ePublishing and Copyrights

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by Bobbie Christmas

Q: I have a couple of questions about ebooks, as I’ve had two responses to queries from ebook publishers.

1. Should my manuscript be copyrighted before I send the whole thing to anyone?

2. If I publish the ebook version, is it okay to continue sending out queries to other publishers and agents in hopes of selling the printed version?

A: First a word of warning. Many ebook publishers are, in essence, purveyors of self-publishing. Unethical ebook publishers will show interest in a book simply to lure writers into paying for some or all of the expenses of self-publishing. Some ebook publishers will accept almost any book in almost any form and publish it as an ebook because it costs them next to nothing to put a sales button on their websites and allow people to download an electronic version you supply. If you do not receive an advance and/or if you pay the ebook publisher any fee for design or format, it’s considered self-publishing. For those reasons be careful and know what you want before you go into any agreement with an ebook publisher. For my first ebook, for example, I made sure my ebook publisher would allow me to use more than its website to sell my ebook.

As to the issue of copyrights, according to current copyright law, you own the rights to the work simply for having written it. You don’t have to register the copyright, but you may choose to do so. As the copyright office will tell you, however, you must register the copyright only on the very final version of the book. In the meantime you can simply put a statement on the ebook that says, “Contents copyright 2017, (your name),” or you can use the copyright symbol, the date, and your name without officially registering the copyright.

In addition, if you send a manuscript to an agent or publisher, do not put a copyright statement or mark on it, because it reveals a lack of professionalism. Publishers know almost every book will need changes before it is finalized, and traditional publishers will register the copyright in your name right before the book goes to press, after all changes are made. If you send your manuscript to an e-publisher in its final format or to a printer who will print the book for you, you may add a copyright statement then, and you may even want to register the copyright, if it makes you feel more comfortable. To register your copyright immediately before a self-published book goes to press, see http://www.copyright.gov/register/literary.html.

As for the second question, it’s ethically okay to continue seeking a traditional publisher before you have sold any rights to an epublisher, but publishing the book in ebook form may not be wise if you hope to sell to a traditional publisher as well. Publishers usually prefer to buy first rights, and if the book has been published (a word that means making something public knowledge) in any form, as an ebook, audiobook, print-on-demand book, or even on a website, the first rights are no longer available for sale. In other words, if an epublisher produces your book, you no longer have the first rights to sell to a traditional publisher.

Both these issues illustrate why writers should know their goals before they make decisions about publishing. If you have no intention of selling the book to a traditional publisher and you want to get the book out to the public as soon as possible, self-publishing and epublishing can be excellent options. If you want to sell the book to a traditional publisher at any point, however, it is not wise to self-publish or even allow an epublisher to produce the book first.


Bobbie Christmas, book editor, author of Write In Style: Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at www.zebraeditor.com.

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