Should I Copyright My Book Before Sending It to a Publisher?

“How do I copyright my writing? Should I copyright my book before sending it to a 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, should i copyright my book before sending it to an editor, should i copyright my book before sending it to a publisher, how do i copyright my writing before sending it to an agent
If you want to get a literary agent or sell your book to a publisher, you will need to trust your creative work to someone else at some point.

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 Book Before Sending It to an 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.

46 Replies to “Should I Copyright My Book Before Sending It to a Publisher?”

  1. Thank you for this. People who don’t write ask me what I do to protect my ideas and writing from thieves and I always said I didn’t worry. If they want to steal my idea, I’ve already got a jump on the writing. If they want to steal my writing, as some point they’ll have to attempt a revision or an edit and come up as a fraud. I always wondered if I was being too easy-going.

  2. The writer AND the librarian in me loves, loves, LOVES this post!

    Loads of people don’t really understand how copyright and intellectual property issues work. I’m so glad you pointed out that you don’t have to apply for copyright. The moment you put original pen (or keystrokes) to page, your work is protected.

    BTW, copyright.gov has a helpful FAQ page that echoes this post.

    When I see a copyright symbol on an unpublished work, I cringe. It’s unnecessary.

  3. You best not steal from me, Mary Kole, or I shall sick Bongo on you 😉

  4. This is a wonderful topic. I participate in some password-protected online critique groups. When writers tell me they are uncomfortable posting their work where others can view it, I’ll have to link over to this post.

    @jmartinlibrary, copyright.gov has great info. Thanks! It almost seems that you could prove it’s your work if you’ve posted it in an online crit group or if you’ve sent it to someone, like an agent.

    I’ve come across writers who sincerely worry about this issue, but it’s never been a huge concern for me. Maybe because my work hasn’t reached brilliant-learned-genius status. :p

  5. I’d never thought about the relationship between accepting unsolicited submissions (on the part of a publisher) and dealing with intellectual property theft litigation. Makes a lot of sense, now that I think about it (although I’m sure the major houses have a lot of other reasons for not reading slush, too).

    Good advice, especially for those writers who are just discovering the online writing/publishing/tearing-your-hair-out community 🙂

  6. Not quite sure how anyone can make a go at the writing business without a certain degree of trust. Do writers with this concern have the same concern about sharing with a critique group? Probably so, which leads to Bongo’s assesment of where the writing probably stands.

  7. Ah, ‘sic’ — I have learned something else today (this old dog can be taught a trick or two every once in awhile)… many thanks.

  8. I feel well-versed when I read things like this and can honestly say “Yep, I know this already.” And when I hear about someone doing things that go against the advice here, I think “Did you research the query process? Or did you just write a random letter explaining your five children and how they have nothing to do with your book?” It feels good (arrogant/smug) to know something.

  9. Pssst, Bongo. Mary helps with critique partner hook ups, but I’m pretty sure that’s the extent of it.

  10. Rebekah Jensen says:

    Great post! Passed it along to others! Thank you!

  11. Bongo, you crack me up.

    I liked this post, Mary. It bewilders me that so many people put warnings about plagiarism in their cover letters. I used to manage a college writing center, and once a prospective tutor submitted a writing sample along with a warning that it was copyrighted. I sort of stared at the note, sputtered a bit, and thought, “You want a work relationship with me, and you start it out by accusing me of being a cheater? No, thank you.” I’m guessing agents and editors feel something similar. And a lot more often.

  12. So true. There is definitely nothing new under the sun, just fresh ways to express it all. I read on a blog somewhere that an agent was upset because a really really similar work to their client’s MS was getting a lot of attention. However, once both books were on the shelves, her client’s book did better bc her writing was better/stronger/more sincere. That’s what us aspiring authors need to be concerned with 🙂

  13. “I trust and respect writers and want the same courtesy in return.” Well said Mary, I enjoyed this much.

  14. Greta Marlow says:

    Another great post. I tell my PR students, “You can’t copyright ideas, only the expression of those ideas.” So anyone can write a book about kids going to a school to learn to be wizards who end up saving the world from evil. But the specifics of that book must be different from anything that came before.

  15. Thanks for this post! If I might add, the tone was suspiciously defensive…. 🙂 Kidding!

  16. Cassandra — Well, I hope not. Nobody’s ever accused me of stealing or copyright infringement, and I honestly hope I’m never in that position.

    If you ask around, seeing copyrighted submissions from suspicious writers is a HUGE pet peeve for most agents.

  17. I can remember a friend telling me about a book she was going to write when we were both ten. “And if you steal my idea,” she said, “I’ll SUE you!”

