Is sending your full manuscript to editors a risk?

You’re ready to send your manuscript off to prospective editors for a quote. The thing is, some of them are asking you to send the entire manuscript. All you want is a sample edit.

Why would an editor ask to see your whole manuscript? You don’t know this person. Could they be planning to steal your idea?

How copyright works

There are plenty of things to stress over along the way to getting your work published, but theft of your story isn’t one of them. Here’s why this sort of zealousness is unnecessary:

  1. Your creative work is automatically and legally copyrighted the moment you commit it to print. This is the way the law works. Stamping the little © symbol on your unpublished manuscript confers no additional protection; it just makes you seem a little paranoid.
  2. While your particular interpretation and execution of your story is legally yours and yours alone, the concept or idea itself cannot be copyrighted. It’s your interpretation of the story that’s copyright—and as point #1 notes, you’re already covered.

Publishers, acquiring editors, and independent book editors see a constant influx of ideas and stories every single day of their working lives. It’s safe to say they’ve seen several stories remarkably similar to yours. Reputable professionals have few reasons to steal your work and many reasons to remain honest.  If they did something illegal with your manuscript, they’d risk collapsing their reputations and facing legal repercussions.

If you’re still worried, don’t take my word for it. Read an authoritative explanation of the misconceptions surrounding idea theft from publishing industry expert Jane Friedman.

How easy are you to work with?

Some authors circumvent confidentiality anxiety by plunking a copyright notice on the front page of their manuscript or demanding NDA clauses and confidentiality agreements. This is not only unnecessary but the hallmark of an amateur. There’s nothing wrong with that—but this sort of shenanigan can cost you a publishing deal if it makes you seem difficult to represent or publish.

Editors and agents will pass your work by if the mere process of reading it is onerous. With thousands of submissions every month clamoring for attention, why wouldn’t they toss your incomplete submission and NDA request aside and move on to someone who’s ready to roll?

You may have worked for years on your story. Maybe it is a unique idea that nobody’s ever come forward with before. Even so, the only way it’s going to get edited or published is by getting it in front of editors and publishers—busy professionals who don’t have time to play footsies over assessing its potential.

It’s in your best interest to make yourself and your book easy to work with.

The readers are coming

Meanwhile, a general reluctance to let others see your work sabotages your own progress. If you’re writing a book you hope will be sold and read widely, you’re going to have to get used to letting other people read it. Readers are the goal, right?

It’s hard to open yourself up to criticism when your writing feels so intensely personal. Refusing to workshop or critique your book because you’re afraid other authors will steal your ideas or because you’re sensitive to negative feedback means missing valuable opportunities to tune your work. That tuning could very well spell the difference in getting your book published.

Related: Hurts so good: Crack the critique mindset

Early readers help you prepare your manuscript for editing by spotting plot holes, characterization problems, and elements of the story that just aren’t working. There’s no reason to pay a professional editor to find fundamental issues that early readers could have spotted. You’ll get more for your editing budget by bringing the strongest possible work to the table. Then your editor can work with you to elevate your manuscript and give it a competitive advantage.

Related: The six-draft self-editing method

Related: The quick and easy guide to using beta readers

Trust and transparency

Some editors are willing to quote on editing work based on a small sample of the manuscript, but many (especially developmental editors who work at the whole-story level) need to review the entire work. Demanding a quote without allowing a thorough review hog-ties their ability to give you an accurate quote. It would be like going to the doctor for pain in your stomach but refusing to show them anything but the back of your hands.

It would be like going to the doctor for pain in your stomach but refusing to show them anything but the back of your hands.

When an editor asks you to send your entire manuscript for review, they plan to look through the entire thing. They’re looking for energetic beginnings and rousing conclusions. They’re searching for energetic middles that don’t collapse in a mushy mess. They’re staking out pervasive problems like clunky dialogue, head-hopping, flat worldbuilding, and narrative arcs that amble past turning points with nary a conflict in sight.

Editors need to identify your book’s strengths and weaknesses from beginning to end. What good is giggling over that hilarious repartee between the protagonist and her love interest, for example, if the editor can’t read enough of the manuscript to see that the story has no narrative spine to speak of?

If you’re only willing to reveal a favorite chapter or two, a prospective editor has no chance to see what kind of attention the rest of your book might need. As a result, you’re left with no sense of how they might handle that kind of work. That’s a failed match in the making.

Now you’re both at a disadvantage. The editor might quote an $800 critique and schedule you for next month, only to discover a few days in that it actually needs $2,500+ of developmental editing plus extensive author revisions—and the project no longer fits into the editor’s schedule.

That kind of surprise isn’t the editor’s fault. That’s on you.

When your book is ready for editing, it’s time to relinquish your hold on the manuscript. The book belongs to readers now, and to the process that will carry it to them. That process begins with transparency and trust for your editor. If you’re not confident in your choices, keep vetting prospects until you find an editor with the experience and reputation you trust. Make it easy for your editor to help your book succeed.

Related: The Author’s Guide to Finding and Hiring an Editor

Revised December 2021


Lisa PoissoWant more advice like this?  Sign up for Baker’s Dozen, 13 things for your writing, fresh out of the editorial oven every month. 

If you’re looking for an editor to accelerate your journey from new writer to emerging author, that editor could be me. Let’s work together via short-term coaching for story development, long-term coaching to hone your writing, or story or line editing (my editing specialties). Contact me now—let’s talk.