If you have recently self-published your book or are thinking about self-publishing, you need Helen Sedwick in your life. If you aren’t already familiar, Helen Sedwick is a retired business attorney and author, and her self-help guide for authors, Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook, has been our publishing bible for years. So we were so thrilled to interview Helen and ask her all our burning questions.
During our conversation, we were able to talk to Helen about the questions we get most often from our authors, and boy, did we get brilliant answers! Because not only does Helen understand the legal intricacies of self-publishing from her extensive law experience, but as a self-published author herself, she brings first-hand knowledge and tips. Check out our breakdown of the most important pointers we gleaned from Helen:
You’ve put so much sweat and hard work into your creative masterpiece, so, as Helen says in our interview, do your research before you sign with any publisher. As in any business, there are companies who take advantage of authors’ dreams of writerly fame and ask for exclusive rights to their work. Beware! According to Helen, it’s never a good idea to sign away all your rights to your book, and any contract with a publisher should be pretty short and straightforward: look for a limited license, or one that only gives the publisher the right to print, publish, and sell your book in English, in the United States, and for a limited term. And remember, you are hiring them to work for you, so don’t be afraid to ask questions or push back.
After all the toil and effort involved with writing a book, choosing your cover feels like a sweet reward—but be careful about pulling images from the internet. In certain instances, you can use images without the copyright owner’s permission: criticism and educational purposes, for example, fall under the terms of fair use. But for a book of poetry or novel, you almost certainly won’t get away with fair use. Helen advises us to always err on the side of caution and to buy an image and the rights to use it or to seek permission before using a copyrighted image.
Writing About Real People:
Unless you are writing a memoir or a book of nonfiction, you don’t really need to worry too much about permission to write about real people. The assumption with fiction and poetry is that the work reflects the writer’s interpretation of the people in the book, and you can change names and details so that real people are not recognizable.
If, however, your book is a memoir or work of nonfiction, you do need to carefully avoid potential defamation (i.e., disclosing severely damaging information about a person) and violations of privacy. Helen, however, makes a brilliant observation: when you are in a creative space and generating material, don’t worry about legal issues. Write what you need to write because holding other concerns will activate your inner self-critic, and you don’t want to censor yourself in your early drafts! Find your way through your story and say what you need to say. When you prepare to publish, you can then look at your manuscript with a more discerning eye because you’ve likely developed your book’s core meaning and will find that potentially damaging details you included in early drafts can be altered to maintain privacy (or cut altogether) without destabilizing the careful narrative structure you’ve established.
For more information and detailed answers, be sure to watch our in-depth interview with Helen Sedwick, and definitely seek out her book, Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook, for an even deeper dive into legal issues related to self-publishing!