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I'm looking for a literary agent. I've never published before.

1) What's to keep an agent from taking my manuscript and publishing it themselves, or handing it off to one of their writer friends?

2) What's to keep an agent from taking my original ideas, giving them to a writer friend, and having them create their own work based off of some of those ideas?

How do new writers protect themselves from things like this?

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    An awful lot of people around here are afraid of others stealing their stories. Where'd this fear come from? Has there been a run on stolen stories in the publishing world? – Ken Mohnkern May 23 '17 at 15:11
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    @KenMohnkern I think it is because new authors have no body of published work to which they can point as demonstration that a new work is theirs. Then there are solutions like mailing yourself a copy certified; however, as another answer stated, plagarist publishers or agents would simply run themselves out of their illegitimate business. – can-ned_food May 24 '17 at 19:06
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    Interesting, but I'm wondering whether the fear of having your ideas or manuscripts stolen is an actual problem or an idea put out there by some recent events. I've never worried about that, and I have bunches of people read my work. (Short stories, not novels. Maybe that's the thing.) – Ken Mohnkern May 24 '17 at 20:43
  • @KenMohnkern Perhaps not so much a run as an awareness that it happens, it's well known that it happens (hence publishers often returning manuscripts unopened for fear of court cases) and the fact that legal system is constructed to favour the rich rather than the just so that there's vanishingly little hope of the unknown writer winning such a case. – bye May 25 '17 at 9:21
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    @KenMohnkern: I don't think it's really a new fear, I'm sure I've encountered (mostly-unfounded) concerns about it. It may go up and down with events. To me it's a natural worry -- "I've spend months on this manuscript, it's potentially very valuable, therefore I'm concerned someone might wish to steal it". An unpublished author likely has no idea what the practicalities would be, in the industry as it is, of trying to steal it. The concern seems to me (as an outsider) more founded for screenplays in the movie industry than for novels in publishing. – Steve Jessop May 25 '17 at 10:32
74

Your ideas are valueless. (Sorry!) My ideas are valueless too. There are approximately 197 billion story ideas floating around the litosphere just waiting for someone with a net to scoop them up.

What is valuable is your ability to take a literary idea and turn it into an interesting story. People who can do that are rare and difficult to find. I don't know if you are one of those people or not. (I don't even know if I am either.) But I do know this:

Agents are not looking for stories, or for ideas, agents are looking for writers. Agents and publishers don't make money (or not reliably) off individual stories. They make money off writer's careers.

This is why an agent is just as interested in your ability to deliver professional work consistently and on time as they are in your ability to write an interesting story. They care about your dedication and reliability as well as your talent.

All of which adds up to, Agents are looking for commercially viable writers, and commercially viable writers are hard to find. If they think you are a commercially viable writer, they will want to represent you, not your story, but you. If they don't think you are a commercially viable writer, they will have no interest in your ideas either.

And to be frank, even if someone does come along and hear your idea and goes and makes a best selling novel out of it, you have lost nothing, because if you are a commercially viable writer, you can generate as many story ideas as you need, and if you are not, you were never going to realize any money off that idea anyway.

Ideas are dross. It is your vision and your talent that will make you a successful writer, and no one can steal either of those.

  • 11
    Upvoted just for the first sentence. – T.E.D. May 23 '17 at 13:57
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    This is also true in the world of "I have an idea for an app!" -- the idea isn't really valuable at all until it's available for download. – enderland May 23 '17 at 15:30
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    There are approximately 197 billion story ideas floating around the litosphere just waiting for someone with a net to scoop them up. [Citation needed] ;) – tonysdg May 23 '17 at 16:20
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    @mindwin which is why there is no property in ideas, otherwise the first cheap app could hold the entire industry hostage. – user16226 May 23 '17 at 17:18
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    "There are approximately 197 billion story ideas floating around" Or in another important sense, there are maybe 20 story ideas that have been floating around for several thousand years, and writers continually re-use them. "Couple fall in love and face obstacles to being together." "Adventurer goes on quest for valuable object or knowledge." "Detective has to figure out who committed crime and how." "Underdog enters competition and must overcome stiff odds." Just those four probably account for a substantial majority of all stories ever written. – Jay Jul 28 '17 at 17:25
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Two points here:

Under US law, anything you write is copyrighted. Anything. Your question above in fact is copyrighted. You likely can't not copyright something, even if you wanted to. So it is simply not legal for a publisher to pass your work along to someone else to touch up and publish without your permission.

If you are just thinking about the basic story ideas, rather than the implementation of them, Mark Baker has it completely correct. Here's J. Michael Straczynski (author of The Complete Book of Scriptwriting, head writer of Murder She Wrote, Babylon-5, and many others) on this subject:

Story ideas are worthless.
It's very doubtful that you or anybody else has had an idea that nobody in the history of mankind has ever had before. You can take a basic idea and give it to 10 different writer and you'll get 10 TOTALLY different stories. What matters is execution, how the idea is rendered....

