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No One Wants to Steal Your Book

by Andrew Johnston 12 days ago in advice

...and here are five reasons why.

No One Wants to Steal Your Book
Photo by Blaz Photo on Unsplash

The 1987 film Throw Momma from the Train follows author Larry Donner (played by Billy Crystal) who is drawn into a Hitchcockian revenge plot. Donner has an ugly grudge against his ex-wife, who stole a manuscript from him and published it under her own name. The book goes on to be a bestseller, granting the ex fame and fortune - and making Donner a prime suspect when she vanishes.

In the public consciousness, this is something that actually happens - not the murder plot, but the stolen manuscript. It's a plot element that's been depicted many times across various media, to the point that most people seem to think that this is a real risk. It's always the first question from every would-be novelist: How do I stop people from stealing my book?

Most people grow out of this at some point. There's a flow to these things, a pattern of disappointment that follows most asphyxiated publishing careers. You get rejected by every literary agent in the business; turn to self-publishing, thinking that will be easier, only to learn that you're wrong; start giving away free copies in exchange for reviews. By the time you're reduced to paying to advertise your free book because no one seems to want it, that fear of theft is gone.

But some people never make it this far, because their paranoia runs deeper than most. I've learned that some people are afraid to submit their manuscripts because they think that the agents and editors are going to steal their books (which, incidentally, was a plot point in an episode of the Canadian police procedural Motive, so that's out there). Then there are the people who won't even talk about their precious unpublished novels, so fearful that someone will steal their ideas - ideas that apparently have never been imagined in thousands of years of literature, drama and poetry.

Here's the nub of it: No one wants to steal your book. And over the course of this article, I plan to explain why, even though I know that it's a futile exercise. It's a point that's been made many times to no avail, but I'm making it again anyway for a practical reason: This belief is enabling fraud. The same person who imagines the world as a collection of 7 billion manuscript thieves will gladly hand over hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars to actual criminals because, in their minds, those criminals aren't asking for the really valuable thing.

And get it straight: It's not valuable.

1. No one wants to steal your book because it's bad

Let's start with a brutal truth, and apologies in advance for being merciless.

I've read the same articles as you, the ones talking about how every creative expression is beautiful and worthy. Those lovely little reassurances for authors advising you not to listen to all those negative people who don't understand because they aren't writers and writers are special. I've even seen people claim that anyone who writes a book deserves a publishing deal because all of those books were such hard work so they must be great.

I'm terribly sorry to disillusion you, but on the other hand this is just the right time to get that mess out of your head. That you are worried that someone would want to steal your manuscript suggests that this is your first manuscript, and I'm confident that it sucks. No, I haven't seen it - I'm just playing the odds. First novels are usually bad; the rest of the time they're atrocities.

A major hurdle for new, immature authors is acknowledging that just because something is meaningful to them, it might not be meaningful to anyone else. If anything, the fact that you love that manuscript so much is probably blinding you to everything that's wrong with it, and the affirmations you're getting from other unpublished authors don't help. A good way to get past this would be to show that book to someone else...ah, but you're not willing to do that, are you?

Your first book is bound to be terrible. There's a good chance that your second one will be too, and probably the third as well. Writing is a skill like any other, and it is developed only through practice. Even then, you're bound to hit a pothole every now and then. If you've ever seen a pre-edited manuscript by a famous author, you'll know that many of them don't even become readable until several rounds of professional editing.

And speaking of those famous authors...

2. No one wants to steal your book because the money isn't worth it

Stephen King has an estimated net worth of nearly half a billion dollars. It's not uncommon to hear of writers getting seven-figure advances for a single novel. People hear numbers like that and reach a logical conclusion: Published authors are rich. And if a novel is worth a million dollars, why wouldn't everyone want to steal one?

But of course, you're not Stephen King - only one person is Stephen King, and I'm guessing he's not reading this (unless he is, in which case: Hello there, sir). King is enormously famous, with a huge volume of work covering some fifty years - novels covering many different genres, short stories, film and TV scripts, you name it. And those authors landing those million-dollar deals are also known quantities - not household names, maybe, but famous in literary circles where it counts.

You, on the other hand, are a total unknown, and you know what unknowns get for their novels? Ten grand if they're lucky. I've certainly heard of people getting more - maybe twenty or thirty thousand - but even that's hardly standard.

But that's still something, isn't it? I mean, many modern bank robberies only yield about that much - still not a bad payday for twenty minutes, so maybe it's still worth it? Except you're not even guaranteed to get that much. Many first-timers are published by small presses that mitigate costs by paying royalties only. You're not guaranteed to make a dime.

There is another group of people who can turn a profit at fiction despite not being huge stars. Those are the kind of series fiction writers who can turn out 3-5 new manuscripts per year in order to feed a small but devoted audience. The fact that you are currently clutching your manuscript to your chest like its your last testament on Earth suggests that you might not be so prolific. Oh, and those people don't tend to make Stephen King money, either - think money to augment your retirement, not money to let you retire at 30.

And all that assumes you even get published in the first place.

3. No one wants to steal your book because getting it published is too much hassle.

There's this useful image that's been floating around a while, a flow chart by illustrator Rebecca A. Demarest showing the publication process in all its ugly, agonizing glory:

Of course, Ms. Demarest wasn't entirely on point. I'd say that she's giving you odds of success that are unrealistically high.

It's clear that a lot of the fear of book thieves is driven by ignorance of how the publishing process works. Having no real frame of reference, people assume it must be straightforward and quick - you send the whole manuscript to a random publisher and wait for the check to arrive.

