What Counts as Previously Published?

I got an amazing query in my inbox this week. The premise hit all the right notes, the writing was fantastic, the characters were complex and compelling. I couldn’t hit reply fast enough to request the manuscript. But right before I hit send, I noticed that the author mentioned that the book had been posted on Wattpad and won an award there. Cue my heartbreak.

Wattpad is a platform for authors to serially post their work. It’s an amazing site, and it’s attractive in many ways. Authors can build up an audience there, and interact with their readers in direct ways. It’s not, strictly-speaking, the same as self-publishing, but for my purposes it’s close enough.

It’s up to each individual agent whether or not they are willing to represent previously published work. Some do, and go on to relaunch those books to great success. But many other agents–and I’m one of them–are not interested in representing work that’s already been widely available. It can be difficult to secure a deal for a book that’s already been out on the market for a while. You have to convince a publisher that there’s an even greater audience still out there waiting to be tapped, an audience who is willing to pay for content they may have otherwise been able to access for free. And with the market already so competitive? It’s a hard sell.

Of course we have all heard about the huge success stories that come out of Wattpad. It’s true. Some books started there and went on to land huge deals. It does happen, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t happen to you. But I don’t advise banking on that as a publishing strategy.

Self-publishing is a legitimate career choice, but if you choose to self-publish a book you need to commit to that route. If you want to attempt to get a particular book traditionally published, I’d encourage you to resist putting it up on a site like Wattpad or self-publishing, because it may hurt your chances of securing representation. Posting your work publicly is tempting because the immediate feedback is so rewarding! People are reading your story! And they like it! They leave comments and they favorite your work and follow your profile. They eagerly ask you when the next chapter will be released. You have real, engaged fans. Believe me, as a hard-core Gryffindor more or less addicted to external validation, I get this temptation on an intimate level. And if you enjoy the platform and want to use it, then by all means go ahead. You can successfully build up an audience and  perhaps even encourage readers to follow you to some self-publishing ventures. Or you can just write there for the fun of it!

If you really crave the feedback you get from posting your work online, but don’t want to narrow your chances of landing an agent, I highly recommend critique groups, which we champion a lot here on Pub Crawl. Find other writers and exchange work with them. Be serious about it. Learn how to give good feedback and how to absorb criticism. Help each other out and cheer each other on.

But whether or not you choose to use a site like Wattpad, what I selfishly hope you’ll do is go out and query new, fresh work. Which is what I asked that writer to do earlier this week. I told her I loved her writing and hoped that she’d consider querying me again in the future with something new. And I meant it.

13 Responses to What Counts as Previously Published?

  1. Yvonne Carder Feb 10 2017 at 10:43 pm #

    Wow. I never thought of it like that. Totally makes sense and makes me rethink what I will plan to do with my writing. Thank you for the great point of view.

  2. Alec Feb 11 2017 at 2:49 am #

    I’m surprised. Several books have emerged from Wattpad and found commercial success – Anna Todd’s After and Taran Matharu’s Summoner, among others – and so the thought that for some reason a writer who has found great success on that platform has somehow already exhausted their readership rings rather hollow. Wattpad is still only a tiny slice of English-speaking readers – if anything, a book that has enjoyed great success there should be considered a more sure thing than a random debut author where only an agent has read the submission. Could you elaborate on your reasoning here?

    • Kelly Feb 11 2017 at 9:46 am #

      Hi Alec, I’m just one person with an opinion. Some agents and editors are very willing to take on self-published authors or those who have posted their stories on sites like Wattpad. I do note in the post that there are tremendous successes that arise out of Wattpad or books that were first self-published. And it’s true! I would just note that those success stories are the exception, not the rule. And while it certainly is a path to publication, the majority of books are still being published through the traditional query and submission process.

  3. Kim Feb 11 2017 at 8:11 am #

    Totally agree with Alec. I’m a Wattpadder and there are publishers asking writers to tag them in stories so that their editors and look at the work and potentially offer a deal. There are agents there who are on the hunt for new authors to represent. In 2015, Harlequin/Mills & Boon and Carina Press teamed up for the annual So You Think You Can Write and held the contest on Wattpad – which required entrants to post their manuscripts there. The winner landed a book deal as part of the grand prize, but several semi-finalists and finalists have gone on to secure either representation and/or publishing deals as a direct result of their work on Wattpad.

    So, I do have to disagree with you and feel you may have let a gem slip through your fingers needlessly when you passed on this Wattpad writer.

    • Kelly Feb 11 2017 at 9:57 am #

      Hi Kim, it is absolutely true that some people get publishing deals out of Wattpad, and I say so in the post. It’s also true that agents let gems slip through our fingers. I’m certain that I’ve rejected queries that will go on to sell and be a great success. That happens to every agent, and it tugs on the heart strings every time. But that’s the nature of the business. This is just my opinion; there are definitely agents who feel differently and are very willing to represent previously published work. As for me, I would love to represent a Wattpad author on something new.

