First and Exclusive rights... and how robots.txt might impact those rights
At first blush, it seems simple. First publication rights means that a work has not appeared elsewhere before. Exclusive publication rights means that the work is not currently being published elsewhere.
There are modifiers that can change things - worldwide, print, electronic, anthology - check out this post about anthology rights and my big contract post to get a handle on those.
First publication rights are something kind of precious - it makes your story more valuable to the publisher (which means they'll pay you more). The thing is, that refers to publishing the story anywhere the public might see it. Post your story on your blog and it got five hits? It's now "previously published".
The key words there are "the public might see it". That's why many fiction contests or online critique groups are hosted in such a way that you have to log on to a forum or enter a password to see anything. That way the stories are not accessible to the general public - and therefore, are not "published".
Sometimes folks have a short story that after publishing will grow into a larger novella or novel. Or there will be a portion of the story that can stand alone. Does that mean the "first publication" of the larger novel was when the short story was published?
In these cases, I'd usually say that the larger work was transformed, changed, or significantly different enough from the short story to be treated as a new, different, and unpublished work... though I would inform the publisher of the prior short story publication when I first approached them. Hell, it might help in that case to know that at least part of the story was good enough to be published elsewhere.
Exclusive publication rights seems even more straightforward, but you can get tripped up if you're not paying attention. Contracts will ask for a certain period of time that they get exclusive rights to publish the story, and many will ask for an additional (and longer) period where they have non-exclusive rights to publish the story.
In theory, this means that after you get the story published once and it goes to non-exclusive rights, you can also get it published elsewhere (or self-publish it) while the first book or magazine is still being published. Originally, I asked for non-exclusive rights for the life of copyright, because why not?
But I've heard of some publishers who were leery about doing single author collections when any of the short stories involved were under non-exclusive rights with anyone else. This strikes me as horribly stupid, but it's happened to at least one author I know. So I've changed my contracts so that I only have non-exclusive rights for a number of years.
The other thing - and I suspect this isn't being addressed by many small presses, and quite possibly not by the big ones either - is ensuring they have a well set up robots.txt.
Robots.txt (and I'm quoting http://www.robotstxt.org/ here) "is used by web site owners[. They] use the /robots.txt file to give instructions about their site to web robots; this is called The Robots Exclusion Protocol."
Where this becomes important is when you run into somewhere where they want exclusive rights again to a story that was published online. Archives - like the Internet Archive - are wonderful tools... but that's something a publisher needs to set up correctly.
For example, let's say an author published in recompose has reached the end of the non-exclusive period. After the exclusive period, I have rolling renewing 1 year non-exclusive contracts after the first year for that publication. I take it down, we're all good, right?
If I wasn't careful, the story would still be available in its entirety from archives like the Wayback Machine.
But in this case, we're good, because my robots.txt file lets bots know to ignore the actual issues of the magazine. With so many magazines and literary journals being published online, I wonder how many have taken the time to ensure they're honoring their rights in this way?