Thursday, March 12, 2009

When is your story not your story?

by Kelli D. Meyer

When you can't post it on your own web site, that's when.

I am extremely annoyed by an "accepted fact" in the modern world of publishing. It's a fact that publishers won't buy your work as unpublished if it's already appeared online in any form, including on your own blog. It doesn't matter whether ten people read it or ten thousand. Once it's been online, they'll only buy it as a reprint, if they'll buy it at all.

In my opinion, this is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Publishers have made this decision to protect themselves from buying a story that's already been read by a large percentage of its potential audience. It's a decision that makes sense in some very specific cases. If you're Dean Koontz or Stephen King, and you post a novel on your web site for a year or so, the number of people who will buy that novel when it comes out in hardback may diminish. (Although even this is debatable.) In those cases, the publisher might be justified in paying a lower -- a.k.a. reprint -- rate for the work.

But what if you're not Koontz or King? What if you're me, or a member of my writing group, or just about any unknown writer in the world? How many people are really going to seek out and read stories we post on our own blogs or web sites? Enough to damage the story's money-earning potential if it's published? I don't think so.

So the result of this ridiculous rule is that writers have to leave their best stories hidden in file folders in order to have any hope of getting them published. Meanwhile, they're trying to establish a following, a readership, without sharing their best work.

My suggestion to publishers, should any of you out there be interested, is to change the "no reprints" rule to exclude publishing or posting on the authors' own web sites or blogs. Let authors show their stories off. Let readers discover new authors. Once they do, they'll spend more money on your books and magazines. Everybody wins.


TexasRed said...

Yikes! This is good to know. Does it matter if the blog is an invitation-only space? What's the difference between that and e-mailing it to your 10 friends to read?

Kelli said...

Most publishers consider any "private distribution" fine. It's availability to general public they're concerned about.

E-mailing to individuals is fine, even if you e-mail to hundreds of them. Same thing for posting on password-protected sites. They don't count no matter how many people have the password. I haven't actually run across the invitation-only scenario, but I would assume it falls under the same rule as a password-protected site and is fine.

Hope that helps!


Ian said...

I didn't know. Panic stations for me now. I've been serializing my novel on my blog, have it listed on the Web Fiction Guide and many other sites. I've posted nearly a quarter of it so far. What's your advice? Should I pull it? I really want to get it published.

Kelli Meyer said...

My personal experience is with short stories, and I *know* posting them online (even on your own blog) can completely disqualify them from consideration as anything other than a reprint.

On novels, it's a little fuzzier, but I'd still err on the side of caution. If you're serious about traditional publishing (versus self publishing), I wouldn't put the entire novel (even in serialized form) on the Internet on any site that's not password protected.

And yes, this truly sucks. It's a double-edge sword: agents want you to have developed a "platform" of potential readers and ways to market your book if they take it on, but you can't use your actual book to do it.

If it were me, I would use excerpts or "sample chapters" posted online to build interest, but hold back the bulk of the novel. Another idea I had, for my own novel-in-progress, was to create a series of short stories featuring my main characters. (Or even centered around interesting minor characters.) That way you could create interest in the book without actually giving it away for free.

At the end of the day, it's a judgment call. Good luck.