If you want to know why it’s important to copyright your artistic creation, just ask George A. Romero.
(Not literally, of course. The guy’s dead.)
(Or IS HE?)
Romero’s classic horror film Night of the Living Dead is and always has been a public domain creation because the original theatrical distributor, the Walter Reade Organization, forgot to put a copyright notice on the film. According to copyright laws in 1968, that meant Romero had no legal claim to his own creation, which meant anyone could show, sell, or reimagine the movie without having to receive permission from Romero and without having to pay for the privilege.
Copyright laws have gotten a little better since then. As of 1978, writers are considered to be the legal copyright holder the minute he types out the first word of their manuscript. You don’t even have to add the “© Copyright [Year of Creation] – Indie Author” notice anywhere, though it’s generally considered a good idea as it strengthens any legal defense of your work in the event of plagiarism or unauthorized use.
That also happens to be why you should consider going through the formal process of copyrighting your work.
While the inherent copyright that comes with creating a work and the addition of a copyright notice have legal standing, they don’t have strong legal standing. Without a formal copyright from the US Copyright Office (https://www.copyright.gov/) you cannot sue for copyright infringement in the US, nor can you receive statutory damages for copyright infringement if said infringement occurred before the work was registered (or within three months of post-publication registration).
That doesn’t mean you have no recourse if you find someone using your work without your permission. You have the right to send cease-and-desist (C&D) or Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices, and that’s often enough to make an offender back down, but if you have to go to the next step of litigation, you’re not going to get far without that formal copyright.
To obtain a formal copyright, you register your work with the US Copyright Office, which does cost money — $105 for “a document of any length including no more than one title,” i.e., your novel. You can file electronically, but you will still need to provide a hard copy for the Library of Congress, so there will be mailing expenses as well.
FYI the first: there are any number of outfits that claim they will help you file for a copyright. A few are complete scams that are actually trying to steal your copyright out from under you, but more likely they’re just trying to make money by doing the work for you. The process really isn’t that complicated. You figured out how to write and publish a novel. Figuring out the copyrighting process is a comparative cakewalk.
FYI the second: there is no legally defensible shortcut to obtaining a formal copyright. A common myth is that you can obtain a copyright by sending a copy of your manuscript to yourself via registered mail, effectively making the US Postal Service your “witness,” but the so-called “Poor Man’s Copyright” provides no more protection than simply slapping the © mark on your work.
Some final quick-hit factoids:
- Posting a work online does not automatically make it public domain. You have to explicitly declare that your work is public domain before anyone else can use it legally.
- Anyone who uses your copyrighted material without your permission, even if they do not realize financial gain from its use, is in violation of your copyright. That includes fanfic writers using your stories as inspiration for their own (or fanfic you write yourself and post online).
- “Fair use” allows for limited reproduction of copyrighted material, usually for purposes of commentary and critique — e.g., someone posting a copy of your book’s cover art along with short excerpts from the book, preferably with full attribution to the creator, as part of a book review.
- Unlike trademarks, you do not have to actively defend your copyright in order to retain it.
If I had traditionally published my books, the publishing house would have assigned an editor to me and the whole process would have been mapped out, complete with details and deadlines. But as an indie, the editing ball was in my court just like every other aspect of bringing my books into the world, and I had quite a learning curve. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way about finding an editor, working successfully together, and navigating the multilayered, and sometimes intense, editorial process:
Understand what kind of editing you need.
Good editing can make indie books look indistinguishable from traditionally published books. But if you’re new to the business, or working on your first project, you might not know that there are different types of editing, or understand what kind of editing your manuscript needs. When choosing an editor, understand what services that editor provides. This may mean hiring more than one person.
The first type of editing is developmental. I think of developmental edits as big picture edits. I’m too close to my manuscript when the last word finally claws its way out of my overtired brain and onto the paper. I can’t see plot holes, character issues, places where the writing drags or where something doesn’t make sense. Skilled beta readers or a trusted critique partner can help with this, and so can an editor.
Once all the major issues have been solved and readers are responding to your story and characters in the way you’ve intended, it’s time to fine tune and hand over the manuscript for a copy edit. A copy editor will assure consistency throughout the manuscript. For example, I have a Jon in one of my books, and I would periodically spell his name John. A copyeditor will also catch overused words or phrases, correct grammar mistakes, and essentially polish the manuscript.
