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There are lots of websites for getting feedback for my writing. But since posting something publicly on the internet can count as "publication," I'm worried that posting my work there might prove an obstacle once the work is done and I'm seeking publication.

How do I know whether or not posting my writing on a particular site counts as publishing it? What online workshop setups are definitely OK, and which are problematic? I'm looking for signs and guidelines more than specific websites.

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2 Answers 2

Critters, one of my favorite workshopping sites, addresses this question:

Is sending through the group considered publication?

In a word: No. Editors recognize the utility of critique groups and that many authors belong to them. Being seen by a restricted set of other authors is not publication ("publication" means available to anyone, i.e., "the public").

I know for a fact of stories workshopped on Critters have gone on to be published by the biggest magazines in the field, so I'm inclined to believe 'em.

In general, a good rule of thumb is this: if you can find the actual text of the story using Google, e.g, by searching for the title, for the author name, or for a line or two from the text, then consider it published. If you can't, you're in the clear. So, for example:

  • A forum which is locked behind any kind of password should be OK.
  • Publicly sharing a link to a temporary document which you can take down after getting feedback should also be OK.
  • Emailing text directly to a limited group of online acquaintances is fine.
  • Posting your entire piece on a public forum - not OK.
  • Posting your entire piece to your personal blog - not OK.

An additional crucial point is to check the terms and conditions of the site you are posting on. Some sites and forums claim ownership or the right to re-use any posted content (the Stack Exchange network, including Writers.SE, is one such site). If anyone besides yourself, the author, can claim ownership or re-use rights over your text, that can be a significant problem, and can conceivably render your work unpublishable.

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If you can find it, it's published. If you can't, it may or may not be; there're more ways to find text on the web than just Google. –  Mussri Jun 26 '13 at 17:57
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I used to play an online mmorpg game named Popmundo and to be a regular columnist for their game magazine: It's Pop. In the agreement of the game, they specified that the content you create was locked to the game and could not be used outside, even they not being able to sell it or make profits out of the game itself.

That give an example of how you can know if posting something publicly on the internet can count as "publication": agreement.

Any site of forum will have an agreement page - or something like that - and there they will specify what can be done with content publish under it. Some smaller sites may not have it, what demonstrates some lack of seriousness. You should be aware of such sites if you intent to use your work.

Another thing, the Internet is wild west and exist in a gray area. Take for example online shopping, made most of times trough trust: if you buy something from another country and there are problems, it will be extremely difficult to enforce your rights trough law.

For that, I want to say that if you do not have your work registered, somebody - not site staff, but readers - else may get your manuscript and do it and you will be engaged in a lot of problem to prove you own it. I'm not saying it happens always, but it may happen. So, if you want to share your work, make sure it's marked as yours somewhere.

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