While I always meant this essay to be only a very cursory description of how publishing works, I had no intention of causing panic by providing just enough bad news to alarm you.
No, the panic was just a fun bonus.
In all seriousness, I'm talking about the paragraph I devoted to First World Electronic rights. Namely, the part where I said that if you post work on Fictionpress (also your blog or a non-password-protected forum, but I know what's most important to Fictionpress users), you lose those first rights. At risk of sounding vulgar, I'll say what many of you are thinking: Oh my pure and precious literary virginity! Is it LOST?
I'm afraid so. And I'm afraid that, unlike virginity, those rights are actually valued in modern society (I don't judge!)—the publishing portion of it, at any rate. There are rights called First North American Serial Rights and First European (or Australian, or likely African and Antarctic) Rights, and you can retain these—if, for example, you sell a story for the first time to a North American publication, you can sell the same story for the first time to an Australian publication, and it's no skin off your nose.* But those are print rights, and Fictionpress is electronic. Anybody anywhere in the world can read your fiction once it's posted here. Look at your story traffic stats to find that out—just this month I've had my essays read in Puerto Rico, Spain, the UK, and Malaysia. Practically, this means that your other rights aren't worth much, since people in Australia as well as North America can read your story—"First Electronic Rights" might as well be "First Rights for The Whole Entire World."
But all hope is not lost. There are ways to deal with this often unexpected, and frequently tragic, development. (Am I exaggerating? After some of the PMs I've received from readers of this essay, I'm not so sure).
First off, my comparison to your virginity (I hope you're not offended, because I find the metaphor quite useful and it's here to stay) isn't quite accurate. It's more properly the story's virginity—and thank goodness, because I don't think I can help you with the other one (but my wacky feminist ideas are not the topic of this essay. I don't judge). And even that might not be a problem, since first rights of any sort are only a concern if a story is going to be published. That is, if you're going to try sending it out to people who might pay money for it. And your Fictionpress stories…well, they might not be publishable.
Here's a truth some may find uncomfortable, though it really isn't: Fictionpress is a site for amateurs. That's 'amateurs' in its original sense, meaning people who do something simply for the love of it. Contrasted with professionals, who do it for money. When you write and post stories on Fictionpress, you do it for the fun of sharing your work. When you publish it, no matter how much fun you're having, you're also doing it for money, whether that's your primary intention or not.
Partly because of the fact they aren't writing for money, amateurs don't always write stories that are marketable. It might be cliché or poorly written. It might be written in an unpopular genre or style (nowadays, most Westerns, short stories in the Sword & Sorcery subgenre, and anything written in 3rd person omniscient or 'head hopping' viewpoints, not to mention talkative 19th century narrators a la Victor Hugo, are very hard sells). It might be full of in-jokes that only you and your friends get. A lot of fiction on Fictionpress (not all of it, but an awful lot) falls into one of these categories, or another one that means the same thing: most publishers won't want it anyway. So rights are not a concern.
Plus, it's true that even if conventional publishers won't take your story, you can always try self-publishing. In fact, Fictionpress itself is a form of self-publishing. If you want to go for it all the way, I wish you the best of luck. But the advice I'd have to give you from this point on would be on the marketing of fiction to readers, and while I know a little of that, right now it's acquisitions editors I'm concerned with. (Skip a few paragraphs down for more on self-publishing).
If you have work right now that isn't on Fictionpress, and you want to try getting it published, don't put it on Fictionpress. If you think you need feedback (a good call on your part, as feedback is always helpful), ask a friend of yours to do it privately, or learn to self-edit. You could also join a private critique group like Critters [dot org, for fantasy, horror, and science fiction] or get feedback in password-protected forums like those on many writing sites. If your story has a lot of promise and you really want the best for it, you might consider hiring a manuscript editor. Research them carefully beforehand to be sure they'll be really helpful to you and worth the money. Do not post your story anywhere that every warm body with the title and a search engine can find it. That's the job of your publisher. See what I said before about Fictionpress being self-publishing.
I should note that first, when I say 'electronic rights,' I'm talking about posting a piece on the Internet. I'm not talking about ebooks, although that's electronic publishing too. If you are trying to sell your story as an ebook, with an ebook publisher, you treat everything the same way you treat printed books rights-wise.
I'm coming at this from the perspective of short fiction, where first publication rights can be a huge deal with short fiction publishers. Novels might have more leeway if they build up a really big audience as an online freebie, although this is not in any way standard form. I'll talk more about this later. Just be aware there are differences depending on length and medium (and although I don't know about poetry or nonfiction, I assume they're more like short fiction than like novels, since they're published in similar ways. On the other hand, if you're trying to get a nonfiction book published it helps to have a platform that you build by publishing lots of articles and/or offering free, quality content on a website or blog. Fictionpress with neither help nor hurt you there).