Finally, the manuscript will need a proofreader to give it a final look before publishing to find typos and small mistakes. I always proofread one last time after the proofreader, but that may just be my obsessive personality at work!
Use referrals to narrow the search for an editor.
Now you’ve got a handle on the different steps involved in the editorial process, and you know what your manuscript needs. How do go about finding the right editor? There are a ton of free-lance editors out there and it’s hard to sift through all the information.
I rave over my editor. I tell anyone who asks what a find she is and I regularly give out her contact information. When a writer loves their editor, you’ll know it, and an enthusiastic referral is a great place to start looking. Ask people in your writing community and on-line writing groups who they recommend, and then reach out.
Interview a few different people.
Ask these folks to edit sample pages of your manuscript to see what kind of feedback they give and how they deliver that information. Find out how they like to communicate and ask about their process. Does their style resonate with yours? Do they enjoy your genre of writing? What does their turnaround time look like?
When you hire an editor, due diligence upfront is important. Your work together will be a business arrangement certainly, but it will also become a trusted relationship, and you’ll want to make sure this partnership is a good fit.
Recognize that editing is different from drafting, and honor your process around it.
You’ve found someone to work with and you’re eager to get started. So, what’s all the fuss you’ve heard about editing? Why do writer’s lament this part of the process, wring their hands in angst, scream with frustration, cry into a bottle of wine?
Okay, so maybe all writers don’t do these things! But for me, and for many of my writer friends, editing is a different animal entirely from creating a first draft. And when I say this, I’m now referring mostly to the developmental editing phase. Drafting a novel fills me with creative energy. I lose myself in a world of my own creation and fall in love with my characters. Sure, I may get stuck in a plot tangle, but the overall writing experience is joyful.
Editing is different. On the one hand, the bones of my book are in place. I know where I’ve started, where I’ve ended up, and I have a lot worthwhile material in the middle. I know I have a good story and there’s relief and satisfaction in this. On the other hand, once I’ve turned in the draft of my manuscript after months of intensive work, I don’t even want to think about touching it again. I’m exhausted, and the idea of tearing it apart and reassembling it is daunting.
So, I have to honor my process and emotions around this. Here are some tips for making it through a developmental edit with your love of writing still intact:
- First, celebrate the accomplishment of finishing the first draft! Without a first draft you have nothing. But now the story is out. Good for you! I admit to popping a bottle of champagne in celebration within moments of typing the last word. Then, I send the draft off to my editor. While she’s working on the first round of developmental edits, the manuscript gets shelved while I gain some distance. I’ll actively work on another project during this time period, basking in the glow of my achievement.
- Recognize that it’s really hard to have your work critiqued, even when the edits are spot on. Although I know what’s coming, I’m never quite prepared for the emotional stress I feel when I receive a five-page editorial document filled with commentary, and my own manuscript covered in red ink. To be honest, I want to cry – maybe into that bottle of wine! I want to call my editor on the phone immediately and beg her to tell me she loves me and that I’m not a horrid writer. I’m sure she’s pleased when I refrain from doing this.
- Take time to process the critique. Once I read what she’s sent me thoroughly, I put the manuscript aside again for a few days, maybe a week. I let the ideas percolate. I begin to see that what she’s suggesting resonates with what I already knew. I take it seriously when she reacts to something in a way I didn’t intend. I recognize my own bad writing habits.
- Allow the creative process to re-ignite. Once I dive back in to writing, creative ideas for how to fix things start to flow, in the same way they did when I wrote the draft. I scribble notes everywhere, from the backs of napkins to the little pad I keep by my bed for middle of the night inspiration. I form a plan of attack. Then I call my editor. We talk. We even laugh. And I get to work.
- Recognize editing can take more than one go around. My editor and I will go back and forth, sometimes with a round of beta readers working on it in between, until we are both satisfied that content-wise this book is ready. Most of the work I do with my editor is developmental in nature, but she is very meticulous, so by the time the manuscript goes to the copy editor, it’s quite clean. We still both believe that extra set of eyes is important though, because at this point, we’ve both looked at it so many times we know we’ll have missed something.
My editor has become a trusted partner in my publishing journey. I know if something is bothering her, I need to pay attention. Likewise, I know that when she says my book is ready, it’s ready. She gives me confidence to move forward when it’s time, but also honesty when my work isn’t quite polished yet, and as an indie, that’s invaluable.
