Guest Post: Siobhán O’Brien Holmes, Developmental Editor of Middle Grade and YA Genre Fiction, discusses a common fear, what to do if you’re worried an editor will steal your work

I am absolutely thrilled to feature a guest post today by Siobhán O’Brien Holmes, Developmental Editor of Middle Grade and YA Genre Fiction. Siobhán is a total rock star in my eyes! I had the good fortune of winning a full manuscript critique from her and **WOW!** it blew me away. Siobhán provided comprehensive, succinct, and meaningful notes and gave me ideas, resources, and direction to help shape and strengthen my manuscript. I HIGHLY (to infinity and beyond!) recommend her services if you are looking for an insightful, thoughtful, and goddess-level talented developmental editor! Check out her incredible website for more information, https://www.writerandthewolf.com/

In this post, Siobhán will discuss a common worry that many new authors have: What to do if you’re worried an editor will steal your work – including tips for protecting your work, finding an editor you trust, and a general reassurance that professional editors will NOT do this and why. Here we go… 

Is your manuscript safe?

What to do if you’re worried about editors stealing your work

I admit I never truly understood how scary it can be to share your work with an editor until I went through the process myself last year. I took a year-long course with the Golden Egg Academy in London where I wrote a middle grade novel and had regular one-to-one sessions with my assigned editor to discuss the manuscript. As a writer I found the sessions incredibly valuable and encouraging, and as an editor I found them eye-opening: I was really starting to understand how authors feel when they send me their work! Every time I emailed her my pages I felt vulnerable, nervous, a bit sick: would she like it? Will she tell me I have to rewrite the whole thing? I’m probably just wasting my time writing this thing. It’s exhausting, right? 

Personally, one fear I never had was whether my editor would steal my work, and maybe that’s because I work in the industry myself and know how unlikely it is for that to happen. But if you’re an author who hasn’t worked with freelance editors before and you’re about to share your story – your baby, the result of months or years of hard work, sweat and tears – with a stranger, it’s totally understandable that you’re feeling anxious. The editor might be the first person to ever lay eyes on your manuscript and that’s a big deal. 

That’s why the question ‘how do I know this editor won’t take my manuscript and pass it off as theirs?’ crops up a lot in writing communities online. Now to be clear, these authors aren’t typically talking about commissioning editors at publishing houses. They’re talking about freelance editors, like me, who help them get their story ready to either submit to agents or self-publish and they might include developmental editors, copy-editors, line editors, proofreaders and writing coaches. It’s not surprising that there are nerves around the process of hiring a freelance editor. There are some horror stories out there and in many countries, including the UK where I’m based, there is no official certification to become a professional editor like there is to become, say, a teacher or accountant and so there can be real fear for authors about handing over not just cash but their novel, too. 

So, what can you do if you’re genuinely worried an editor might plagiarise your manuscript and publish it themselves? Well, you could just not hire an editor and that’s a completely valid choice! Paying for outside help is absolutely not a requirement of writing a novel or submitting to agents and it’s not something all authors can afford anyway. But even if you don’t work with an editor, you will have to show your manuscript to somebody eventually if you want it to be published. It’s a good idea to work with critique partners or friends in a writing group to get feedback on your writing, for example, so you’ll need to feel comfortable sharing your stuff with them. And when it comes to querying agents, you’ll need to trust those agents with your manuscript. Understanding plagiarism and making sure you feel secure sending your writing to others is going to be important for the whole publishing process, but let’s just talk about editors for now since I am one! What I’m not, however, is a lawyer, so please do check things like copyright and contract law in your country. Some of my advice will be UK-centric.

Okay, here are a few things to bear in mind when sharing your work with freelancers.  

Plagiarism would be a career-ender for professional editors

Most self-employed editors rely massively on word of mouth. If they do a good job on an author’s manuscript, hopefully that author will tell their friends and they might hire them, too. They can’t afford to risk their reputation and lose the trust and respect they’ve built up in the writing community by stealing somebody’s work. If an editor did try to pass off a client’s manuscript as their own and it was eventually published, the real author would discover it pretty quickly and spread the word: aside from the legal avenues they could pursue and contacting the publishers of the book, they’d leave negative reviews online and tell everyone they know to avoid that editor – at the very least. A cursory Google search by potential clients would reveal these warnings and the editor’s business would dry up. If they were then able to prove plagiarism, that editor would be guilty of fraud and would struggle to get another job anywhere let alone in publishing.  

