Posting stories online before publication

I'm pretty sure most of y'all regular readers know this, but I figure it can't hurt to say it again every now and then, just in case new people wander through.

Every now and then, for various reasons, I Google for an author's name and the title of the story they've just submitted to us.

And a remarkable percentage of the time when I do that, I discover that the author has previously posted the story, in full, on some website. Occasionally it's an online magazine of some sort, whether non-paying or semipro (and in those cases the author really ought to have known better than to send us a reprint without telling us it's a reprint), but more often it's just on the author's LiveJournal, or on any of various sites dedicated to allowing people to freely post their own work publicly.

And unfortunately, we can't consider unsolicited work that's been previously published elsewhere--and, like most sf prozine editors these days, we consider any appearance on a publicly accessible web page to count as publication.

So unfortunately, if you post your latest story in a non-friendslocked blog or LJ entry, you may be making it difficult or impossible to get an sf editor to pay you to publish that story later. No matter how few people read your LJ. (Editors in other fields may feel differently about this; the only editors I've heard weigh in on this question are sf editors.)

So if you're interested in selling your work to a professional sf venue, I strongly recommend that you not post it in a publicly accessible place online.

(Note that posting it for a while and then taking it down when you're ready to submit it is also a bad idea. If it's ever appeared publicly online, we consider it to have been published, whether or not it's currently available online.)

There are all sorts of tricky corner cases to this issue. We at SH are currently taking the position that if a story is password-protected (not accessible to the general public without some kind of logging-in process), then that doesn't count as publication (except in cases where it's clearly intended as publication, like if you sell the story to an online venue that password-protects its content, as some do). Other editors may draw the line in other places.

But at the very least, if you feel you must post your story in your LJ, you should friendslock the post.

12 Responses to “Posting stories online before publication”

  1. Joanne Merriam

    Editors in other fields may feel differently about this; the only editors I’ve heard weigh in on this question are sf editors.

    I’ve heard a lot of literary magazine editors make the same point.

  2. Paul Jessup

    What about excerpts (about two or three paragraphs worth)…would this be considered a faux pas against publication?

  3. Debby B.

    What about raw material that later gets reworked into a poem or essay? That’s the issue I’ve been struggling with. Is everything I post on a blog now off-limits for my professional writing?

  4. Jed

    Paul: I don’t know of any editors who consider a brief excerpt from a work to count as publication, so posting a couple paragraphs should be fine as far as I know. (Unless, of course, the entire work is only two or three paragraphs long.)

    Debby: I would guess that the rules are somewhat different for (a) nonfiction, and (b) raw material that’s later reworked. But I honestly have no idea; I’m just guessing. With fiction, and especially sf, editors have a thing about being the first to publish a work; sf print magazines in the US, for example, traditionally buy “first North American serial rights,” meaning they’re paying for the privilege of being the first North American periodical to publish your story, and “first” is an important part of that, both psychologically and in terms of amount of money they’re willing to pay. My impression is that nonfiction markets are, by and large, much less picky about being the first to publish a piece. But I could be totally wrong; I just don’t know much about those fields.

    (Btw, when I talk about material being “reworked,” I’m not saying that it’s a good idea for you (generic you, not Debby) to post a rough draft of a fiction story publicly and then revise it and send out the revision. Unless the revision is a really heavy and thorough reworking of the entire piece, I’d still consider it to have been published. And maybe even if it is a thorough reworking. But if you post notes about your fiction story online, it seems unlikely to me that most editors would consider that to count as previous publication.)

  5. quasi random

    I’ve heard that agents and/or book editors don’t care so much (via Miss Snark).

  6. Jed

    To follow up on my earlier comment: Mary Anne tells me that the rules aren’t different for nonfiction. I gather that nonfiction writers regularly rework their material for sale to multiple markets, but I think M said that it’s expected that the reworking will be substantial, not just tweaking.

