Getting good feedback, part VIc: gee, maybe we shouldn’t be rushing into this…

slow-sign

Last time, I went on a tear about the desirability of doing a bit of homework about anyone with whom you choose to share your unpublished manuscripts, especially electronically — and why this inspiring precept is a good idea to put into practice even when you’re planning to submit your work to an agent, editor, or literary contest. As much as we would all like to believe that every offer out there is legit, not all are, unfortunately, and it’s awfully hard to tell a scammer’s website from a legit agency’s.

We writers tend not to talk about this much amongst ourselves, but if you think about it for a moment, we spend our lives sending our most intimate productions to total strangers: agents, editors, contest judges, not to mention Millicent the agency screener and post office employees from here to Madison Square Garden. We all know that querying and submitting our work requires great personal courage — take a moment to pat yourself on the back for that, please — but it also requires quite a bit of trust, whether you are sending your work to a soi-disant agent, possibly credible publisher, contest organizer — or that nice person you met last week on a perfectly respectable writers’ forum.

Yes, I do realize what I’ve just implied. Thanks for asking.

To reiterate my main points from yesterday, it is most emphatically not paranoid to take the time to check track records before you pop your manuscript into the mail, hit the SEND key, or — heaven forbid! — write a check for a service for which reputable agencies do not charge — it is merely prudent. After all, any self-styled organization can post call for contest entries; since there is no special license required to become an agent (or an oath to serve the greater good of literature, for that matter), anyone can hang out a shingle.

To be blunt about it, scammers that prey on unsuspecting writers desperate to find agents are the only ones who benefit when writers don’t do their homework.

And while I hate to be the harbinger of doom, scams that prey on attention-hungry writers tend to enjoy greater success during periods when the publishing industry is tightening its belt. So if I seem to be uttering woe like the most Internet-fearing Cassandra of Luddites, it’s only because I worry about my readers falling prey to any of these dastardly schemes, particularly those involving so-called agencies who make their living by demanding payments from potential clients, rather then by selling their already-signed clients’ books.

All too often, agent-seeking writers presume that once an agent requests a manuscript, their role in protecting their manuscripts is over; it’s the agent’s responsibility from there on out, right? Wrong. You need to be in charge of who has your manuscript until an agent or editor takes it off your hands by signing a formal contract.

Why have I stopped my series on finding good non-professional feedback for your work in order to hammer home this point, you ask? Well, as is so often the case, readers have raised the issue when I have discussed manuscript-swapping in the past. Take, for instance, the comment insightful long-term reader Chris posted last year:

Anne, that raises an excellent point that I think a lot of unpublished writers are really worried about — people stealing their work/ideas and publishing them…I know that ideas can’t be copyrighted, only their execution can, but the issue of proving ownership of an unpublished manuscript is interesting. Have you ever seen this happen before? Presumably if the actual writer had many in-progress digital copies of the work, plus a number of marked-up printed versions (for revisions), it would be easy to convince a publisher (or the courts, I guess) that the person with the single photocopied version was a thief.

But what a hassle! And yet at the same time, it seems like some unpublished writers are worried over this issue to the point of extreme paranoia, which seems more than a bit out of perspective.

Yes, I have seen it happen, Chris, but actually, my sense is that it happened rather more often before the advent of the copy machine and home computer. Back in the old days, aspiring writers often produced only a single copy of a manuscript — and unwisely mailed off that sole record of their authorship to the first agent or editor who asked for it. Manuscripts did occasionally disappear, some because they simply got lost within institutions that handled a whole lot of paper (which still happens, by the way, and more often than writers care to think) and some because some unscrupulous soul swapped the title page, whited out the author’s name in the slug line, and submitted it as his own work.

Nowadays, of course, few writers would send out the only copy of their work (which, in case I was too subtle above, is VERY BAD IDEA), for precisely the reason Chris points out: because the original is the soft copy residing on their hard disks. A submission version is thus inherently a copy.

Does that mean that writers no longer need to worry about being able to prove that they were in fact the authors of their own books, unless they happen to enjoy the many and varied sensations that accompany advanced paranoia? No — in fact, the extreme ease of electronic transmission raises some of its own problems.

What kind of problems, you ask with fear and trembling? The first one that pops to mind: literally every time a writer e-mails all or part of her manuscript, she loses control of where it might be forwarded. Which means — are you sitting down? — that even if the person to whom she originally sent it is 100% honest, the writer needs to worry about the honesty about anyone to whom recipient #1 might choose to forward it.

Remember what I said earlier in this post about it’s being the writer’s responsibility to maintain control of who has her manuscript? Think that’s applicable here? You bet your boots — or, more accurately, your great prose.

Let’s look at a few prudent self-protective steps fans of manuscript-forwarding can take. (After the usual caveats, of course: this is intended as general advice to help writers avoid problems, not the last word on the subject. I’m not a lawyer; if you are seriously concerned about your copyright getting violated, or think that it has been I urge you to consult an attorney who specializes in publishing law.)

(1) Make frequent, well-labeled back-ups of every draft of your manuscript and keep them in a safe place.

Proving who wrote what when is substantially easier in the age of the computer than it was in either the bygone era of the typewriter or the long-lingering epoch of the bare hand. While word processing programs do keep track of when particular files are created and modified, so chances are that you already have a historical record of when you began writing your opus, as well as your practice of updating it.

Unless, of course, your computer happened to melt down, get stolen, perish in a monsoon, or fall prey to some other mishap since you started writing. Yet another good reason to make back-ups frequently, eh?

(Oh, come on — did you honestly think I wouldn’t follow up after yesterday’s plea to save your materials early and often?)

Even with computer in perfect health and a closet full of back-up disks, however, you’re still going to want to exercise some care in how you bandy your manuscript around. From a writer’s point of view, it’s a far, far better thing NOT to be placed in the position of having to prove when you wrote a piece.

(2) Always keep BOTH hard and soft copies of every syllable of your own work — and NEVER send your only copy of anything to anyone, ever.

Yes, even if your intended recipient is your twin sibling who rescued you from a burning building at risk to his own life. For obvious reasons, that used to be the FIRST piece of advice the pros gave to new writers back in the days of typewriters.

That, and to keep a pad of paper and a writing implement with you at all hours of the day or night, just in case inspiration strikes. You already do that, don’t you?

Why night as well, you ask? Because as experienced writers know, no matter how certain you are that you will remember that great idea that woke you up at 3:42 AM, if you don’t write it down, chances are very high that it will disappear into the ether like the mythical final stanzas of KUBLA KHAN.

(3) Maintain an up-to-date list of EVERYONE who has a copy of your manuscript at any given time — and don’t keep the only copy of that list on your hard drive.

I’m always surprised at how infrequently aspiring writers do this, even for the agents to whom they submit, but until sign a publication contract, you absolutely must know who has your manuscript. Make sure that you have full contact information for every single soul on that list — not just an e-mail address, a phone number, and/or a first name — so you can track down any of your writing that goes missing.

Get a physical address for the recipient even if you are communicating solely online — any reputable agency or publishing house should post a mailing address on its website. If you choose to post excerpts of it online for critique, keep a record of precisely what you posted, where, and why.

If you’re wondering why I’m suggesting that you should not keep your only copy of this list on your computer, I can only suggest that you re-read yesterday’s post. Hard drives are not immortal, you know.

(4) If you send your work via regular mail, keep records of where and when you sent it — and track delivery.

Literally every piece of your writing that you ever mail to anyone in the publishing industry with whom you do not already share an established relationship of trust should be sent via tracked regular mail, so you may prove that your manuscript actually arrived at its destination, should you ever need to do so. Within North America, manuscript tracking is quite inexpensive these days — the cost of USPS’ electronic Delivery Confirmation varies by how far it is going, but domestically, it’s less than a dollar at the moment — so there is really no excuse for not taking this reasonable precaution.

If you want to make super-sure that you can prove delivery, you can cough up the $2.70 for Certified Mail, so someone will actually have to sign for package. This is an especially good idea if the recipient is someone with whom you’ve never dealt before. That way, should it ever be necessary (pray that it won’t), you will be able to prove that you did indeed send it — and precisely when he received it, the rogue.

Why is being able to prove when he received it as important as if? Because, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, if a question ever arises about who wrote the book, you will be very, very happy that you can produce objective evidence of the first time your would-be plagiarist clapped covetous eyes (and grimy hands) upon your precious pages.

(5) Minimize how often you send any finished manuscript via e-mail to anyone with whom you do not already have a signed representation or publication agreement.

Yes, I am saying that I believe it’s in a writer’s interest to submit in hard copy, rather than electronically. As long-term readers of this blog already know, I frown upon sending original material via e-mail, anyway, for a variety of practical reasons that have nothing to do with the possibility of a manuscript’s going astray. (For a full banquet of my many tirades on the subject, I refer you to the E-MAILED SUBMISSIONS category at right.) For our purposes today, however, I’m just going to treat you to a brief recap of the highlights, by way of review.

First, many, many NYC-based agencies and publishing houses are working on computers with outdated operating systems and not the most up-to-date versions of Word — and virtually all of them are working on PCs. So the chances that they will be able to open your attachment at all, especially if you are a Mac user, are somewhere in the 50-50 range.

If you submit in hard copy, you simply don’t need to worry about this. I just mention.

Second, it’s significantly harder to read on a computer screen than on a printed page — and, unfortunately for acceptance rates, it’s also far quicker to delete a file than to stuff a manuscript into the nearest SASE. (I leave you to speculate the probable effects of these undeniable facts upon speed with which the average e-mailed submission is rejected.)

Third — and if you’ve been paying attention throughout this post, you should be murmuring this in your sleep by now — you can never really be sure where an e-mailed document will end up. It can be forwarded at the recipient’s discretion, and at the discretion of anyone to whom he forwards it, indefinitely.

Quite apart from the threat of outright theft (which, as I mentioned earlier in this series, is exceedingly rare), too-free forwarding could conceivably make it harder to enforce your claim to copyright, should you ever need to establish it: since part of the argument you would need to make if someone else claims to have written your book is that you made a reasonable effort to maintain control over how and where it could be read. Forwarding it as an attachment to anyone who asks does not, alas, convey the impression that you as the author are particularly insistent upon protecting your rights to the work.

For all of these reasons, if I had my way, aspiring writers everywhere would actively avoid sending ANY of their original material by e-mail, at least to people they don’t know awfully well. Now that some agents have started requesting electronic submissions — heck, some even ask writers to copy-and-paste the first few pages of their manuscripts into e-mailed queries — this is not always practicable, of course, but this is still largely a paper-based industry.

Feel free to use that argument when your prospective manuscript exchange partner claims that it would be SO much easier if you would just e-mail your manuscript to her; I don’t mind. If that doesn’t work, tell her that a professional editor told you that it’s infinitely harder to catch manuscript problems on a computer screen than in hard copy — true, incidentally — so you would vastly prefer that she read your work in paper form.

Do I feel some waves of panic wafting in my general direction? “But Anne,” I hear some of you inveterate e-mailers protest, “what if an agent ASKS me to e-mail all or part of my manuscript? I can hardly say no, can I?”

Well, actually, you can, if you want: in my experience, nothing brings an e-mailed submission-loving agent or editor more quickly to a recognition of the joys of the printed page than a writer’s saying, “Gee, I would love to shoot that right off to you, but I think my computer has a virus. I wouldn’t want to pass it along to you. Just this time, I’m going to have to send you a paper copy, if that’s okay.”

Care to guess just how often a reputable agent or editor will say no after hearing THAT sterling little piece of argumentation? You’re the white knight here; you’re trying to protect the world from computer viruses. You’re not uncooperative — you should be up for membership in the Justice League, along with Wonder Woman and Superman.

