What does “published” mean? (Warning: many parentheses and “scare quotes” follow)

I’ve got around fifty different poems (!) out in the mail (both e- and snail-), to literary journals, a couple of anthologies, a couple of contests. So I’ve been reading a lot of submission guidelines. And I’ve been keeping in mind something poet and editor Ivy Page wrote in a comment on the blog a few weeks back – that you shouldn’t post your unpublished poems on your blog because editors will consider them “previously published” and therefore ineligible for submission.  I’ve been investigating to see whether or not I’m hopelessly behind the times when it comes to current thinking about what constitutes “publication” from the point of view of the editor and the writer.  I’ve read a lot of guidelines, as I said, and I’ve also spoken informally with a few editors I know, and some writers, and I’ve come to find it’s a pretty mixed bag of expectations and opinions out there. I think that many of us are using one word, “publishing,” and mistakenly assuming we all agree that it means the same thing. I’m interested in such moments – when meanings shift and fracture. So that’s what I’ll attempt to write about here – the shift and its practical implications.  [If you’d like to quit reading now, here’s the short version: read submission guidelines carefully and keep in mind that some editors of both online and print literary journals consider a blog post or public Facebook note a “publication.” Other journals/editors do not. Subscribe to literary journals. Figure out which ones to subscribe to by visiting their websites, your library, etc. Post poems on your blog after they’ve been published. End executive summary.]

When I first started submitting poems to literary journals, back when they were published on papyrus and distributed via Pony Express, the default definition of “published” encompassed two major interrelated functions.  First, the function of selection – simply, the editor’s job of saying “yes” to certain pieces and “no” to others.  The editor served as an aesthetic arbiter or gatekeeper.  Perhaps you read a particular literary journal because its editor had a good track record of selecting pieces that you enjoyed.  You put your trust in that editor.  That editor spent all that time reading through the slush to find for you some literature that she thought you’d enjoy. And you’d pony up a subscription, so you could pay the editors to do that screening for you.  Maybe there was some amazing writing lost in the slush pile that you never got to see.  That was certainly a risk. (Secondary to the function of selection was, I guess, the function of editorial arrangement – deciding how many pieces to present, and in which order, and with what artwork, and with what frequency, etc.)

The second major function I’m thinking about is that of production. A literary journal had the means to produce, sell and distribute a bound edition, the physical manifestation of that editor’s aesthetic choices that month (or quarter, or year).  A literary journal maintained relationships with distributors, bookstores, and subscribers; it advertised in other magazines; it worked on targeting and maintaining readership.  For the writer, the literary journal had the means to get your work “out there,” to readers. But not just “out there” as if leaflets were dropped from an airplane – “out there” as one of the “chosen ones.”  An editor had chosen your work, which meant someone besides you liked it.  And, let’s be honest, being picked (approved of!) by someone not obliged by friendship or blood relation to like your work at all, feels good. The editor’s obligation: pick good stuff and get it out there.
So, to review, the literary journal selected work (for readers) and distributed work (for writers).

Flash forward.

These two main functions still exist and still…function.  Literary journals say yes and say no, and writers rely on them to distribute their work to interested readers, and readers gratefully enjoy spending time doing stuff other than reading thousands of possible winners each month.  Sometimes, someone turns a buck or a few, but mostly it’s labor-of-love-non-profit-city.

However, there is now this pretty well-established alternative venue for words – and images and videos – this Internet.  From the comfort of my home or school or library or coffee shop, I can send my work out into the world!  At little to no cost to either myself or my reader! Accessibility to the means of production (even I can have my own blog!) has shifted.  I can post my poems to my blog.  I push a button labeled “Publish.” They appear on a “page.” Presto, they are “out there.”  But you, reader, you in the “out there,” how do you come to find my work?  You come to find it, in most cases, because you are my friend, my acquaintance, or my relative, or maybe someone who came to a reading, and I have told you something like “I have a blog!”  Maybe you have even “subscribed” to it or “follow” it.  (You are such a good friend to do that.)  Before reading something of mine on the blog, you were aware of my existence.  The blog is not an editor – it didn’t introduce most of you readers to me or my work. In addition to my blog, I have actually published poems in such prestigious venues as Pretty Good Literary Quarterly, and in The Vita Line Review, and those poems have certainly been distributed to more folks (and, largely, different folks) than this little blog.  This blog has the potential to reach many more readers, but how will people know to come to (come to?  navigate to? distribute themselves to?) my blog to see all the fabulous literature and incisive commentary available here?  What is the difference between “available” and “distributed?” I have nailed my poem to a virtual utility pole, beneath a “Lost Cat” flyer. Will you notice?

What’s missing here (duh) is an editor, the apparatus of selection and arrangement – and the (problematic?) assumptions that apparatus makes possible.  No one on this end gets to decide whether my work is “worthy” of even the tiniest scrap of bandwidth (cheaper than paper?). Just me, writer and, I guess, editor. And of course it is very likely that there is demonstrably higher quality literature for you to be reading out there in the great “out there” of free-for-all “distribution” that is Web 2.0.  Even if there’s not, how would you know?  Well, you’d know by spending a good chunk of your life slogging through the eternal slush pile that is The Internet.  Slush Pile 2.0.  And who wants to do that?

