January 24, 2019
January is a great time for a good cleaning. There's something heartening about starting a new year with a clean slate. So let's sweep away writing myths that might still be clinging to you, because there are a lot of them floating around out there and they might be slowing you down or scaring you away from possible options that could be right for you.
Myth: Poor Man's Copyright
This one has had a lot of traction over the years. I don’t hear it as much these days, but it still pops up now and then. The idea is that we need a way to prove our ownership of a work in case someone tries to steal it. So writers have suggested to other writers that they take a copy of the manuscript and mail it to themselves (some suggest this be done by registered mail). Then simply don't open it. That way if you're ever in a position to need to "prove" the story is yours, you have the post office to back up your ownership. As I said, this is an idea that writers pass on to writers. But it's not one that lawyers pass on to writers because it simply doesn't work and isn't needful.
First, if you write on your computer, then you can simply hold onto previous drafts of the story if ever you need proof that you created it. The fact that you have the early drafts of the story would be considered proof enough that it's yours. In reality, most copyright lawsuits aren't about questioning who wrote a story. Normally it's really clear who wrote the story. The copyright lawsuits are about things like derivative works. (In other words, is the version of a story someone else wrote enough like your version that you can convince a judge that their version couldn't have been written without reading and copying vital elements from yours?) or "accidental copyright violation" (when someone says they didn't know the work had an author because it's been passed around the Internet so much without your name attached that they thought they could just publish it without permission.) Or it’s about pirating (when someone simply scans a published book and plops it on a server for people to read with none of the proceeds going to the author or publisher). All of those situations would not benefit from the "poor man's copyright" solution. It's pretty rare for someone to simply take your story whole cloth and plunk their name on it and then claim you never wrote it. That doesn't mean it never, ever happens but the odds of it happening to you are probably a bit less than the chance of you being struck by lightning or eaten by sharks. And if it does ever happen, your early drafts will be sufficient to trace a time line of your creation. And they don’t need to involve the post office.
One thing to keep in mind though. If you're ever in a position to be involved in a copyright suit, having a government registered copyright can affect how much money you're able to collect if you win the suit. So, register before you enter the courtroom.
Myth: Publishers are Only Looking for Bestsellers
This is one of those myths told to make folks feel better about rejection. Here's the real way to feel better about rejections: everyone gets them. Good writers get rejected. Bad writers get rejected. Brilliant writers get rejected. Rejection alone says absolutely nothing about you or your work. It merely says that the publisher/agent who received your manuscript couldn't use it for some reason. All of the publishers get a lot of manuscripts they couldn't use for one reason or another. It’s depressing and probably ruins your day, but it isn’t happening because all publishers are only looking for bestsellers.
Now, having said that, the reality is that big publishers who have fantastic marketing and market reach do like to look for books that are likely to sell a lot of copies. These are the publishers that tend to produce a high percentage of high concept or mass market materials. They have high overheads and a long reach and they would like to see each book do really, really well. But there are many, many smaller publishers who really would have trouble if they ended up with a mega-bestseller on their hands. For them, getting the books printed and distributed fast enough to meet that kind of demand would be difficult (and for some, it would be impossible). In fact, sometimes when a smaller publisher ends up with an unexpected bestseller on their hands, they need to make a deal to make use of the better resources of bigger publishers to help the bestseller happen.
As a result, there are many publishers are happy to have excellent books that have smaller sales figures that are within their ability to fulfill. So really, it's a matter of finding the right publisher or agent for your book that can handle the potential that the book has and get it into the hands of the readers who will love it. Sometimes that's a mega-big publisher, but often it's someplace smaller who can give your book the specialized attention that works best for that book.
Myth: Authors Needs to Find Their Own Illustrators
This particular myth can be true in rather rare and very, very specific circumstances. Some very small publishers won't take on a picture book unless the writer is an illustrator or comes with an illustrator (usually one the author is expected to pay), but this happens in very few situations and only in really tiny publishers. It is not the norm. And if you do end up in that kind of situation, consider your choices carefully. Tiny publishers don't tend to sell many copies of each book (this is especially true of picture books). These kinds of tiny publishers often don't have the reach into brick-and-mortar bookstores and that means few sales when you're talking about picture books. Picture book buyers like to leaf through the books.
However, in nearly every case you're likely to encounter, you are not expected to provide illustrations or find illustrators for your book. In fact, in most situations, the publisher doesn't really want your input in illustration as they often have illustrators they've worked with (or have wanted to work with), illustrators who are professional and can be counted on to produce the results the publisher needs. They really only want your story, not your pictures. In fact, it’s the editor’s job to match the right illustrations with the text.
Myth: It's Who You Know
Actually, it's not. Most of the publishers/editors I've worked with (for instance) didn't know me at all until I worked with them. The one agent I had for a while didn't know me at all (or recognize my name) when he offered me representation. These days I actually know a number of editors and agents and they may like my posts or essays or they may like me, personally, but they're not lining up to ask me to write for them. If I wanted to approach anyone I actually knew with a work, I'd have to do it the same way as everyone else and the work would be judged by the work, not by whether they like me. In fact, in the one situation where I did send something to someone I knew socially, the only thing that resulted in was a really, really, really, really long wait for the rejection. (After all, who wants to reject a friend?) By the way, I didn't take the rejection personally and still think the editor is nifty. My manuscript simply wasn't right for her at the time.
You will hear stories of publishers or agents who read something because a friend stuck it under their nose. It happens. But it's serendipity and not the norm. And even in those stories, the publisher or agent didn't make their final decision based on their friendship but on the work. I firmly believe that every good writer (if they keep writing and learning––and knows the way publishing works) will be able to find a publisher. It may not be for every work, but for something. It's not a closed system open only to a few.
There are a few myths to sweep out of your brain for the new year. Start fresh and clean. Keep writing. Ultimately, nothing works better than that.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.