Editing is daunting, there’s no question. But understanding what the process entails, how you personally need to deal with it, and finding a trusted professional to work with makes all the difference.
BAM! You’ve written a book. A contract is on the table. A pen stroke later your fate is sealed. If you’re lucky, an agent is acting as a resource, making sure the terms and conditions work for you. They’re explaining the fine print and in the long run, their commission should include making you aware of what the document you’re about to sign contains. In the world of indie publishing, agents are a luxury and often times authors navigate the legalities on their own. Contained within that contract are a list of rights being requested by the publisher. Let’s demystify the complex terminology.
The story you’ve written is yours for the moment. When you give away rights, any rights, you are giving away pieces of ownership to your story. These actions might be partial, whole, temporary, or permanent. It’s up to you as the author to keep track of your rights and what you have to give away. Failure to do so could result in something as mild as being black-listed by a publisher to legal ramifications.
Copyright – You are the copyright holder. This is your creation, born from your imagination. It might also be referred to as originator or the assignee (which means you legally have the ability to sign documents on behalf of this work.)
Exclusive – A contract will almost always include the word exclusive. The publisher wants to be the only person able to reproduce your work in a particular medium. They may only ask for exclusive digital rights, meaning they are the only company who can produce your work for the duration of your contract.
Non-Exclusive – You are allowing a publisher to print your work, but retain the ability to print it with another publisher at the same time. This is common in anthologies. They may ask for exclusive rights for a set amount of time and then revert to non-exclusive allowing you to reprint it elsewhere.
First Option – The publisher wants the ability to offer you a contract for your next work (usually in the same universe as your originally contracted work) before you send it other publishers or self-publish. This can work in your favor to help you skip the typical submission process. Make sure it has a termination date if no offer is made so you can publish it elsewhere if your first publisher is not interested.
Print – You are giving away the physical rights to your story. This means the intent is to produce a physical, tangible material. It can include magazines, novels, novellas, or anthologies, but it only means the physical product.
Digital – You are giving away the digital rights to your story. Often this means eBook or digital magazines rights but can also include content on a website. However, now with the advent of audio, some contracts lump them together. It is best to make sure your contract explicitly states digital AND audio in that case.
Audio – You are giving away the digital and physical rights to audio. Physical and digital you ask? Yes, some places still produce CD’s for audio books. Some publications include podcasting in with their audio rights as it is still voice actors interpreting your work.
Worldwide – This means rights for the entire planet, folks. If they say “worldwide print,” this means they own print rights everywhere from India, to Croatia, to the United States. Some contracts use this as a blanket statement because they want everything despite having no intention of printing in international markets. Unless the publisher has a reputation for doing outstanding international work, this should be narrow as possible. Worldwide rights and only printing in the U.S. market removes your ability to print in French.
Language – Can get a bit more complicated than a simple territory. English rights is the most common (for U.S. residents) but without clarification in the contract, does this include English rights in the United Kingdom? Do Portuguese rights mean Portugal and Brazil? Make sure language is not the only thing dictating territories. For smaller presses it is extremely common that only English Language Rights are requested. If you are giving away your language rights for foreign territories, be sure the publisher has an established track record in that market.
One & Done
First Rights – You are giving away the “firstness” of your story. Nobody has ever published it before (including yourself.) This often includes if you’ve given away a story for free to your mailing list or on your website. First means first ever. Some publishers will split first into first print and first digital. Look for this specifically.
All Other Rights – Buyer beware. This phrase in a contract means the publisher is asking for rights for everything beyond the book as well. Television? Movies? Audio? Stage-Play? Comics? This phrase will rob you of every right to your book. This phrase should be a contract killer. If your book is highly successful, your publisher will have the ability to negotiate the television adaptation. Unless you’re certain you know what you’re doing, avoid at all costs.
Is this everything? Absolutely not. But it will help you start making sense of the open calls put on by publishers. If something in a contract or request appears vague, ask for clarification. If the publisher isn’t willing to provide it, that is the red flag necessary to move on. Even if you are approaching publishers without an agent, have somebody with legal expertise examine your contract. There are professional organizations that will assist authors. It’s stressful, it’s exciting, but be sure you are worrying about your long-term career as you put ink to the contract.