Most amateur writers don't know or understand that, and think that their story idea is something saleable, something somebody wants to buy, or something they need to jealously protect. There are even people who will exploit that. There was a publication a few years ago which would publish your story idea in a big book, on per page (which you paid for, natch), and sent it to the major studios and networks.

Not one of them ever sold. None of them were worth buying. None of them were really stories. And it was thrown into the trash of every studio or network at which it arrived because of fear of lawsuit.

If you were unaware of the second point, or are further interested in the subject of the pain of writers having to constantly fend off bogus "story idea" lawsuits, I highly suggest clicking the link above and reading his entire 23-paragraph detailed explanation on the subject.

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    You can technically release something as public domain, but it has to be specifically released as such to relinquish your copyright:en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Doktor J May 23 '17 at 15:05
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    All the text in this page is copyrighted, including this comment. But by submitting it to stackexchange, you agreed to licence it under CC-BY-SA 3.0 - user contributions licensed under cc by-sa 3.0 with attribution required – Mindwin May 23 '17 at 17:14
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    @DoktorJ - To quote directly from that link you added, "Not all legal systems have processes for reliably donating works to the public domain". The USA is one of those. This uncertainty is what the CC0 license is for. If you see something that claims to be "Public Doman", unless it is really old, there's a good chance that claim is legally tenuous. If you want to release something of yours to the Public Domain, and don't want to leave your own potential users in legal limbo, use CC0. – T.E.D. May 23 '17 at 17:45
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I hear this worry from many beginning writers. Often the question includes something along the lines of "What legal steps can I take to protect my work from being stolen?".

Here's my capsule advice to new authors: Don't worry about it. There are a million would-be authors out there, all competing for attention. Your problem is NOT that someone will steal your work. Your problem is that no one will care about your work. Worry about writing a story good enough that someone would bother to steal it.

I'm not saying that your work isn't any good. I haven't seen anything you've written besides this post. Your work may be brilliant. But agents and publishers just aren't in the business of stealing a writer's work. Almost all first novels by a new author lose money. You have to be an established writer, at least a little bit "famous", before your books are really worth something. The only way a publisher will make money off of you is if you write a series of successful books for them. And you're not likely to do that if they cheat you on your first book. They have far more to lose by stealing someone's work and getting caught than they are likely to make off a stolen story by an unknown writer.

Does it ever happen? Sure. I know someone stole my work at least once: an article I wrote was stolen and offered for sale on one of those "research assistance" web sites, where students can buy someone else's work to submit it as their own as a term paper. I wasn't paid for the original article, so if the thieves sold even one copy, they made more money off of it than I did. Do you know what I did about it? Absolutely nothing. It wasn't worth the trouble.

4

To answer your stated question, one can protect one's work by "registering" it with Writers Guild of America for $20 online.

But there is a fundamental reason why agents won't steal your work: Because it's too much work and that's not what agents do.

Agents can earn a lot of money for doing relatively little work, if they find the right (sellable) pieces. Consider, an agent can earn 15% of your royalties for writing a few letters and signing a few papers if s/he "connects." It takes only seven such deals to earn as much as you do for one of your novels or whatever. For a lot less time and effort than it took for you to produce it. Of course, the potential downside for the agent is a lot of wasted effort for the works that don't sell, as well as effort for getting to know the market.

No agent (that qualifies as such) would be interested in killing the "goose that lays the golden egg." They want you to write 10 (or 100) works that they can sell. And the same from all the other writers in their stable. If an agent tried to steal one person's work, all the rest of it "goes away."

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    The WGA doesn't handle novels. They handle stuff like film, television, and radio. You could register a copyright for a novel, but you really shouldn't until the novel is about to be published: jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/2013/05/copyright.html – Kef Schecter May 23 '17 at 16:13
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    +1, but marketing a book is much harder than you are making it sound. Agents have to keep their thumb on the pulse of the industry, cultivate relationships with individual editors, build their stable of writers, and act as intermediaries and advocates throughout the publishing process. It is not an easy way to make a living. – user16226 May 23 '17 at 16:14
  • @KefSchecter: I just registered my screenplay with them. I would advise the writer to upload his/her work and pay the $20. They will date and store it in case of a dispute. – Tom Au May 23 '17 at 16:15
  • @MarkBaker: I said that agents "can" make a lot of money relatively little effort. Because the downside is a lot of wasted (or expended) effort. Basically it's a trade off between working hard and working smart. I added a comment about the effort for getting to know the market. – Tom Au May 23 '17 at 16:17
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I want to be harsh or burst your bubble but your worries don't conform with reality. Agencies receive thousands of manuscripts each week - most of which they don't actually read.