Ah, I can hear that some of you still aren’t satisfied by promotion to superhero(ine). “But what if the agent insists?” you demand. “Or just has a really, really strong preference?”

Well, since you asked so nicely, and since truth compels me to admit that my own agent has been known to exhibit this preference from time to time, I’ll tell you.

(6) If you choose to send your writing electronically, verify IN ADVANCE that the recipient is who you think he is.

This is a bit of a repeat from yesterday, but If you absolutely MUST send a submission via e-mail, again, double-check that the agency and/or publishing house toward which you are flinging it trustingly has a track record of being on the up-and-up. Verifying that the agent has a track record of selling books like yours or that the publishing house has in fact published them in the past will both let you sleep easier during the submission period and avoid scams. (It will also help you target your queries better, if you do this research well in advance.)

A contest should list past award winners on its website, and most do: if their winners end up getting published, they tend to like to claim credit. If a contest’s site does not provide that information, think twice before sending your entry. (Yes, I know that this stance discriminates against contest-throwing organizations that are just starting out, but my interest here is protecting you, not them.)

Double-checking is harder to pull off with an individual than a business or contest, of course, especially if you happened to meet him online; few sites require that posters prove they are who they say they are. Get to know your potential first reader as much as you can before blithely sending off your work.

And NEVER send your manuscript to anyone for whom you have only an e-mail address. Really.

(7) Whenever you send your writing electronically, e-mail or a copy to yourself — and to someone else you trust.

If an agency, small publishing house, or contest positively insists upon electronic submission, e-mail a copy of everything you’ve sent them to yourself at the same time. This will provide at least an electronic record of what you sent when.

Or print up a copy, seal it in an envelope, sign across the seal (to make it obvious if it gets opened), and mail it to yourself. Once it arrives back on your doorstep, don’t open it; just hide it away in case you need it on some dark future day.

That way, you can prove, if necessary, that as of a particular date, you were the writer in the position to send the material.

If you choose to e-mail, too, it’s also not a bad idea to send blind copies to a couple of friends whom you trust not to forward it along. Ask them to save it until you send them an all-clear signal or until your name appears prominently on the New York Times Bestseller List, whichever comes first.

(8) Maintain communication with those to whom you have submitted your work, particularly if you have done it electronically. If you don’t hear back, follow up — and keep a record of your attempts at further contact.

Admittedly, since so many agents have embraced the rather rude recent practice of not responding to submitters if the answer is no, this one can be a bit difficult to pull off, but unless an agency has actually posted this policy, a submitter can and should follow up if he has not heard back after two or three months. If the manuscript has gotten lost (which, again, does happen more often than writers tend to think it does), a reputable agent will want to know about it.

If the recipient was NOT someone within the publishing industry, you should follow up even sooner, for the most practical of reasons: the longer your work been circulating around, the harder it would be to try to rein it in again.

Think about it: if your piece has been floating around the computers of Outer Mongolia for the last six months, how are you going to prove that you held control over who did and did not read your work? (Although, again, I’m not a lawyer, so if you find yourself in this unenviable position, hie ye hence and find an attorney who specializes in this branch of the law.)

(9) Bite the bullet and register the copyright.

If you are a U.S.-based writer, you might want to just go ahead and register the copyright for your work before you begin sharing it. For the vast majority of submitters, this step isn’t really necessary, but if you are in the habit of circulating your work very widely (or are not very sure where that manuscript you sent out a month ago to a mysterious stranger you met online might have ended up), you may sleep better at night if you take the step to alert the government to the fact that you wrote your book.

Stop groaning. It’s a lot less onerous — and significantly less expensive — than most aspiring writers tend to assume. Go ahead, take a wild guess about how much time it will actually take away from your writing to gain this protection and how spendy it is.

Well, the last time I did it, it took only the time required to print up a copy of my manuscript and fill out a one-page form. And the expense was unbelievable: a $45 registration fee and the expense of having my corner copy shop spiral-bind the thing. If you register it online — through exactly the type of electronic submission I discouraged above, as it happens — it’s only $35.

And yes, nonfiction writers, you CAN register a book proposal. Jointly, even, if you have a collaborator.

What it will NOT help you to do – and what many novice writers give themselves away by doing — is place in the header or footer of every page, © 2009 Author’s Name. Yes, copyright can be established by proving intent to publish, but intent to publish is also established by submitting work to an agent or editor. Contrary to what you may have heard, the copyright bug will not protect you, should push come to shove.

It will, however, give rise to substantial mirth amongst its first readers at most agencies and publishing houses. “Look,” they will say, pointing, “here’s another rookie.”

This unseemly mirth tends to cover an undercurrent of hostility: writers who so pointedly indicate distrust of the people to whom they send their work, the logic goes, are in fact conveying a subtle insult. You are not to be trusted, such marks say, loud and clear, affronting those who would never steal so much as a modifier from an author and not scaring those who would steal entire books outright. Best to leave it out.

The beauty of the registering the copyright to a manuscript, of course, is that it can be done entirely without the knowledge of your recipients. Ditto with the blind e-mail copies. There’s no need to advertise that you are protecting yourself.

But for heaven’s sake, especially if you are dealing with someone that you do not know well enough to trust, take these few quiet steps to let yourself sleep better at night. Chances are, you will never need their help, but remember that old-fashioned sampler: better safe than sorry.

Call me zany, but I would prefer to see you get credit for your writing than the friend of the friend of the friend to whom you happened to forward it.

Whew! That was a long one, wasn’t it? Next time (which may not be for a couple of days, given how much this post took out of me), I shall delve back into the ins and outs of finding good sources of feedback. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VIb: not all mysterious strangers are romantic

Or, this raccoon-visitoris not the same thing as this valentino

I meant to get back to our series on how to find useful feedback on your manuscripts — or, more precisely, to my mid-series digression on protecting your work whilst sharing it — over the weekend, or at any rate yesterday. (Happy post-Presidents’ Day, everyone.) However, my Significant Other harbors some absurd prejudice in favor of our spending Valentine’s Day weekend together. Where do kids these days pick up such zany ideas?

I’m mention this not for the sake of romantic one-upsmanship, but as an explanation to those of you new commenters who may have been trying to chime in over this particular weekend. For those of you new to the blog: in order to prevent the truly epic amount of spam I receive from wasting everyone’s time in the comments, my blogging program requires that I personally approve posts by all first-time commenters. As a result, freshman comments sometimes take a few days to post.

It’s the nature of the beast, I’m afraid.

Over the weekend (which I must admit was probably significantly more romantic than it would have been had I kept sitting down to blog; my SO was quite patient while I held an editing client’s hand through a no-fault-of-her-own literary crisis), I was thinking of you, however. To be specific, I was thinking that it had been quite some time since I asked one of the most basic questions that must be faced by writers in the computer age:

When was the last time you backed up your hard disk — or, more importantly for our purposes, your writing files?

Like, say, the ones containing the novel you’ve been writing for the past two years, or the contest entry you’re planning to pop into the mail next week? If you didn’t make a back-up either today or yesterday, may I cajole you into doing it soon?

How soon, you ask? Well, not to be alarmist, but would now-ish work for you?

I’m quite serious about this; go ahead. (If you’re new to backing up your work, the BACK-UP COPIES category at right may prove helpful.) I’ll still be here when you get back, languishing on my chaise longue.

What’s with the urgency, you ask? I could answer in philosophical terms — he things of this world are, after all, ephemeral, and computer files even more so — but frankly, my reason for nagging you about it periodically couldn’t be more practical. I’ve seen far too many writers lose weeks, months, and even years of good work due to various stripes of computer failure. As a freelance editor, I can’t even begin to tally up the number of times clients have called me in tears, begging me to search my files for a hard copy of an earlier draft of their books, because the only soft copy fell victim to a virus or hard drive meltdown.

Ask anyone who works in a computer repair facility: with even the most reliable system, it’s not a matter of if it will break down; it’s a matter of when. In picking the day of demise, computers are notoriously disrespectful of a writer’s imminent deadlines, requests from agents, or even the joy that accompanies finally polishing off a complete draft. In fact, if the moans I’ve heard over the years are a representative samples of those let down by their computers, the heavy use a computer often sees just prior to the end of a major writing project seems to be conducive to bringing on system misbehavior.

Which leads me to ask again: if your hard drive died right now, would you have a copy of your current writing project? What about of that query letter you spent two months composing, or that synopsis that took you a year to perfect? Would you even have an up-to-date record of whom you queried when?

Ah, that made you turn pale, didn’t it?

Please, even if you save nothing else on your computer, make frequent backups of your writing. It only takes a few minutes, but some day, you may be deeply grateful that you did.

Back to the topic at hand — which, as it happens, will also make me sound like your mother and might make you turn pale with dread. Last time, I broached the always-hot subject of protecting one’s writing from poachers, including — and this is why we’re talking about this in the midst of a series on finding good feedback-givers — unscrupulous folks with whom you might choose to share your unpublished manuscript.

Once again, I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, so if you were looking for actual legal guidance on a specific copyright-related matter, you’d be well advised to get advice from one who specializes in giving legal advice to such legal advice-seekers.

Everyone got that? Good.

We can, however, go over some general principles here. To see how well I made my points last time, here’s a little quiz:

Rudolf Valentino (hey, it was just Valentine’s day, after all) has written a tender novel with the following plot: boy meets girl; boy loses girl over a silly misunderstanding that could easily have been cleared up within five pages had either party deigned to ask the other a basic question or two (along the lines of Is that lady holding your hand your sister or your wife?); boy learns important life lesson that enables him to become a better man; boy and girl are reunited.

Having composed such an original story, our Rudolf, being a sensible boy, seeks out other writers to give him feedback on it, or at any rate to help him figure out why the first 74 agents he queried did not find this plotline unique enough to pique their interest. He joins a writers’ group; he posts excerpts of his first chapter on an online critique site; he sidles other romance-writers in the hallways and charms them into reading his book and giving him their honest responses. (Our Rudolf can be pretty persuasive, you know. If you don’t believe me, see SON OF THE SHEIK.) Soon, several dozen copies of his manuscript are circulating throughout his extensive acquaintance, both in hard copy and electronically. He receives feedback from some; other copies disappear into the ether.

At what point in this process should Rudolf begin worrying about protecting his writing — and at what point running, not walking, toward an attorney conversant with copyright law with an eye to enforcing his trampled-upon rights?

(a) When he notices that a book with a similar plot line has just been published?

(b) When he notices that a hefty proportion of the romantic comedy films made within the last hundred years have a similar plot line?

(c) When a fellow member of his writing group lands an agent for a book with a similar plot line?

(d) When he picks up a book with somebody else’s name on the cover and discovers more than 50 consecutive words have apparently been lifted verbatim from a Valentino designer original?

(e) Before he gave it to anyone at all?

Let’s take the point where he should be consulting a lawyer first. If you said (d), clap yourself heartily upon the back. (I know it’s tough to do while simultaneously reading this and making a back-up of your writing files, but then, you’re a very talented person.) The last time I checked, anything beyond 50 consecutive words — or less, if it’s not properly attributed — is not fair use. After that, we’re into plagiarism territory.

If you said (c), you’re in pretty good company: at that point, most writers would tell Rudolf that he should be keeping a sharp eye upon that other writer. It would be prudent, perhaps, to take a long, hard look at the other writer’s book — which, as they’re in the same critique group, shouldn’t be all that hard to pull off.

But should plot similarity alone send him sprinting toward Lawyers for the Arts? No. Plot lifting is not the same thing as writing theft.

