No One Wants to Steal Your Book

March 5, 2020 § 7 Comments

The cheeseburgers are your book

You may have heard from a beginning writer, “What if an agent steals my idea?” Or “What if a publisher prints my book and sells it without paying me?” Or “What if someone pirates my e-book?”

You may yourself have wondered, why is it customary not to copyright one’s work before beginning the submission process? Isn’t registering with the Library of Congress protection for writers? Doesn’t that little circle-c scare off plagiarists and pirates?

Not especially.

In fact, putting the copyright symbol on a manuscript submitted to an agent or publisher is the mark of an amateur. While an agent isn’t going to turn down a fantastic book because the author jumped the gun on copyright, it is a tiny indicator that “This author may have misconceptions about the publishing industry and I will have to educate them as well as trying to sell their book. They will need more of my time than a savvier author might.”

In North America and Europe (and most other countries), all artistic work is copyrighted from the moment it’s created in a fixed form. When you write it in a notebook, or type it into a Word doc, you establish ownership of your creation. What registering copyright does is allow you to sue for damages. Until your work is actually published (at which point copyright will be registered with the publisher’s help, or by you as an indie author), or unless you are an author at the Stephen-King-Nora-Roberts level, there aren’t many damages to sue for.

Actual piracycopy-pasting and repackaging the text of a book and selling it as your ownhappens rarely. It happens primarily in China, India and Egypt, markets with avid readers and low per-capita incomes. Foreign pirates do not care about your registered copyright, and you will not be able to find and sue them. If you discover a photocopy of your novel in a Cairo souk, your best bet is to figure out how to reach those fans and sell them something else (or at least get an Amazon review!). In North America, most piracy happens with textbooks and in category romance, and pirated copies show up after the book is published. If you’re writing one of those genres, by all means do more research, and learn how to file a copyright infringement claim with Amazon. But for memoirists and most fiction writers, our enemy will be not piracy but obscurity.

What if someone in my writing group steals my idea?

Remember that party you went to, and that person came up and said, “I have a great idea for a book! You write it and we’ll split the money!” Remember how ridiculous it was that they had absolutely no conception that writing a book is difficult and time-consuming and puking out ideas is the easy part?

It’s not possible to copyright an idea, and ideas are rarely original. Execution is what matters. The level of labor, time and expense needed to rewrite someone else’s book is unlikely to be taken on by anyone good enough to actually do it. (with the notable exceptions of Shakespeare and Stephen Sondheim). Writers able to skillfully repurpose the plot of a stolen manuscript already have their own books to try and sell, and usually, their pride.

What if I query an agent and they take my idea and give it to another writer?

Legitimate agents receive far too many submissions alreadyif they like your idea but want a different take or another writing style, chances are very good they have already received another submission doing exactly that. They may well sell a book that sounds a lot like yours; they almost certainly didn’t need to steal it.

What if a publisher steals my book?

Legitimate publishers don’t make enough money off books from debut authors to bother stealing a debut book. Just like agents, they already got six versions of that story, and they picked the one they liked best. Even scam publishers don’t make money by stealing booksthey profit by charging authors to publish. If they steal your book, who’s going to pay them?

Do your research. As you go through the submissions process, this reputable webpage from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America covers common scams (including specific, named agencies and publishers to watch out for) and Victoria Strauss has guidelines to finding a legit agent. I strongly recommend reading the archives of Writer Beware Blog for common scams and shady practices, as well as names of predatory publishers and fake agents.

Our greatest protection as unpublished writers is that nobody wants to steal our work. Yes, that sounds a little sad. But just as “worth publishing” is not “worth stealing,” so too does “not worth stealing” not mean “worthless.” Our second greatest protection is our own voice. What makes our work worth an agent’s time, a publisher’s investment, and a reader’s money, is what we bring to the page, beyond an idea or even a particular plot. West Side Story “stole” Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet “stole” Romeus and Juliet. But the transformation of ideas from one author to another resulted each time in something unique…and words so distinct, they are impossible to steal.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the editor of books published by Penguin Random House, Mantle, Knopf, Hachette and many more. Not completely appalled by her editing style? Find out about Project Novel, an MFA year crammed into eight weeks. Or just join the mailing list.

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§ 7 Responses to No One Wants to Steal Your Book

  • Great explanation.
    I think we often feel very protective of our writing and treat it like or baby or a prized possession. We want it to be ours and ours only. We feel robbed when others even talk about our idea as theirs. I totally understand that. There might be a bit of fear involved. What if THEY make it big with MY idea?

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Yes! Professional jealousy is in some ways a good sign, though, because it means we’re getting close – we envy the stuff that we’ve “just missed out” on rather than the stuff that’s improbable.

  • What is the line about the total number of plots? Three? Five? “Everybody’s mother dies” my MFA advisor used to warn memoirists and fictionists alike. It’s not the event but the telling.

    I have explained and explained and explained copyright law and people simply do not want to know. This is particularly true in the visual arts where people who should know better refuse to accept what copyright does and does not require. They seem to want it both ways, our own work protected and others’ not so much. Adding a baseball and bat to a basketball team’s trademarked logo is not okay.

    We do not want to respect the right of the creator to copy their own work and therefore we are paranoid about how others will abuse our rights.

  • Lovelace Cook says:

    Enjoyed your article and agree. It’s rather silly to put a copyright symbol on a mss.

    That being said, I did register my screenplays with the WGA and with the Copyright Office. No, I’m not paranoid about someone ‘stealing’ my work. I see it as a formality. It’s a business choice, for me, about intellectual property.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      I’m not a screenplay expert, but from everything I’ve heard, screenplays are a whole different category and it is standard to register with the WGA before pitching. Idea theft is a much bigger deal and an actual issue in the world of film and TV, because with the likelihood of multiple writers/teams working on a concept to bring it to the screen, the underlying idea is considerably more valuable, whereas execution really is for hire.

  • Ichabod Ebenezer says:

    I hope this line doesn’t get overlooked: “figure out how to reach those fans and sell them something else (or at least get an Amazon review!)”

    If you find such a book on a shelf somewhere, sign it. Link your website. Drive those customers to your other works. Even if they never buy one of your books, they may blog or tweet about it and get you customers that way.

    I hope my books become popular enough that someone someday pirates them!

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