Updated: Oct 5, 2021
Imagine you’ve got an amazing recipe for chocolate chip cookies.
The perfect ratio of dough to chocolate chips.
Golden on the outside, gooey on the inside.
An extra shot of vanilla extract - your secret ingredient.
You bake a batch and take them to the office potluck. Everyone loves them! Your boss eats a half dozen. The sales department insists you could sell them. And your friend, Susan, who works in the accounting department, asks for the recipe. (She is having her very picky mother-in-law over for dinner and wants to impress her with a delicious dessert. She thinks your cookies will be just the thing.)
What do you do?
Feel flattered and share your recipe with Susan so more people can enjoy your culinary genius.
Ask Susan to sign a contract before you share the recipe with her stating that she will not try to steal your recipe because you are worried she is going to start producing and selling your cookies wholesale and become the next Mrs. Fields.
Sounds silly, doesn’t it?
This is pretty much what editors, agents, and other industry folks think when a newbie author demands that they sign a non-disclosure agreement. Here’s why.
First of all, your cookie recipe probably isn’t as amazing or unique as you think it is.
Thousands of people write children’s books every day and most of them aren’t that great or that different from all the other thousands of stories out there. People in the industry read thousands of manuscripts each year. No matter what your friends say, it’s highly unlikely that yours is so much better than all the rest that someone would feel compelled to steal it.
Even if your cookie recipe IS exceptional - it still probably won’t make Susan any money.
The picture book market is extremely unpredictable, and there’s no way to know what will be successful and what won’t. So no matter how good the editor or agent thinks your story is, stealing the manuscript of an unknown author is like breaking into a convenience store to steal a single scratch-off ticket. It’s just not worth the risk.
What makes you think Susan has any interest in becoming a cookie mogul in the first place?
The people you are sending your manuscript to already have a job editing or agenting. It’s how they make a living. It would take a lot of time and energy to publish your story as their own. Why do all that work if they’ve got a good thing going already?
You’ve known Susan for a while...and she’s your friend, right?
In the same way that a friend you’ve known forever probably wouldn’t steal from you, an agent or editor who is established in the industry probably won’t steal your work. It would risk ruining their reputation in the industry and driving away future clients.
Making Susan sign a contract doesn’t offer you any extra protection.
In our cookie scenario, everyone at the potluck already knows it was your recipe! In the case of a manuscript, you own the copyright the moment you write the story. (The time stamp on your document or email will verify.) Anyone trying to pass your work off as their own can be sued (If you’re willing to spend several thousand on an attorney) - NDA or not.
So, the bottom line is, could someone try to steal your story? Sure. Anything is possible.
Being too cautious about sharing your work can keep you from getting feedback that will make you a better writer. Or worse, it could keep your work from ever being read by the right person.
...What if Susan’s mother-in-law is actually a producer on the Food Network?
...What if she tastes your cookies and raves about them? And what if Susan, being a good friend, tells her it’s your recipe and puts the two of you in contact?
...What if they end up paying you for your recipe and publishing it on their website - and asking you to write a few more?
Stop worrying about someone stealing your work, and start focusing that time and energy on sharing it with the right people.
Do your research.
Check those reviews.
Read those bios.
And then? Share away!
After all, Susan’s mother-in-law is waiting.