Why? Everyone who read my last post, chant it with me now, if you can spare time from making that backup: because you can’t copyright an idea for a book; you can only copyright the presentation of it.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few small steps that Rudolf might take to protect himself. Unfortunately, most of those steps would need to be taken prior to the point of discovering that some enterprising soul had made off with his writing.

Hint: the answer to the first question in the quiz, the one asking when a prudent Rudolf should begin thinking about protecting his manuscript, is (e). Especially — and this doesn’t happen as much in the age of computers as it did in the age of typewriters, but the warning still bears repeating — if Rudolf was circulating his only copy.

(That couldn’t happen to you, of course. You have a back-up of your writing files tucked away somewhere safe now, right?)

As I mentioned last time, the single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to deal with reputable agents, editors, and publishing houses. The problem is, you can’t always tell. The Internet, while considerably easing the process of finding agents and small publishers hungry for new work, also renders it hard to tell who is on the up-and-up. I hope I’m not shocking anyone when I point out that a charlatan’s website can look just like Honest Abe’s — and that’s more of a problem with the publishing industry than in many others.

Why? Well, new agencies and small publishing houses pop up every day, often for the best reasons imaginable — when older publishing houses break up or are bought out, for instance, editors often make the switch to agency, and successful agents and editors both sometimes set up shop for themselves. But since you don’t need a specialized degree to become an agent or start a publishing house, there are also plenty of folks out there who just hang up shingles.

Or, more commonly, websites.

Which is one reason that, as those of you who survived my 2007 Book Marketing 101 series (conveniently collected for those of you who missed it on the category list at right) will recall, I am a BIG advocate of gathering information about ANY prospective agency or publishing house from more than one source. Especially if the source in question is the agency’s website — and if the agency in question is not listed in one of the standard agency guides.

“Wha–?” I hear some of you cry.

Listing in those guides is not, after all, automatic, and like everything else in publishing, the information in those guides is not gathered mere seconds before the book goes to presses. The result: agencies can go in or out of business so swiftly that there isn’t time for the changes to get listed in the standard guides.

That’s problematic for aspiring writers, frequently, because start-ups are often the ones most accepting of previously unpublished writers’ work. But because it is in your interests to know precisely who is going to be on the receiving end of your submission — PARTICULARLY if you are planning to query or submit via e-mail — you honestly do need to do some homework on these people.

Happily, as I mentioned last time, there are now quite a few sources online for double-checking the credibility of professionals to whom you are considering sending your manuscript. Reputable agents don’t like disreputable ones any more than writers do, so a good place to begin verifying an agent or agency’s credibility is their professional organization in the country where the agency is ostensibly located. For the English-speaking world:

In the United States, contact the Association of Authors’ Representatives.

In the United Kingdom, contact the Association of Authors’ Agents.

In Australia, contact the Australian Literary Agents Association.

I couldn’t find a specific association for Canada (if anyone knows of one, please let me know, and I’ll be delighted to update this), but the Association of Canadian Publishers’ website does include information about literary agencies north of the border.

Not all agents are members of these organizations, but if there have been complaints from writers in the past, these groups should be able to tell you. It’s also worth checking on Preditors and Editors or the Absolute Write Water Cooler, excellent places to check who is doing what to folks like us these days. Writer Beware, a website sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, provides a wealth of resources for those who want to learn about scams aimed at writers.

In case it might influence the decision-making process of those of you quietly rolling your eyes at the prospect of investing even more of your scant writing time in researching folks whose ostensible purpose in life is to help writers, I should add: all but the last site I listed are also pretty good places to learn about agents’ specialties, on the off chance that you might be looking for someone to query now that the Great New Year’s Resolution Plague of 2009 has receded into memory.

Again, I just mention. And have you done that backup yet?

As with any business transaction on the Internet (or indeed, with anyone you’ve never heard of before), it also pays to take things slowly — and with a massive grain of salt. An agency or publishing house should be able to tell potential authors what specific books it has handled, for instance. (In the U.S., book sales are a matter of public record, so there is no conceivable reason to preserve secrecy.)

Also, even if an agency is brand-new, you should be able to find out where its agents have worked before — in fact, a reputable new agency is generally only too happy to provide that information, to demonstrate its own excellent connections.

Also, reputable agencies make their money by selling their clients’ books, not by charging them fees. If any agent ever asks you for a reading fee, an editing fee, or insists that you need to pay a particular editing company for an evaluation of your work, instantly contact the relevant country’s agents’ association. (For some hair-raising examples of what can happen to writers who don’t double-check, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENTS category at right.)

Actually, anyone asking a writer for cash up front in exchange for considering representation or publication is more than a bit suspect — not only according to me, but according to the AAR. Unless a publisher bills itself up front as a subsidy press (which asks the authors of the books it accepts to bear some of the costs of publication) or you are planning to self-publish, there’s no reason for money to be discussed at all until they’ve asked to buy your work, right?

And even then, the money should be flowing toward the author, not away from her.

With publishing houses, too, be suspicious if you’re told that you MUST use a particular outside editing service or pay for some other kind of professional evaluation. As those of you who have been submitting for a while already know, reputable agents and editors like to make up their own minds about what to represent or publish; they’re highly unlikely to refer that choice out of house. And any reputable freelance editor will be quite up front about the fact that while professional editing can help make a manuscript more publishable, it’s not a guarantee of publication.

Generally speaking — to sound like your mother for yet another long moment — if an agency or publisher sounds like too good a deal to be true, chances are that it is. There are, alas, plenty of unscrupulous folks out there ready to take unsuspecting writers’ money, and while many agencies and publishers do in fact maintain websites, this is still a paper-based industry, for the most part.

In other words, it is not, by and large, devoted to the proposition that an aspiring author should be able to Google literary agent and come up with the ideal fit right off the bat.

Do I hear some more doubtful muttering out there? “But Anne,” I hear many voices cry, “I certainly do not want to be bilked by a faux agency or publishing house. However, I notice that you’ve been talking about such disreputable sorts conning me out of ready cash, not potentially walking off with my submission. Weren’t we discussing about protecting our writing, not our pocketbooks?”

Well caught, disembodied voices — and that’s part of my point. The fact is, if an unscrupulous agent or editor were seriously interested in defrauding aspiring writers, stealing manuscripts would not be the most efficient way to go about it. Historically, direct extraction of cash from the writer’s pocket has been the preferred method.

But that doesn’t mean that a savvy writer shouldn’t take reasonable steps to protect both her pocketbook AND her manuscript. Even during a period where the legitimate literary agencies are being so cautiously selective, an aspiring writer should never front money for professional services without knowing precisely what s/he is getting in return. Take the time to do your homework.

Oh, and make backups regularly as well. Imagine Rudolf’s embarrassment if he had to admit to his wide circle of blandished acquaintance that he was the only one of them who didn’t possess a copy of his manuscript.

Next time, I shall delve into manuscript protection itself, I promise — and, shortly after that, return to our larger topic, tracking down sources of good manuscript feedback. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VIa, in which we all learn a few life lessons equally applicable to dating and getting feedback on a manuscript, or, dealing with shadowy figures

shadowy-figure1

Yesterday, I talked a little bit about that grand old tradition, the writers’ group, a mutual aid society devoted to helping its members refine and improve their writing. While surprisingly few established writers’ groups deal explicitly with the marketing side of being a successful writer — I have never understood, for instance, why so few groups of writers at the querying stage exchange queries and synopses for critique; it seems like a natural — a good writers’ group can be extremely helpful in providing the feedback that every serious writer needs.

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a good, long time may have noticed, I suggest joining a writers’ group every time I revisit the issue of getting useful feedback. Not only does it tend to be more efficient to exchange chapters with many than with just one or two, and not only does one often glean more constructive feedback from writers than from readers who have never tried to cobble a narrative together, but let’s face it, getting involved with even a group that charges for membership (as some run by well-known authors and/or editors do) is probably going to be less expensive than hiring an experienced freelance editor.

On the other hand, a freelance editor will almost certainly be able to give you that feedback considerably faster — and, if s/he’s worth her salt, be able to provide you with greater insight into how agents, editors at publishing houses, and contest judges might respond to your work. While you might eventually accumulate a similar volume of feedback from regular group participation, if you’re meeting only once per month and exchanging only one chapter each time, it could take two or three years to make it through an entire manuscript.

And that’s assuming that the group is small enough that every member receives critique every single time. While we’re engaging in cost/benefit analysis, let’s not forget to count the time and energy a conscientious group member must invest in reading and commenting upon other members’ work.

Because of the substantial and long-term commitment required to run a full manuscript through a writers’ group and potentially rather hefty price tag on professional editing, many aspiring writers turn to a third option: seeking out feedback online, either by seeking out other writers for exchange via a bulletin board, chat room, or website or by taking advantage of one of the many websites that ask writers to post excerpts of their writing online for other readers to critique.

Heck, I have it on pretty good authority that some of my frequent commenters here have ended up swapping manuscripts. After all, they already know that they have something in common, right?

As marvelous as these online exchange opportunities can be for writers, especially ones who are geographically isolated enough to render joining an in-person writers’ group impracticable, I wanted to pause in the middle of this series on feedback to address some concerns about the dangers that can result from all of that electronic manuscript exchange. Writers new to this form of community often do not prepare themselves for the possibility that the nifty writer they’ve never met face-to-face but who sounds like a perfect critique partner might not be, well, completely on the up-and-up.

Oh, and happy Friday the 13th.

To put it another way that makes me sound much more like your mother: just as not every online dater is completely honest about his or her intentions, willingness to commit, height, weight, level of baldness, or marital status, not every writer participating in online communities is representing her- or himself accurately. And it’s equally hard in both venues to weed out the boasters from the hard workers.

How might an inability to tell one from the other harm an honest feedback-seeking writer? Well, in a lot of ways, unfortunately, ranging from investing hours and hours in providing critique for an exchange partner who never bothers to reciprocate to getting one’s writing actually stolen.

So for the next few days, we’re going to veer off my pre-set path of feedback-seeking to talk about what the risks are and how a savvy writer can minimize them.

One vital disclaimer before I begin: I am NOT an attorney, much less one who specializes in intellectual property law. So it would be a GRAVE MISTAKE to take what I say here as the only word on the subject, or indeed to come to me if you believe that your writing has been stolen. (And if you did, I would send you straight to my lawyer, so why not skip a step?)

However, I’ve noticed that most of the time, writers curious about this seem to be asking questions not because they fear that their intellectual property has been lifted or that they’ve violated someone else’s rights, but because they’ve heard vague rumors to the effect that every so often, an unpublished writer’s work has gotten stolen. And those pervasive rumors I can legitimately address.

To set your minds at ease: yes, writing does occasionally get stolen — but it’s exceedingly rare, and it usually doesn’t happen in the way that most hearers of the rumor fear.

Let me introduce Sharon (not her real name, obviously), a writer who approached me a few years ago. I had the impression that she hadn’t been writing very long, but I wasn’t positive, as she was someone I barely knew — the on-again, off-again girlfriend of the brother of a friend of mine, which is as fine a definition of a casual acquaintance as I’ve ever heard. And yet she called me one day, full of questions about how to market her writing.

(A practice that I have historically tended to discourage in aspiring writers with whom I do not already enjoy some sort of professional relationship, incidentally, since effectively, it’s a consultant-client situation, and I do after all donate masses of general information to the writing community here on this blog. I understand the urge to chat with an experienced author and editor about the specifics of one’s book, however. Due to a precipitous rise in requests of this nature in recent months, I shall be unveiling a new venue for one-on-one consultation within a few weeks. So get those manuscript-specific questions ready and watch this space.)

Sharon had written a short piece — an essay, really — that she thought was marketable and had, through sheer persistence and the rare strategy of actually LISTENING to the advice she had been given by published writers of her acquaintance, gotten Ron, the publisher of a small press, to agree to take a preliminary look at it. Would she e-mail it to him with all possible dispatch, please?

