Ask the Book Doctor

Can I legally use real live celebrities as characters in my novel without their permission? What if I printed my manuscript and distributed it only to my family and friends for no profit?


I am an editor, not an attorney. I cannot give legal advice or guess what others might choose to sue you for. Sorry I can't be of help directly, but the answer might be found with an entertainment attorney. In Georgia we have an organization for entertainment attorneys called Georgia Lawyers for the Arts. Call them at 404/873-3911. If you live in another state, perhaps your city or state has a similar group willing to answer a brief question for free.

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We are considering a move to get a distributor for books already published. How do I locate a good book distributor who will get our books into bookstores?

I don't deal with distributors myself, but as I understand it, there are only a few out there: Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and a few others. Here's a reference book you can buy that might help, although I'm not familiar with it, but it sounds like it would answer your questions.

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A literary agency just returned my manuscript with a note saying I need to read more about creative writing or use a book doctor. My sister-in-law edited my book for me. She teaches high-school English, and I thought she did a great job. After all, she knows all about grammar. Is the agency trying to scam me?

Your question requires separate answers. First, let me explain the difference between an editor and a book doctor. As an analogy, let me say that an editor is like an emergency-room doctor, while a book doctor is like a family physician. An editor, like an ER doctor, treats the most immediate, most obvious trauma, whereas a family physician, like a book doctor, takes an overall approach to improving the quality of your life or your book. An editor knows grammar, yes. Editors fix the spelling and punctuation, as well. An editor makes sure your manuscript is technically correct. A book doctor, however, makes recommendations that make it more marketable.

While editors check the surface of a manuscript, book doctors delve into the body and soul of the work, the pace, point of view, characterization, plot, structure, voice, and the like. They even assist with syntax.

Syntax, which refers to word choice and word order, makes all the difference between factual writing and creative writing. A line becomes memorable not merely because of content, but because of syntax.

Almost every adult American remembers Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech, part of which goes like this: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." He could have said the same thing this way: "I wish we would all just accept that we're created equal." He didn't, though, and syntax made the difference. Syntax made his speech immortal. His word order gave his speech an inherent rhythm. His word choice, "I have a dream" is much stronger than "I wish." His choice of "this nation will rise up," implies much more than "we would just all accept." Would an editor have known how to improve my weak interpretation of Dr. King's speech? No, but a good book doctor might have.

I do not mean to imply a book doctor will rewrite your manuscript. Although an amateur book doctor might try, only a ghostwriter should rewrite, and only if you ask. A great book doctor suggests rewrites, but doesn't make them for you. He or she points out patterns to avoid in your writing style. A book doctor may even recommend specific books that address issues you need to improve or avoid.

As to your question, "Is the company just trying to scam me?" I can't answer without seeing the company literature. If it insists that you use a specific book doctor, it might be a scam. If it simply suggests that you find a good editor or a good book doctor, but it leaves you free to find the one you want, it's not a scam; it's good advice.

Because you wisely worry about scams, be sure to do the following:

Can writers reveal their convictions in their stories?

On Butt Cracks and Egos

It's been said that opinions are like butt cracks; everyone has one, but no one wants to see yours.

Does that premise mean we writers are never allowed to reveal our convictions? I think not. We probably wouldn't have become writers, if we didn't have strong beliefs and weren't looking for ways to tell others about them.

What's a Writer to Do?
Let's say you are a starving writer and finally get an article assignment that will pay the rent, but the magazine wants you to report on the value of electric-shock dog collars. You consider their use inhumane, but your rent is overdue. Do you swallow all pride and write a glowing report on the virtues of shocking a helpless animal into submission? Do you refuse the job, knowing the next time you sit on your sofa, it will be outside, on the curb? Do you beg for a different assignment, when you've already been told it's the only one available?

