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"Selling 'Second Rights'" from Writer's Digest

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Writer's Digest
Selling 'Second Rights'
by Ellis Parker Butler

Ray Long has included in his book "20 Best Short Stories in Ray Long's 20 Years as an Editor" my story "Philo Gubb, the Correspondence School Detective," which appeared in the Red Book magazine for May, 1913 -- nineteen years ago.

"If statistics about short stories interest you," Mr. Long says in his short foreword to the story, "here is an opportunity to study some that are perfectly amazing." He then lists the many secondary sales of the Philo Gubb stories. "'The secondary rights,'" he quotes me as saying -- and I did say it -- "'brought me many times what I was paid for the original stories by the magazine, and show how a successful story or series is a continuing source of income for the writer. My income from Philo Gubb for the year 1931 was greater than I received from Philo Gubb in any one year when the stories were first published.'"

Now for details. In 1911 Karl Harriman was editor of the Red-Blue-Green trio of magazines and he suggested that I write a series of very short stories based on speculator-built houses. I wrote eight of them, published in Red Book, July, 1911, to February, 1912.

The "Built-by-Speculator" series exhausted its theme in February, 1912, and I proposed and wrote a series of equally short stories called "The Five Cupids." They ran from May to September, 1912 in the Red Book. Ray Long had now become editor of the Red Book and I suggested a new series and he said to try it. The result was a story I called "The Hard Boiled Egg." Ray Long accepted it and changed the title to "Philo Gubb, the Correspondence School Detective."

In this story I used Philo Gubb, a gawky amateur detective, and as a foil to him, Jabez Bunker, an amateur confidence man. Jabez Bunker was used in the first story only. The Philo Gubb series ran in the Red Book from May, 1913, to January, 1917, thirty-seven stories in all.

The reason the Philo Gubb series ended was rather unusual. Ray Long had a small son who read the Philo Gubb stories. One day he told Ray that he did not think Philo Gubb was as funny as formerly. That ended the series.

Back of this is the reason why most series of stories end -- after writing a certain number the author exhausts all the best plots into which he can work his leading character. The stories seem forced. And they are.

As an off-shoot of the first Philo Gubb story I took the amateur confidenceman, Jabez Bunker, and wrote a series of seventeen Jabez Bunker stories which were published in the Blue Book, beginning November, 1916. The bald-headed bunco-steerer was too useful to be allowed to end his career in the first Philo Gubb story.

In August, 1916, John O'Hara Cosgrave was editor of the New York World Sunday Magazine, a section of the New York World that was issued with the Sunday World. This "section" of the World Sunday newspaper was syndicated and used by ten or twelve other newspapers that were widely scattered so their respective circulations did not conflict with each other. There are a number of such "sections" of newspapers still doing this, The Chicago Tribune's Sunday Magazine being one of them. The Chicago Tribune uses only original matter but the World Sunday Magazine used stories that had already appeared in magazines, feeling that a good story was worth reprinting; many of the subscribers not having seen it.

For the right to reprint the Philo Gubb stories the World paid me $50 per story and used fourteen of them, a long series for such a publication. This is technically called the sale of the Second Serial Rights, or Second American Serial Rights, to be exact.

What I originally sold to the Red Book magazine was the First American Serial Rights, and in selling the stories I made that a stipulation, writing Mr. Long to that effect. This meant that I retained the right to sell all other rights, including Second and Third and all other American Serial Rights, Canadian Rights, Book Rights, Motion Picture Rights, all Foreign Rights and any other rights there might be.

"Rights" means the right to use or sell elsewhere, and "American" means the United States only.

"Serial" in connection with rights in a manuscript means a magazine or newspaper that is published serially -- weekly, daily or monthly -- and not a fiction serial. This use of the term "serial rights" came into use long ago to distinguish the right to publish in a magazine from the right to publish as a book, called "book rights."

Today most magazines buy First American and Canadian Serial Rights, because the magazines sell in the United States and Canada. An author can retain all other rights by typing on the first sheet of his manuscript (in the upper right hand corner) "First American and Canadian Rights only for sale." Some magazines demand more rights. I believe the Cosmopolitan buys "all English language serial rights," because it has a large sale in England. The Saturday Evening Post and other Curtis publications and some other magazines buy "all rights" but will reassign to the author on request all rights but American and Canadian Serial Rights. These publications do not permit Second Serial publication. The reason they buy "all rights" is because of a kink in the copyright law which is too complicated for me to explain.