Also, while in most of my other essays I talk about the writing process, here I'm talking about legal issues. I'm going to use many qualifiers (ie weasel words, like 'most' and 'many' and 'it seems') because I'm not an absolute source, and I shouldn't be treated as one. I'm trying to offer some guidance here, because I know there are diehards on Fictionpress with a story they don't want to give up on. Many of them are novels (and I don't blame anybody for not wanting to give up on them, since I'd hate to write 50,000+ words for nothing). I shall make some explicit warning here: if you are dishonest about your story's publishing history (ie, you outright say you have first electronic rights when you don't), and your dishonesty causes problems for you later on, I'm not going to feel very sorry and I sure as heck won't feel responsible. I don't advocate dishonesty to people who will pay you money (or anybody else, but this is one I can get on a soapbox about). And even if you're not going to be sneaky, keep in mind that I am not the ultimate authority. Think of me as Wikipedia, and rely on me accordingly.
First things first: take down your story. If you want to save some particularly nice reviews it received, copy and paste them into a word document or print them out. If you'd like to notify people who have favorited or subscribed to your story and explain what you're doing, go ahead. I'd even encourage it. They might want to seek out the finished product when it's published (yes, when—let's be optimistic).
Now that your story is down, and its contents are in a word processing file on your computer, save that file. Name it "[Story's Title]—Draft One." Because that's what you've got—a first draft. This would apply anyway-if you're going for pro publication, you will always need to polish it as much as you think possible, and then some more. But when a version of the story has already appeared publicly the least you can do is offer a significantly changed version for publication. And I should note no matter how extensively you edit, it will still count as the "same" story. At what point do you have a significantly different story? I don't know. I imagine you'd have to change the plot, at least way more than the characters' names. Let's say if you have a story about Shane, a cowhand who needs to defend small landowners from a greedy cattle baron, and you also have a story about Harry, a former bandit who needs to defend the family of small landowners who've taken him in from a greedy cattle baron who is also Harry's former bandit boss, then you have two different stories. You can take that as a suggestion, or just as me musing about the nature of 'same/different story.' Or me wildly plotting the paperback Western I'm never going to write.
No, the reason I'm saying you should edit this story is partly for wishy-washy ethical reasons (it only seems right for the story to be different), and also because the best way you can get a previously posted story published is to make it pants-fall-off-good. Even then, the scenario for short fiction isn't all that good. I'd suggest you wait until they've been offline at least six months (among other things, this ensures you've had time to perfect them), and to look for markets that either don't care about electronic rights, explicitly say in their guidelines that they don't care if a story has previously been posted on the Internet (there are a few), or that accept reprints.
I'd suggest that, however things turn out, you start working on many new story efforts as well as salvaging your Fictionpress one. In fact, perhaps you can incorporate your favorite aspects of your Fictionpress stories into new works, and do them better. I believe I could get quite metaphysical about the afterlives and various existences of stories at this point, so I'm going to stop.
One last warning: sometimes fiction on Fictionpress is plagiarized. Don't panic, because it's rare and because these plagiarizing sites tend to die quick deaths. But to be certain your story is offline entirely, Google search its title, any key phrases, and the names of your characters (fantasy and science fiction writers have a bonus here, since they have made-up place names to look for). If you don't get any hits, it's safe to assume the story is gone.
According to the agent blogger known as Miss Snark (just search the name and you'll find her, but Fictionpress doesn't allow me to post links), on the topic of novels previously published online, says you should tell you agent that it's available online, but shouldn't call it published, because it's not 'published' the way agents think of publication (that is, the 'paid money for' sense). This suggests that some agents, at least, are okay with novels that have previously appeared online. Though she stresses that they have to be good. They have to be very good. But then, that goes for all novels you want to get published.
Now, depending on your goals, you might be able to skip the lengthy process of querying agents, being represented, and eventually being commercially published. This route will take work, but it can be worthwhile if your story on Fictionpress already has a good readership (I'll arbitrarily define this as at least 5,000 unique visitors, and/or at least 500 hits a month). I'm talking about self-publishing.
It isn't something I said a lot about in the last chapter. Partly this is because it's a different fish from the rest of the publishing world. It has some good points: you have complete control over how your story is presented, you're not selling the rights to anyone (so first electronic rights and the rest aren't a concern), and you keep 100% of the profits from sales of your book. On the other hand, self-publishing is hard, rarely successful (financially or otherwise), and often looked down upon by commercially or traditionally published crowds. But if, for example, you have a small target audience you can sell books to personally, or have modest goals you want to meet on your own terms, it's an option to consider.
Along with people who posted their novel's first draft on Fictionpress, only to take it down, do heavy revisions, and shop it around, I also know people who have self-published based on the success of a work on this site. I also know people who have self-published after posting a story on . And/or who have landed deals with publishers for those works. Once upon a time that would launch interesting debates on the nature of 'same story' along the lines of plagerism rather than first publication rights, but hell, we all know about Fifty Shades of Gray now (I do judge-because it's terribly written). I know some happier examples as well, so don't lose all hope for humanity or yourself, but I'm warning you those came in somewhat niche genres. I advise you to change more than the first names of the characters. Of course, if your space cowboy AU of your favorite cop show in which every character is genderbent, is really good and something you're proud of, let me know and I will personally come to you with a baby name book to swap those monikers.