    Quasi Random: Interesting; I hadn’t heard that. But I’m a little uncertain about what you’re referring to — are you talking about a situation where an author posts their entire book online, with no password protection? And are you saying that agents and book editors don’t mind that? Just making sure I’m understanding the scenario you’re describing.

  7. quasi random

    Apparently my memory or my understanding at the time was fuzzier than I thought–but the vagueness above was well-suited. I’m not sure if I’ve actually found the post that set that “factoid” in my skull, but I have the following takes on it:

    There’s more twists and turns in the comments therein.

    But I think part of what I improperly latched on to was that just because an agent would not consider it published (i.e. not consider it a publishing _credit_), that doesn’t mean they’d want to represent it. However, she does leave it open that some agent may very well want to represent it, despite it having been online (in whatever form). To flip that however on its end, though, she could have just been hedging.

    Ah, hedging. 🙂

  8. Jed

    🙂 Hedging is good. More or less. But I could be wrong.

    Thanks for the followup! Interesting comments from Miss Snark and her readers. I would respectfully suggest, though, that Miss Snark may not be up on the details of electronic publication issues; in those entries, she makes some generalizations that I think are a little inaccurate (like lumping all “e-book” publications together), and seems not to be up on some major areas (like not knowing what fan fiction is, though after 50 people posted to explain it to her, I’m sure she knows now). But yeah, that middle link does seem to provide some good information–and certainly she knows way more about the agenting side of things than I do.

    …I guess what I would say is that it’s quite rare for someone to post an entire novel online and then later sell it to a major publishing house–it has happened (I gather mostly in cases where the online version was very popular, so the publisher knew there was an audience), but it’s not something writers should expect to happen. Then, too, there’ve been several recent cases of major houses republishing something that’s been published in print before (like the Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide). I get the impression that in at least some areas of book publishing, there’s less of a requirement that the work never have been published before, regardless of whether the previous publication was online or not.

    …While I’m thinking of it, I should mention here that as far as SFWA is concerned, a work’s Nebula eligibility clock starts ticking as soon as it’s published, and that includes public online appearances. Of course, most works aren’t going to make it onto the Nebula ballot anyway; I’m just saying that if a work’s first public appearance is in your LJ, and then it appears in a major magazine a year later, its Nebula eligibility period will already be over.

  9. sarah smith

    i’ve wrote a story/book and would love someone to read it so that maybe it could get made into an actual books and if i cant i’d love to just post it online, but you say dont post onloine so i dont know what to do 🙁

  10. Jed

    I’m not sure whether that comment was serious or not. But I can imagine someone asking that seriously, so I’ll respond seriously:

    If you want another writer to read your book and give you feedback on it, try joining an online or face-to-face writing workshop. You could start by Googling for [writing workshop] and your city’s name, for example.

    If you want an editor to consider your book for publication, you’ll have to send it to an agent or an editor. There is lots and lots of information available online about how to go about doing this, so I won’t go into it here.

    If you want to post it online, that’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do–if you aren’t attached to the idea of someone paying you for the right to publish it. Plenty of people decide to give up on the idea of getting paid for their work, in favor of posting their work online. (Sadly, unless you already have an online following of some kind, chances aren’t good that anyone will read a book that an unknown author writes and posts online. But there’s nothing actually wrong with posting your work online, if you aren’t looking to get paid for it.)

    But then again, my entry here was about science fiction and fantasy short stories. I know very little about book publishing. You may want to follow the links provided by “quasi random” in an earlier comment.


    How can i post my own story? , im only 14 years old but i really like writing stories ?

  12. Jed

    Just noticed this comment from October that went to moderation. Sorry for delay.

    As with the previous comment, I can’t tell whether this is trolling, a spambot, or a serious question. On the off chance that it’s a serious question, what I would advise you to do is re-read my blog entry, up at the top of this page, because I think you may not have understood it.

    The point of my entry was that it’s not a good idea to post your own story online if you ever want to get paid for it.

    If you don’t care about getting paid for it, then there are thousands of places you can post your story online, including LiveJournal, Blogger, and any social networking site.


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