In the last week or so, a few people have emailed to ask me whether or not it’s okay to post samples of your work online (like a few pages or a few chapters) on your blog, in forums, or whatever. This can be tricky. In the Internet age, if you post something online on a blog, social networking site, online literary journal, or public forum, it is considered “published.”
Obviously, the length of the sample you post is important. Read on:
If you are posting an entire poem or short story online, and then you try to sell it to a literary magazine, for example, the fact that is has previously been “published” is not good, as the entire work has appeared elsewhere. The editor of that literary magazine wants new, never-before-seen content. This applies both to print and online venues, as there are a lot of respectable online journals and literary magazines.
If you are posting a short portion of a novel online, and then the novel gets interest from an agent or editor, I’d say you could be okay, since the sample is short. Even though most editors and agents don’t like to work with previously published material, whether posted online or self-published, a short sample on your blog may not be enough to put them off your project. (Careful, though, as individual policies here do vary greatly.)
So when you think about posting online, consider how much of your work you’ll be exposing. Are you posting all of it? That will count as “published” and that website will be your venue for the piece, so you better make your peace with it. A sample that’s less than 5% of the total work? You could post, if you really want to, but know that you may run into some obstacles down the road.
The one exception to the “published” rule is if you post your writing in a private forum, such as the Verla Kay Blueboards. One reason to do this is if you want to get critique of your work from other writers. What you post in a members-only area of the Internet isn’t available to the general public and is therefore not considered “published” once it goes up. If getting feedback is really the reason you want to post your writing online in the first place, I’d do it behind the closed doors of a private forum.
Now, I know there are people thinking: But what if I post something and then take it down? Ah, Grasshopper, the reason is simple: online content never dies. Search engines log all new web content as it is created. If you put something online, ever, even for a short while, it will stay in a search engine’s cache and will still appear in search results.
I’m probably not going to be popular for this opinion, but I don’t think you should post your writing online as a means of attracting editor or agent interest. While some agents and editors do troll blogs looking for talent, I get most of my clients from submissions and conferences. I’m not crazy about most unpublished writer blogs, as some of you know, so I don’t go prospecting there. Don’t even get me started on sites like Authonomy and InkPop.
Plus, your writing should change and grow as you keep at it. And first chapters are usually the most wildly revised in any book. I know a lot of writers who keep hammering at their oh-so-important openings, draft after draft. Your beginning might change, so do you really want an old draft online for all to see? Maybe that doesn’t matter to you, but it certainly bugs me. When I turned in my MFA thesis, I declined to make a copy available in the university library (what usually happens with thesis manuscripts). Why? After one revision, that manuscript becomes just another rough draft, and I don’t want a rough draft floating around. I don’t know about you, but I often look back at old writing and cringe. Unless you plan to keep updating your writing sample online, it will become stale work at some point.
If you do want to post something tantalizing about your book, post a query-like summary of the story and a tag line. That’s the same kind of advertising that a published book has: the back and flap copy that is meant to describe the story and entice the reader. Write some flap copy for your manuscript — this will be good practice to help you hone in on your hook, too — and put it on your blog. Some writers make a short and cheap video trailer. Others pick a playlist or images that evoke their work. That should be enough marketing to get people excited.