In mid-celebration for this quite significant coup, she experienced a qualm: what if this guy stole her ideas, or her entire work? She knew him only through an exchange of e-mails, after all, and until she had started trolling the Internet for small presses, she had never even heard of him or his publications.

So wasn’t she in fact taking a rather large risk in sending an electronic copy of the only thing she’d ever written to a complete stranger?

Once the idea had taken hold in her brain, being a writer, she naturally embellished upon it in the dead of night: if it came down to Ron’s word against hers, who would believe {her}? And how could she ever prove that she had come up with the idea first?

When she shared her fears, however, half of her friends laughed at her, saying that she was being paranoid and unreasonable. The other half told her, in all seriousness, that she should go ahead and register the copyright for what she had written before she e-mailed it to Ron. At the very least, they advised, she should tart up her pages by adding the copyright symbol (©) on each and every one. Whereupon the first set of friends laughed even harder and told her that nothing looks more unprofessional to folks in the publishing industry than the liberal application of that pesky ©.

Understandably confused, Sharon did something very sensible: she tracked down the closest professional author and asked her what to do.

(As Gore Vidal is fond of saying, there is no earthly problem that could not be solved if only everyone would do exactly as I advise. I trust all of you will cling to that inspiring little axiom until your dying breath.)

The problem was, each set of Sharon’s friends was partially right: the vast majority of reputable publishing houses would never dream of stealing her material, and yet, as in any other business, there are always a few cads. At most writers’ conferences, you will hear speakers scoff at the possibility, but anyone who has been in the writing and editing biz for any length of time knows at least one good writer with a horror story.

Better safe than sorry, as our great-grandmothers used to stitch painstakingly onto samplers. (Actually, my great-grandmother was an opera diva who apparently regarded needlework as a serious waste of the time she could be spending being flamboyant, but I’m told that other people’s great-grandmothers embroidered such things.)

In the United States, though, outright theft of a book, or even an essay or short story, is quite rare. To wave the flag for a moment, we have the strongest copyright laws in the world, and what’s more, a writer on our turf AUTOMATICALLY owns the copyright to his own work as soon as he produces it. (Seriously; go ask a lawyer.)

So when writers talk about copyrighting a book, they’re generally not talking about obtaining the right in the first place, but rather registering it with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Which means that the friends who advised Sharon not to mar her footer with © 2008 Sharon were also partially correct: the writer owns the copyright; if Ron planned to steal her essay and she hadn’t actually registered the copyright on it, the symbol alone wasn’t going to provide much protection. In fact, her friends were passing along the prevailing wisdom she would have heard had she asked the same question at your garden-variety writers’ conference: presenters often tell aspiring writers not to use the © bug on their manuscripts when they submit them; it’s redundant.

How so? Well, everyone in the publishing industry is already aware that the author owns the copyright to her own writing — including, presumably, Ron. If the author didn’t own the copyright, a publisher wouldn’t have to sign a contract with her in order to publish it, right?

In theory, then, writers are protected from pretty much the instant that their fingers hit the keyboard. So was Sharon’s other set of advisors merely ill-informed?

Unfortunately, no: in practice, a couple of problems can arise. Rights, as Thomas Hobbes informed us so long ago, are the ability to enforce them.

In the first place, owning the rights to what you write inherently and proving that you are the original author are two different things — sometimes radically different. Occasionally, some enterprising soul will latch on to another writer’s unpublished work and claim that he wrote it first, or co-writers will squabble over who gets custody of already-written work in a partnership break-up. Or, as in the situation I raised at the beginning of this post, an aspiring writer who has trustingly e-mailed his first two chapters to that nice writer he met on a bulletin board walks into a bookstore one day and finds a book that opens just like his.

Or — and this is substantially more common, especially in academic writing — the writer is dutifully reading her former exchange partner’s published work when her hair stands on end because that paragraph on the page in front of her is one that she wrote. With a shock, it suddenly occurs to her that since they exchanged work electronically, all her dishonest ex-friend would have had to do was copy her words and paste them into another manuscript.

In each case, the inevitable result is an unseemly struggle to determine who coughed up any given page of text first — or an aspiring writer who spends the next ten years walking around grumbling to anyone who will listen about how that rat of a published writer stole her work.

Second — and you might want to be sitting down for this one, as it comes as rather a shock to a lot of writers — technically, you can’t copyright an idea; you can merely copyright the PRESENTATION of it. Which means, in practice, that it is not possible to claim ownership of your storyline, but only how you chose to write it.

Aren’t you glad I told you to sit down first?

Learning about this second condition tends to obviate a good 85% of the concerns aspiring writers express about having their work stolen. Most of the time, writers are worried that someone will steal their STORIES, not the actual writing — and I’m not going to lie to you; one doesn’t have to attend many writers’ conference before one has heard a dozen stories about the trusted feedback-giver who later came out with a suspiciously similar book.

There’s not a heck of a lot a writer can do about that, alas, except to spread the story around. So the next time you hear such a tale of woe at a conference, do remember to make sympathetic noises.

But by the same token, unless the lifted plotline becomes a major bestseller, there’s really no reason that you shouldn’t push ahead with your version. Fiction is virtually never sold on the storyline alone, anyway; plotlines and NF arguments are almost never 100% unique.

As no one knows better than a writer, however, presentation — particularly GOOD presentation — generally IS unique. As industry insiders are so fond of telling writers, it all depends upon the writing.

This is why, as some of you inveterate conference-goers may have noticed, when agents, editors, and published writers are presented with a question about book theft, they tend to respond as though the question itself were a sign of an over-large ego in the asker. Just how revolutionary would an aspiring writer’s style have to be, the logic goes, for an agent or editor to WANT to steal it?

Which perhaps leaves the wondering writer reluctant to submit his long thought-out plotline and terrific premise to a publisher, lest it be handed to a better-known writer, but doesn’t really address his concern. Once again, we have a failure to communicate.

Do I see some hands in the air out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protesting, and rightly so, “between the time I submit a manuscript to an agency and the time a book is published and thus equipped with a nice, clear copyright page stating precisely who owns the writing between those covers, it passes through quite a few hands. I may not even know who will end up reading it. Shouldn’t I worry about some of them deciding to make off with my actual pages and passing them off as their own?”

Having some doubts about Millicent’s integrity, are we?

Well, it’s a reasonable enough concern: some of those hands will inevitably belong to people you do not know very well. Agency screeners like Millicent, for instance. Agents. Editorial assistants. Editors. Mail room clerks. The people in the publishing house’s marketing department.

And anyone to whom you give your manuscript as a first reader. Guess which paragraph contains the most likely thief of prose?

If you said the latter, give yourself a big, fat gold star for the day; I’ll be discussing casual exchanges in tomorrow’s post. But let’s think for a moment about why manuscripts sent to agencies and publishing houses very, very rarely turn up with anyone other than the author’s name on the title page.

An exceedingly straightforward reason springs to mind: agencies and publishing houses make their livings by selling work by writers. In-house theft wouldn’t have to happen awfully often before writers would stop sending submissions, right? So sheer self-interest would tend to discourage it.

But I’m not going to lie to you: at a less-than-reputable house or agency, it could happen. And occasionally does, especially to NF book proposals. Any guesses why?

If you immediately answered, “Because you can’t copyright an idea, only the presentation of it,” give yourself another gold star. While the copyright of the proposal materials and any sample chapter(s) undoubtedly belongs to the person who wrote them, it’s not unheard-of another writer to snatch the proposal, rewrite it minimally, and submit it as his own work.

I know: chilling.

The single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to deal with reputable agents, editors, and publishing houses. Not only are well-established folks less likely to engage in dubious practices in the first place (this is, after all, a biz that relies heavily upon reputation), but there’s often a better-established chain of accountability if something goes wrong. As I MAY have mentioned before on this blog, it behooves a writer to do his homework.

And at the risk of sounding like your mother again, let me remind you: not every organization with the wherewithal to throw up a website is equally credible.

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to check anyone in the industry with whom you’re planning to do business on Preditors and Editors; if you have doubts about an individual agent, agency, or publishing house, check agents out with the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives). These are also good places to report any professional conduct that seems questionable to you; P&E is especially good about following up on writers’ complaints.

I always advise doing a basic credibility check before sending ANY part of your manuscript via e-mail — which clearly includes anyone to whom you might be considering trading manuscripts for critique. As I’ve mentioned several times before here, after you send out an e-mailed attachment (or any e-mail, for that matter), you have absolutely NO way of controlling, or even knowing, where it will end up.

Think about it: part of the charm of electronic communication is ease of forwarding, right? Yet another reason that I’m not crazy about e-mailed submissions. (The other reason, if you must know, is that it’s far, far quicker for Millicent to reject an electronic submission than a physical manuscript. Since rejecting the former requires the push of a single button and rejecting the latter involves stuffing pages into an envelope, which would you guess renders it more tempting not to read much before deciding?)

While it’s highly unlikely that the chapter you e-mail to an agent — or that person you just met on an Internet chat room — will end up on a printing press in Belize or Outer Mongolia, it’s not entirely unprecedented for entire e-mailed manuscripts to wander to some fairly surprising places. Yes, the same thing COULD conceivably happen with a hard copy, too, but as with Millicent’s rejection, it would require more effort on the sender’s part.

Which, believe it or not, is part of the function of the SASE: to maximize the probability that your manuscript will come back to you, rather than being carted off by goodness knows whom to parts unknown.

Stop laughing — it’s true. When you send requested materials off to an agency or publishing house, you and they both are operating on the tacit assumption that they will not reproduce your work without your permission, right? The mere fact that you give them a physical copy of your work doesn’t mean that you intent to authorize them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so, right?

When you include a SASE with your submission packet, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys your expectation that if they reject it, they will mail it back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 8th, 9th, and 10th installments in the Harry Potter series.

The key word to remember here is control. Until you have signed a contract with a reputable agent or publishing house (or are selling copies that you published yourself), you will want to know with absolute certainty where every extant copy of your manuscript is at all times.

If that last sentence gave you even a twinge of compunction about work already written and sent upon its merry way: honey, we need to speak further, and pronto. However, that conversation, along with steps you can take to prove when you wrote a particular piece, is best left until next time.

In the meantime, don’t worry; keeping a watchful eye your work isn’t all that difficult, and it certainly doesn’t require living in a state of perpetual paranoia. Just a bit of advance thought and care.

You didn’t think that your manuscript would have an easier time dating than you would, did you? Happy Friday the 13th, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The president-elect’s passive protagonist, fair use of other people’s words, and a change in my long-standing strategic advice

Happy the one whom the muses love,
the one from whose lips language flows sweet.

— Hesiod

I thought about you the other night, readers, while I was listening with what I will admit was great pleasure to a certain acceptance speech…

Okay, before I go on, I should stop and say: I am not bringing this up to invite political debate. In the interests of making this site as accessible to as broad a range of writers as possible, I have a general policy of discouraging two types of discourse here at Author! Author! — I remove any language that would not be appropriate for the family hour, if you catch my drift, and I avoid discussion of political beliefs, mine or other people’s. However, I’m going to make an exception today.

Why? Well, the speechwriters made me do it: did you catch the narrative problem in the president-elect’s speech, a classic storytelling no-no, one we have discussed at some length here in the past? Say, in its primary illustrative anecdote?

Yes, decades of editing manuscripts does warp how one hears things. Why do you ask?

I refer, of course, to the anecdote about 106-year-old Georgia voter Ann Nixon Cooper. An inspirational story, undoubtedly, and an apt one for the occasion — which is precisely why it bugged me that it was not presented in a more effective manner. More importantly for our purposes here, its narrative problem is one to which submitted manuscripts are notoriously prey.

