Should You Post Your Novel Online for Free?

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Q: Is it a good idea to serialize an unpublished novel in a weekly blog? I have a completed sci-fi novel and was thinking about releasing it online, but I wasn’t sure if I should do this. Would it be good publicity for my novel, or would it make it harder to get my book published in the future? —Tiffany A.

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Publishing your material online for free has pros and cons. Let’s start with the cons, because no one ever worries about the potential pros (sky-high blog hits, making too much money, landing on the cover of WD, etc.).

The biggest con you face by giving away your writing online is that you could potentially hurt future book sales. Those who take a stance against free online content are fond of asking: Why would people pay for the content if they could pop onto your website and read it for free (after all, isn’t that one of the major reasons newspapers are struggling)? Many agents and editors are also leery of attaching themselves to writing that’s already been published online—because once you post it online, it is considered published, albeit digitally.

You can set yourself up for personal discouragement, too—in an Internet world of anonymity, negative, tasteless comments are commonly posted on even the best writing. It can also be awfully disheartening if you post your work to your blog, check Google Analytics to see how many people are visiting, and find out that your readership consists of only four people—your two closest friends, your mom and someone named Spambot1.

On the flip side, there are significant pros to posting your work on the Web. For starters, some commenters could give useful feedback that gives you a glimpse of what’s working and what’s not in your novel. And it can be a boost to have that unpublished novel somewhere other than in your underwear drawer collecting dust while you shop it around to agents.

Of course, the No. 1 reason to post your work online is to build a following of loyal readers who enjoy your writing. In the publishing industry, that’s called “platform” and is highly attractive to agents, editors and publishers. If you’re able to create a built-in audience, you’ve already proven that there’s a market for your writing, and that can go a long way when it comes time to submit.

Writers like Cory Doctorow, Scott Sigler and Seth Harwood (to name a few) give their writing away online for free (the latter two do it by podcast) and have found great success. All have also enjoyed more traditional publishing success through book deals, speaking engagements and more. And all are adamant supporters of posting your work online for free for everyone to read.

So what does it all mean? Let me sum it up this way: Giving your work away online in the hopes of roping a traditional deal is a lot like online dating—you put all of your best assets on display for your potential suitors to see, and hope someone bites. It’s useful and practical and may provide long-term benefits, but there’s always the possibility you’ll be sleeping by yourself for the rest of your life.

It’s your call.

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