Be (Slightly) Afraid of Posting Your Work Online

My co-worker, Jane Friedman, recently wrote a column for Writer Unboxed titled “Stop Being Afraid of Posting Your Work Online.” Her column lists reasons why writers should not be afraid of posting material on websites. The column is in response to my usual advice to writers, which is that posting work online is generally a no-no. Essentially, we disagree on the value of it (a delicious little point-counterpoint). But the truth is: This is not a yes/no answer. Both answers are incorrect, but I still lean toward not putting your work online, and I will try and convince you why here.

NONFICTION VS. FICTION

The first huge point to address is that with nonfiction, yes, posting work online is something I/everybody will usually encourage, versus the opposite for fiction. Look at the site you’re reading right now: GLA (nonfiction). I am posting content (instruction, interviews, columns) for free. Maybe you’re a blogger. If you write columns of any kind, whether about raising your three kids or your struggling life as an artist, you are posting content online for free. This is all well and good. You’re building an audience because you have something to sell, or want to sell something in the future. So Michael Larsen was right when he said “test market.” He was talking about nonfiction. Blog-to-book deals? Same thing—it’s nonfiction, and all is well and good.

But with fiction? I do not recommend putting stuff on your website/blog. (And by the way, when Jane and I talk to writers at conferences or intensives, I’d say 75-90 percent of the audience is fiction/memoir.) Notice how I said “your website/blog.” I’m not against you pasting stuff in a small critique forum where people meet to offer feedback on each other’s work. But if you post work on your own website, you need to know that–

FACT: WRITERS STEAL STUFF

Fundamentally, one of my biggest points is that you cannot copyright your ideas or concepts, so by putting stuff online, you are vulnerable. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Agents and editors don’t steal stuff; writers steal stuff. So if you post your first chapter on your website, what are the chances some agent will come across your blog and say “Brilliant! I want to sign you!” Slim to none. But who will come across your site? Writers you don’t know, and you cannot stop them from pilfering some of your ideas.


 

Granted, they will not cut and paste entire paragraphs of your work, but consider this: Perhaps you start your thriller with a cop walking out of an eye doctor appointment. He has sunglasses on and his pupils are all dilated and he has someone about to drive him home … then he witnesses a murder in the parking lot, but he can’t be sure exactly what he saw. Kind of a fun first chapter idea, right? But I can’t protect that idea! (In fact, if you like it, go on—take it. It’s yours.) Be careful, especially if your entire book is based on a great idea—one that we would call “high concept” or “a great hook.” Which leads me to–

FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PROTECT YOUR HIGH-CONCEPT IDEAS

Let me take you back to a writers conference. I was sitting in a room listening to writers give live pitches to agents while 150 other writers listened in. The writer pitched a project called “The Dude Who Knew Too Much.” BAM. Now that is a high-concept idea. We knew from the title alone that it was about a teenager who got involved in spy stuff and was in way over his head. High concept! Funny! $$$$! One of the agents asked, “It is a comedy, right?” Astonishingly, the writer said no. That’s when—I kid you not—I heard someone nearby murmur that they were taking that idea. They were going to take the title/concept, but do the story right—making it a fun teen comedy instead of whatever the original writer had in mind. That was my turning point. Since then, I have become an advocate of protecting your ideas and playing it safe.

Let’s continue talking about protecting high-concept ideas. Perhaps you have a blog, and in your profile, you want to say that you’re a writer. Fine. Maybe you want to mention that you’re not just a writer, but a writer of YA paranormal. Fine. But maybe you want to include a one-paragraph pitch of your book (like you would in query letter). So ask yourself: Why? So agents will see it? Agents are busy people; they’re not prowling around small writer blogs, of which there are thousands. The people you want to see your idea will not be looking at your blogger profile, so where’s the benefit? We already know the downside is theft.

Keep in mind that, once again, this is not a yes/no discussion. Let’s say you’re writing a YA humor book. If it’s like Superbad, the pitch would say it’s about “Two best friends that get into wild adventures on one of their last days in high school.” This is not a high-concept idea. The charm of that story was all the writing/characters. This pitch is fine to release on the web or fly behind a plane. But what about this new movie coming out called HIGH School, where an honor student tries pot for the first time, only to hear that a drug test for all students is around the corner—so he embarks on a quest to get every student in school to try weed that week, so they all fail the test together. High concept! Protect such an idea, because anyone could simply snatch it right up and beat you to the punch.

WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO GET OUT OF IT?

Jane kinda touched on this, but simply ask yourself: What is your plan? What do you want to get out of it? If you want thoughts on your fiction, pass your work to other readers (“beta readers”) in a writers group. Or possibly put some of it online at a critique site. Don’t just paste it on your WordPress blog and hope you get feedback. You may; you may not—but your writing is out there.