So let’s take an instructive walk through the text of the anecdote, shall we? (Word to the wise: ignore the misused semicolons; they’re not the biggest problem here.)

“She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin. And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America…At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot…When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs, a new sense of common purpose…When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved…She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.”…A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.”

Did you notice the narrative problem, one that substantially weakened the hearer’s (or, in this case, reader’s) sense of the protagonist? Anyone who reads manuscripts for a living would have. But admittedly, not all of us are blessed with Millicent’s ability to leap to conclusions about protagonists’ characters (big hint) from the word choices in the narratives they inhabit.

To see what this text would look like from a professional reader’s perspective, let’s highlight all of the verbs for which the admirable Ann was the subject:

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin. And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America…At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot…When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs, a new sense of common purpose…When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved…She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.”…A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.”

Did you catch it that time? No? Okay, let’s isolate all of those verb phrases — what do they tell you about the protagonist of this story?

She was born
she was a woman
she’s seen
she lived to see
she saw
she was there to witness
She was there
she touched her finger to a screen
she cast her vote
she knows

If you said, “Hey, wait a minute — these verb choices make our Ann seem like an awfully passive protagonist; the verb choices imply that she didn’t actually do anything until she cast her vote this year, as if she were merely an observer of the events of her time, rather than a participant in them,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Any professional reader would have derived this impression, too, simply from the word choices.

Fascinating, isn’t it, how much something as simple as the selection of verbs can affect a reader’s perception of a character? Especially, as in this case, when the verb choices are repetitive, conceptually as well as literally.

I’m going to be honest with you: this particular type of stultifying verb choice is so common in submissions that as an editor, I found myself thinking by the time the president-elect uttered the second passive verb in this anecdote, “Oh, please tell me that the first active thing she does in this story ISN’T going to be voting for him…”

Seriously, I did. Ask anyone who was sharing a room with me at the time.

Passive verb choices don’t only affect the pros’ perception of a protagonist, however. As a reader (okay, originally a hearer), I would have found Ann’s story substantially more engaging had it depicted the protagonist doing more than just sitting around and observing. I would bet a nickel that a more active telling would be more factually accurate, too: wouldn’t you tend to assume that someone who has lived through such exciting times would have done some pretty darned interesting things over the course of 106 years?

That nagging feeling that the narrator is concealing interesting material is precisely why a novel, memoir, or NF piece with passive protagonist tends to grab Millicent and her fellow agency screeners far less readily than a telling of the same story that presents the protagonist as actively engaged in the depicted events.

Gripping protagonists DO, not just observe. Yes, even in NF anecdotes — and no, an exciting story does not necessarily an active protagonist make.

Do I sense some shifting in chairs out there, at least amongst copyright-huggers? “Um, Anne?” I hear some of you pointing out, and rightly. “I appreciate seeing a concrete example of a passive protagonist in action — if that’s not a contradiction in terms — but didn’t you use a pretty hefty chunk of someone else’s writing to illustrate your point? Is that kosher?”

Well caught, chair-shifters: a writer should always exercise caution in quoting the work of others.

I’m not a lawyer, so do run off and consult one who specializes in copyright law if you are a quotation addict, but US-based authors observe some basic rules of thumb that help the inclined-to-excerpt stay out of trouble. It’s generally accepted, for instance, that political speeches are fair game for excerpts — they are, after all, usually read aloud, so one could arguably quote from that, rather than the printed version — but with published writing not yet in the public domain, anything beyond 50 consecutive words pushes the boundaries of fair use.

Beyond that, you will need to request permission from the copyright holder. As in formally, in writing, and often in exchange for payment.

And yes, authors are usually responsible for obtaining copyright permission, not publishers — and these days, the former are almost always the ones who end up paying for the rights, too. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.

Oh, and if you wish to use an excerpt of ANY length from a song’s lyrics, you will need to obtain formal permission. (For an interesting and amusing description of just how difficult that can be, please see FAAB Joel Derfner’s guest blog on the subject.)

While we’re talking about copyright protection — aren’t you glad that you brought it up? — this seems like a good time to announce that I have decided to reverse my long-standing position on whether NF writers should register the copyright for their book proposals and sample chapters before submitting them to agents and publishing houses. In the past, I have not pushed it; it seemed like an unnecessary expense added to a promotional process that can be quite expensive for the writer.

I am reversing that position, in light of recent events: I now believe that it is in a US-based NF writer’s best interest to register the copyright for a book proposal, sample chapter, and related promotional materials prior to submission, if s/he can possibly afford it.

Don’t worry, though: the last time I checked, it cost a grand total of $35 if you register your work online. Even if you elect to register via mail, it merely involves filling out a one-page form.

More of you are shifting in your chairs anyway, though, aren’t you? “But Anne,” some long-term Author! Author! readers point out, and who can blame them? “The last time you went over copyright issues — recognizing that you’re a lawyer, of course, but were only expressing opinions based upon your personal experience in the series of posts beginning here — I derived the impression that a writer owns the copyright to his work as soon as he writes it; the registration process is merely the legal confirmation of that fact. Is that not true anymore?”

Well, those of you who are worried about it would do well to consult an attorney well-versed in this area, but as far as I know, copyright does inherently rest with the author. Registration is the best way to enforce that.

For many types of manuscripts, enforcement is virtually never necessary. For novels and other books where the writing, rather than the subject matter per se, is the primary selling point, or for memoirs, where the author is the only person on the planet who can tell that particular story from that perspective, it’s unlikely that authorship would ever be a matter of debate.

NF proposals are a rather different kettle of fish, however: while a proposal’s writer obviously owns her own writing — synopsis, sample chapter, the annotated table of contents that sets out the planned book’s structure, etc. — it would not be technically impossible for another writer to co-opt a topic after a proposal is written. It’s not beyond imagining, for instance, that someone who reads a fabulous book proposal could try to run off with a beautifully fleshed-out concept, passing it off as her own. Or, heaven help us, for an agent to say, “Hey, that’s a great book concept!” and hand it to a better-established author.

If your heart just stopped, shouldn’t you be calling 911, instead of reading on?

I’m not saying that this happens often — thank goodness, it seems to be exceedingly rare, even in these ethics-trying tough economic times — but frankly, the authorial grapevine has been buzzing with some pretty astonishing stories these days. In some of them, I can’t help but notice that writers who were active protagonists, guarding their own interests zealously, seem to be enjoying happier endings than the passive ones who merely sat around observing changing conditions around them.

Again, I’m the last person that anyone should ask for legal advice, of course. I’m just saying that when I hear these stories, I’m very glad that I have been an active protagonist in my NF books’ storylines.

Watch those verb choices, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Protecting your pages, part III: the straight and narrow path

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At last! A topic where I can justify using this fabulous photo! It was taken by the amazingly talented Marjon Floris, who also took the photo on my bio page.

More good news to report about a longtime blog reader: remember erstwhile guest blogger Thomas DeWolf, whose book, Inheriting the Trade, came out last week? Well, he must be a pretty riveting speaker, because an author reading and Q&A he did in Bristol, Rhode Island will be aired on Book TV (a.k.a. C-Span 2) this coming Saturday, January 19, at 1 PM Eastern time, and again on Sunday morning, January 20, at 1 AM Eastern.

Imagine that, eh? Let me tell you, seeing one of our own community, someone who not so long ago was pitching and querying, on Book TV…well, it nearly brings a tear to my eye. So congratulations again, Tom — and keep that good news rolling in, everybody!

For the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about reasonable precautions a writer can take to protect her work upon sending it out, rather than simply trusting that no one to whom she has e-mailed it will forward it to someone unscrupulous. Or, for that matter, that no ambitious Millicent will pounce upon it, carry it off, and present it to agent and editor alike as the product of her own fevered brain.

We writers tend not to talk about this much amongst ourselves, but if you think about it for a moment, we spend our lives sending our most intimate productions to total strangers: agents, editors, contest judges, not to mention Millicent the agency screener and post office employees from here to Madison Square Garden. We all know that querying and submitting our work requires great personal courage — take a moment to pat yourself on the back for that, please — but it also requires quite a bit of trust.

As I suggested yesterday, giving trust too easily — say, to a fly-by-night agency that earns its bread and butter by charging reading fees of writers, rather than by selling their books — can sometimes prove costly for those new to the biz. Last time, I sang the praises of doing some basic background checking before sending any stranger — be it soi-disant agent, possibly credible publisher, contest organizer, or even that nice fellow you met last week on a perfectly respectable forum — your manuscript.

Please tell me, after all that, that I don’t need to add: even if the recipient is your twin sibling who rescued you from a burning building at risk to his own life, never send your ONLY copy of anything you have written.

Yes, yes, I know that sounds self-evident, but believe it or not, that used to be the FIRST piece of advice the pros gave to new writers back in the days of typewriters. That, and to keep a pad of paper and a writing implement with you at all hours of the day or night, just in case inspiration strikes.

Why night as well, you ask? Because as experienced writers know, no matter how certain you are that you will remember that great idea that woke you up at 3:42 AM, if you don’t write it down, chances are very high that it will disappear into the ether like the mythical final stanzas of KUBLA KHAN.

You can also protect yourself by avoiding sending ANY of your original material by e-mail, at least to people you don’t know awfully well. Ideally, literally every piece of your writing that you ever send to anyone in the publishing industry with whom you do not already share an established relationship of trust should be sent via tracked regular mail.

If you can afford it, go ahead and spring for the return receipt postal option, so someone will actually have to sign for package. This is an especially good idea if the recipient is someone with whom you’ve never dealt before. That way, should it ever be necessary (pray that it won’t), you will be able to prove that you did indeed send it — and precisely when he received it, the rogue.

Why is being able to prove when he received it as important as if? Because, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, if a question ever arises about who wrote the book, you will be very, very happy that you can produce objective evidence of the first time your would-be plagiarist clapped covetous eyes (and grimy hands) upon your precious pages.

Actually, proving who wrote what when is substantially easier in the age of the computer than it was in either the bygone era of the typewriter or the long-lingering epoch of the bare hand. As clever reader Adam commented the other day, word processing programs do keep track of when particular files are created and modified, so chances are that you already have a historical record of when you began writing your opus, as well as your practice of updating it.

Unless, of course, your computer happened to melt down, get stolen, perish in a monsoon, or fall prey to some other mishap since you started writing. Yet another good reason to make back-ups frequently, eh?

(Oh, come on — did you honestly think I wouldn’t follow up after yesterday’s plea to save your materials early and often?)

Even with computer in perfect health and a closet full of back-up disks, however, you’re still going to want to exercise some care in how you bandy your manuscript around. From a writer’s point of view, it’s a far, far better thing NOT to be placed in the position of having to prove when you wrote a piece.

Sticking to paper submissions — and keeping impeccable records of who has them — minimizes the possibility of your work’s being waylaid.

Do I feel some waves of panic wafting in my general direction? “But Anne,” I hear some of you inveterate e-mailers protest, “what if an agent ASKS me to e-mail all or part of my manuscript? I can hardly say no, can I?”

Well, actually, you can, if you want: in my experience, nothing brings an e-mailed submission-loving agent or editor more quickly to a recognition of the joys of the printed page than a writer’s saying, “Gee, I would love to shoot that right off to you, but I think my computer has a virus. I wouldn’t want to pass it along to you. Just this time, I’m going to have to send you a paper copy, if that’s okay.”

Care to guess just how often a reputable agent or editor will say no after hearing THAT sterling little piece of argumentation? You’re the white knight here; you’re trying to protect the world from computer viruses. You’re not uncooperative — you should be up for membership in the Justice League, along with Wonder Woman and Superman.

