Of Book Doctors and Editors

This is a two part question: Suppose you have written a manuscript, and you’d like a Book Doctor or an editor to polish it. Is it proper or gauche to ask that individual to enter into a non-disclosure agreement? Or, is the very first step to copyright your work (officially filing with the Library of Congress)?

Hopefully, authors on the SD will share their experiences. Your thoughts?

P.S. Yes, I am aware one’s work is technically protected the moment one sets pen to paper, but I understand the courts do not give this much weight…along with other methods of making what is known as a “poor man’s” copyright. …Oh! And, yes an unpublished work can be submitted to the Library of Congress for a copyright.

Part one: 99% percent of any “book doctor” or “editor” who offers to work with an unpublished author is out to rip you off. They’ll take your money, do little, and then send it back to you barely better than before. They are the worst possible place for you to be spending your effort.

Second: The first sign of a newbie writer is that he or she worries about copyright, or about someone stealing their work. Doesn’t happen. My copyrights were registered and paid for by the person who was publishing the work. Manuscripts aren’t stolen.* I’ve been publishing my work since 1982 and in that time, know of only one instance – and the person who stole the work never published again.

Third: you have to learn how to do all the work yourself – that’s what every author you’ve ever read managed to do.** It’s be a much better use of your time to find a writing group or someone running a critiquing service (which can also be ripoffs, but at least some are legit).

*In very rare instances, Hollywood screenplays can be, but no one in Hollywood is going to read an unagented script.

**Except for celebrity “autobiographies.”

I know plenty of people who edit manuscripts and not one of them is out to “rip you off.” All are former editors or published novelists who basically write editorial letters (the kind of letter you get if your book is accepted for publication) and help you make it better. None of them call themselves “book doctors,” however. They call themselves freelance editors. The “book doctor” label sounds like someone trying to rip you off. (Chuck says “editors” are out to rip you off but a “critique service” is fine, not sure how he draws the distinction).

Whatever you call the service, just look at the qualifications of anyone you hire – they should be able to list clients and credentials (and you can follow up on those).

In all of publishing history there are very few instances of anyone stealing somebody else’s work (especially unpublished work). It might have happened a few times in all of history but seriously, it’s nothing to worry about – if you ever go through the process of publishing a book you’ll find out why authors laugh at it.

Yipe, I’m not even going to waste my virtual breath on the ignorant insults uttered in that first response. Clearly some message board denizens could benefit from having someone edit their words prior to hitting “submit.” Hmmm… maybe I should start a business called “Post Doctors.” :slight_smile:

In any event, tnetennba (great name!) has the right of it, although what I believe Jinx is talking about is developmental editing. Freelance editing can run the gamut from proofreading to line editing to developmental editing. That said, someone who says “book doctor” is just using shorthand; I really wouldn’t judge anyone for using the title–it’s a marketing term, that’s all.

But to echo tnetennba’s point, it’s almost always new, unpublished authors who are petrified about having their work ripped off. Literally none of the published authors I know (including me) are concerned about editors or designers or anyone else at the production stage stealing their ideas. It just doesn’t happen, or at least it’s so rare as to be meaningless.

Yes, naturally plagiarism has occurred after publication (either by print or ebook), but I’ve almost never heard of it happening before.

Of course you’d want to enter into a contract with whomever you hire to help you with your work, so that should cover you. The thing is, though, I’m guessing that whatever evil-minded editor you fear–the hypothetical one who’s champing at the bit to steal your work–would have to rewrite everything anyway, assuming your ms. is that raw and unfinished.

In which case, s/he’s just taking your idea, which isn’t copyrightable anyway. Ideas ain’t worth jack on their own. Anyone can have an idea. It’s how you express it that matters.

In the end, Jinx, I really, really don’t think you have cause for concern.

I should have been clearer. Some authors I know will look at your manuscript for a fee and give suggestions on how to improve it. That can be very useful. They do not edit the work (i.e., rewrite things) since the rewriting is the job of the author.

The only difference is that there are people who give legitimate critiques, but there are no legitimate “book doctors.” And you also need to perform due diligence: is the critique service run by someone who’s been published by a commercial press (small press can be OK, but self publishing doesn’t mean a lot by itself)? Can you find his or her books in a bookstore?