It is usually advisable for an author to know what rights a magazine wants to buy. Personally I seldom put anything on my manuscripts but "Submitted at your current terms and rates," because all the good publications have given the Authors' League statements of their terms showing what they buy when they buy a story. This may be a bit risky but I have never had any trouble about secondary rights. I think, however, that if you send out a story or article with "American and Canadian Serial Rights only for sale," or "First American and Canadian Serial Rights only for sale," and the magazine wants the story and also wants other rights, the editor will write you to that effect, explaining why.

Mr. Eastman, of the McClure Syndicate, which syndicates matter to newspapers in the United States and Canada, read my stories in the World and asked to be permitted to syndicate the Gubb stories. The newspapers in Boston, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Washington and other cities that used the McClure syndicated matter did not use the World Magazine as a supplement, and the two did not conflict, so I was able to sell the Third American Serial Rights to the McClure Syndicate.

A syndicate usually deals with an author differently than a magazine or a Sunday supplement does. The magazine and supplement buy for a stated sum; the syndicate agrees to pay the author a percentage of the net proceeds. Thus I sold the Third American Serial Rights in fifteen of the Philo Gubb stories to the McClure Syndicate for 60% of the net proceeds. A typical report was this:

Sales to newspapers ................ $271.00
     Illustrations ........ $50.00
     Engravings ............ 12.67
                             -----   -------
Net proceeds ....................... $208.33

Authors share, 60% ................. $124.99

In selling the Second Serial Rights to the World Magazine I told the World that I retained all remaining rights. In placing the stories with the McClure Syndicate I told Mr. Eastment I retained all remaining rights. In other words I sold them only the rights they needed and retained all others.

And then along came a request from the American Press Association for the Fourth American Serial Rights in fifteen of the stories, for which they were willing to pay $150.00. This request came through an agent who wrote me, "As you know, the plate rights go to the smallest country newspapers and do not interfere with other serial rights." The American Press Association bought the right to "print and publish said stories in plate and ready print serial form in any newspaper or periodical published in the United States and Canada. "Plate" meant printing plates or mats which the A. P. A. furnishes to newspapers and "ready print" meant sheets of newsprint paper printed on one side, the very small country newspapers printing their local matter on the other side.

With these four serial uses Philo Gubb had reached pretty much every newspaper, large and small, as well as the readers of the Red Book and I supposed that was the end of it. Almost never can the book rights be sold after a series or serial is syndicated but in March, 1918, we were still fighting the World War. Thousands of copies of old magazines had been sent to France for our soldiers, and I began getting letters asking where more Philo Gubb stories could be found. I took up the matter with Houghton, Mifflin & Company, of Boston, and wove seventeen of the Gubb stories into a book, which they published. My royalty was 10% of the retail price of the book, and about 7500 copies were sold, giving me something over $1,000.00.

In the meanwhile a motion picture agent, Mrs. C. C. Wilkenning, had had a nibble for the Motion Picture Rights, and she sold them for me outright for $1,750, her commission being 10%, my net from the sale being $1,575. I do not recall how this sale originated but I believe some producer had read the stories and asked for the Motion Picture Rights.

From time to time since then one or more of the Gubb stories have appeared in collections of detective or humor stories, and my usual price has been $50.00 for each.

Radio and television did not exist when Philo Gubb was written but not long ago I sold to Charles (Chic) Sale the Radio and Television Rights. I understand that as soon as he has time Mr. Sale will make short character sketches from the stories and broadcast them, and if television develops sufficiently we will see Chic Sale in the character of Philo Gubb.

I still have for sale the Talking Picture Rights, for Mrs. Wilkenning sold only the Silent Moving Picture Rights and the Talking Picture Rights are not included in that sale. If anyone wants to put Philo Gubb on the screen again he will have to buy the Talking Picture Rights from me. I have had some negotiations looking to this end.

There remain all the British Rights and Foreign Language Rights. Foreign Language Rights usually amount to very little but, now that I have thought of it, I will get after the British market. I do this through an American literary agent who sends my stories to an agent in London. The London man offers them to the magazines there, and the cost to me is 15%, which the two agents divide. The London man also sells such stories as he can on the continent and in Australia.

There are a few other rights. I have sold Phonograph Rights, but the radio has pretty well done away with them for authors. And there is always the chance that something may be suitable for vaudeville or the stage, and the Dramatic Rights may bring an author more than all his other rights.

All this proves that it is best to sell only the First American and Canadian Serial Rights to a magazine when it is possible to do so, retaining all other rights. An author never knows when one of his stories will make a hit; when it does make a hit all these buyers of subsidiary rights come to him. They come with money in their hands and, while we all strive for glory and renown, money does come in handy now and then.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:14:32am USA Central
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