"Should I Copyright My Work Before Sending It to an Agent?"

In the U.S., artistic work is protected from plagiarism even without copyright. But this also creates some misconceptions we need to clear up.

Dear Milo,

I hope you’re having a nice fall season. You wrote in earlier posts about same ideas being published and agents versus scammers. But I’m still worried about these things. Can you talk more about it? Should I not talk about my book idea online? Should I not enter pitch contests? Should I copyright my novel before an agent asks to see it? If this is just the way things are, then why aren’t novels being stolen constantly?


Still Paranoid

Los Angeles, CA

Dear Still Paranoid,

These are legitimate questions! With all the book ideas and manuscripts pinging around these days—and usually through such well-intentioned avenues as pitch contests and agent queries—it can be difficult to not feel like your work will be snatched away from you at any moment, usually by someone farther along than you are, and you’ll be stuck with nothing you can do about it. That’s scary.

But just because there are scammers, lazy agents, and ill-intentioned writers out there doesn’t mean your work isn’t protected.

Now, I’m not a lawyer or otherwise have legal expertise, so I don’t usually self-elect to talk about these matters. However, I do know this much: In the U.S., copyrighting isn’t a necessary concern since you already own the rights to your work. (Plot twist! Am I right?) And even more interesting—and surprisingly related—that advance a publisher pays you isn’t actually for the work you put into your book.

What? Huh? Let’s look at this.