Over the weekend, I had an interesting email from a reader, Bill Harrison, who had a question about whether to consider a work published if the magazine it was published in had gone belly up. He said he was in that situation and wondered what to do. I replied, but then I thought I might expand on that answer and post about it here, since it’s a very good question.
Here’s what I told Bill: Strictly speaking, if the magazine did publish your piece but has now gone defunct, then you should not submit that piece to magazines that request first serial rights. There are quite a few magazines that consider reprints, though, so I would consider sending there and indicating where the piece was first published. Anthologies are also a good bet for reprints, and of course, a collection that you publish will usually contain a number of pieces that have been published elsewhere, so there is still life for the piece in question. You could also publish it on your own website or blog.
If the magazine accepted your work but did not publish it, then you should feel free to submit it as an unpublished piece to any magazine. It is probably best to verify the publication’s status before submitting elsewhere, just to be on the safe side.
Once I had a poem published at an online journal that ceased publication after a year or so (as I recall). For a while, the website was just gone, then someone put up an archive of the magazine that included some poems, but only a listing of mine. Now that seems to be gone again, but I still consider the poem published. (I decided to post it on Instagram since I couldn’t publish it elsewhere.) Another poem was published in a magazine that soon stopped publishing, yet the website it was on remained online for several years. Eventually that went away, but by that point, I had published the poem in my second book (with an acknowledgement of the original publication). Poems published in print journals are also not very accessible after the initial publication, but they are still published. I consider journal publication to be fleeting and book publication to be more permanent, though even books go out of print.
The longer answer: Why I say that my work (and Bill’s work if it actually made it to publication) should still be viewed as published comes down to the rights you sell (maybe for a sample copy) when you publish with a journal. Those are called First North American Serial Rights or sometimes just First Serial Rights. Poets and Writers has a good explanation of the basic kinds of rights authors work with. Most print journals will request First North American Serial Rights (FNASR) when they publish your work because they want to be the first place to publish the work in their market, which is North America (unless you’re publishing in Europe, Asia, Africa, or South America, of course). First Serial Rights is a broader term, and is more typical of online journals whose market is global.
Once you publish one place for even one day, legally, you can no longer offer anyone else First Serial Rights. You could publish a piece in Europe that had only been published in North America, but you can’t publish for the first time in North America (or anywhere, in the case of First Serial Rights) again. That may be sad when a publisher no longer exists, but it is what it is.
One tricky question is about self-publishing your work online. If you post your work to your blog or to social media, especially if the site is public, then most magazines will consider it published. You’ve essentially used your First Serial Rights yourself. True, it hasn’t been published by someone else and they haven’t marketed it or generated readership for you, but your work has been made publicly available by you, so the value of that work is reduced compared to First Serial publication. This is why you usually hear the advice not to post your work publicly if you want to publish it in journals. Some journals have said they will still accept work as unpublished if it was posted to a personal website and then taken down before it is submitted to a magazine. Other journals discourage that, though realistically, it would be hard to check. In many ways, we are on our honor to faithfully report prior publication of any kind.
Also, First Serial Rights or First North American Serial Rights generally disallow to prior publication to a wide audience — North America or the world — so exceptions are usually allowed for small, private publications like a print college magazine or a club newsletter where circulation is limited (such as to an organization) and the work has not been made more publicly available (such as online). Some magazines do specify that college magazines are considered prior publication; if they don’t and if the audience was truly limited, then you are pretty safe in still calling your work unpublished for the purposes of FSR or FNASR.
What is publication, then? In Bill’s case, if his piece was accepted by the magazine, but the magazine never went to press or even if the magazine was printed but never distributed, then he would have a good case to make that his work had not been published. If it was posted online, then his piece has been published. If the magazine had been printed and sent to subscribers, then his piece has been published, but only in North America and he could still offer First Serial Rights in other continents potentially.
Book publication is different than serial (magazine or journal) publication, but legally, it supersedes it. That means that you can publish something in a book that has been published in a magazine, but once it’s been published in a book or anthology, you can no longer offer First Serial Rights because those imply first publication of any kind.
Generally, publication refers to publication in print — an audio version of the same piece would not be considered published, nor would a video recording of a reading in which you read the piece in question. The publication of a fragment of a piece would not be considered prior publication of the whole piece. So you see, there are some gray areas, even though in general the answer to whether a piece has been published is pretty clear.
Fortunately, for Bill and for others in his situation, there are magazines and other publications such as anthologies that ask for Reprint Rights. In that case, you are more than welcome to send them work that has been published elsewhere already. And book publication of a collection usually involves several pieces that have been published elsewhere—look at the Acknowledgements section, where the first publications ought to be listed.
There is life after first publication for any work you write. It is best to know what rights you are selling (or giving away) when you publish, and what that might mean for the life of your work in the future. Most book publishers want to see some prior publication of works in the book for a collection or of other works for books like novels or memoirs. It is best to be up front and honest about your publication history. Don’t hide publications that might be less impressive than you’d like, and don’t embellish the publications that you have. Use your knowledge of the copyright system of rights to find the best publishing opportunities for you and your work, whether that is for the first publication or reprint publications.