Ah, I can hear that some of you still aren’t satisfied by promotion to superhero(ine). “But what if the agent insists?” you demand. “Or just has a really, really strong preference?”

Well, since you asked so nicely, and since truth compels me to admit that my own agent has been known to exhibit this preference from time to time, I’ll tell you. If you absolutely MUST send a submission via e-mail, again, double-check that the agency and/or publishing house toward which you are flinging it trustingly has a track record of being on the up-and-up.

Then, before you send it, e-mail a copy to yourself, just for your records. Or print up a copy, seal it in an envelope, sign across the seal (to make it obvious if it gets opened), and mail it to yourself. Once it arrives back on your doorstep, don’t open it; just hide it away in case you need it on some dark future day.

That way, you can prove, if necessary, that as of a particular date, you were the writer in the position to send the material.

If you choose to e-mail, too, it’s also not a bad idea to send blind copies to a couple of friends whom you trust not to forward it along. Ask them to save it until you send them an all-clear signal or until your name appears prominently on the New York Times Bestseller List, whichever comes first.

As long-term readers of this blog already know, I frown upon sending original material via e-mail, anyway, for a variety of practical reasons that have nothing to do with the possibility of a manuscript’s going astray. For a full banquet of my many tirades on the subject, I refer you to the E-MAILED SUBMISSIONS category at right. For our purposes today, however, I’m just going to treat you to a brief recap of the highlights, by way of review.

First, many, many NYC agencies and publishing houses are working on computers with outdated operating systems and not the most up-to-date versions of Word — and virtually all of them are working on PCs. So the chances that they will be able to open your attachment at all, especially if you are a Mac user, are somewhere in the 50-50 range.

Second, it’s significantly harder to read on a computer screen than on a printed page — and, unfortunately for acceptance rates, it’s also far quicker to delete a file than to stuff a manuscript into the nearest SASE. I leave you to speculate the probable effects of these undeniable facts upon speed with which the average e-mailed submission is rejected.

Third — and if you’ve been following this series, you should be murmuring this in your sleep by now — you can never really be sure where an e-mailed document will end up. It can be forwarded at the recipient’s discretion, and at the discretion of anyone to whom he forwards it, indefinitely.

Technically, this could lead to copyright problems, since part of the argument you would need to make if someone else claims to have written your book is that you made a reasonable effort to maintain control over how and where it could be read. Forwarding it as an attachment to anyone who asks does not, alas, convey the impression that you as the author are particularly insistent upon protecting your rights to the work.

The longer it’s been floating around, the harder it would be to try to rein it in again. Think about it: if your piece has been floating around the computers of Outer Mongolia for the last six months, how are you going to prove that you held control over who did and did not read your work? (Although, again, I’m not a lawyer, so if you find yourself in this position, hie ye hence and find an attorney who specializes in this branch of the law.)

This is an instance were a bit of foresight can really save your bacon — and the primary reason that, very sensibly, the screenwriters’ guild simply advises its members to register every draft of their screenplays with the guild before the ink dries from the printer.

Most other writers, however, do not enjoy the luxury of this kind of institutional protection, so we need to help ourselves. If you are a U.S.-based writer, you might want to consider just going ahead and registering the copyright for your work before you begin sharing it.

Stop groaning. It’s a lot less onerous — and significantly less expensive — than most aspiring writers tend to assume. Go ahead, take a wild guess about how much time it will actually take away from your writing to gain this protection and how spendy it is.

Well, the last time I did it, it took only the time required to print up a copy of my manuscript and fill out a one-page form. And the expense was unbelievable: a $45 registration fee and the expense of having my corner copy shop spiral-bind the thing.

That’s it. Honest. (And yes, nonfiction writers, you CAN register a book proposal. Jointly, even, if you have a collaborator.)

Okay, pop quiz, to make sure that you’ve been paying attention throughout this series: why, given its relative inexpensiveness, might a writer protective of his work not necessarily want to rush right out and register the copyright for it?

If your murmured response contained any reference whasoever to subsequent drafts, give yourself a great big lollipop. Since — chant it with me now — you can’t copyright a premise, storyline, or argument, but only the presentation of it, to be absolutely certain, you would actually need to register afresh after each new revision.

For a nit-picker like me, that could get darned costly.

This, in case you were wondering, is why writers used to resort to a protective practice of former days, what used to be called the poor man’s copyright. It is dirt-cheap and while it is not legally a substitute for actual copyright registration, it does have a pretty good track record for standing up as proof that the original author wrote a particular set of phrases prior to a particular date.

Here’s how to do a poor man’s copyright — and stop me when it starts to sound familiar. Print up a full copy of your manuscript; if it is too long to fit comfortably in a standard Manila folder, break it up into chapters and mail them in chunks. Place it (or the chapter) into a Manila folder. Seal the folder, then sign across the seal, the way professors do with letters of recommendation. This will make it quite apparent if the seal is broken. Then, take clear adhesive tape and place it over your signature and the seal. Address the envelope to yourself, then mail it.

When it arrives, DO NOT OPEN IT; store it in a safe place. Should you ever need to prove that you had written a work before someone else did, the postmark and the unbroken seal (let the judge be the one to open it) will help back up your contention that you had indeed written those pages long before that freeloader began passing them off as his own.

Repeat for every significantly revised draft, because — here we go again — it is the PRESENTATION of the concept that you can claim as your own, not the story itself. There’s no need to go crazy and mail yourself a new version every time you change a comma, but if you are pursuing this method of self-protection, a complete revision definitely deserves a new mailing.

Let me repeat, lest any over-literal person out there derive the incorrect impression that just because both phrases contain the word copyright, they must mean the same thing: poor man’s copyright does NOT provide the same legal protection as registering the copyright for a work. Poor man’s copyright is EVIDENCE that may be used to support a copyright claim, not a protection that will necessarily free you from worry forever and ever, amen.

However, as the right belongs to the author as soon as the work is written, not as soon as the copyright is registered, both practices are strengthening an already-existing claim to own the manuscript in question. And since it’s a whole lot cheaper to mail revised chapters to yourself (at least if you happen to have a spare closet big enough to hold all of those unopened envelopes), many writers have historically preferred it.

What you do NOT need to do – and what many novice writers give themselves away by doing — is place in the header or footer of every page, © 2008 Author’s Name. Yes, copyright can be established by proving intent to publish, but intent to publish is also established by submitting work to an agent or editor. Contrary to what you may have heard, the copyright bug will not protect you, should push come to shove.

It will, however, give rise to substantial mirth amongst its first readers at most agencies and publishing houses. “Look,” they will say, pointing, “here’s another rookie.”

This unseemly mirth tends to cover an undercurrent of hostility: writers who so pointedly indicate distrust of the people to whom they send their work, the logic goes, are in fact conveying a subtle insult. You are not to be trusted, such marks say, loud and clear, affronting those who would never steal so much as a modifier from an author and not scaring those who would steal entire books outright. Best to leave it out.

The beauty of the poor man’s copyright, of course, is that it can be done entirely without the knowledge of your recipients. Ditto with the blind e-mail copies. There’s no need to advertise that you are protecting yourself.

But for heaven’s sake, especially if you are dealing with someone that you do not know well enough to trust, take these few quiet steps to help yourself sleep better at night. Chances are, you will never need their help, but remember that old-fashioned sampler: better safe than sorry.

And call me zany, but I would prefer to see you get credit for your writing than the friend of the friend of the friend to whom you happened to forward it. Keep up the good work!

Protecting your pages, part II: dude, where is my manuscript?

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Before I launch into today’s post, allow me to snap back into that periodic nagging mode that assails me every time I hear from a good writer experiencing a computer meltdown: when was the last time you backed up your hard disk — or, more importantly for our purposes, your writing files?

If it wasn’t either today or yesterday, may I cajole you into doing it soon — say, now-ish? If I ask really nicely? Because, really, picturing the anguish of one author of a possibly fried book in a day is all I can manage in my current weakened state.

Not that I’d try to guilt you into it or anything. But while you’re thinking about it, why not do it this very instant? I’ll still be here when you get back, languishing on my chaise longue.

(If you’re new to backing up your work, the BACK-UP COPIES category at right may prove helpful. I just mention.)

Back to the topic at hand. Yesterday, I broached the always-hot subject of protecting one’s writing from poachers. Once again, I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, so if you are looking for actual legal guidance on a specific copyright-related matter, you’d be well advised to get advice from one who specializes in giving legal advice to such legal advice-seekers.

Everyone got that?

We can, however, go over some general principles here. To see how well I made my points yesterday, here’s a little quiz:

Llewellyn has written a tender novel with the following plot: boy meets girl; boy loses girl over a silly misunderstanding that could easily have been cleared up within five pages had either party deigned to ask the other a basic question or two (along the lines of Is that your sister or your wife?); boy learns important life lesson that enables him to become a better man; boy and girl are reunited.

At what point should Llewellyn be begin running, not walking, toward an attorney conversant with copyright law with an eye to enforcing his trampled-upon rights?

(a) When he notices that a book with a similar plot line has just been published?

(b) When he notices that a hefty proportion of the romantic comedy films made within the last hundred years have a similar plot line?

(c) When a fellow member of his writing group lands an agent for a book with a similar plot line?

(d) When he picks up a book with somebody else’s name on the cover and discovers more than 50 consecutive words have apparently been lifted verbatim from a Llewellyn designer original?

If you said (d), clap yourself heartily upon the back. (I know it’s tough to do while simultaneously reading this and making a back-up of your writing files, but then, you’re a very talented person.) Anything beyond 50 consecutive words — or less, if it’s not properly attributed — is not fair use. Then, we’re into plagiarism territory.

If you said (c), you’re in pretty good company: at that point, most writers would tell Llewellyn that he should be keeping a sharp eye upon that other writer. It would be prudent, perhaps, to take a long, hard look at the other writer’s book — which, as they’re in the same critique group, shouldn’t be all that hard to pull off.

But sprinting toward Lawyers for the Arts? No. Plot lifting is not the same thing as writing theft.

Why? Everyone who read yesterday’s post, chant it with me now, if you can spare time from making that backup: because you can’t copyright an idea for a book; you can only copyright the presentation of it.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few small steps that Llewellyn might take to protect himself.

As I mentioned yesterday, the single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to deal with reputable agents, editors, and publishing houses. The problem is, you can’t always tell. The Internet, while considerably easing the process of finding agents and small publishers hungry for new work, also renders it hard to tell who is on the up-and-up.

I hope I’m not shocking anyone when I point out that a charlatan’s website can look just like Honest Abe’s — and that’s more of a problem with the publishing industry than in many others.

Why? Well, new agencies and small publishing houses pop up every day, often for very good reasons — when older publishing houses break up or are bought out, for instance, editors often make the switch to agency, and successful agents and editors both sometimes set up shop for themselves.

But since you don’t need a specialized degree to become an agent or start a publishing house, there are also plenty of folks out there who just hang up shingles. Or, more commonly, websites.

Which is one reason that, as those of you who survived last summer’s Book Marketing 101 series will recall, I am a BIG advocate of gathering information about ANY prospective agency or publishing house from more than one source.

Especially if the source in question is the agency’s website — and if the agency in question is not listed in one of the standard agency guides.

“Wha–?” I hear some of you cry.

Listing in those guides is not, after all, automatic, and like everything else in publishing, the information in those guides is not gathered mere seconds before the book goes to presses. The result: agencies can go in or out of business so swiftly that there isn’t time for the changes to get listed in the standard guides.

That’s problematic for aspiring writers, frequently, because start-ups are often the ones most accepting of previously unpublished writers’ work. But because it is in your interests to know precisely who is going to be on the receiving end of your submission — PARTICULARLY if you are planning to submit via e-mail — you honestly do need to do some homework on these people.