  4. Nema Mar 2 2017 at 2:11 am #

    I’m gonna have to agree with everyone else. I see your angle and respect it, but publishing is changing. Why is it that other artistic outlets see existing platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud as a plus but Wattpad in publishing as a stain?
    Have you thought maybe authors on wattpad don’t always seek instant gratification? Sure, some do, but I doubt the successful ones are impatient with results. They seem very disciplined and business savvy.
    Alec said audiences do not plateau with wattpad and this is true. If anything wattpad is proof there’s a market. Also, how long was the book up for? Some achieve success and then remove or leave up a few samples. Does this make a difference in whether you’d offer or not? Is it always black and white? Is there a negotiation if you really love the work so much? Just curious. A rejection without more info seems so drastic, so I’m trying to understand, especially for my own growth.

    • Kelly Mar 2 2017 at 7:56 am #

      Hi Nema! These are all really great questions. I’ll do my best to answer, but again, I am just one person with an opinion. Other agents may feel differently.

      To be clear: I do not see Wattpad or self-publishing as a stain. At all. As you say, I think the industry is changing in amazing ways, and self-publishing, and platforms like Wattpad can be powerful tools for writers. In fact, one of my clients previously self-published an entire series and I couldn’t sign her fast enough. But she queried me with *new work* which, for me, was the key.

      I did not mean to imply that authors only use Wattpad for instant gratification, as that’s definitely not true. Many people using that platform, or self-publishing their work (as much as I conflate the two in the post–something I regret in hindsight–they are distinct things) are very business savvy and use Wattpad for a variety of reasons. I do understand this, and I’m not trying to say that people who use Wattpad are unprofessional. The only thing I am trying to say with this post is that using Wattpad as a launch pad to a traditional publishing deal is the exception, not the rule.

      Nothing is always black and white, and I can’t deal in absolutes. Of course one day a query may come along that makes me break all my rules.

      In this particular case, the book was posted on Wattpad in full, had been there for years, and the author was continuing to publish the series there.

      And I do understand that rejections without more info are difficult, but unfortunately, I can’t give detailed responses to queries. I have to send out form rejections because I need to prioritize my existing clients and balance my other responsibilities. At times I do send a bit of personalized feedback, as I did with this author when I told her I loved her work and wanted very much to hear from her again if she wrote something new. And if she DOES write something new, and queries me with it, and it’s as great as I’m hoping it will be? I’ll sign her in a heartbeat.

  5. Mariana Mar 29 2017 at 8:52 pm #

    Hi Kelly,

    I am considering posting excerpts of my poetry (1 or 2 sentences of each poem) on twitter along with videos of me reading full length poems at open mic readings – do you think these poems would then be considered published?

    I am applying for a grant to write a blog and having an online presence would help me get the grant but I also want to submit these poems for publication.

    Thank you for your advice!

    • Kelly Mar 29 2017 at 9:02 pm #

      Hi Mariana,

      Poetry is well outside my area of expertise. My limited understanding is that poetry is published in chapbooks most often put out by smaller, specialty presses. I would assume a difference between posting excerpts online and full text, but again, I am out of my depth here. I’d suggest researching this specifically in terms of poetry, maybe speaking with presses that publish it or agents who represent it.

      Sorry not to be of more assistance!

  6. Summer Jun 16 2017 at 8:13 am #

    Hi Kelly,

    I am writing a book and have recently posted the first 3-4k words on Wattpad. I changed my mind a week later and unpublished because I didn’t want to ruin my chances at traditional publishing.

    Is it too late and have already ruined it?



  7. Patricia Gillis Jul 11 2017 at 11:35 am #

    I am part of a writing group at church. We hope to self-publish and sell the anthology of stories at the church as a fund-raiser. One author would like to submit a chapter of a novel she is working on, but is fearful that her work would then be considered previously published. Would that be considered a previously published work, even though it is only a small portion of her novel? Thanks for your help. Her work is amazing and I would hate to exclude her from our venture.

  8. Ciarra Feb 7 2018 at 3:01 pm #

    I hope that this mindset changes in the future, because I feel that the new generation of writers will all post their work on writing websites to get feedback. I’ve never viewed the stuff I put on these websites as self-published because there is no ISBN. Plus, many writers don’t want thousands of views, publishing deal, or “instant gratification” from these platforms, they just want constructive criticism. For example, a writer might post their novel online and request criticism from other users. By doing this they’ll probably get less than a hundred reads, but they will get extremely valuable criticism. Once they begin querying they can remove the novel from their profile.

    I actually understand not wanting to publish a book that’s already wracked up thousands or millions of views online, but I feel like it’s different if barely anyone saw it and it was only there (briefly) for revision purposes. I suppose that the line between those two situations is blurry, though. It just sucks because I feel like these writing websites produce better writers and better stories for a reason. It’s a type of environment that is not easily replicated in real life.

  9. Timothy D Coupland Jan 2 2020 at 8:42 pm #

    Hey, a little late here, but my question is this: what would someone like you make of a story published on Wattpad that did not reach a massive audience and was taken offline permanently before sending out queries?

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