If you want an agent, then query, and write an awesome letter. Don’t paste work online and hope they’ll come round, because they will not. And yes, people are always happy to point out those special exceptions, such as that one writer who had an agent come by his blog and saw his pitch and signed him. But like I’ve said before regarding word count, we cannot aim to be a 1-in-100 exception.

Ultimately, I do not advise posting fiction excerpts online just to see what happens. I have seen ideas get taken before, and I always advise writers on the safe side. That’s just how I roll. Regardless of your decision, as always, I wish you good luck.


You might also like:

  • No Related Posts

16 thoughts on “Be (Slightly) Afraid of Posting Your Work Online

  1. Sara J. Henry

    What can work online: a phenomenally well-written blog. I was so impressed by the blog of one teenaged writer that when she asked for beta-readers for her novel, I volunteered. I so liked the manuscript that I steered her to four agents – all took fulls, three of the four offered, and the book sold in several countries before the writer turned 16.

  2. marta

    I’ve heard this maxim about there being no new ideas. Or perhaps it was a maxim about there being only 7 stories. Everything written are variations of those stories. In the grand scheme of the internet, I’d have to figure that even if someone stole my idea (flattering to think I have on worth stealing) they’d still have to write it. They’d have to query. They’d have to get an agent. The agent would have to sell it to a publisher. Honestly, if someone steals my idea, does all that with my idea and gets published–where I myself can’t get it published–then well, they must be a good writer. Stealing an idea doesn’t mean getting published. Hey, I think my ideas are great. Has any agent agreed with me? No.

    The thief would have to keep writing. Do rewrites. Write a second book. Good luck with all that. I post small bits of fiction. I don’t think an agent is ever going to see it. I like sharing with my fellow writers. And I don’t leave pieces up forever. And a tiny, tiny number of people read my blog. They support me. Would they then pay to get my writing in a real, published book? Yes they would. Because they support me. Maybe two of them wouldn’t. If there is an agent who won’t take me on because they worried that these two people won’t buy my book because they read it online already, well, that isn’t the right agent for me.

    I write to be read. I may never be read if I wait for an agent to go along with me. It’s like waiting for a husband to start living your life. The right agent will work with me because I’m the right writer for them.

    So, while I see your points, I choose not to live my writing life in fear.

  3. Kay Bigelow

    I’ve been reluctant to post my work online either on my website or my blog. I was beginning to worrying that I was just be paranoid especially in the face of Jane Friedman’s article telling me TO post it online.

    Thank you, Chuck, for making a cogent argument for NOT posting online.

    Kay

  4. Marisa Birns

    Like several of the commenters here, I post a weekly short story to my blog, as part of a flash fiction community. It has helped to receive feedback from the readers and the weekly deadline has also prevented procrastination.

    However, I had a conversation with an editor at a magazine who said that while he would not turn away any story on my blog that I submitted for consideration, there are many others who would not because it would be considered "published".

    I know of people who have self-published the short stories on their blogs, but I worry that the people who read them for free won’t really want to turn around and spend money for those same pieces of work.

  5. moonduster (Becky)

    On-line theft can be more blatant than just theft of ideas. (My husband and I are photographers. We had a photo stolen recently. We found it being sold as the cover for a CD of STOLEN music that was being sold on-line.)

    I decided that, if I was going to share an excerpt from my novel on my site (and I haven’t done that yet), it would be one of the tiny bits that was interesting and added to the story but was not imperative to the plot (i.e. while it was fun to read, it could be completely changed without harming the overall story).

  6. Jon M.

    Interesting points! I have to say I disagree, though, for two reasons. Firstly, high-concept ideas are certainly valuable, but ultimately isn’t it always in the execution? Ideas can come from anywhere, from other writers or the air or reading a blog, but it’s the writing that matters. BIG was the third of three movies that year about kids magically becoming adults, but it’s the only one we remember.

    Secondly, while the risk of thievery is certainly present, I can’t help but feel like its dangers are much less than the possible benefits of audience- and platform-building. If I’ve got 100,000 people reading my blog, whether or not they give me any feedback, I’m in a better position to a publisher than if I lock all my writing away, aren’t I? If I’ve made people ravenous to read my writing, by doling it out in heaps and spoonfuls over time, and making them come back for more on a regular basis? Heck, with an audience like that, I could self-publish my book. Nobody would buy it, though, if I didn’t share it first.

    Of course, that’s a rare case. But aren’t all successes, of any sort?

    Ultimately, folks have different comfort levels with this sort of thing, and different material (attracting different audiences) requires different approaches. It’s great to hear the various thoughts on the subject!

