My client group is discussing the in’s and out’s of putting the first chapter (or more) of their work in progress online. Work that is put online for a critique group such as our own ‘crit room’ or any restricted access forum is not considered published, but any work that is put online and is accessible by the general public IS considered published. Some of these sites have a major number of followers, maybe even more than a printed version would sell to.
Why would an author want to do this with an unpublished work anyway? The usual justification is hoping an agent or editor would run across it, like it, and contact them asking for more. This has happened, but it is very rare. For the most part agents and editors have enough to wade through without going online searching for more. A majority of agents and editors won’t even go online searching when someone gives them links to material instead of providing it in a proposal as requested, but that’s a different topic. I believe the potential of ruling a work out by publishing it online outweighs any potential on accidentally interesting an agent or editor in the work.
As to the weight any particular publisher would give to material that has been published online, that varies from paying no attention to it to having it rule the project out for them. It would probably depend on how much of the work had been put up. For some publishers if any at all has been put up they don’t much like it.
My own opinion is that I don’t like to put any work online until it is contracted for publishing and even then after consulting the publisher. Some would not want it to be done at all unless they do it themselves and others have rules about how it can be done. I believe they feel there is no point in courting a potential problem when they have plenty of submissions by people who have not made their work public. Most if not all of them who wouldn’t mind restrict it to a maximum of one chapter.
It can make a difference if a work is entered in contests. In contests the judges are sent the contest material without the author’s name attached. If the work has been published online WITH the author’s name attached it can contaminate the judges pool for the work. Many contests will not accept a work if that has happened.
How about blogs or social media? Publishers used to pay little attention to them, but that isn’t the case any more. Audiences for these now go up into the thousands and most publishers consider them a significant marketing tool. The number one sales tool for a book is name identification or “buzz” and having a strong online presence is a major way of doing that, hopefully beginning long before there is a book to promote.
Let’s talk about nonfiction. It used to be that non-fiction books were much easier to sell to a publisher than fiction. Not so much these days, and I believe the reason for that is just what you are talking about, the amount of material that is online for free. If someone pitches me a project and I know all of their research was done online I know all of the material in their book is available for free. It may still have value to a potential buyer since that research has been done and all of the material assembled in a logical order . . . or it may not. There is no telling which way a publisher would come down on that question.
Is an author who has a regular blog now considered ‘published?’ Actually, yes, and the degree of the publishing credit would depend on the number of regular followers. We can look at it like this, a blog with a couple of hundred followers would be like having a writing credit of writing something like a church newsletter. One of my clients has a twitter account with over 40,000 followers. That is the equivalent of being a regular columnist in a small magazine.
The bottom line is that online publishing has changed or evolved in the past few years and many aspects of it are looked upon in quite a different manner. But then that’s the only constant in the publishing industry . . . change.