, since I won the Chandra Prize for Living Arrangements in 2010, I was included in P&W’s survey of book prize winners for the issue’s special contest section. I offer a quick piece of advice in the “10 Tips for Successful Entries” sidebar on p. 63. Also, check out the pie charts on p. 59, which showed me that I really am in the minority (in a big way) in the MFA category, at least among these winners. Poetry collections were more heavily represented than fiction, however, so I supposed that could skew the results toward a higher percentage of winners with MFA degrees.

As far as that lit mag goes, the one that prompted me to write about copyright issues in the first place? No hard feelings. But if the journal staff reads my article and reconsiders their contract for future contributors, all the better.

Have you ever had second thoughts before signing on the dotted line?


15 responses to Navigating Literary Magazine Contracts

  • Lyra says:

    I have the day off today, so on the way back from a doctor’s appointment, I stopped by Barnes and Noble. Looked for the magazine and they still had the old edition up. I asked the man if he had the latest edition, then pulled this up on my phone so he could see what the cover looked like. He said not yet he didn’t think.
    “The reason I ask is because a friend of mine published an article in there.”
    “Really? Oh, wow. Let me double check.”
    They didn’t have it out yet, but it was such a treat to say. I look forward to reading the article.

    • How sweet of you to go to all that trouble! Talk about dedication. I hope they put it out soon. When my last P&W article came out, I went to about three bookstores that hadn’t put the new issue out, but B&N had a stack of about 25 copies. I guess it can take time depending on the store. I just got my subscription copy in the mail yesterday, and the issue info has been the P&W site since last week, I believe, so we’ll see.

  • Averil says:

    I’m not a literary writer, of course, but my trip through the publication mill has taught me to be much more careful next time around. I hope I can track down a copy of P&W.

  • Teri says:

    I am DYING to read your article! My friend, Charles McLeod, has an article in this edition of P&W too. What are the chances??

    Looking forward to the read, and your advice, Laura ….

  • Teri says:

    My P&W came in the mail today, Laura, and your article was very well done. So much hit close to home. I turned down a publication about 2 years ago because of a similar “contract wording” issue, basically that I would be selling all future rights and maintaining none for myself. I didn’t even question them, just withdrew it. And last year I had a piece accepted about this time in 2010 and signed the contract, only to learn that my essay would not run for more than a year. Two weeks later, another magazine noticed I’d withdrawn the piece and said they were interested, but by then it was too late. I’d already signed on the dotted line and didn’t want to shake that tree.

    This is part of the issue, as well. When a piece of your writing is accepted, it’s so damned thrilling. Especially when it’s something you’ve worked on for a long time, and then it’s taken maybe a year to submit it, have it rejected multiple times, etc… You start to lose hope and then, voila, someone wants it. It’s hard to say no.

    Very informative piece you wrote. Thank you.

    • Yes, I think it’s common for writers to be so excited about an acceptance that they don’t pay much attention to the contract itself.

      This particular journal publishes multiple print issues a year, and many, many writers must have signed that contract. I find it fascinating that I must have been the first person who balked at its language.

      I admit that at first, I was tempted to just sign the thing. I didn’t have a particular attachment to that story and, frankly, I couldn’t imagine it being anthologized, etc. in the future. But in the end, I knew I couldn’t do it.

      Had I signed, I imagine everything would have worked out fine — but as I said in the article, you just never know.

  • Interesting (and yes, a bit disheartening) to hear that even fabulous, successful writers encounter situations like this. Hate to use such a bad cliche, but it sounds like you’ve made lemonade from lemons. And that is definitely the sign of someone with talent.

  • lisahgolden says:

    I have so much to learn. I’m so clueless about the business end of writing. I need to make a trip to B&N.

  • amyg says:

    and because i’m a marketer, it’s only fair that i point out P&W most likely has much higher subscriber numbers than the lit journal. bigger reach = better book marketing.

    i’m getting the mag as soon as hit the bookstore (which will be in about two hours)

    congrats on all of it, you are my publishing hero

  • Lyn Hawks says:

    Hi, Laura,

    Thanks for your openness and honesty about this topic. I learned a lot from your article and the research you did for it as well.

    On a somewhat related note, re: treatment of authors, Hope Clark has a good argument for payment plus a list of paying journals in her most recent e-newsletter at I think her points are well-taken about journals stepping up and treating writers right in the compensation realm.


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