When you’re ready to submit short stories, poetry, or personal essays to literary journals, it’s important to check the guidelines for phrases such as we do not accept work that is previously published, or submit previously unpublished work only. Why? Because most literary editors are not interested in publishing something that’s already appeared elsewhere. But what does previously published really mean? The answer to this question has become increasingly hard to pin down as the Internet takes on a huge role in the writing world. Fortunately, the submissions experts at Writer’s Relief can help you determine what’s considered previously published.
What Does—And Doesn’t—Count As “Previously Published”
Physically printed and distributed: This is the most basic definition of “previously published.” If your poems, stories, or essays appeared in a book, journal, anthology, textbook, newsletter, newspaper, magazine, or any other print publication, it is considered published. Does this include your high school or college literary journal? Yes, it does.
Available to the public digitally: One of the main reasons so many literary journal editors don’t like previously published work is that they want their offerings to be fresh and new to their audience. Editors want to be the first to discover your writing. So if your work is available online—whether through an online literary journal, a digital archive like Wattpad, a social media platform, a website, or a personal blog—most editors will consider it previously published. Also, editors would prefer to stay away from any rights entanglements.
What if you take your writing off the site or platform? Often, even though you’ve removed your work, it may be cached elsewhere on the Internet and still show up in searches. Google and other search engines will often archive old Web pages, so simply deleting something from the Internet doesn’t mean it’s gone. If you remove a short story, essay, or poem from the Internet, do a search of random lines from the work to see if it’s appearing anywhere.
No one can stop you from taking your work down and then submitting it, but be warned: Editors may not like this tactic. And if an editor finds your “unpublished” work online, you might look irresponsible or, worse, devious.
Our best advice: Don’t post your work online if you plan to submit it for publication in a literary journal.
Posted on a private critique forum: If the forum, board, or workshopping site is private and intended for the purposes of encouraging feedback or community support, most editors and literary agents will probably consider the work unpublished. But just to be safe, you may want to take it down once you’ve received feedback so it doesn’t appear online.
If the forum in question is public (that is, if nonmembers can see what you’ve written), then your work will likely be considered previously published.
Posted on my own author website: Having samples of your writing on your author website is a great way to entice new readers and literary agents who may be researching your work and online presence. But, as you may have guessed, whatever short stories or poems you post on your public author website will be considered previously published by literary editors. And don’t post your work on your website and then plan to take it down and start submitting to journals. Remember, that won’t necessarily stop your writing from showing up in an Internet search. The best approach is to only post writing that has already been published (after the publication rights revert back to you, of course).
An alternative is to write stories or poems specifically for your website, with no intention to publish them elsewhere. This approach could also provide an incentive for readers to come back to your website for new, original content.
Self-published in print or e-book format: If you’ve self-published a book or novel on your own or with a third-party POD publishing house, and you still retain the copyright, you can pitch it to most literary agents. That said, always be forthcoming about your book’s history—and you may need to remove your book from online bookstores and take your book down from the Internet.
Book excerpt in a literary journal: Publishing a passage from your book in a journal shouldn’t disqualify your book from agent representation. As long as your excerpt is a small section from your book—maybe a chapter or two—agents will know that there is still a lot of untapped potential in your book. In fact, successfully publishing an excerpt can boost your chances of securing an agent, since it shows you have an audience who is interested in your book’s story.
What if your work is considered “previously published”?
Keep in mind that these are general guidelines: Each literary editor may have his or her own definition of what is considered previously published. Most literary journals list what they consider previously published in their submission guidelines—so always check before you send your work!
If you realize your writing is previously published, don’t give up yet. There are a few journal editors who do accept previously published works. Be sure to be upfront about your publication history. Editors will check to see if your work shows up in searches, and if you don’t let them know your story or poem has already been published, you’ll earn a poor reputation in the industry. Editors DO talk to each other!
As a general rule, if you plan to submit your work to literary journals and magazines, DON’T post it publicly online first—anywhere. Then you won’t have to worry about whether you’ve inadvertently become “previously published.”