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No Written Contract? What You Should Know Before You Agree To Publication

Old-school editors and publishers—and even some new e-publishers—have long relied on nothing more than a handshake to seal an agreement with a writer. Short stories, poems, and personal essays are frequently published by editors at literary magazines without a written contract. But what does it mean if you’re offered a place in a publication, but you’re not offered a formal contract? What rights are you granting if your work is published without a signed agreement?

At Writer’s Relief, we recommend you speak with a lawyer if you’ve got questions about rights and contracts. But you’re welcome to use the information below to help get started.

Print Publishing Without A Written Contract

The traditional print publishing industry has long operated without contracts for smaller, nonpaying publications. In fact, “no contract” publishing agreements happen so frequently that the industry has developed standards for such handshake deals.

Copyright law holds that any publication occurring without a written contract implicitly grants First North American Serial Rights to the publisher.

With FNASR, all rights revert back to the author immediately upon publication—except the right to reprint the work in any reissues or revisions of the particular issue in which the work appears.

After you’ve granted FNASR, you can’t grant them again (only one publication can publish your work first). But you can offer one-time rights (or reprint rights) to any subsequent publishers who might be interested in your work.

Be warned though. Most editors at lit mags want to be the first to publish your work. Read more: What Is Considered Previously Published Writing?

Our Recommendation: If an editor wants to include your poem or short prose in an issue of a literary magazine but does not offer you a contract, you can always offer your own agreement.

If you and your editor share a clear understanding of what’s being granted, then no one’s feelings should get hurt.

For example:

Thanks so much for your interest in publishing my work! I’m happy to grant FNASR print rights to Magazine Name.

E-Rights Without A Written Contract

Granting rights for print publications is relatively simple. But e-publications can be a little trickier. The problem with granting e-rights is that, frankly, no one is quite sure what the term “e-rights” even means.

The court systems simply haven’t tried enough cases to determine e-rights standards yet. All that’s entirely certain is that e-rights must be negotiated separately from print rights, so an agreement about print rights does not necessarily include e-rights.

Our Recommendation: Again, the point is that you and your editor must be clear with each other about what’s being granted. A note to clarify is helpful.


Thanks for your interest in my poem! I’m granting you the right to be the first to publish my poem in this online issue of Magazine Name.

Seems easy, right?

But it’s not. When you grant the right to publish online, you could be giving the okay for that work to appear on the site in perpetuity. The standard for online literary magazines at the moment is that after the issue in which your work appears is released, the issue can then be “archived” on the site, where it normally remains searchable and readable.

If you don’t want your work to appear on a site indefinitely, then you might want to clear that up with your editor. Be aware, though, that the editor might rescind the offer of publication if you can’t agree with the magazine’s policies.

You might ask the editor:

Is your magazine willing to take my poem off your website if in the future I request that you do so?

Not all editors will agree—after all, you wouldn’t ask an editor to remove your poem from a print magazine after a certain period of time, would you?

Why We Love Online Lit Mags

Let’s face it: The world of literature is going online. And writers who develop a strong online portfolio of their work will enjoy an advantage in the digital marketplace in the coming years.

There are many reasons to be supportive of having your work archived online. Online publication credits are not only helpful to have in your bio, but in many ways they’re necessary. Learn more: Why Online Publication Credits Matter.

The Bottom Line

If you’re not offered a written contract from an editor who wants to publish your story, poem, or essay in a literary journal, don’t panic! You’re allowed to ask questions to clarify what’s being granted, and you’re allowed to disagree. Just be sure that you and the editor are on the same page—with no room for a mix-up—and write your own agreement stating exactly what you’re granting.

At Writer’s Relief, our submission strategists are trained to help our clients through the tough questions about submitting and publishing. Learn how you can become a client.

Questions for WritersQUESTION: Have you ever had to publish without a written contract? How did it go for you?

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