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


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!

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