Ask the Director: How do I handle multiple submissions in the digital age?

Dear Director:

I'm getting ready to do a big interview, and I'd like to use material from it for stories I would customize for multiple regional publications. It's not a syndicated column -- it's a feature I'd slightly rework for various markets. If I sell first-rights to one publication, what does that mean for rights in other markets? And now that everybody puts their stories on-line, do "regional" rights even make sense any more?

Multi-Region Gal

Dear Multi-Region Gal:

It’s a great question, and involves an area where publication policies are still trying to catch up to developments in technology. In the old days, it was easy enough to do simultaneous submission of a story to various regional publications. For all practical purposes, everybody was getting regional exclusivity and that had some value. Now the Internet has made geography all but irrelevant, and regional exclusivity has no real on-line analogue.

Here are some thoughts:

1. As long as everybody involved is clear on what rights they’re getting and what rights they’re not getting, you can do pretty much anything you want. You’d really only have a problem if an editor thought they were buying something they weren’t. If everybody understands what is happening and everybody is okay with it, there's no problem.

2. With something that is clearly a syndicated feature, people understand that it’s been printed elsewhere. A feature story doesn’t come with the same understanding, especially if one publication is buying first rights.. To clarify things for readers, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have secondary publications include a small note a the end saying “Portions of this article appeared previously in....” That shouldn’t be a problem for anybody, and makes everything very clear.

3. After  you’ve collected first rights money from one publication, anything else is almost money for nothing (as Dire Straits would say). So you can afford to be a little generous, realizing that a happy publisher is likely to be a repeat customer. If it’s on the web, I’d treat it as a reprint rather than as a simultaneous submission – in other words, it’s probably down a notch on the pay scale (although perhaps not a big notch).

4. Print rights don’t automatically include on-line rights. It depends on your understanding with a publisher. Theoretically, you could sell regional exclusivity for a print story and not let anybody put it online. Or you could sell “web exclusivity” (a term I just made up) to one publisher, and sell print-only rights to others.

As I said, the Internet has made everything a bit fuzzy. Where we’re headed, there are no roads. But as long as you stick with basic principles of honesty, transparency and fair play, you should be fine.

--Former Director, Doug Trouten