I do believe in the happy narrative of the “viral,” and I think I also believe that good work will frequently find its audience if it is given half a chance.  I don’t think (obviously!) there’s anything aesthetically incorrect about artists and writers sharing their work, unjuried, with whatever audience matters to them, or whatever audience they can conjure up.  I don’t think the internet needs poetry gatekeepers.  I don’t think everyone likes the poetry I like. I don’t have a problem with self-publication.  And of course, the editors of outstanding online publications (Brevity, Anderbo, etc.) still do the important and generous work of reading mountains of submissions so I don’t have to – and offering me inspiring and impactful reading.

But I think it’s interesting to hear from Ivy that at least some editors consider work that has appeared online, in any form, to have been “previously published” and therefore ineligible for publication in their pages (be they paper or pixel).  On the one hand, it makes perfect sense: a poem on my blog has been “out there,” has been made available to every reader in the entire world. For free.  I can understand why a journal wants to be the one who puts it “out there” for the first time.  But then, how are they redefining “published?” If a poem that appears on my blog is “published” according to, say, Poetry, is it then also eligible to meet the minimum number of publications required to apply for an NEA grant?  For tenure at a university? (This question of “getting credit” was interestingly reexamined by The New Anonymous…)  I think there might be an overlap, between my blog and the subscriber/reader base of Poetry of, say, three to five people.  (I am one of them, a long-time subscriber.)  Here is their language regarding work that has appeared online: “We cannot consider anything that has been previously published or accepted for publication, anywhere, in any form. Work that has appeared online is considered to have been previously published and should not be submitted.”  I’m interested here in the conflation of “appeared” and “published.” I’ve used that conflation myself in brief biographical notes: “Liz Ahl’s work has appeared in Tiny Couplets.”  But I wonder, if a poem “appears” in the wild forest of the internet, does it (necessarily) make a sound?

Allison Joseph, of the excellent Crab Orchard Review, is more specific about what online work will and will not be considered for publication there.  If a poem has been made available “to all” via your personal blog, or in a Facebook note you permit to be viewed by anyone, that would fall into the “do not submit” category.  However, if you limit access to your blog (via a password, for instance), or of your poem appears as a Facebook note which can only be viewed by your “Friends,” Joseph would consider it eligible for submission to Crab Orchard Review.  This distinction acknowledges, to my mind, different levels or layers of accessibility in various online venues.

For further comparison, here’s the language from Rattle: “[Poems] may have been posted online to personal blogs or message boards, but any online venue that provides literary content to a readership is still a serial publication. If you submitted them work, and they published it online, then that means it’s been published.” I like how their language clearly includes a process of submission.  Ploughshares editor Ladette Randolph said more or less the same thing – if it’s been published in an online journal or in something that has an ISSN, then it’s a no-go. But if it has appeared on a personal blog, no problem, at least for now. Vince Gotera, editor of North American Review, says that if you’re a blogger who posts a draft of a poem, and you submit a version (even only slightly different) to NAR, publishing with them isn’t a problem.  If it’s identical to the version appearing on your blog, Vince would request that you remove the poem from the blog until after it has been published in NAR (when, as is the case with most literary journals, the rights revert to the author).  These examples seem more in line with my (out of date? elitist? analog?) notion of publishing as involving selection and distribution, not just a “making available” of text. (Though, if I were an editor at Poetry, lazy me, I’d be tempted to institute much more stringent guidelines – “submissions must be hand-cancelled, on 3rd Thursdays only, and must be about leather, anacondas, or saltwater.”  I thank those editors for reading so many poems and putting together a magazine I read right away when I get it each month. Seriously.)

Many journals I looked at don’t specify online publication in their submission guidelines at all, but some may assume that writers automatically understand “previously unpublished” to preclude any work that has appeared (somehow, in some form) online.  I think I’d recommend inquiring with editors directly, or erring on the side of sending work that hasn’t appeared at all online.

So.  Some journals don’t accept work if it’s been on a blog or message board or your Facebook page – so what? Why does this even matter to me?  Well, I suppose because the world of literary publishing is in a lot of flux right now – some venues are charging (or considering charging) fees for folks to submit work electronically; university-affiliated literary journals and presses and editors are getting the axe; the Kindle and iPad are making some publishers nervous/excited (new job of editors/publishers: marketing, marketing, marketing?); letterpress and handmade books and chapbooks seem to be in an uptick.  The roles and relationships of writers, editors and readers are being remade in notable ways by both technology and economics. I was recently introduced to Broadsided, which pairs writers and artists to create broadsides which are made available via .pdf and distributed worldwide by folks who have signed up to print and post them in public spaces. I love this! Given the range of possibilities, it seems worth thinking and talking about what we mean when we say “published.”  And I also think it’s important because some of us are starting to fall a little behind the times when it comes to keeping up with the new venues and opportunities presented to writers and readers via social networking, podcasts, print-on-demand, and so on.  The technological means are at our disposal to do so many things differently – for better and/or worse.