Happily, as I mentioned yesterday, there are now quite a few sources online for double-checking the credibility of professionals to whom you are considering sending your manuscript. Reputable agents don’t like disreputable ones any more than writers do, so a good place to begin verifying an agent or agency’s credibility is their professional organization in the country where the agency is ostensibly located. For the English-speaking world:

In the United States, contact the Association of Authors’ Representatives

In the United Kingdom, contact the Association of Authors’ Agents.

In Australia, contact the Australian Literary Agents Association.

I couldn’t find a specific association for Canada (if anyone knows of one, please let me know, and I’ll update this), but the Association of Canadian Publishers does include information about literary agencies north of the border.

Not all agents are members of these organizations, but if there have been complaints from writers in the past, these groups should be able to tell you. It’s also worth checking on Preditors and Editors or the Absolute Write Water Cooler, excellent places to check who is doing what to folks like us these days.

These are also pretty good places to learn about agents’ specialties, on the off chance that you might be looking for someone to query after the Great New Year’s Resolution Plague of 2008 recedes in a week or two.

Again, I just mention. And have you done that backup yet?

As with any business transaction on the Internet (or indeed, with anyone you’ve never heard of before), it also pays to take things slowly — and with a massive grain of salt. An agency or publishing house should be able to tell potential authors what specific books it has handled, for instance. (In the U.S., book sales are a matter of public record, so there is no conceivable reason to preserve secrecy.)

Also, even if an agency is brand-new, you should be able to find out where its agents have worked before — in fact, a reputable new agency is generally only too happy to provide that information, to demonstrate its own good connections.

Also, reputable agencies make their money by selling their clients’ books, not by charging them fees. If any agent ever asks you for a reading fee, an editing fee, or insists that you need to pay a particular editing company for an evaluation of your work, instantly contact the relevant country’s agents’ association. (For examples of what can happen to writers who don’t double-check, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENTS category at right.)

Actually, anyone asking a writer for cash up front in exchange for considering representation or publication is more than a bit suspect. Unless a publisher bills itself up front as a subsidy press (which asks the authors of the books it accepts to bear some of the costs of publication) or you are planning to self-publish, there’s no reason for money to be discussed at all until they’ve asked to buy your work, right?

And even then, the money should be flowing toward the author, not away from her.

With publishing houses, too, be suspicious if you’re told that you MUST use a particular outside editing service or pay for some other kind of professional evaluation. As those of you who have been submitting for a while already know, reputable agents and editors like to make up their own minds about what to represent or publish; they’re highly unlikely to refer that choice out of house.

Generally speaking — to sound like your mother for a moment — if an agency or publisher sounds like too good a deal to be true, chances are that it is. There are, alas, plenty of unscrupulous folks out there ready to take unsuspecting writers’ money, and while many agencies and publishers do in fact maintain websites, this is still a paper-based industry, for the most part.

In other words, it is not, by and large, devoted to the proposition that an aspiring author should be able to Google literary agent and come up with the ideal fit right off the bat.

Do I hear some more doubtful muttering out there? “But Anne,” I hear many voices cry, “I certainly do not want to be bilked by a faux agency or publishing house. However, you’re not talking about such disreputable sorts potentially walking off with my submission. Weren’t we talking about protecting our writing, not our pocketbooks?”

Well caught, disembodied voices — and that’s part of my point. The fact is, if an unscrupulous agent or editor were seriously interested in defrauding aspiring writers, stealing manuscripts would not be the most efficient way to go about it. Historically, direct extraction of cash from the writer’s pocket has been the preferred method.

But that doesn’t mean that a smart writer shouldn’t take reasonable steps to protect both her pocketbook AND her manuscript.

Next time, I shall delve into manuscript protection itself, I promise. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Protecting your pages, or, is it being paranoid if someone actually is out to get you?

Was that giant cry of “YES!” I just heard those of you who have been worrying about exchanging pages’ response to this post’s title? I expect so, because I have literally never taught a writing class or attended a writers’ conference where someone did not bring it up.

Clearly, some folks out there are worried about having their writing lifted by miscreants.

I had planned, as is my wont this time of year, to start a new series today on the ins and outs of contest entry prep, expanded to include some self-editing tips designed to reduce common manuscript micro-problems that tend to make contest judge and agency screener twitch a bit. But then I noticed that this particular issue has been cropping up on my running to-blog-upon list with more than usual frequency over the last year. Both intrepid commenter Chris and insightful reader Adam of Albion have asked me rather pointed questions on the issue in the comment sections of posts, which made me realize two important things about this blog: the comments are not searchable by the general public (I know not why), and I haven’t done an entire post on these concerns since late 2005.

Since I’ve just wrapped up a series encouraging you to give your unpublished manuscripts to other people, this seemed like a dandy moment to correct the latter. In fact, I’m going to be spending the next few days hitting topics on that patient to-blog-upon list.

One vital disclaimer before I begin: I am NOT an attorney, much less one who specializes in intellectual property law. So it would be a GRAVE MISTAKE to take what I say here as the only word on the subject, or indeed to come to me if you believe that your writing has been stolen. (And if you did, I would send you straight to my lawyer, so why not skip a step?)

However, I’ve noticed that most of the time, writers curious about this seem to be asking questions not because they fear that their intellectual property has been lifted or that they’ve violated someone else’s rights, but because they’ve heard vague rumors to the effect that every so often, an unpublished writer’s work has gotten stolen. And those pervasive rumors I can legitimately address.

To set your minds at ease: yes, writing does occasionally get stolen — but it’s exceedingly rare, and it usually doesn’t happen in the way that most hearers of the rumor fear.

Let me introduce Sharon, a writer who approached me a few years ago. I had the impression that she hadn’t been writing very long, but I wasn’t positive, as she was someone I barely knew — the on-again, off-again girlfriend of the brother of a friend of mine, which is as fine a definition of a casual acquaintance as I’ve ever heard. And yet she called me one day, full of questions.

Sharon had written a short piece — an essay, really — that she thought was marketable and had, through sheer persistence and the rare strategy of actually LISTENING to the advice she had been given by published writers of her acquaintance, gotten the publisher of a small press to agree to take a preliminary look at it. In mid-celebration for this quite significant achievement, she experienced a qualm: what if this guy stole her ideas, or her entire work?

Once the idea had taken hold in her brain, being a writer, she naturally embellished upon it in the dead of night: if it came down to the publisher’s word against hers, who would believe {her}? And how could she ever prove that she had come up with the idea first?

When she shared her fears, however, half of her friends laughed at her, saying that she was being paranoid and unreasonable. The other half told her, in all seriousness, that she should go ahead and register the copyright for what she had written before she e-mailed it to the guy. Or at the very least, they advised, she should tart up her pages by adding the copyright symbol (©) on each and every one. Whereupon the first set of friends laughed even harder and told her that nothing looks more unprofessional to folks in the publishing industry than the liberal application of that pesky ©.

Understandably confused, she did something very sensible: she called me and asked what to do. As Gore Vidal is fond of saying, there is no earthly problem that could not be solved if only everyone would do exactly as I advise. I trust all of you will cling to that inspiring little axiom until your dying breath.

The problem was, each set of Sharon’s friends was partially right: the vast majority of reputable publishing houses would never dream of stealing your material, and yet, as in any other business, there are always a few cads. At most writers’ conferences, you will hear speakers scoff at the possibility, but anyone who has been in the writing and editing biz for any length of time knows at least one good writer with a horror story.

Better safe than sorry, as our great-grandmothers used to stitch painstakingly onto samplers. (Actually, my great-grandmother was an opera diva who apparently regarded needlework as a serious waste of the time she could be spending being flamboyant, but I’m quite positive that other people’s great-grandmothers embroidered such things.)

In the United States, though, outright theft of a book, or even an essay or short story, is quite rare. To wave the flag for a moment, we have the strongest copyright laws in the world, and what’s more, a writer on our turf AUTOMATICALLY owns the copyright to his own work as soon as he produces it. So when people talk about copyrighting a book, they’re generally not talking about obtaining the right in the first place, but rather registering it with the U.S. Copyright Office.

So the friends who advised Sharon not to mar her footer with © 2008 Sharon were partially correct. In fact, they were passing along the prevailing wisdom: presenters at your garden-variety writers’ conference often tell aspiring writers not to use the © bug on their manuscripts when they submit them; it’s redundant.

How so? Well, everyone in the publishing industry is already aware that the author owns the copyright to her own writing. If she didn’t, they wouldn’t have to sign a contract with her in order to publish it, right?

In theory, then, writers are protected from pretty much the instant that their fingers hit the keyboard. So was Sharon’s other set of advisors merely ill-informed?

Unfortunately, no: in practice, a couple of problems can arise. Rights, as Thomas Hobbes informed us so long ago, are the ability to enforce them.

In the first place, owning the rights to what you write inherently and proving that you are the original author are two different things. Occasionally, some enterprising soul will latch on to another writer’s unpublished work and claim that he wrote it first, or co-writers will squabble over who gets custody of already-written work in a partnership break-up.

The result in either case, the usual result is an unseemly struggle to determine who coughed up any given page of text first.

Second — and you might want to be sitting down for this one, as it comes as rather a shock to a lot of writers — you can’t copyright an idea; you can merely copyright the PRESENTATION of it. Which means, in practice, that it is not possible to claim ownership of your storyline, but only how you chose to write it.

Aren’t you glad I told you to sit down first?

Learning about this second condition tends to obviate a good 85% of the concerns aspiring writers express about having their work stolen. Most of the time, writers are worried that someone will steal their STORIES, not the actual writing. There’s not a heck of a lot a writer can do about that, unfortunately.

But by the same token, unless the lifted plotline becomes a major bestseller, there’s really no reason that you shouldn’t push ahead with your version. Fiction is virtually never sold on the storyline alone, anyway; plotlines and NF arguments are almost never 100% unique.

As no one knows better than a writer, however, presentation — particularly GOOD presentation — generally IS unique. As industry insiders are so fond of telling writers, it all depends upon the writing.

This is why, as some of you inveterate conference-goers may have noticed, when agents, editors, and published writers are presented with a question about book theft, they tend to respond as though the question itself were a sign of an over-large ego in the asker. Just how revolutionary would an aspiring writer’s style have to be, the logic goes, for an agent or editor to WANT to steal it?

Which perhaps leaves the wondering writer reluctant to submit his long thought-out plotline and terrific premise to a publisher, lest it be handed to a better-known writer, but doesn’t really address his concern. Once again, we have a failure to communicate.

Do I see some hands in the air out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protesting, and rightly so, “between the time I submit a manuscript to an agency and the time a book is published and thus equipped with a nice, clear copyright page stating precisely who owns the writing between those covers, it passes through quite a few hands. I may not even know who will end up reading it. Shouldn’t I worry about some of them deciding to make off with my actual pages and passing them off as their own?”

Having some doubts about Millicent’s integrity, are we? Well, it’s a reasonable enough concern: some of those hands will inevitably belong to people you do not know very well. Agency screeners like Millicent, for instance. Agents. Editorial assistants. Editors. Mail room clerks. The people in the publishing house’s marketing department.

And anyone to whom you give your manuscript as a first reader. Guess which paragraph contains the most likely thief of prose?

If you said the latter, give yourself a big, fat gold star for the day; I’ll be discussing casual exchanges in tomorrow’s post. But let’s think for a moment about why manuscripts sent to agencies and publishing houses very, very rarely turn up with anyone other than the author’s name on the title page.

An exceedingly straightforward reason springs to mind: agencies and publishing houses make their livings by selling work by writers. In-house theft wouldn’t have to happen awfully often before writers would stop sending submissions, right? So sheer self-interest would tend to discourage it.

