Quit Worrying: It’s Cheaper for Agents to Sign You Than to Steal Your Works

Today’s publishing legal post answers a question I received last week by email. Here’s the relevant portion:

“I’m following your posts, and worried about my copyright in my [unpublished] novel. I’m going to several conferences this summer, and wonder if I should register copyright in the manuscript before I pitch it to agents, in order to protect my rights?”

I answered the email directly, but here’s the answer for the rest of the world as well: No. You do not register copyright in unpublished manuscripts if you intend to seek an agent and pursue traditional publication.

Under U.S. law, copyright protection attaches automatically to all qualifying works at the time of creation. Your work in progress is already “copyrighted” from the moment you finish writing it. Yes, that copyright needs to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office before you can sue an infringer, but you shouldn’t register copyright before seeking an agent. Here’s why:

1. Legitimate literary agents do not steal potential clients’ works. It’s cheaper–by far–for an agent to offer representation, sell the work, and make money off it legitimately. As long as you’re querying legitimate agents, you don’t have to register copyright to protect yourself against them. (Note: I’m not the only one saying this. Talk to any agent, editor, or publishing lawyer you want to. We’ll all sing the same song where this is concerned.)

2. Registering copyright too early creates problems for the publisher who contracts to publish your work. Once a work is registered with the copyright office, any subsequent registrations must cover “changes or alterations” or “new editions” of the work. By jumping the gun, you change the manner in which a publisher can register copyright in the published work–and that’s both problematical and annoying to everyone  involved. 

3. Register copyright for yourself only if you self-publish the work or if your publisher’s contract states that the author must handle registration. In order to preserve the full range of available legal rights and remedies, works must be registered with the copyright office within 90 days after initial publication. “Publication” includes traditional publication, self-publishing, or any other method of public dissemination–even for free. If you publish the work on your website, you should register copyright. If you self-publish, register copyright. But if you want to pursue traditional publication, and haven’t already published the work, don’t register copyright before you query agents or publishers. That’s too soon. 

4. Be wary of querying agents with previously published works. Many agents don’t represent previously published works, including (without limitation) self-published novels. Before you query an agent with a previously published manuscript, double check the agent’s submission guidelines to confirm that (s)he considers them. Treat this the way you’d treat any other submission category, and respect the agent’s business decision.

Knowing when and how to register copyright in your works is an important part of understanding the publishing business. Many authors ignore the business aspects of publishing until (and even after) it’s time to send out queries or hit “publish” on Amazon. Don’t make that critical error.

Study the publishing business now, and learn as much as you can about all the available options and publishing paths before you decide which one is right for you and your current manuscript. Remember that you get to make the choice anew with each book you write (subject to outstanding contract limitations, anyway).

The more you know, the better you’ll be able to take charge of, and manage, your works and your publishing career.