In reality, there are many roadblocks on the way to even a minimal state of success. First, one must get an agent. That means sending out hundreds of emails to people who will respond maybe half the time because they aren't interested in talking with anyone they haven't schmoozed with at a conference. It means writing a dozen different query letters and editing the first five pages over and over again, all totally blind because no one's telling you why they're rejecting you.

But let's say that you overcome this first hurdle, and get an agent who's hopefully not a crook looking to bleed you for thousands of dollars for "editorial services." You are officially the least important person on that agent's client list. Most likely, your fate is to end up at the kind of small publisher you don't actually need an agent to approach. If your luck holds out, they might find an editor at a proper publisher willing to work with you - and if you're extremely lucky, that book might actually make it to print.

What next? Well, be prepared to spend every dime of that tiny advance on promotion, because if that book doesn't sell well, the publisher will drop. If that happens, your agent might drop you as well. You are officially back at square one, but guess what? This still qualifies as a "success story" because hey, at least you got published.

I can hear the wheels turning in your head now: Okay, so it's not worth it for a typical person to steal a manuscript, but what about someone in the industry? Surely some disreputable agent could swipe my precious book, give it to one of her celebrity clients and make a killing that way?

The answer is still no, because:

4. No one wants to steal your book because books aren't rare

Again, I've read the same articles as you. It's so hard to write a novel, it's so much work, and only a select few have the fortitude and passion for it. That's a nice sentiment, belied by one thing: Lots and lots and lots of people have written books, and the number keeps rising.

UNESCO estimates that some 2.2 million books are published every year. Now, most of those are not in English, that number includes things like reissues of older works, and only a fraction of those are fiction.

Even so, the number of new novels hitting the shelves is around 300 per day. And mind you, this only counts books published through traditional publishers and trackable self-publishing channels such as KDP. It doesn't necessarily count stories on sites like Wattpad, or anything being serialized on one's own site or a newsletter (or Vocal, for that matter), or anything sold direct or given away as an incentive. Needless to say, it also doesn't count all of those manuscripts that were written, but currently exist only on encrypted flash drives in pick-proof safes because their creators think everyone wants to steal their books.

There are likely hundreds of thousands of unpublished manuscripts in existence right now. Just by the numbers, the odds of some manuscript thief stealing your book in particular are exceedingly remote.

But wait, there's another factor here: Ghostwriters, those thankless people writing branded fiction that offers no glory. The existence of ghostwriters should already prove that manuscript theft doesn't happen (Why bother paying anyone for a manuscript when they're so easy to steal?), but it also demonstrates the actual process by which cash-grab books are produced. If an agent thinks that a novel by some celebrity would-be writer will actually generate millions of dollars, then paying a modest sum for a product of a known quantity from a professional (who, let's face it, is better at this than you) makes a lot more sense than stealing one.

So you shouldn't worry about manuscript thieves, because there are other things to worry about.

Like people not stealing your book!

5. No one wants to steal your book because people only steal from published books.

We like to think of ourselves as rational people, and rational people are afraid of things that actually happen. We don't sit around worrying that we'll be roasted and eaten by dragons.

Every so often, I'll ask one of these fretful writers if they've ever heard of anyone having their book stolen - and of course, the answer is always no. Honestly, with all the fraud out there these days, I'm surprised that some scammer hasn't tried claiming to be a victim of manuscript theft in order to sell some copy protection scheme.

But I know why people are so afraid. Young authors are obsessed with originality - they seem to believe that no one will publish anything that's even the slightest bit derivative, that only one person is allowed to ever write a novel with a given theme or setting.

The thing is, there is perhaps nothing on Earth as full of derivation as the internet. Everything out here is repurposed, sampled, copied or stolen. It happens because it's easy - in a digital space as vast as this one, theft isn't immediately obvious.

Every few years, there's a major plagiarism scandal in fiction, often in the sprawling, lucrative romance genre. Famously, in 1997, Nora Roberts found out that some of her works had been plagiarized by Janet Dailey, another high-profile romance writer. In 2008, a group of bloggers found evidence of plagiarism in twenty novels written by Cassie Edwards. Most recently, in 2019, a romance novelist found lifted content from her books in a work by Cristiane Serruya, which allegedly contained plagiarized content from forty sources - including Nora Roberts again.

That last case is interesting. It's one thing to find plagiarism in novels published in the 80's or 90's, but how does one get away with this in a world with Google? Really though, it's the internet that enabled this. Serruya did not write her own books, but rather relied on cheap ghostwriters on sites like Fiverr. These ghostwriters in turn made up for their low pay by working in volume, speeding their projects along with a bit of theft. And this is hardly the only time this has happened - every platform you can name is full of burgled content courtesy of some charlatan and his army of low-rent freelancers.

Technology is only going to hasten this along. The next step is so-called artificial intelligence. When you hear stories about material written by AI, remember that computers don't write, they remix. These bots are little more than plagiarism machines, and they're hungry and eager. Depending on how things go the next few years, we could be entering a golden age of theft - but only theft of things the bots can find. No one is going to steal your book, because no one cares about your book until its published - not even a machine.

So relax and dream of the day when, like Nora Roberts, you are worth stealing from.

advice
Andrew Johnston
Andrew Johnston
Read next: Why Denny's Is the Perfect Starter Job for a Cook
Andrew Johnston

Educator, writer and documentarian based out of central China. Catch the full story at www.findthefabulist.com.

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