[Postscript: When what I meant to be a brief blog post turned into this behemoth, I thought, oh — maybe I shouldn’t put it on my blog — I should send it to Poets and Writers instead.  You know, get it really published.  I looked at their guidelines, saw the 4-6 week response time for articles on spec, thought I probably hadn’t done enough formal research, knew I’d have more work/editing ahead, hemmed, hawed, and decided to stick with the original plan and post here on the virtual utility pole. Depending on who you ask, that’s “Published.” I’m going to go update my CV now.]

9 thoughts on “What does “published” mean? (Warning: many parentheses and “scare quotes” follow)”

  1. If I read your poem, or this post, and –because I like it and want to share it with my friends and readers of my blog — then link to it from my own blog or from my facebook page, am _I_ now an editor? Presumably I don’t link the other “slush” I read. Possibly some might follow my links on fb because they trust my taste in linkages. In essence, isn’t this a submission?


    1. Scott — Thank you for accepting my submission to your….link collection. Seriously, I love the suggestion you make, that as full of writers as the internet is, there are also readers and, yes, “editors” out there, distributing via link.

  2. I loved reading this post, Liz! I really appreciate your investigation of the topic. The fact that most journals, online or print, require that you supply previously unpublished work (yet they do not specify what their definition of published is) can be beyond frustrating!

    I assume (and we know about assumption) that I cannot publish anything I have placed on my blog, facebook note, etc. Therefore, the only way people see my work is through previously published samples on my site, or through the journal’s site or print publication. Only after the rights revert back do I then place the work on my site, facebook, etc.

    I agree that there are “levels” of publication. For example, in order to be listed as a poet on the Poets and Writers directory, you must provide a list of publications you have. There are a minimum number of “credits” to make the list. These must be publications that are peer reviewed, such as journals. While, OVS Magazine, would prefer to have exclusive right to a poem or work of art for the first month, if there is a previous version on the individuals blog we will still consider it, since it has not been submitted and accepted to an editor, reviewed, and ultimately judged.

    It is true that social media and the web 2.0 generation of writing are changing the face of publication. I believe this will continue as our technology advances. However, I will never give up my printed journals and books!

    Thanks for a great article, Liz!

  3. Liz,

    Two things to think about:
    1. Most Journals reserve “First North American Serial Rights” or something similar (at least, in North America) publication anywhere in the US prior to their acceptance would kinda invalidate that…and if you wanted to get technical about it, the words on your screen are hosted on a server in Arizona, USA.
    a. If “published online” doesn’t seem the same to you, Google up some of the stuff about big newspapers suing people for using their online content – if it’s still intellectual property, it’s still publication. If it is not “published” does it then become public property? (I hope not!) Since there are masses of people out there daily scraping content from sites to put into other sites (and often charging for it!) it would appear to me (legally) better to have anything you put up on the web considered “published”.
    b. Besides, if I know I can flip through the table of contents of any Journal I want to read and then just go to the writers’ sites…why would i plunk down the $10 (or whatever) for the paper copy? I could print my own for far less. (and be my own editor…hmmm…sort of like a mixed-tape, eh?)

    2. As much as I’m sure Scott’s link collection is editorially without par, the rest of the internet is NOT so. There is so much dreck out there, and it is self-replicating! In the ever-present fight for search-engine rankings, there are actually companies that hire and train people to write about anything and everything, just to have “content” for the search engines – a new breed of spam. We are talking about a place where 500 million peopple stop by at least once a week to visit some of the 155 million (+/-) websites!

    Personally, as great as it is to be able to read the complete works of Shakespeare and Neruda without having to leave my cozy house to go to the library (and as lazy as that sounds, more and more people are doing just that-for just about everything from books to ordering pizza delivery, heck you can book a London taxi via twitter!) I’d really like to see more of the experimental poetry that the internet is suited for – multimedia, animated poetry, poetry that reads itself to you and dances across the page…

  4. Too bad you posted this article on your blog…you could’ve sent it into an academic journal to be published. Or something.

  5. Wow, lots of interesting stuff here. Does this mean that poems I put in my chapbook for your Poetry Seminar class are previously published? (I would say yes, although more in the “self as writer and editor” category.) I was also interested to learn that publishing rights revert back to the author after the journal has published it. I had a knitting pattern published in a knitting magazine and I had to choose the level of my right to publish the pattern myself–the magazine sells the pattern online as well and I am given a percentage of the profits based on my level of personal distribution of the pattern. In some ways it is a different situation, since they continue to distribute the work, but in another way it feels like they didn’t pay nearly enough for my intellectual property.

    About the blog post from two years ago–it’s obviously still relevant, since some journals still fail to mention it in their submissions guidelines! If anything things have gotten more convoluted. There could be a whole new genre–Twitter poems!

    Also, this librarian thanks you for telling people to go to libraries.

  6. Pingback: Liz Ahl Poetry

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