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If I publish some chapters of completed book manuscripts as standalone stories in literary publications, does it hurt my chances of recruiting an agent to represent the books?

I have a colleague who provided this answer . . .

“Ava Wrestles The Alligator” was first published as a short story in a literary journal, then was the first story in Karen Russell’s short story collection "St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves," then was turned into the novel Swamplandia! (Vintage Books which is Penguin-Random House)

A lot of the chapters in Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel: Ward, Jesmyn (Scribners) originally appeared in literary journals as short stories.

One chapter in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was published separately in a journal (it might have been The New Yorker)

On the other hand, Harold Brodkey apparently adapted a collection of short stories into a novel, essentially publishing the 'same' book twice, and that drew a little backlash.

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Almost always publishers are paying authors for First Rights. If the work has already been available to the public then selling anyone the First Right would be fraud.

There are circumstances where publishers will still purchase the rights to publish the work. 'The Martian' by Andy Weir was first available on the web.

Agents want to sell books to publishers. If the value of rights in or is of limited value to a publisher then agents would be less likely to be interested. Afterall, agents make their money off a percentage paid the author by the publisher. Otherwise they don't see a dime -- except for being reimbursed for Fedex charges and copying costs.

The same goes for short stories. I you put a short story on the web, you can't sell First Rights publication to magazine. You can sell republishing rights. The difference is between ~2 cents/word for republishing and ~10-15 cents/word for First Rights.

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Publishers (and therefore agents) will usually only publish previously unpublished works. There are two reasons for this:

  1. If your work has been available online, a portion of your audience have already read it and may not want to buy the published work, thus diminshing the potential sales figures and profit.

    (Interestingly enough, if your work is highly successful online, a publisher might be interested because they see this as indication that your work is a guaranteed seller. 50 Shades of Grey is an example for this.)

  2. Usually when you publish on some website that you do not own, such as Stack Exchange, you grant that platform the right to publish your work. On some platforms these rights are rather extensive. For example, on Reddit you grant them "a worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, transferable, and sublicensable license to use, copy, modify, adapt, prepare derivative works of, distribute, store, perform, and display Your Content and any name, username, voice, or likeness provided in connection with Your Content in all media formats and channels now known or later developed anywhere in the world". In other words, Reddit can print your text as a book or make a movie of it without having to pay you (or anyone else).

    After publishing your work or parts of it elsewhere, you are no longer able to sell exclusive rights to your publisher, and publishers want to avoid both the legal complications and the chance that someone else might make money off of their marketing efforts (e.g. by publishing an alternate version of a bestselling book whose success the publisher has worked for).

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