Tuesday, May 05, 2009

what's safe to syndicate online?

This is probably my most frequently-asked reader question, and I've never answered it well.
Dear Moonrat,

I was thinking about releasing my first chapter on my blog for critiquing, but then a friend told me I should be careful because it could interfere with getting a publishing contract. Is this true? What are the possible issues with this? If it can interfere with getting a contract then it defeats the purpose in posting it so I would not do it.


I'm going to take a stab at this, but the caveat is that my word should not be taken as final here. If anyone else in the industry or with concrete experience on this matter wants to chime in, please be my very welcomed guest.

So here's the central issue with internet syndication: electronic rights. Basically, when you syndicate your content online, you're "using up" the electronic rights. Sort of, in a small way.

For your book deal, electronic rights will be wrapped up in your contract under either the volume rights or the "other forms, current and future" clause, and are becoming a sticking point for publishers everywhere, who imagine a future in which they are more relevant than they are now (yes, ebooks are great, but don't let publishing people fool you into thinking we have ANY idea what we're doing with ebooks or how the fudge we're going to make money on them in the long term).

But what this means is there is some scaring and misunderstanding everywhere about whether or not it's ok for an author to release their content online before (or after) a book deal. Some publishers are afraid that all-important electronic clause will be forfeit if the book was already released on a blog. Others are worried about first serial (print publication before the book is available), which is silly of them, because first serial is nearly dead, anyway. There's no consensus on this, and reaction will vary from house to house, but there are ways to make the internet work for you, to proceed wisely, and to not upset anyone, even the ninnies who are afraid of free content and how it ruins everything.

My thoughts on this are as follows.

Do you have a huge blog readership? Like, thousands of people? No? Then no worries. Put up what you want for critique--especially if you're planning on taking it down later. If you're not driving tons of traffic to your site, and especially if your site is mainly designed as a writing forum to exchange ideas, I don't see a problem with putting it up.

Do you care if you ever sell this work? Sometimes, people write for the internet and their internet-sepcific crowd. What you do with THIS book can't negatively impact a DIFFERENT book (at least, not in terms of electronic rights). I know some blog authors--lots of you, actually--who do special clever and fun online writing exercises that are never intended for future publication.

Remember online readership is a great fanbase. The internet is the easiest way to build platform while you sit at home. So offering people on the internet SOME window into your soul isn't a bad thing. I don't think it pays to be unnecessarily afraid.

A couple safety measures:
*Don't put the whole thing up at once. That way, it's less likely that a full, unfinished version of your ms is floating around anywhere in cyberspace. Also, that means that you'll almost certainly be able to say only "portions" have been released should the time come that that's relevant.

*Take down what you're done having read. This is to protect your reputation, too. You don't want unpolished versions of what you wrote floating around indefinitely on the internet.

*Use email if you can.
If you critique with a very small e-circle--like 3 or 4 people--consider using email instead of your blog as a venue. That way, you'll never have to have this conversation again.

Re: worries about first serial: I had an author recently who had published a portion of her novel in an online journal (a mid-sized one). This ended up having literally zero effect on the book, except maybe extending readership (who knows?). But we sold first serial rights, and a beautiful piece came out of it.

Ultimately, whether or not to syndicate what you've written online is your choice. My personal feelings is that putting up free content creates fans for you. Obviously, it makes sense to exercise judgment--or, heck, you might end up LOSING fans--but I think a lot of the "ack don't put it up!" fear is going to dispel as publishers come to grips with the concept of free content (and how they can't fight it).

Does anyone out there have specific negative experience with publishing online? Any cautionary tales? Any industry professionals with wise words?


Leah Braemel said...

Another alternative is for the critique group to have an invite-only Yahoo group where members of the critique group can upload their chapters without fear that the general populace won't be able to access them. There's still a certain amount of trust of course.

My contract has a percentage that I cannot exceed in posting (for excerpts purposes for instance) so if you plan to put up a chapter a week, that might be exceeded.

I hesitate to post something unedited on a blog since Google offers the cache option and things can be stored forever it seems. But then I'm probably over-cautious.

However as you say, if you put up a finished/edited product as a free read, you can draw readers to your blog.

helenf said...

Livejournal (or Dreamwidth) is also good for getting critiques as you can post under various filters. So, for example, on livejournal I can post under a general 'friends' filter, so that the public at large can't access it. You can filter even more than that. For example, I have a 'no agents/publishers' filter that I use when posting rough drafts of things and don't want them to see my writing in that state :D.

Kristan said...

Oh, I think your words were plenty wise enough for all of us. :P

Thanks for the insight on this!

Personally, I write an internet-specific serial on my blog instead of posting the stuff I want published. I've also decided that I will post any short pieces that get rejected by all the publications I am aiming for. My goal, like you said, is to be read and enjoyed without negatively impacting my chance at future publications.

