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Question
Hi Cathy.
I'm not sure if I should've asked this in the publishing category, because it doesn't directly relate to publishing.  If I post up my novel on the internet, say through live journal, will it hinder my chances of getting published, if I chose to do so?  The question arose when some of my friends who were doing NaNoWriMo (nanowrimo.org) were discussing their plot issues.  The novel will most likely be in a very rough form, if that helps.  I was considering it because I would like to receive some feedback from others who were in the same writing situation as me, rather then nonwriting friends.
Thanks in advance,
Karina.

Answer
Hi, Karina!

You're right to ask this question, because a lot of people don't. You're actually asking two different questions, even though you didn't realize it. 1) Can I post on the internet and still interest a publisher in paying for it; and 2) Will I lose any rights in the book by posting it on the internet? These are two separate questions because "publication" has a different meaning in copyright law than how publishers use the term. One issue has to do with your ownership of your words, and the other has to do with a publisher's right to make the words available to the public for a fee. So, let's look at them one at a time.

1) Can I post on the internet and still interest a publisher in paying for it?

The short answer is . . . maybe. The big question is this: If you post something on the web for the public to read for free, why would they later PAY for the same thing in a store? This is what a publisher considers when looking at the situation. In your case, it would be a draft version that would later change form through editing. But a lot depends on the individual publisher and the acquiring editor's preference. Obviously, the larger the volume of people who have read the book for free, the smaller the prospect for sale, unless it's a HUGE turnout, in which case the publisher figures there are even more potential readers out there. It's like a YouTube viral video. The more popular it is, the more people will want to see it. But it's a coin toss on which one you'll wind up with. It's truly 50/50.

The next issue on a publisher's mind is whether it's already been "published." Publishers want to be the FIRST to publish a book. It's why they pay the money to the author. But what does "published" mean and what does it have to do with a LiveJournal blog? It all comes back to "rights." The owner of the book is the only person who can grant the right to publish, and the FIRST right to publish can only be given . . . well, once. So, to answer one (selling a publisher the right to publish) you have to look at the second question.

2)  Will I lose any rights in the book by posting it on the internet?

This is the big question you need to be concerned about, because if you don't OWN the book, you can't sell it. First, know that you're protected by U.S. copyright laws (if you live in America) as the owner of the book from the moment you set the words on paper or a screen. There's no process or paperwork required to be protected. The only way you can lose that ownership is to voluntarily give it away. So, let's look at what "publication" means, and we'll go to the source. The U.S. Copyright office has a TERRIFIC frequently asked questions page that deals with a lot of this, and it's important (if you're interested in someday publishing the book) that you understand your rights and a little bit about the law.  Here's a link to the basic site:

http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq

And here's a link to your particular question:

http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-definitions.html#publication

The key point for your situation is this language: "A public performance or display of a work does not of itself constitute publication."

So, then, is posting the book on a public site merely a "display" or something more?

To determine that, you have to determine what (if any) rights you give up when you post on a particular website. We often think of the internet as "free and unencumbered" as far as what we post up, but that's not always the case. In the case of LiveJournal, the following appears in their Terms of Service (http://www.livejournal.com/legal/tos.bml )

"LiveJournal claims no ownership or control over any Content posted by its users. The author retains all patent, trademark, and copyright to all Content posted within available fields, and is responsible for protecting those rights, but is not entitled to the help of the LiveJournal staff in protecting such Content. The user posting any Content represents that it has all rights necessary to post such Content (and for LiveJournal to serve such Content) without violation of any intellectual property or other rights of third parties, or any laws or regulations;"

This is NOT the case with every site, so you have to be very careful to look at the sites you choose to frequent because once you've agreed to the terms by signing up for a membership, you could easily sign away your rights. For example, compare that to the terms of use for Amazon.com's blog system:

"All content included on this site, such as text, graphics, logos, button icons, images, audio clips, digital downloads, data compilations, and software, is the property of Amazon or its content suppliers and protected by United States and international copyright laws...If you do post content or submit material, and unless we indicate otherwise, you grant Amazon a nonexclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, and fully sublicensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, and display such content throughout the world in any media."

Poof.  You just gave away your copyright protection. Perfectly legal, but it's still gone.

Theft, or the ILLEGAL taking of your words, of course, is the next issue. While rare, it does happen that someone could come along, look at your blog, cut and paste the book into a new file and submit it under their name to a publisher. While you could sue them for infringing on your copyright (stealing your book), and quite possibly win, it's an expensive process, could take years, and there's no guarantee of success.

My best advice would be, if you're truly interested in feedback from others, to post up a short excerpt and then offer to let people read it privately through email. By doing that, you're controlling the distribution of it to only those you know so if something happens, you have a short list of suspects. Plus, your original question of interesting a publisher is solved too, because a publisher doesn't care if you have "beta readers" which is the term for those who help in the creation process by reading and providing feedback.

Hope that helps, and feel free to ask any follow up questions that come up. Good luck, and CONGRATS for participating in the NaNo project. :)

Cathy

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Cathy Clamp

Expertise

I'm happy to answer questions about any aspect of writing novels, from the beginning kernel of an idea through completion. I can help with writing a query letter and synopsis to an agent or editor. I can explain publishing terminology and acronyms. I can also assist with questions about verifying the credentials of agents/publishers and how to proceed once you've been accepted for publication. I can teach the rules of formatting a manuscript, creating viable plots, characterization and flow in the following genres: romance, science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, suspense, horror, women's fiction, mainstream and mystery.

Experience

I'm a USA Today bestselling author of urban fantasy and paranormal romance for Tor/Forge Books. Along with a co-author, I've published fifteen novels (combination of mass market and trade softcover) since 2003, and have contracts for four more books through 2011.

Organizations
Romance Writers of America, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, Western Outdoor Writers, Horror Writers of America.

Publications
Tor/Forge Books, Western Reflections Publishing, BenBella Books, Running Press, Wild Child Publishing. Many others.

Education/Credentials
My educational background is limited to real life experience of publishing novels commercially for the past five years.

Awards and Honors
USA Today bestseller, Waldenbooks Mass Market Paperback Top 20 bestseller, Nielsen BookScan Top 20 bestseller, RT BOOKreviews Career Achievement Award winner, 2009, Book Buyers Best Award for Paranormal, Romantic Times Best Werewolf Novel, Write Touch Readers Award, EVVY Best Historical Chronicle Award, The Lories Best Paranormal. Many others.

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