There isn’t much motivation for an editor to steal your novel

Think about what would make an editor want to steal a manuscript. You know as well as I do that writing a novel isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme! This would be a long game to play. Even if they plagiarised your book, they’d still have to submit it to agents, wait for an offer of representation, wait for a publisher to acquire it, work with editors at the publishing house to get it into shape and then wait months for it to finally hit shelves, all the while hoping nobody finds out they stole your story. That’s not to say fraud doesn’t happen – of course it does sometimes. But it’s generally other writers who plagiarise manuscripts, not publishing professionals who make a living helping authors improve their books and know enough about the business to realise what a tough job it can be to get that book out there into the world.  

It’s easy to prove the manuscript is yours

I live in the UK and under British law, your manuscript is copyrighted as soon as you write it. That means you are the legal owner of your work and if anybody steals it, they’re committing plagiarism (although remember you can’t copyright an idea). You don’t need to pay money to legally protect it (but please check the law in your country or state) although it is a really great idea to keep a paper trail so you can prove you’re the rightful author. If you send your manuscript to anybody, don’t delete the emails. Keep them as a record so you can show, if you ever need to, that the document came from you on a specific date. Be sure to keep all your drafts and notes on your computer as the files will show the dates they were created. 

 

Choose an editor you trust 

Even though it’s very unlikely an editor would steal your book, it is superimportant to do your research before hiring a freelancer so that you feel comfortable sharing your work with them. You can ask questions like: 

  • Are they a member of a professional organisation? In the UK, the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading is the main professional body for editors and it sets editorial standards and policies that members must abide by. To rise up through the ranks of membership, editors take tests and supply evidence of their work history including client references. In the US there’s the Editorial Freelancers Association and ACES, and Canada has Editors Canada. Don’t disregard an editor you like just because they’re not a member of one of these groups: they may not have built up the required portfolio of editing work to join their local organisation or they might not have the funds for the annual fee right now. Look for other signs that they’re the right fit for you. 
  • Do they have relevant work experience or qualifications? I mentioned earlier that not all countries have an official certification for editing so look for other training, maybe taken through those professional bodies I mentioned above (editors usually don’t need to be members of those organisations in order to take courses with them). If they’ve worked for publishing houses or literary agencies in the past, that’s a good sign that they’re professional and trustworthy editors. 
  • Do they have client testimonials? Quotes from happy clients can be a helpful indication that the editor is reliable and has provided a good service to other authors. Again, if an editor doesn’t have testimonials don’t write them off too fast. They may have just set up their business and are slowly gaining clients, or the authors they’ve worked with might not feel comfortable having their names out there for various reasons. Don’t just rely on one clue like this. If your gut tells you an editor is the right one for you, take comfort in other signs like their training or glowing recommendations from colleagues at the publishing house they used to work for. 

Sign a contract

Although it’s always illegal for an editor to plagiarise your work whether or not it’s mentioned in their terms and conditions, it may give you extra peace of mind if you and the editor sign a contract. Most editors will have one for you to sign that includes a confidentiality clause. In my contract, for example, I agree not to share any part of a client’s manuscript anywhere, which of course prohibits me from passing your manuscript off as my own. But don’t hold it against an editor if they don’t have a template ready; they might be new to the freelance world and not have documents like this set up yet. In UK law, most email agreements are legally binding if they’re worded correctly and can act in lieu of a contract so if there isn’t an official form to sign, be sure to get everything in writing over email and hold on to those messages.  

I really hope this post has put your mind at rest a little about the likelihood of having an editor steal your work and that it’s given you a few new ideas for protecting yourself and increasing your chances of having a lovely, trusting relationship with the publishing professionals in your life. Thanks so much for having me, Jennifer! 

THANK YOU, Siobhán!

Siobhán is a freelance developmental editor who spends her life reading children’s books, watching scary films and drinking unicorn gin. She lives in Surrey, England, with her graphic designer husband and four-year-old son who wants to be a Pokémon when he grows up. Siobhán works directly with authors of middle grade and YA genre fiction, specialising in horror, mystery, fantasy and science fiction (or anything with a dash of magic or macabre). She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children’s Literature and is a Professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editors and Proofreaders. She was a judge on the 2020 British Fantasy Awards horror panel and the IPNE Annual Book Awards’ YA category and reviews YA for the British Fantasy Society. 

For more information, visit her website, https://www.writerandthewolf.com/


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