BuffySquirrel said...

Don't just take it down; replace it with a page with the same url but no content. That way, Google et al will eventually cache the blank page over the page of writing, and it won't turn up in searches any more.


Jo said...

Since I am currently between publishers with a completed manuscript (the sequel to my first book) in limbo, I thought about serializing it on my website/blog as a way to keep my readers happy and get the book out there. However I re-thought this idea precisely because I was concerned it would hurt any future the manuscript might have. What I did do was to write a short story with the hero and main characters of my book and post that up in 3 parts over 3 weeks. It increased traffic to my site by more than 35%.

Melinda Szymanik said...

Hey Jo - I am in exactly the same position with a completed sequel and have wondered what the best course of action is. The short story idea sounds like a winner.

JES said...

This is such a timely subject, and such reassuring advice. (You seem to have a gift for smoothing writers' self-ruffled feathers.) In general I'm with you, Moonie -- "online readership is [potentially] a great fanbase."

It does make me apprehensive from time to time, but this will help a lot.

I like the idea of leaving the content online for a while, then replacing it with a blank page at the same URL. Or maybe even better, include a comment something like, "Looking for [whatever]? It's not here online any longer, but I'm always happy to share -- drop a comment below, be sure to include your email address, and watch your Inbox!"

Charles Gramlich said...

I've just always been very cautious about putting up stuff online first before submitting it, but I have revised and submitted a few of my Halloween horror October pieces. Sold one so far.

PurpleClover said...

Thanks so much for being such a knowledgeable source of information!

Appreciate it! I'm also slightly relieved!

Eden said...

I think it would be better to find a writer's group and offer it up for critique that way. I like an online group. Just search for "online writing groups" or similar. There are a lot of articles out there in addition to the groups themselves. Do a little research and find one that fits.

I recommend looking for a group that's somehow closed or protected, such as ones that require a sign-up to a password-protected critique forum or a pre-approval process. There are plenty of legit, free crit groups to chose from. That way your stuff's not "out there" and wouldn't be considered "published" by any stretch of the imagination.

Nancy said...

Gosh, Moonrat I really appreciate your soothing insider thoughts on this question.

Early on I read somewhere that a writer was ill advised to self-publish and, at least at that time, my own website could be considered "self" publishing. (Admittedly, this was a thousand internet years ago)

I was shocked and disappointed as I had posted much of my best writing at the time. I wasn't ready to begin the submission process, but I did want to find out if I could sleep at night knowing that strangers could read my writing. Even if nobody did. :-)

I assumed it was ok because my personal website = my personal (unsold) copyright. I also extrapolated ok-ness from the practice of publishing part of a novel in a well known magazine. Just because a piece of writing been available somewhere doesn't mean it's reached it's greatest audience, or that it is not a valid part of a new collected whole.

Call me naive, maybe I didn't realize the word "industry" actually applied to publishing?

Speaking for myself, by nature, I'm a slow writer. My output is not voluminous, and I want to publish it through the proper channels. The position that "self-publishing" includes my own website is just plain silly. I'm glad to hear you say that cooler heads are beginning to take the stage.

P.S. @BuffySquirrel: Your blank page idea is very clever. Thanks.

Whirlochre said...

I've been reticent about hoisting aloft huge chunks of my WIP for precisely the reasons you so eloquently give (hears gentle tiiing of the Ratpraiseometer).

Thanks also to Buffy for a handy hint.

Cuileann said...

Ah! Beautifully helpful post. Thank you so much!

Stuart Neville said...

I know it's not quite the same scenario as you're discussing, but making the first two chapters of my novel available online has done me nothing but good. So much so that I'm thinking of putting the first chapter of the sequel online too, and I'll be giving away a free short story collection.

Having said that, this now means any stories in that collection can now never be sold as most markets naturally want unpublished pieces. So I'm having to make that selection carefully. I've had to exclude one of the pieces I had in mind because it got picked up for an anthology.

Anyway, in short, with a little common sense applies, putting stuff online is generally a good thing.

Anita said...

I love this post--your information backs up everything else I've researched, but in one clear post! Thank you for putting it together!

Christa said...

I had been toying with this eventually posting some stuff as well. However, I was going to limit it to only the first chapter or two -- just to get feedback/interest.

My sense is that posting the first chapter, maybe even up to three chapters, couldn't possibly hurt when attempting to publish a novel. In fact, I would think it would go towerds generating interest and fanbase for the piece when it's eventually published.

I would, however, not post the whole manuscript prior to having a contract. I could easily see that as throwing several wrenches into the deal.

Briane P said...