  7. Florence

    As part of an on-line group and also sending to a mailing list of over one hundred others, I try to expose the blog to as many people as I can.

    I did not take this lightly. In fact I went back to my blog and deleted the opening of a book I am currently sending out with queries. What you say makes sense.

    Of course, no one would take you word for word, but the part that struck me about your argument is that it would not be difficult to use someone’s "concept" with other words.

    Thanks,
    F. Fois

  8. Eika

    I post my fiction online, but I’m in a different situation: I’m part of an online writer’s group. None of us can find enough people in our area to form a real one, and the place is members-only, needing an invite to get in. It’s not in person, but it’s as safe as I can get otherwise; and who says in person is safe, anyway?

  9. Steve

    It seems to me that a writer who would seek success by stealing another’s ideas is probably a less-talented writer. If they were good at what they do, they would be developing their own ideas, rather than seeking to steal those of others. As a less talented writer, their execution of any stolen ideas will tend to be lacking in the spark of good writing, and will be unlikely to excite the attention of agents, publishers, or readers.

    I really can’t see a lot to worry about from such pathetic second-rate wannabes.

    -Steve

  10. Valerie Geary

    Great post Chuck!! I completely agree with you, but also loved hearing Jane’s side of things. Sometimes I waffle back and forth about posting my fiction on my blog… and then I usually decide against it.

  11. Adam Heine

    I’m going to disagree here. I mean, every writer is entitled to protect their work of course, but I think this fear of ideas getting stolen gets blown out of proportion a lot.

    I like how you limited your post to high-concept ideas. I think there’s a lot of truth in that, but even with high concept I think the likelihood of someone stealing your work, and subsequently stealing the market for your book, is about the same as one’s likelihood of being crushed to death. (I support that claim much better if you follow the link).

    You also make good points about <i>why</i> you’d want to post your work on your blog. I hadn’t thought of that before. I think I do so for encouragement (my blog readers are not objective critics, but they’re great cheerleaders) and to find people who connect with the kind of stuff I’m writing (when I get published, I’ll call them "fans").

  12. Simon Larter

    See, I post a fair bit of fiction on my blog, but almost every time it’s been flash fiction. All but one of the pieces have been self-contained, one-shot ideas that were prompted by a blogfest or some challenge or other.

    What does this do for me? It gives people an idea of my writing style, my range, and what I can do with words. But they sure ain’t high-concept ideas. They’re small, easily contained. If someone wants to take one and run with it, fine. I never post anything I’m going to try to sell or get accepted in a litmag. (There’s only been one exception, and if anyone can take that first page I posted and write the story better, I shall bow to them. They’ll deserve a prize.)

    I call it audience building. And, admittedly, the instant feedback in the comment section’s rather nice, too. (So I’m an attention whore. I’m fine with that.)

  13. Kristin Laughtin

    I’m glad to see this post, because although Jane made some good points, your objections were what came to my mind when I read her post, and it’s always nice to see others validate, or at least echo, your ideas and opinions. It’s also nice that you did them so close together, because it makes it easier to look at both sides of the argument at once.

    I’m rather paranoid because, like you, I have witnessed writers plotting to steal other writers’ ideas. So I suppose, like Kristan, I would advocate for keeping your high concept ideas private, but feeling free to post smaller pieces of fiction, especially ones you won’t aim to get published elsewhere, on your blog or website. It is a great way to attract readers; I’ve started following a few authors, mostly unsigned or with a few short story credits, because they posted flash pieces on the internet.

  14. Kristan

    I think both you and Jane make very good points. Part of me feels like if an author only has 1 good idea, they were never going to make it anyway. But then again, sometimes it only takes 1 good idea. (Look at Harry Potter!) So yeah, I hear you. I like to think I found a nice middle ground: I post some of my fiction online, particularly flash fiction or writing exercises, but I save/protect my bigger ("high concept") ideas by keeping them private.

    As for writers stealing… well, I admit I’m trusting (and maybe naive?) but I can’t imagine that being especially common. Plus, even if someone stole your 1 good idea ("boy wizard saves the world," just for example) it may or may not work, and it *definitely* won’t look the same as what you had in mind. I mean, I doubt Harry Potter is the first/only boy wizard who saved the world, but he’s the one we all know and love for a reason. So if that was your idea, someone else writing it won’t hurt you. Or if they come up with the bestselling version of that idea, then yours wasn’t going to be it anyway.

    But I guess it’s also easy for me to say all that because no one (to my knowledge) has stolen my ideas.

    Anyhoot. I guess what I’m saying is, I can see both sides of the argument (do post online, don’t post online) and I think there’s room for both. I.e., post online if you want, but do it carefully. Amassing fans and attracting attention can be good, but it comes with certain risks.

COMMENT