But I’m not going to lie to you: at a less-than-reputable house or agency, it could happen.

The single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to deal with reputable agents, editors, and publishing houses. Not every organization with the wherewithal to throw up a website is equally credible. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to check anyone in the industry with whom you’re planning to do business on Preditors and Editors (link at right); if you have doubts about an individual agent, agency, or publishing house, check agents out with the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives). These are also good places to report any professional conduct that seems questionable to you; P&E is especially good about following up on writers’ complaints.

I always advise doing a basic credibility check before sending ANY part of your manuscript via e-mail. As I’ve mentioned several times before here, after you send out an e-mailed attachment (or any e-mail, for that matter), you have absolutely NO way of controlling, or even knowing, where it will end up.

Think about it: part of the charm of electronic communication is ease of forwarding, right? Yet another reason that I’m not crazy about e-mailed submissions.

While it’s highly unlikely that the chapter you e-mail to an agent — or that person you just met on an Internet chat room — will end up on a printing press in Belize or Outer Mongolia, it’s not entirely unprecedented for entire e-mailed manuscripts to wander to some fairly surprising places. Yes, the same thing COULD conceivably happen with a hard copy, too, but it would require more effort on the sender’s part.

Which, believe it or not, is part of the function of the SASE: to maximize the probability that your manuscript will come back to you, rather than being carted off by goodness knows whom to parts unknown.

Stop laughing — it’s true. When you send requested materials off to an agency or publishing house, you and they both are operating on the tacit assumption that they will not reproduce your work without your permission, right? The mere fact that you give them a physical copy of your work doesn’t mean that you intent to authorize them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so, right?

When you include a SASE with your submission packet, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys your expectation that if they reject it, they will mail it back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 8th, 9th, and 10th installments in the Harry Potter series.

The key word to remember here is control. Until you have signed a contract with a reputable agent or publishing house (or are selling copies that you published yourself), you will want to know with absolute certainty where every extant copy of your manuscript is at all times.

If that last sentence gave you even a twinge of compunction about work already written and sent upon its merry way: honey, we need to speak further, and pronto. However, that conversation, along with steps you can take to prove when you wrote a particular piece, is best left until next time.

In the meantime, don’t worry; keeping a watchful eye your work isn’t all that difficult, and it certainly doesn’t require living in a state of perpetual paranoia. Just a bit of advance thought and care.

Keep up the good work!

A call for submissions — and a nifty talk

I am indeed working on my next post on agent-searching, but I realized today that I had fallen a bit behind on my announcement-making. So here are a couple of opportunities that I wanted to pass along to you.

Today’s first announcement is for all of you genre writers out there. I don’t normally post calls for submissions here, but this one represents a chance to not only to see excerpts of your writing in print — hooray! — but also a query letter-enhancing publication credit. How? By sending in your novel’s best passage to serve as a positive example in a writing how-to book by an award-winning author and editor.

Your work need not be previously published to be eligible. But let me allow the call for submissions to speak for itself:

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CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS
Dynamic dialogue, fresh body language, description that doesn’t stop the action, intriguing hooks that keep going . . . and going . . . These are but a few of the fiction-writing techniques that spell the difference between a manuscript’s rejection and acceptance.

Excerpts that demonstrate the effective use of these and other techniques are being sought from writers at all levels for the next edition of a much-acclaimed guidebook for writers. Up to 145 of the best examples from unpublished as well as published novels, short stories, and screenplays will be featured in DON’T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSIONS: An Editor Tells Writers How to Save a Manuscript from Turning Up D.O.A.

This 2008 release is the expanded, all-genre edition of the original DON’T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY, the small press book that won this year’s Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction Book, was acquired by Writer’s Digest Book Club, and became a finalist for the Macavity Award, Anthony Award, and ForeWord Magazine Reference Book of the Year.

Its author is Chris Roerden, an editor for 43 years and a former instructor of writing at the University of Maine and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Authors she’s edited have been published by St. Martin’s Press, Berkley Prime Crime, Viking, Walker & Co., Midnight Ink, Rodale, and many small presses.

Deadline for submissions: December 1, 2007. Contributors identify which examples in the first edition theirs can replace for the second. Only positive examples will be considered.

Though this means consulting the original 2006 edition, no purchase is required; Don’t Murder Your Mystery can be requested through libraries, which are acquiring the book as they learn of it. No fees or payments are involved.

Writers quoted receive full credit and retain all rights to their work, as in any review. Details and a submission form may be downloaded here or received for a 58¢ SASE sent to Don’t Sabotage Your Submissions, P.O.Box 16024, High Point, NC 27261.

Anne again here. While the last announcement was for genre writers everywhere, this next is for Seattle-area writers, another in the Washington Lawyers for the Arts series designed to demystify the laws that govern our work. This series truly is a boon to local artists of every stripe: the talks are inexpensive; they’re informative, and believe me, you’ll be much, much happier if you learn how copyright law works BEFORE anybody challenges your rights.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the more a writer knows about how publishing works BEFORE signing with either an agent or a publishing house, the better off the writer will be at every step of the process.

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Attorney Gary Swearingen will discuss steps you can take on your own to help protect your intellectual property rights. Gary plans for this session to be interactive, based on the situations and questions of those attending. He’ll offer an overview of what (if anything) you need to do to secure your rights to your intellectual property.

He’ll also discuss copyright and trademark registration. For example, do you need to register? Is there an advantage to registering? How do you go about it? And with trademarks, when and how do you register—both with the state and with the federal government?

This discussion will be designed to help you distinguish what you can easily do yourself, and at what point you might want to call in the professionals. Time permitting, he’ll also discuss getting your business license, incorporating your business, and finding form contracts.

Gary Swearingen is an in-house attorney with Washington Mutual Bank. Before joining WaMu, he was an intellectual property attorney at Garvey Schubert Barer, where he represented artists and other creative types as well as companies who buy creative works. He is a past president of WLA and a frequent speaker on arts-related legal issues.

DATE: Thursday, November 15, 2007

TIME: 11:45 am – 2:00 pm (program begins at noon, lunches welcome)

LOCATION:
911 Media Arts Center
402 9th Avenue N
Seattle, Washington 98109

FEE: In advance: $35 Attorneys and Paralegals; $10 Artists and Students. At the door: $40 Attorneys and Paralegals; $15 Artists and Students

REGISTRATION:
To register, visit Brown Paper Tickets or phone 24/7 at 800.838.3006. To pay at the door, RSVP to Washington Lawyers for the Arts at 206.328.7053. Please note that the event is subject to cancellation; visit www.wa-artlaw.org or call 206.328.7053 for more information.

Interesting legal talk for Seattle-area writers

I’m neither a lawyer nor play one on TV, but I do know that the more that writers know about the legal status of their books, the better off they are, in the long run. The Washington Lawyers for the Arts periodically gives lunchtime talks on issues of interest to writers — I would highly recommend this upcoming talk to Seattle-area writers, particularly those who tread the memoir path:

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INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY BASICS

If you’re an artist, you can never know too much about the laws that protect your rights to your own work. Have upi attemded seminars in the past where the issues were too complex, and you felt lost? This session is designed especially for beginners. Signe Brunstad, a licensed attorney who teaches copyright and other intellectual property classes at the University of Washington and Seattle University law schools, will provide an overview comparing copyright, trademark, patent, trade dress and other forms of intellectual property protection for artists of all disciplines. She will explain how you acquire and register for each right, how long they last, how these rights are involved in the contracts you enter, and how much — or how little — it could all cost you.

Date:
Monday, September 17, 2007

Time:
11:45 am – 2:00 pm (program begins at noon; lunches welcome)

Location:
911 Media Arts Center
402 9th Avenue N
Seattle, Washington 98109

Fee:
In advance: $10 for artists and students
At the door: $15 for artists and students

Tickets may be bought through Brown Paper Tickets. To reserve a seat and pay at the door, RSVP at (206) 328-7053 or visit the Washington Lawyers for the Arts’ website.

Book marketing 101: the SASE and the politics of recycling

Yesterday, I started to answer a very logical question: why, in these days of growing environmental awareness, is the writer expected to send a SASE (that’s stamped, self-addressed envelope to the rest of the population) in anticipation of a rejected manuscript’s return?

As a writer, freelance editor, and writing teacher, I hear permutations of this question all the time. “I understand why I need to include a SASE for a query,” aspiring authors tell me, “but do I really need it for the submission? It’s not as though I’m going to be able to reuse the manuscript after it’s passed through the mail twice, anyway. Can’t I just ask them to recycle it instead?”

In a word, no. In several words, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO!

Yesterday, I explained the history behind the SASE: part of its original purpose was not just to save agencies the cost of postage, but also to render submissions cheaper for the writer. It was also intended to preserve copyright by allowing the author ostensible control about whose grimy paws were on the manuscript when.

Writers tend to forget this in the cyber age, when huge chunks of writing can be transferred from one end of the planet to the other with the simple push of a button (yes, of course I know that the world is not as flat as that image implies. Don’t stop me now; I’m on a roll), but technically, in order to retain copyright over your own writing, you need to control where and when it is read by others. Writing I post on this blog, for instance, is under my control, since I dictate where people can view it; I could disable RSS feeds, if I wanted. (Oh, the power! The power!) If I sent the same posts out via e-mail, they could end up anywhere, forwarded far beyond my knowledge.

When you send uncopyrighted material off to an agency or publishing house — to a credible one, anyway — you and your readers there are both operating on the tacit assumption that they will not reproduce your work without your permission. You are not, in effect, authorizing them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so.

When you send a SASE, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys an expectation that if they reject it, they will mail it back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 8th, 9th, and 10th installments in the Harry Potter series.

As I believe I have mentioned before, this is a tradition-bound industry; it has historically been slow to change. No matter how good the logic against some of its long-held norms, this one did not change at all until there were some very tangible benefits on the agents’ end to altering it.

For example, the anthrax scare convinced some agencies to accept e-mailed queries and submissions. And the post 9/11 requirement to tote heavy packages to the post office prompted some agencies to start recycling rejected manuscripts, rather than having the lowest intern on the totem pole — the one who aspires to Millicent’s job someday — wheel a paper-loaded dolly up out of the building.

But practice, most agencies still adhere to the old norms. Don’t believe me? Thumb through any of the standard agency guides, and count how many agencies mention that they recycle.

Like so many other aspects of the querying and submission process, at one time, the use of the SASE carried greater benefits to the writer than it does now, but time has hardened courtesies into demands, and habits into traditions. Today, if you do not include a SASE with your submission, you are perceived to be thumbing your nose at the traditions of people you are trying to impress.

As satisfying as that may be, it’s not the best way to convince an agent of your Socratic intellect and lamb-like willingness to take direction.

So while my long-standing affection for writers, trees, and the printed pages both work to produce would LOVE to be able to say dispense with the SASE for the manuscript’s return in favor of a simple #10 envelope, it would not be in your best interest to fling away the old norms.

The only alternative that I have seen work in practice is to include a line in the cover letter, POLITELY asking the agency to recycle the manuscript if they decide not to offer representation and mentioning the business-sized SASE enclosed for their reply. Do be aware, however, that this strategy sometimes backfires with screeners trained to check first for a manuscript-sized SASE: it’s not unheard-of for the Millicents of the world to toss aside such a manuscript to be tossed aside without reading the cover letter.

As I believe I may have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules; I only comment upon them. Let’s all pray that when Millicent does engage in summary rejection, she flings that precious ream of paper into a recycling bin.

Knowing the likelihood of that happening, I feel as though I should go off and plant a tree now. Keep sending in those great questions, and keep up the good work!