Acceptable stories fall within a very narrow window. The boy always gets the girl. Good always overcomes evil. The cowboys always kill the Indians. Publishers have no interest in new authors publishing stories outside the range specified by the bean counters.

Writers tend to significantly over-value their work. At the outset, they all (including me) believe they are writing a best-seller - two years later they're struggling to give the story away on Kindle.

It is also my opinion: in a comprehensive novel there is so much detail and nuance that only the author would name the source. A plagiarist would be discovered under interrogation.

e.g. Adele's pet name for her best friend, Claire, is 'digger' (which she hates) - It is never explained. But there is a scene where Claire is stopped for speeding. The officer radios in the vehicle's registration plate "JCB 888Y" (stylized as "JCB BABY"). He is embarrassed when he learns he's pulled over a high court judge. JCB = Judge Claire Bristol. JCB is also a UK term for Trackhoe - hence the nickname "Digger" . . . Who but the author would know that?

Nobody is going to steal your work.

Unfortunately (particularly in the USA), your manuscript is irrelevant. It's all about your CV. If you are George Clooney's 3rd cousin whose other claim to fame is that, when in college you popped Malia Obama's cherry - they'll publish your fantasy story. Don't worry if your story is a pile of crap, they've got a thousand ghost writers who'll whip something up.

  • Sounds like self-publishing is the only sane way to go. – horse hair May 23 '17 at 13:59
  • "your worrying" (or "your worries do not"); "fall within a very narrow"; "believe they are writing"; "two years later they're struggling"; "Don't worry if your story's"; "that'll whip something up" Sorry, couldn't help myself :) – Doktor J May 23 '17 at 15:02
  • @Doktor J - Your post makes no sense. Apart from you highlighting a typo - I can only assume that your doctor provides more powerful opiates than my dealer. – Surtsey May 23 '17 at 15:15
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    @horsehair No, self-publishing is simply the easy way to go. It has become a viable way to make money, largely thanks to Amazon, but it is still very very rare to make money doing it. Going the traditional publishing route is much more difficult, but the success rate is much higher once you break in. (Still not high, but much higher.) Those who do make it in self publishing seem to mostly be very high volume genre writers, and I suspect only in specific genres. Self publishing is a legit part of the market, but only a part. Do you research and figure out what is your best avenue for success. – user16226 May 23 '17 at 15:26
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Answer: Because unscrupulous agents / publishers have better ways to make money from you.

Agents and publishers often overlap, the only difference really comes down to the printing of the manuscripts. Writing this relating to publishers rather than agents (as agents like this don't want to spend extra money for printing):

Because the unscrupulous publishers will instead charge you money in order to print the book, then write the contract in such a way that you might be waiting up to two years for your first income from any sales (which are likely to be in the first couple of weeks/months anyway).

Stealing can get them in court. You not realising how unfair a contract you sign is, is just a way for them to get more income.

There are thousands of people wanting their first book published, and they can make a steady income by publishing barely-edited manuscripts for money.

TL/DR: My brother fell for this relatively recently. With dyslexia his spelling can be bad, and the "editing" promised was literally just correcting red underlines in Word, no income for 18 months, and he had to pay several thousand pounds for them doing several hundred pounds worth of work and printing.

  • A good case for self-publishing – horse hair May 23 '17 at 14:00
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    No reputable publisher will ever charge you upfront to publish your book! That is vanity publishing, a scam. @horsehair This is a case for avoiding being scammed, not a case for self-publishing. – samiles May 23 '17 at 14:15
  • @samiles Exactly - however it's the most common way that new writers get scammed, having ideas stolen happens, but it's not the biggest thing to watch out for :-/ – Rycochet May 23 '17 at 14:20
  • Well, I'm not sure I'd call it a scam as long as the publisher is up front about how much they are charging you and what you are getting for it. Given that there are several companies out there where you can self-publish for just about zero, I don't see why anyone would pay thousands of dollars. But if you think whatever services they are offering are worth it, well, that's your decision. Just like I don't understand why any sane person would pay good money for something as awful-tasting as apricots, but people do, and that's their business. :-) – Jay May 23 '17 at 15:06
  • Agents and publishers most certainly do not overlap. An agent is on your side. They make money when you make money, so they have every interest in making sure that you make as much money as possible. A publisher, on the other hand, makes money when they sell books and give up part of that money when they pay you. They have an interest in minimizing the amount of money they pay you. They can't take that too far, as they are in a competition with other publishers for salable authors, but you will get more money and a better contract through an agent than you will through a publisher direct. – user16226 May 23 '17 at 15:20

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