Moonrat, you've got good advice as usual. I've got a question, though:

Aren't rights sold in bundles and able to be peeled off? I sold a short story online and they bought "First Online Publication Rights." So if I self-publish a book online...

... as I like to do (http://www.nonsportsman.com)

... then I'm only giving up "First Online Publication Rights" or somesuch.

I came at this backwards -- I started writing online on a dare from my wife, and only after I enjoyed it and got some publicity did I think "I should try to publish some."

So I take the middle ground. Some stuff I publish online, and submit to publishers/agents. Some stuff I don't publish online, and submit to publishers/agents. Some stuff I publish online and don't submit.

I figure if Cory Doctorow can put books online for free and still make money, and if Arctic Monkeys can encourage fans to record their shows and put them online for free, then eventually a model may emerge that will help clarify, and brave publishers will figure out that

(a) if your blog has published a whole book and it was popular, those people may want to then buy the book the way fanboys will buy a comic and then the hardbound copy, and

(b) if you were able to draw an audience to read a book on a blog, imagine what "proper marketing" could do, and

(c) publishing on the 'net may interest people who otherwise might not see it. One of my blogs drew the attention of some artists who are now talking about whether they'd want to turn my prose into a graphic novel.

Jon said...

You should always assume that anything you post online, anywhere, will be available for everyone forever. Livejournal filters could change. Google is not the only one indexing, and they may actually treat a blank page as an error and not remove your content from the index.

There are many ways you can use free content online to actually make money, but it is a mistake to think that you can "delete" something once it's been posted. In some instances, maybe you can. In most, you definitely can't.

Bill Greer said...

What about sites like authonomy? The whole novel could already be published online.

moonrat said...

Wow, so much good input since I've checked the thread.

Leah--yes, locked crit groups are great. A little more work to organize, but a pretty good option.

moonrat said...

I like everyone who recommends writing separate syndications for online readership. I know it's more work, but at least it's writing practice. (We just have to figure out how to somehow balance everything!)

BuffySquirrel--great suggestion; thank you. I never thought of that.

JES--the "looking fr XXX?" strikes my fancy, too.

moonrat said...

Charles, Jo--both of your stories are encouraging. I really like seeing online presense pay off (seeing how much time I pour into the internet myself!!).

moonrat said...

Nancy, and others who worry about copyright--per Briane's comment, copyright is a "bundle" that can be "peeled off" incrementally. That means that hardcover publication, paperback, audio, movie--all these things are possible and not overlapping. The trouble is with publishers' understanding of what internet publication falls under, and whether or not it uses up or overlaps with first serial, electronic whole book publishing, etc.

In my opinion and experience, publishers were much more cautious and angry about these rights before, but in the last couple months/years have been opening up their minds a little bit about different ways to syndicate content.

While self pubbing is nearly always (nearly; I'm not talking to you, Brunonia Barry) preclusive to getting a mainstream book deal, blog syndication, especially of only a piece of manuscript, is not usually consider "self publishing" anymore. (Dear God, I hope it's not. How dumb that would be.)

So Nancy, there may indeed have been "copyright" weirdness/misunderstanding a couple years ago that has since gone away. In theory, you should be able to "peel off" internet first serial on your blog... without disrupting any other rights.

All that said, we still have to be careful.

moonrat said...

Stuart--I'm glad you syndicated a couple of chapters; and glad to see another internet syndication success story.

moonrat said...

Jon--you make a really good point. The biggest ongoing risk of pubbing your own writing online is you'll never really be able to kill that iteration of the writing, ever. There may always be someone who's retained a copy. It's something everyone should keep in mind before putting stuff up, no matter what, how much, or where.

moonrat said...

Bill Greer--I'm not sure how I feel about authonomy. I tried to get into it when it first went live, but it seemed to me that the upside compared to the time it required was limited.

My hunch is that authonomy is specifically designed to "peel off" electronic serialization rights. It was put up, though, in the wake of a lot of publishers coming to their senses about electronic possibilities, and I think that its existence is kind of a symptom of new(ish) ways of thinking about the internet. But I'm afraid I don't know quite enough about it.

Do you have any opinions/ideas you can share?

Bill Greer said...

I'm not sure how I feel about authonomy. From what I've read, many people are working to skew the rating system in their favor, which defeats the original purpose.

I'm not sure how I feel about having my entire novel online somewhere. It makes me nervous about losing control of it. Maybe I'm just a control freak.

Raethe said...

I think Jessica Faust at Bookends said something about this in a recent post, actually. If I recall right, she suggested that posting a sample from an unpublished/uncontracted novel probably wouldn't hurt you, but suggested that you wouldn't want to exceed 10% of the novel's actual content.

Might not want to quote me on that one, though; I'm not a hundred per cent certain.

Lady Glamis said...

Great information! That clears up a lot for me, thanks. :)

Ian said...

