There's an interesting article up at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books about a "book [that] was originally put up online on the now defunct St. Rose Press (it was an AOL Hometown page, and those were all shut down in October), and was such a hit that NovelBooks Inc decided to publish it in ‘03." The book Greenwood by Sue Wilson is not available in print anymore, and the online content is only accessible through the WayBack Machine. Over at Novelr, the problem of what happens to web authors when they pass away has been mentioned, but now as far as I know, Ms. Wilson is hale and hearty; she has just disappeared. This is the first instance I've seen of an author's disappearance being mourned and access to her work an issue. Readers of SBTB have combed the WayBack Machine and posted a list of links to access, so others could read this book while others have sought out the author in an attempt to find out if she's written anything else and if she's going to publish Greenwood in print again. At the time of this posting, no one has been able to contact the author.
This is a sad thing. I have not read Greenwood, but the SBTB readers are discerning folk, and if they're raving about it, then it's probably damn good. Thank goodness for the WayBack Machine, but it does make me think about how ephemeral publishing on the web really is. They say putting a photo online is near impossible to completely delete off due to people grabbing the photo and posting elsewhere, but what about stories, especially original stories? Authors don't necessarily want our work grabbed and posted willynilly all over the internet, but if Google were to somehow implode tomorrow, all of my stuff would disappear. Sure, I have my stories on my computer and various thumb drives, but I would lose all the lovely comments and probably a bunch of edits as well and readers would be left high and drive until I figured out a new game plan. It's a serious problem that I should think about and other web authors should too.
And it should also be noted that publishing on the web shouldn't be a passing fling. Writers should be prepared to commit years to keeping their work online: Plan for hosting, check the story website, don't abandon it. If Ms. Wilson were to resurface, she would find a fan base ready to welcome her back. I hope she logs on sometime in the next day or two and discovers the love waiting for her because like the sea, the internet is an ever changing thing, and the love will have been buried by a tide of new posts and content.