While I hear what you are saying, I am 100% gun shy. I had an idea stolen from me in the workplace. And, while this idea had no monetary gain for me nor the culprit, it still hurt like hell. The idea was a way to arrange an electronics assembly shop floor more efficiently so workers did not have to waste so much time hunting down the materials they needed. I was a stupid intern, and I trusted the wrong guy. The only thing he gained was a short-lived feather in his cap, but he still got laid off just down the road. Yet for me, this still burns inside. I am forever once bitten, twice shy and cannot afford to be so naive again.

As for my novel, it is based on personal and unique experience. You can’t tell me ideas don’t get stolen. A blatant example is the inventor of intermittent wipers who had to sue each car co. Ok, that’s not a novel, but the point is ideas DO get stolen. I want my personal experience protected to fullest extent before I put it out there for someone to steal. Otherwise, I might as well give it away for free.

Can you understand where I am coming from? …None of you felt the same about your works?

If you are 100% gun-shy, you are not going to find an editor.

As an editor, I am not going to steal your ideas. As a writer I am not short of ideas.

So, therefore, as an editor, if you want me to sign an NDA, I’m kind of okay with it, depending on the language, but your approach would insult me to the point that I would tell you to just go and find another editor.

I have run into authors who worry about this and authors who apparently never even thought about it. For the ones who worried about it, to a man (or woman) what they wrote was not worth stealing. In fact it mostly wasn’t even worth editing.

FWIW I offer an editing service where I go through the ms., point out any obvious oopsies (example: you have inserted the wrong character’s name in a scene; this is very common), fix all the spelling and grammar with some limits–for instance usually characters’ dialog is left alone no matter how ungrammatical it is and some fiction writers want the characters’ internal monologues untouched as well–and then format it for ebook and POD. I want to keep the whole thing below $1000 so if the ms. is going to need a whole lot of work in order to be coherent, I decline the project. This is a sideline for me. I don’t want to spend too much time, so I can be picky. This is what I mean when I say it wasn’t worth editing.

If it makes you feel better, go ahead and ask an editor to sign an NDA. They will definitely think you’re crazy and paranoid, but may sign anyway if they need the job. It’s not commonly done. I’ve never heard of an editor stealing from an author.

Jinx, the one thing that really is a scam is when someone pretends to be an agent, and says your book would be publishable if only you sent it for editing to an editor, and they just happen to know a good one.

This is not really a thing. The only one who can promise you that your book will sell if it’s editor is an actual publisher who’s buying, and in that case the publisher will assume the cost of the editing. So if someone promises you that, and wants you to pay, move on.

If you want it edited to improve its chances of being published or winning a contest, that is done, by legitimate people, some of whom call themselves book doctors. They have web pages, and testimonials by real people whose books have been published and won contests, and you can see these books for sale on amazon.com.

If you want it edited because you’re going to self-publish it as an ebook/CreateSpace, that is also done by legitimate people. Your odds of someone “stealing” your book are really low in either of those cases.

I’d try hard to get over this issue - it’s quite damaging for creativity. I’ve seen this happen with a couple of colleagues in science, who feel they got burned one time and jealously guard their ideas, to the detriment of publishing and actually coming up with more ideas [one extreme case of an older colleague who said he got ripped off at the start of his career - never trusted anyone again, was very bitter and sat on work for ages, published probably a quarter of the work he should have done].
You just need to put your work out there for others to judge, I mean you have to - it will feel like a big deal at first sending it off into the unknown, like taking your kids to university for the first time, but no one’s going to be stealing your ideas. As stated - they’re not worth a whole lot on their own.

As an aside - the manuscript of Omensetter’s luck, William Gass’ first novel, was stolen from him (he suspected one of his colleagues at the college he taught at). He had to re-write the whole thing from memory, published it, and became one of the most revered writers in American literature :slight_smile:

Don’t bother with the Library of Congress, and don’t bother with “mailing it to yourself.” Those are both silly wastes of time and money. The L.O.C. will shove it in a box in a vault in a basement in a warehouse on an Air Force Base in the desert somewhere and forget about it forever.