That is a wonderfully helpful post. Thank you so much for that. There is so much scaremongering about posting any part of your first novel on a blog.

My feeling is that if you post less than half of your novel and you build up a loyal following online, you are helping the publishers to sell your book.

Anonymous said...

Basically, for writers who are not yet contracated, I'd say you could boil this post down to a simple, "Don't do it." The negatives listed in the post outway the positives if you tally them up. If you're dying for feedback before contacting agents/publishers (which is the true feedback, anyway), then join a private crit group that operates via e-mail or even in person, and make sure you know the members' true names.

After the author is published however, the online publication of preview chapters (and even entire free e-books), becomes an important promotional tool.

Anonymous said...

"My feeling is that if you post less than half of your novel and you build up a loyal following online, you are helping the publishers to sell your book."

And what if the book changes significantly during the editorial process? Then you've got this "early version" which has already been released. Yuk! I feel dirty.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:57 -

What post were you reading?? I didn't take away that basically this (and I'm paraphrasing) boils down to "Don't do it."

Seems to me that it is acceptable if it is small and temporary.

Anonymous said...

"Seems to me that it is acceptable if it is small and temporary."

Nothing is temporary on the 'net. You post it, it's there. Maybe no one will care, but it'll be there. All of a sudden a novel comes out and someone remembers, HEY, I SAW THAT--WAIT A MINUTE, I HAVE THAT STASHED SOMEWHERE! and there ya go. You've sold a "pre-published" work. it' sjust not worth the possible hassels for the weak bennies.

Anonymous said...

I went to a writer's conference last weekend and this topic came up during the literary agent panel discussion. They didn't seem too concerned with content posted online (especially if it can be removed).

However, the agents spent a lot of time explaining that when they're interested in a writer they tend to google their name. They look at facebook, myspace, blogs, etc. So if you've got pictures of some guy doing jello shots off your stomache, you might want to take them down. They also laughed at the number of times they came across writer's ranting about rejections and agents online (a big no, no).

Just FYI, clean up your online presence (if you can) BEFORE you start querying. And if you don't have one, get one.

KathyF said...

So what do you do when there are over 30 different people with your name?

Also, apparently some people search indexes have my name listed. Some appear to be me, but their information is inaccurate or combines my information with others of the same name. Not quite sure what I can do about that.

Or are you only talking about cleaning up any postings/writings/opinions?


Alexander Field said...

Moonrat, I agree with you thoughts on this topic. With our authors, we've only seen the benefit of releasing a chapter of the book online, before or after the book' release. Why? Doing this can increase the readership of that particular author and the impressions for that particular book. Thanks.

Kiki Hamilton said...

I actually had an editor find my site and contact my agent because I had posted the beginning of my first chapter. So, there is the potential for positive exposure as you mentioned. I guess it comes down to being prudent about how much you post / reveal.

AravisGirl said...

I was posting some of my stuff on a website for awhile there... But I kind of stopped. Mostly because I just lost interest in keeping the site up. It was nice while I was on there though. I got a lot great feedback from other writers.

Michelle said...

Thanks for the great information. Just wanted you to know that I referenced your posting in my blog. Here's the link:


robert said...

When signing a publisher's contract, the author might focus on the part entitled Warranties, Representations and Indemnities. Look for these words: Author represents and warrants to the Publisher that (i)the Work is not in the public domain. Also look for (iii) the Work has not heretofore been published, in whole or in part, in any form.

If your contract contains this language and you have posted any of your work on your blog or Web site, by signing the contract with this wording in place, you might in trouble and could find yourself in court if at some later date the publisher feels your book didn't do well because. . .

moonrat said...

Robert--good point. Thanks for the tip.

Erin said...

Hi everyone,

God, what a fantastic blog. Thank you.

I haven't blogged my manuscript, but I've recorded my novel as an audiobook and am distributing it on Podiobooks.com and iTunes to gain an audience. So far, 400 listeners, and I just launched a week and a half ago! I've been working on this novel for six years and having a readership feels fantastic. (It's very Sally Fields--they LIKE me.) It has also convinced me that there's a market for my work outside the circle of people who love me anyway. That makes the agent query process easier.

I hope my audiobook (or "podiobook" as some call it) works in my favor with publishers. I'll post more info when I know.

Oh, and here's my novel, if anyone wants to listen: http://www.podiobooks.com/title/glitter-girl

steeleweed said...

Better late than never, found this blog.

Re eBooks etc. Fiona Robyn published THAW in paperback via Snowbooks (a UK firm). She then published it one chapter a time on her blog and as a Note on Facebook. It was singularly suited to this, since it's written as a journal covering several months. I read the opening paragraph and order the paperback. Would be interesting to see if the free piecemeal version hurt or helped her paperback sales.