A wise woman once told me that whenever I couldn't make up my mind, it was because options existed that I didn't yet know about. Possibilities abound, even where we least expect them. Instead of any of the choices above, consider this one: Write the piece, but write a balanced piece, which is a mark of good journalism, anyway. Interview the sources you're given, even if they are the manufacturers and retailers of an item you consider a medieval torture device. Talk to users of the product. Ask about any drawbacks they've experienced. Chances are you'll get a few negatives to add to your article. Finally, call veterinarians or Humane Society members and frame your questions to get the negative feedback you might have wished to say yourself. When you finish, you'll have a balanced article that allows readers to make up their own minds.

If you're a good writer, you can make the case against the product as strong or stronger than the use for it, yet still satisfy your publisher. Take the money and run to the bank. You've voiced your opinion through the mouths of others, and you've learned the value of balanced journalism.

How Does The Butt-Crack Hypothesis Apply to Fiction?
Many writers of fiction forget the theory of the butt crack and spout off personal opinions in their novels and short stories. Sometimes they do so without realizing it, by the use of words in narrative such as "obviously" or "of course." Editorializing in fiction is an absolute no-no, but do not dismay. Fiction writers have even more opportunity to seduce the reader with their own opinions, through the words of their characters.

Mary Contrary may be a minor character, yet she can tell her boyfriend in strong terms that she disapproves of his dog-training methods. She can explain that she considers shocking dogs a cruel treatment, when rewarding them humanely for good behavior works equally well.

Explore All Opportunities
Do writers have to park their egos (and their butts) at the door? No, we don't. We can write op-ed pieces, letters to the editor and personal essays, to voice our opinions. We can quote other people who say what we want to say. We can create characters that voice our opinions for us. Or, hey, we can write articles for other writers and sneak in our opinions. I did, didn't I? Don't you now know how I feel about shock collars? Did you notice my butt crack? I hope not; instead, I trust that you learned how to air your beliefs without showing your briefs.

What are some do's and don'ts of query letters?

When you want to sell your novel or article, you will have to write a query letter. What to put into a 200-word letter can stump even those of us who write 95,000-word novels.


Don't be unprofessional. Remember you are writing a business letter to a business professional, be it an agent or a publisher. If you were writing to the president of a large firm asking for a job, would you begin with something like this: "I just decided I wanted to be an accountant, so would you like to hire me?" That's what you're saying when you start your query letter, "I just finished my first novel, and I'm looking for a major publisher." Don't do anything to remind your future publisher that you are a novice.

Don't say your book is entitled something-or-other. People are entitled; books are titled.

Don't meander. Stick to business in the query letter, without getting personal. Don't say you live in the mountains with your two dogs and your wife.

Don't state the obvious. When you write to an agent, you don't have to say you are looking for an agent. The same goes for a publisher.

Don't waste your time and everyone else's by querying about a novel you have not finished.

Don't call it a fictional novel. The term is redundant. The word "novel" means a long story of fictional prose.

Unless the publisher's guidelines say so, don't send a query letter on a nonfiction book without sending a full book proposal. Book proposals are another subject completely. Buy a book on how to write a book proposal and follow it to a T. Many books are available on the subject.


Do research and follow guidelines. Some agents or publishers want only a query letter. Others want sample chapters and a synopsis with a query letter. With the Internet we can research guidelines easily. Take a few extra minutes to find the guidelines for your intended target, and you increase your chances of success.

Do be professional rather than playful.

Do state the title of your book or novel. (See the comment on entitled/titled, above)

Do give the length or the projected length in the number of words, not in number of pages.

Do give a short one-paragraph summary. Here's a magazine query example: "When I went to Ireland I became fascinated with holy wells, which pagans founded, but Christians later incorporated into their beliefs, to assist in converting the pagans. My article on the origins, uses and evolution of holy wells in Ireland is about 3,000 words long and fits into your magazine theme of unique sites for hikers in Europe." Agent query example: "In my 72,000-word novel titled Fall Down the Well, Renato Fall's obsession with writing magazine and newspaper articles about Ireland's holy wells gets him in deep water when he raises the ire of a splinter religious sect. He must dig his way out of the mire to save his life, and in the process, he gains a new perspective on the subject that interests him most."

