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

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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I went on a tear about the desirability of doing a bit of homework about anyone with whom you choose to share your unpublished manuscripts, especially electronically — and why this inspiring precept is a good idea to put into practice even when you’re planning to submit your work to an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!

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