15 October 2012

What Exactly Does "Unpublished" Mean?

The answer to this question used to be simple. If your work had never appeared in a book, magazine, anthology, journal, etc. then you had never been published. However, in the process of searching for online and print publications where I might place some of my work, I discovered that the definition of “unpublished” has drastically changed.
For instance, I wanted to submit one of my short stories to a flash fiction journal, but their guidelines were very specific in stating that all submissions would have to be completely unpublished. They were so adamant that I decided to research this topic and found the following things:
  1. If it’s on your blog, or anyone else’s, it’s “published”. I knew this one, but it goes to show that writers should carefully select their blog topics. If there’s anything you are hoping to submit elsewhere for publication, it’s not always acceptable for you to simply take it down from your blog. Many editors prefer work that’s never been seen.
  2. If it’s been posted in a writing forum that is not password protected, then your piece has been “published”. I didn’t know this one! I put my story in an open writer’s forum last year not knowing that it could prevent me from submitting for official publication elsewhere. The good news is, it doesn’t appear that the forum’s pages have been archived. I did an internet search using some key phrases from my piece and nothing from the forum came up. If you posted in an unprotected forum like I did, but your piece doesn’t come up in an internet search (hint: don’t just look at the first page of results), you might be safe. In the future, if you’d like to share your work with fellow writers be sure to do so in a password protected forum so your stuff isn’t all over the web.
  3. Contests want unpublished work too. The sponsors usually want to discover pieces that have never been seen before. I was ready to submit some poetry to a Writer’s Digest contest recently and their guidelines expressly stated that your material could never have been posted on any blog, forum, or basically any other internet format. Booo.
The moral of the story is this: read guidelines carefully, and be selective with what you post online if you have plans to seek a traditional publishing route. 
Have you had any experiences like mine? Has posting online ever affected your chances of being published elsewhere? Did you already know all this?  


  1. I have stayed away from posting anything I maybe would ever want to publish online precisely because I wasn't too clear on the 'rules.' Thanks for the clarification!

  2. You're wise for being cautious! I wish I'd used my head a little more. Sometimes I get a little too excited to share.

  3. Now that I have a Blogspot site I'm connected to your site; I probably also joined way back when you were reviewing my book, Where the Horses Run.
    I wanted you to know that I found this article very interesting. I had a publisher tell me about this, but what I understand is that the entire work had to be on the site to be considered published. If this is not the case I'd like it clarified because I post the beginnings of some of my stories on autonomy.com to established they are mine and a date, and for critique of those first pages. I'm not very active at this time in trying to get responses, but have left a few there until published.
    I have seen them listed in a google search (as you suggested, look at all the pages) as a title, unpublished work, and the address. No one has to be a member/sign in to read them if they know what they're looking for.
    Since I self-publish it may not be an issue, but it could be for others. This may be something you might want to expand on, especially seeing all the stories posted on that site. It is a Harper-Collins site where authors hope to have their writing liked well enough to make it to the editor's desk for a look and possible publication. I don't see many getting published, just well-critiqued (which few publish any more), but since they started their new pick one especially good one for publication program. there have now been a few they have published. I've never inquired of them how they felt about the writings on that site being pre-published or not. It's never come up that I've seen.
    Just a thought to share. Hope you're doing well.

  4. Thanks Judith! You make a great point. If it's just a portion of a piece, and not the entire thing, that's a different story. In fact, it's often necessary to post excerpts in order to build a platform. What matters most is reading publishers guidelines, but like you said it doesn't necessarily matter for someone who's self-publishing. I'm glad you stopped by and provided this food for thought!