A few words to the wise here: first, both self-publishers and those seeking commercial publishers should look out for vanity publishers. A vanity publisher will take your rights and then sell the resulting book…very halfheartedly…and usually to you. That's right, vanity publishers make their money by selling authors copies of their own book. They'll claim you should then resell these books to bookstores and readers by hand, but first, that's not really how bookselling works (not if you want to make much money doing it, at any rate), and second, it's the publisher's job to get your book in bookstores, not your own. If you're just going to buy your book from them, all you've gotten in exchange for your rights is some formatting and cover design, and usually the formatting and cover design of a vanity-published book is not all that good. Add in the fact that many vanity publishers and downright deceitful to their authors and often disrespectful (implying you should be so grateful that they've published you that you'll put up with any abuse), and you'll see why you should avoid them.
The kind of printers you'll look for as a self-publisher are exactly that: printers. They make the physical book, but your rights remain with you. If you do go this route, you'll need to do a lot of research on different printing companies, as well as how to distribute, publicize, and sell the resulting book. Two companies I can tell you are legitimate are CreateSpace and Lulu. Both are print-on-demand (POD) publishers, where books are made only as customers order them. This saves warehousing space and eliminates most risk to the publisher (that would be you), because you only pay to print a book that has already been ordered. I've had stories in anthologies published by small presses who used POD technology for risk-elimination purposes. There are now ebook publishing options with Amazon and Barnes and Noble for those who prefer to self-publish with newfangled technology-you can sell the book cheaper and, because there's no print cost, keep virtually all profits above the distributor's cut.
I know one writer who self-publishes using Lulu and Fictionpress together. She posts the first few chapters of a story on Fictionpress, and then she shares the link to the book's point of sale on Lulu so attracted readers can buy the complete work. I don't know how many she's selling, but it's a testament to the ingenuity and diversity of writers as they publish their work.
Also, make sure you have a good, clean, readable format in your self-published book, and give it a nice cover and juicy sales copy (what on Fictionpress is the story summary). And make sure at least one person who isn't you has read the thing over to make sure the plot makes sense, the characters are likable, and the grammar functions as Shakespear or whoever invented the English language intended. Generally speaking I encourage you not to pay to publish, but it may be worthwhile, depending on your own talents and goals, to hire a typesetter, a cover artist (hey, maybe those talented folks from chapter 1 would be useful here! I could set up a clearinghouse! -In all seriousness, chat up your favorite deviantart artist or Tumblr art blog or look at your friends, but be aware that the art should be extremely good, and extremely good art will not be had cheaply), and an editor (be sure to research them & their services before hiring. I should mention here, I'm a freelance manuscript editor myself).
Some warnings: years back I recall being solicited by a vanity publisher who found me through Fictionpress. How did I know they were vanity? Ignoring the fact they told me I could get published for 'a low price,' they solicited me in the first place. Real publishers don't go to you, you go to them. On the other hand, you don't pay them to publish you, they pay you for the right to publish your work.
Also, mistrust any publisher or literary agent advertising on Fictionpress, especially if they approach you out of the blue. Likewise any advertising in the magazine Writer's Digest, or in the sidebars when you Google search publishing or agents. They're rarely professional. Google search any person you are going to involve professionally in your writing before sealing any deals. It's better to say "no" and pass up what seems like a nice chance than to have your story go through a publishing nightmare. Look up the stories about Publish America to find out how bad it can get.
Lastly, for anyone wondering how the "First draft on Fictionpress, then take it down, edit, and publish' thing works out for people: I had a novella (short novel) published in 2011, the original version of which was posted on Fictionpress. Caveats: aside from the fact that the final version is fairly different for the first draft (though still the same story), this small publisher specifies in the contract only that I have all relevant rights to the work, and that the story is not available for free online at the time I sign the contract. If a publisher you're looking into offers samples of their contracts to read on their website (mine does), read those contracts and see what they say about previous publication. Needless to say, I'm happy with how things have worked out in this case.
Whatever you decide to do with your writing, I wish you the best of luck and hope you can find fulfillment in it. My doors are open if you would like to discuss any particular story or plan of action. And if you have any interesting experiences, or learn nifty rules of thumb, or discover things to look out for, why not write your own essay about them? The business of publishing is a complex one, and I know I've only brushed the surface.
*For a further discussion of rights, I recommend the essay "Rights: What They Mean and Why They're Important" by Marg Gilks. Fictionpress isn't nice about letting you post links, but I'll tell you that if you search that essay title and author online you should find it immediately. It's also the first or second result if you search FNASR or 'First North American Serial Rights.'