NDA? Sure. For one thing, you don’t want the ghostwriter to come forward, later, on an interview show some night to say, “Well, yeah, I actually wrote 90% of that book.” The ghostwriter doesn’t get a mention in the book’s acknowledgements; it’s totally “work for hire.” They do the work, you pay them, end of story. No rights, no residuals, no percentage of royalties or sales. Be sure the contract makes all this clear.

Also… Don’t bother. If you’re good enough, you’re good enough. Make your manuscript publishable by learning how to write, doggonit. You don’t put a “paint by numbers” canvas in the museum. Why would you want to publish someone else’s work? Write your own book. Keep writing until you get good at it. Keep submitting until someone offers you money for it. Don’t pay! Don’t pay anything, ever.

If you’re good enough, they’re supposed to pay you. If you’re not good enough, there are people who will tell you so at no charge.

^^^ This.

It’s a common misconception of non-published wannabe authors that the ideas are the important ‘stealable’ thing. They’re not. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The hard part is the writing of a good story from the idea. Anyone can have a good story idea. It takes a good writer to actually make a good story out of it. A good author can make two completely different stories from the same idea. Q.V. Stephen King’s “Desperation” and his pseudonymous Richard Bachman novel “The Regulators”, both based on the same original idea, both released simultaneously, both excellent stories, and both completely different.

20 years ago (in winter of '96, in fact so almost exactly 20) I tried to write my story ideas. They were good ones. Everyone I told them to thought they were good. They all told me to go for it and try writing them, so I did. But my writing sucked. Big-time. Wooden dialog, crappy characterization, long rambling passages trying to set up the scene. Pretty much every mistake you see in bad fanfic on the web, today. My writing was bad, I knew it was bad, but I had no idea how to make it even ‘not bad’, let alone actually good and publishable. That’s when I knew I would never be a published author.

Want some ideas for science fiction stories? I’ll give 'em to ya for free, just to be able to read those stories. Almost no one steals ideas, and if they do, you won’t recognize the story, anyway. The only ‘stealable’ thing is the actual writing, which if it happened you could easily prove and get a nice copyright violation judgement. The ideas themselves have no value.

Some editors do high level critiques, but others do detailed line by line editing. Now, maybe the writer retypes things accepting or rejecting suggestions, but it is the same thing. Some writers need that much help with craft.
Someone who is worried could just ask for references. Having something published might indicate a basic level of skill, but not honesty.
The biggest factor I’ve seen is the unwillingness of some writers to accept changes to their golden words.

Something a lot of us find very helpful is a local small writing group. Hook up with some other frustrated writers who live nearby, meet at a restaurant once a month, and exchange chapters.

It’s great, because we’re all weak in different ways! One guy has trouble with dialogue; another guy can’t figure out where his plot ought to go; someone else can do dialogue but is poor at description. We all learn from each other. We all teach each other.

Also, it’s a good way to fight back against writers’ block. Showing up empty-handed is embarrassing; it really gets you inspired to write something.

If you want to be a published author (or even a successful self published author) you have to get over the fear that someone’s going to steal your work. As long as you stick with reputable people (editors and beta readers) you’ll be fine. But be warned, there are a lot of bogus “editors” out there. Even if they don’t steal your work (which they probably won’t), they don’t have the talent to call themselves editors (even though they think they do).

Remember, there are a lot of bad writers out there–it stands to reason there are a lot of bad editors out there too, especially since there’s no requirement for them to be licensed or have any sort of professional credential. Anybody can call him- or herself an editor and hang out a shingle.

Critique groups are an alternative, but once again they’re only as good as the people in them. If you have a bunch of bad or beginning writers sitting around critiquing each other’s work, none of them are going to learn anything.

I suggest hanging out on forums like Absolute Write, where there are a lot of experienced writers and editors. You might find some help there.

Good luck!

I’ve found this not always to be the case. The joy is that, although everyone in the group might be a beginner, they’re all weak in different ways. They learn from each other by sharing their strengths.

Obviously, this won’t always work. But, in my experience, it works some of the time. A bunch of newbie tyros get together and heterodyne productively. The whole really is greater than the sum of the parts.

That’s true, that’s a good point. It just depends on how motivated they are. If you have a good motivated group of beginners, they can definitely learn from each other (especially if some or all of them supplement the critique group with reading and study that they can then bring and share with the rest of the group).