“How do I copyright my writing? Should I copyright my submission to a literary agent or publisher?” This is a very common question. Neveah asked another version of it in the comments:
What happens if you submit the first couple of chapters to an agent, and that agent copies it?
How Do I Copyright My Writing Before Submission?
A lot of submissions come to me with copyright symbols on them. Writers are, understandably, paranoid about someone stealing their hard work or their idea. However, I wish most writers knew what really happens when an agency considers their submission, how long (or not) we dwell on it, and how quickly we move on to the next if it doesn’t pique our interest. Agents receive thousands of submissions a year and, aside from their incoming mail, have client and agenting duties to do.
We have precious little time. And most of the submissions we receive are not up to par and ready for publication. Even if your idea is the best idea in the world, I won’t notice unless it’s executed well (great writing, voice, plot, characters, etc.). If you don’t do your own idea justice, I’m not interested and I move on.
Should I Copyright My Submission to a Literary Agent? How Likely Is Agent Plagiarism?
There are other ideas and talented writers out there. If you do, indeed, do your idea justice, I’d much rather take you on as a client, develop your craft, and share in the profit in a legitimate way. It’s much easier for us to hunt for the next great talent than deviously copy the unpolished slush we get in the hopes that we can…what? Publish it under our own name? Give it to one of our clients? Risk getting sued? (Some writers see ideas that sound a lot like their ideas being published, but the execution is usually very different.)
A Primer on Copyright Protection
For those still wondering, “How do I copyright my writing?” or for those obtaining copyright protection before submission, take heart: something is automatically copyrighted once you write it and create the digital file, in the United States, at least. If you’re super-duper paranoid, print your document out and mail it to yourself. Keep the sealed, postmarked envelope around in the unlikely case that a dispute arises. You can read more about it here.
Know, though, that including your copyright information, the copyright symbol, or warnings not to plagiarize, marks you as a true amateur in the submission process and is a red flag for agents. This type of paranoia usually comes from not really being familiar with the way publishing works. The first time most manuscripts get copyrighted is when the publisher does it on the author’s behalf, after contract.
I’ve said before that agenting is all about return on investment. Nurturing our clients and their ideas? Great ROI and totally worth it. Stealing another person’s idea and doing … something … with it? A waste of time.
How Copyright Works in Publishing
The topic of ideas and plagiarism is treated a bit differently on the publishing level. Some publishers will not accept a single unsolicited submission because their legal departments do not want to encounter intellectual property theft litigation. And other companies treat ideas and execution separately — they’re called book packagers.
Book packagers, like Alloy Entertainment, pair a killer, commercial book idea (usually developed in-house, like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) with a writer who will execute it and take less money for their work than if they had done both the idea development and the execution. If you contact a book packager with your idea or a writing sample, they might want to buy either your idea or your writing (on a for-hire basis) to develop further.
Selling a Book Is All About Execution
But, when you’re presenting both the idea and the writing for publication, as one author/creator, a good idea is all about the execution. It’s easier to have an idea than to bring it to fruition in a way that works. It’s much simpler to try for great execution with another idea than to steal someone’s baby and fit it into your own way of thinking. As a writer, I can’t get as creatively passionate about other people’s ideas as I can about my own.
I’ve actually been thinking about this issue, personally, since I’m a writer. I see thousands of book ideas a year, not just in my slush but in the publishing catalogs of upcoming titles that I pore over religiously and in the books already on bookstore shelves.
Do the ideas I see influence what I choose to write about? Sure — they make me want to get as far away from what’s already been done as possible. But with a written and oral tradition as long as mankind’s, everything has already been done. There are no new ideas out there, only new ways to execute a particular story. So my job, as a writer, (and your job, too!) is to imagine a story that I’m passionate about and then put my own unique spin on it.
You Can’t Land Representation If You Don’t Submit
Still, the last thing I want is a writer claiming that I consciously or subconsciously stole their book idea for myself. As a human being, I cannot control what sticks in my backbrain and what might, at some point, whether in an image or a character name or a plot point or a line of dialogue, come out again. I read so many things over the course of a day, a week, a month, a year…I just have no idea what I’ll retain and what I won’t. The good thing is, I have no time to deviously sit here and plagiarize something outright. The bad thing is, I read so much that certain ideas are bound to stick. How do I avoid those ideas emerging in my own writing? I don’t know.
But I urge squeamish, litigious writers not to query me. I trust and respect writers and want the same courtesy in return. If a writer is reluctant to show me their work or legitimately thinks I’ll steal it, I can’t be bothered with them. There are lots of other talented writers and worthwhile projects out there.
Did you find this practical advice useful? I am happy to be your manuscript editor and consultant for writing and publishing advice that’s specific to your work.