Agency Lessons: first rights

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.
Today's question comes from the mail bag.
Q: I've heard that you shouldn't post any content online because you'll want to save "first online publication rights" for your publisher (once you're signed). Is that true, and if so, how far does it go? I'd like to get online forum critique of my WIP and enter contests like the ones on Miss Snark's First Victim without being concerned about the legal fine print.

This is a question I get a lot, and I understand why. The internet offers writers all kinds of opportunities, but it also creates questions about whether those opportunities open writers up to liabilities and problems on down the road.

So there are really two issues here, what constitutes "published" and what exactly are "first rights".

Let's talk about published. First, what I'm talking about here pertains to novels. The rules and guidelines for articles and other types of writing are going to be different because their end product is different. For our purposes, published means you have assigned an ISBN to your novel and made your work available for purchase via a retailer.

So a book you put into Createspace or Smashwords and sold on Amazon: published. Even if you only sold five copies. A family history book you printed and bound at Staples and gave to your family for Christmas: not published.

That means that first chapter you enter into an online contest is not published. Neither are the chapters you share with your online critique group (though I would advise you to do this with a private group and not a completely open to the public group). So go ahead and enter those contests if you want to.

What about Wattpad? This is a site I am asked about all the time. It's not really publishing, but it kinda is. You don't assign an ISBN or sell your work, but the site is meant for public distribution. While posting to this site doesn't stop you from publishing in the future, it is something you'll want to disclose to any potential agents/publishers.

Now, let's talk about first rights. This is something that writers like to worry about...a lot. And they shouldn't. Because first rights are something that almost no one deals with when it comes to novels. Basically, first rights means that your publisher can sell the right to another publication (like a magazine) to print an excerpt of your novel BEFORE your novel is published.

The chances of a magazine paying money to be the first to print a portion of an unpublished novel for a debut novelist are pretty low.  I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but... it's hard enough to get a debut contract, let alone have it be such a big deal that you'll need to be concerned about first rights.

And let's just go down that what-if path and say that you do happen to land that massive debut book deal where publishers are fighting for your book and Teen Vogue is dying to publish first rights. Either Teen Vogue will be okay that an old version of your book was once published to a contest page or they won't. Big Name Publishing House is not going to pass on your book because you posted two pages to a critique group. See why this isn't something you need to fret about right now?

I'm referring a lot to debut authors here, because once you've got your first book out, you do need to avoid this. You should be working directly with your agent and/or publisher when it comes to all your future books to make sure you are following your contract. That means you don't post teasers, first pages or any of that online without checking in first.

The long and short of it is that this isn't something you need to worry about. Just focus on your work. Get critiques from others, enter contests and share your work in reasonable amounts. Then let your agent worry about the rest.