Here's a question for the new writers among us: Are you a published writer?
You may be without realizing it – particularly if you are just starting out.
Wondering whether or not you're published may sound foolish - how could you not know – but the answer can make a big difference in the opportunities or options that come your way. Because the answer to the question depends on how the word "publish" is understood by the entity offering you those options and opportunities.
My first fiction sale was to an anthology for amateur writers. The publishing house – Simon & Schuster – at that time defined an "amateur" as anyone who had published fewer than one professionally published novel or three pieces of short fiction in a paying market. Sold a novel that hasn't been published yet? You're an amateur. Two stories in The Atlantic? You're an amateur. So far, so good: their rubric makes sense: they were using quantifiable experience to divide professional from amateur. But then it got a little weird. Any number of stories appeared in non-paying literary reviews or college magazines? You're unpublished. Did you self-publish six novels? You're unpublished. Their criterion was a paid sale. This may have changed in the decade or so since I sold to that anthology, but then their model assumed that only a story a professional editor and publisher found compelling enough to pay money for had met the standard of "professionally published."
A few years ago an editor at TOR let it be known she was looking for dark fantasy and science fiction romances. Published authors could submit an outline; the unpublished had to submit a complete manuscript. With my first science fiction novel already on the shelves, I confidently sent her my outline. And got an e-mail back explaining that because I had never sold a romance novel, I had not proven I could handle the romance tropes – by her standards I was an unpublished author. (As it happens, I did not complete the novel ms by deadline – she's never seen it.)
Back in the 1990s I was part of an online community of writers who were promoting the acceptance of interracial couples and racially blended families. Sounds quaint today – which I take as a measure of our success – but at the time we were breaking new ground. Another member of that group was J. J. Murray, author of interracial romances and – like me – a partner in an interracial marriage and the father of biracial children. Somewhere around this time, JJ also launched an online literary review featuring Southern writers writing about the south (primarily his native Virgina). He asked me if I had anything I'd like to submit; the online review was free to readers and offered no payment. At the time I was working on the framework of a novel about the children of a shadow family (which in the south meant a black woman kept by a white man who provided for her and their children – Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson are probably the most famous example) who moved to New York during the Harlem Renaissance. I modified the framing scenes of the novel into a single story and sent it off. The review lasted only a few months; a victim of the public's reluctance to donate money to something they can get free, and my story disappeared with it.
Nothing much came of the novel – though I have boxes of notes and clippings about the Harlem Renaissance and racially blended families in the early 20th century.
One day, many years later, I discovered Oxford American – a magazine of Southern writing I highly recommend. In reading a few issues it occurred to me that the story I'd sent JJ would be fit very well in the OA community. I tried and learned it was not acceptable. Not because of any flaw in the story – at least none I was told of – but because the story had been published before. Two, maybe three months on a free website visited by maybe 100 people constituted previously published. I could only sell reprint rights, and they did not accept reprints.
Since that experience, I've done a little research. Some markets still use the "paid for publication" model to define professional. Others regard any public display – including excerpts of a work in progress on a public website – as "published." But beyond paying markets, given the programs and contests available to novice and unpublished writers, discovering whether or not you or some of your writings are "published" could make a difference in what opportunities are available. And influence your choices in what you do with your works once they're written.