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!