Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer or an expert in the law. My understanding comes from contact with people who know more than I do about US copyrights. If you have questions or concerns, please contact a lawyer.
Let me start by saying there is no accounting for jerks in the world, and there are jerks. However, the vast majority of publishers fall into the category I am going to describe in this blog for the reasons I give. There are also authors who plagiarize or steal other authors’ works (and I don’t mean fanfic writers–you folks are fine in my book). However, I have yet to meet a publisher who would steal an author’s book.
The reality is this: the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t add up when it comes to stealing your book.
Even if you were the next Tolkien, Martin, King, or Hemingway, the reality is that there is so much work and money that goes into investing in a book to be published that stealing your work to publish without you wouldn’t be worth it. On average, one pass of editing for one of my clients is between $800-$2000, depending on the type of editing and length of the novel. When we are publishing a book, there is a minimum of three passes ($2,400) plus typesetting (another $750 minimum), cover design ($250+), an ISBN ($50ish), uploading to Ingram ($25) and so on. By the time it hits the market, we’ve spent around $5,000 in work and assets on this book. And that was calculated with the absolute minimum in editing. It’s usually closer to $1,200 per pass worth of work.
The reality is this: the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t add up when it comes to stealing your book.E. Prybylski
And that’s a clean book that doesn’t require extensive work. (Not that we’d take a book that does for exactly the reasons above).
Also, royalties tend to be around 15% net for print books and 35-40% net for ebooks. Most of the time, after Amazon, Ingram, and other parts of the distribution network take their bites, a book that sells for $15.00 as a print book might net a $4.00-$5.00 profit for the publisher. And 15% of that is about $0.75 per book that goes to an author. For ebooks, you’re getting 40% of the 30% the publisher makes off of your $5.99 book. Or about $0.10. Sure, if you sell hundreds and hundreds of books, that will add up over time, but it would require a huge success for that to be worth the fiscal risk of being taken to court.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that, legally, copyright in the US begins the moment you start writing your book. Even before you register it. This means that even if you pitch your book to publishers/agents before you’ve obtained a copyright through the process, you are protected. While defending your copyright in court is easier when you’ve obtained a copyright from the government, it’s certainly possible. And if someone does steal your book, you can sue them into oblivion.
None of these costs have taken marketing into account yet, either. Which is time-consuming and can be expensive depending on the routes you choose.
From a purely dollars-and-cents point of view, the math just doesn’t add up for a publisher to steal your book and try and cut you out of the deal. The amount we have to invest into every book we launch means that, before we could rake in that sweet, sweet, illicit dough, we’d have to invest a lot of money, hope you don’t catch us, and then put the book to market and spend even more money and time on marketing all while Snidely Whiplash twirling our collective mustaches and hoping you don’t notice.
The long and short of it is, it just isn’t worth it. No offense, but your book isn’t worth that risk and that investment if we could get taken to court over it. No matter how good it is, your book just isn’t good enough for me to risk my livelihood, future work, mortgage, and future children’s college funds over on the wild guess of a return.
Besides. I’m an author, myself. I don’t want to steal your books. I have my own I’m publishing.
Now, are there cases where authors will steal each other’s ideas, and stories. There have been a lot of lawsuits over it, and that is something to watch out for (which is why I strongly discourage authors from writing anything on Wattpad unless they’re making it public forever and never intend on trying to make money from it). You should be careful who you share your manuscript with before you copyright it and/or publish it. That’s a thing you should be aware of. I’m not saying not to workshop things with fellow authors (again, the vast majority of them have their own projects and genuinely don’t want to steal yours), but you should be conscious and aware of things and use caution.
Ultimately, you may well want to copyright before querying, but not because the publisher is likely to steal it from you. In fact, they may well expect you to have copyrighted your book in advance. It’s an important part of the process, and you should do it. However, it’s got nothing to do with publishers stealing your writing.