Do include a full synopsis of any novel, if the guidelines say to do so. The one-paragraph summary in the letter is a teaser. The full synopsis is a separate document that tells the whole plot, from beginning to resolution. It does not include hype, such as "This is the next bestseller" or "This book will appeal to everyone," but it does include the ending. It does not leave the story hanging the way a summary does.

Do, always, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE). It is rude to leave it out, and you could get valuable feedback or further guidelines in writing that you would not get otherwise.

Do give all your contact information. Many publishers call if they are interested, but few will call or e-mail if they are not. Always give your home phone number, your work phone number, your cell phone number, your e-mail address and your mailing address, even if it appears on your SASE.

Do state the title and genre (if fiction), and if it is not for adults, state the age range intended for the book. Study and follow the typical age breaks for children's books.

Do use a good-quality stationary, but it does not have to have graphics or color on it. For the letter only, choose 24-pound paper over 20-pound. The difference is subtle but professional.

If asked to send any portion of the manuscript with the query letter, do print the manuscript on 20-pound white bond paper.

Do be sure that any copies you send are of high quality.

Do limit your query letter to one page. Make it as short and as tight as possible, but be sure you include all the information mentioned above.

Do all these things, and you'll be way ahead of the unprofessional writers who don't know or don't follow these rules.

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I have put together a humorous cookbook for family and friends. What type of copyright laws apply to recipes? How do I apply for an ISBN, Copyright, and The Library of Congress numbers? Do you edit cookbooks using the same pricing noted on this web page? Thanks for your assistance.

Sincerely, C.G.S.

Dear C.G.S.:
I don't believe you can copyright a single recipe, but you can copyright a work, such as a collection of recipes. The Copyright Revision Act of 1976 states that a copyright exists in a work as soon as it is created in tangible form, even if it has not been published, and whether or not it has been registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. A copyright is useful to show ownership, but not necessary. Official copyrights are available through the U.S. Copyright Office, which supplies you with the appropriate application form. The fee was $20, last time I checked. To get an application form, contact the Register of Copyrights, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20559. The Library of Congress can also give you information on obtaining a Library of Congress number.

If you are self-publishing and plan to sell your book through book stores, you need an ISBN number. To apply for an ISBN number, contact R.R. Bowker. Its toll-free number is 1-888-269-5372.

Cookbooks do not usually require as much detailed editing, because most incorporate lists of ingredients that merely need proofreading for typographical errors; however, the narrative and cooking instructions usually need editing. Because of the nature of cookbooks, prices vary. I would have to see the manuscript, to determine the cost. Send the manuscript to me at 230 Deerchase Drive, Ste. B, Woodstock, GA 30188. Be sure to include your name, address, phone number, e-mail address and a note asking for an estimate. I will look over the manuscript and give you a quote based on how much work I think it needs.

I'll also give you a date when it will be finished. If you decide not to use my services, I will return the manuscript at my cost.

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Knowing it is improper to send multiple submissions unless a publisher approves, what about query letters? Since the manuscript itself is not being submitted, is it okay to send query letters to more than one publisher at the same time?

Signed, Sandy

Dear Sandy:
Multiple query letters are usually fine (unless the publisher specifies it does not want to receive any multiples); however, your letter should indicate that it is a multiple query. A simple added "P.S. This is a multiple query" is fine. Sometimes such a note speeds a reply, if a publisher or agent is interested, because everyone wants to be the first to grab up a really good manuscript.

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If you talk to an agent about my manuscript and he or she agrees to send it, do I have to send a query letter and outline?


Dear J.D.:
You don't have to send an outline or synopsis, but it wouldn't hurt. Usually, if a book doctor or other intermediary has already talked to an agent about your book and the agent has agreed to look at it, you merely have to send a cover letter and the manuscript, but doing more than you are asked to do rarely gets you in trouble. Mention the name of the intermediary in the cover letter, to remind the agent. For example, you would say, "Bobbie Christmas of Zebra Communications edited this manuscript. She told me she has spoken with you about it. Thank you for agreeing to read it."

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Make your reservation now to work with Bobbie Christmas!

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