    It sounded as silly then as it does now. I’ve got my own ideas, thank you very much — and enough hubris to think that nobody else can do them MY way.

  18. People are paranoid because they think their idea is truly original and that no one else ever could have thought of a singing cow, a mermaid princess or whatever. While reading hundreds upon hundreds of PBs, however, I’ve realized that two writers can come up with near-identical stories. I often get a sense of deja vu when I’m reading PBs. But that’s also why I’m not paranoid about sharing my ideas online – I figure that if anyone has the desire, time and energy to take the kernel of my idea and turn it into a story, by the time they’re done, it will be nothing like my story. So no harm done.

    That said, it does make me mad when I see someone else has already written up ‘my’ story and sold it! He he. (KellieD, you know what I mean! Nightmare.)

    PS Bane – are you the same Bane that won Nathan Bransford’s latest contest? I absolutely loved your entry, if so. Can’t wait to read the full book!

  19. Great post.

    It’s a learning process and everyone has to start somewhere. It is just surprising that with so many resources for writers that we still make such newbie mistakes. Hopefully this post will enlighten some of those submitting writers give them a better platform to write to the next level.

    Well said.

  20. Just wanted to add – I had no idea that one of the reasons publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts is because they’re worried about plagiarism/legal issues. I just thought it was because they didn’t want to spend the time wading through a gigantic slush pile. Interesting.

  21. Franz — No, the overwhelming mediocrity and sheer volume of slush is the MAIN reason but some publishers have really aggressive legal teams, as well, like Disney-Hyperion, since they’re part of a major multi-media company.

  22. Franziska. . . it goes Mary’s point of “no new stories out there, just new ways to execute them.” My execution of a particular idea for a character and a story is still mine. The fact that mine’s a PB and the other execution of it is an MG actually has some benefits. But it is annoying — just when you think you have a completely original never been done before idea, you really don’t. Sigh.

  23. Kellie, whatever you write will be written using your own voice, and therefore it WILL be completely original. As you say, though, the fact the other one is an MG is a positive. My bet is that your PB will funnier too!

  24. Ziggy Dragon says:

    Nice post, and the info fits well with what I’ve read before. Victoria Strauss at Writers Beware has also written about this subject.
    Interesting that commenters brought up online posting of stories. I had the impression (from Writers Beware also) that online posts of stories could constitute prior publication, and that no publisher would want something that had already been given away for free.
    But maybe I am missing some important distinction here.
    Still, I wouldn’t put something online that I was hoping to sell.

  25. Hi Ziggy, when I referred to posting online I was referring to posting queries for critique, not entire manuscripts. Some kind, caring, cautious people suggested I remove my queries because of plagiarism/idea stealing. I figured that if people could be bothered to write a story based on my query, then good luck to ’em.

    You’re right, I think, if it’s posted on a forum that is accessible by the general public, a manuscript is considered published. Plus most sites have a ‘anything on this site is ours’ type of copyright. In theory, that would mean they own the rights to your story too!

  26. I have questioned whether agents will steal my work. However, let me say that when I question it, I do so under the context that if it’s a FAUX agent (phony agency), they may do so. But I don’t have problems with real agents stealing my “Baby.”

    I loved what you wrote: that you don’t sit there deviously scheming how you’re going to plagiarize a poor writer, lol!!!! It seems so petty when you put it like that.

    Fortunately, I didn’t put any ©’s on my work when I queried.


  27. Thank you for this clear explanation of a question I’m often struggling to answer to the satisfaction of new writers. I’m going to put this in my link list for next week. I love the way you point out absorption of fragments as a natural and expected process, too, but what you end up with with that fragment will be very different than what I would

    The element you don’t state (though it’s there for the careful reader) is that if an agent steals a book, they have only that book, and one book does not a career make. So better to snag the author with the book, and the hope of many more.

    One little edit I’d suggest… You state that copyright is set the minute the work is in fixed form then say most manuscripts aren’t copyrighted until the publisher does it. I know what you mean, but for the people who don’t understand copyright, that could be confusing. Maybe add “recorded” or something to make it clear that’s a separate step beyond copyright?

  28. Dereck Bohn says:

    An old ex-friend who was very successful publisher (died a few years ago) told me:
    “If you don’t steal one or two scripts from time to time, you are not a real publisher”. Our relationship finished shortly after.

  29. Thank you for sharing this. I was thinking about this very topic the other day and you answered many of my questions.

  30. Thank you for sharing this pertinent information. I am an older writer who is new to the game. I have written several books that need to be read and published, but am confused about how to proceed. However, this blog has enlightened me in many ways.

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