How to very profitably resell derivative rights to your writing and photography


Selling the rights is easy. Finding them and keeping them is a lot harder.

First, what are derivative rights? “Derived from another source, spin-off” says the Oxford dictionary. But I mostly know them as second or reprint rights.

And why are they important? Because every sale without a tail (some restriction of your reselling the same copy or photo as is) means less money (and fame) for you. That’s how Lee Foster built an empire of perpetual income from photos and articles. (See the details at my free newsletter released yesterday or in the coming [June 11, 2012] blog post.) It’s also how I earned more money from resales than original magazine and newspaper purchases (about 1000 of my 1700+ published freelance articles were reprints or resales).

The derivative selling was much easier before the computer. For a magazine sale, for example, you sent a query letter to the (managing) editor asking if their publication would be interested in an article about . . . In the query you made the idea jump, and by the letter’s good writing you showed your ability to create the copy. Since almost all editors bought first rights (it was theirs to use first), you could then resell the same article to other editors. Those bought second or reprint rights, without exclusivity. They paid about a third or half as much, took longer to generate checks, and were far less likely to send you a comp copy with the article included. (Once, however, I was paid $500 for a reprint of an article that was first bought for $175. Do you believe in miracles?)

Newspapers operated differently, and their current formula hasn’t changed much for print copy. You found a travel target, say Fort Ross (owned by Russia, then Spain, before it passed to the U.S.). You wrote a short piece (maybe 1350 words), took perhaps 100 black and white photos (and one roll of color slides, just in case), and you sent that finished article to 15-20 larger-city newspaper travel editors (excluding the Wall St. Journal, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and The New York Times, all of which bought national rights). The only catch was that each city had to be at least 100 miles from any of the others on your list, although you could sell to neighboring cities after you got a rejection. (For example, if the Chicago Tribune said no, you could sell to the Chicago Sun-Times, and if it said no, to the Milwaukee Journal and South Bend Tribune simultaneously.) The same with photos. You told them what photos you had available. If they bought the copy and were interested in the photos, you sent a proof sheet, and they picked out what they wanted. None bought exclusive rights so it wasn’t a hassle to sell one to many.

At this point folks in my freelance writing seminars would ask” “Could you sell the same text, unchanged, to both magazines and newspapers?” No, because the rights issues were too confusing. Sell your idea first to a magazine (and sell reprints to other magazines after the first was on the stands). Magazines bought color slides.

Then significantly rewrite the article in newspaper fashion, maybe call it “Five Matchless Gems of Russia’s Fort Ross—in California!” Send it to many newspapers simultaneously, and if they buy, also sell black-and-white photos.

Selling the same item, text or photo, repeatedly and problem-free is how you double and triple your income (sans much labor). The formula above is how you could, and often still can, sell derivative rights. (See the full selling process in my Travel Writer’s Guide.)

The hurdle today is the publications’ ability to repeatedly reuse the copy and photos through digital means. If the newspaper has a print and digital versions, it appears in both. It’s similar for magazines.

It’s all in the agreement you strike with the editor and the publication. You will find the restrictions in the contract you are asked to sign. You want them to buy one-time rights for photos and first rights (which they may define geographically) for your writing, as accepted.

Sometimes that’s no problem. That’s how the contract is worded or it will be so reworded after a gentle tongue-wrestle with the editor.

Other times, no luck. Their way or no sale. In that case, you have to hunt further to find another buyer who will meet your desires.

But there’s usually an alternative route. You’ve already gathered the facts, interviewed, photoed, and queried. They said no to the slant or angle you proposed in your query, or they said yes but on unacceptable terms. If the latter, go elsewhere.

But where the editor simply doesn’t like your query’s premise or framework, look hard at the subject and find several other unique features or different main points that could lead to a much different article. Pick the best of the alternative slants, rewrite the query, and try again, though probably not with the editor who just rejected your first try!

I think of those as rewrites, and often a “fat” idea or a “hopping” spot has four solid articles in it—and maybe 10 sold pieces from each, if you go the magazine (with reprints) and multi-newspaper route.

Your task is to scour the contracts so you can keep the second or reprint or derivative rights, and then get those spin-off (or rewritten) items on other editors’ paying pages!

Again, see my article about Lee Foster in a blog post here on June 11, and follow the links it contains back to Lee’s tight, profitable sell-and-resell-and-continue-to-resell system based on solid copy, superb photography, and the wise use of derivative marketing.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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