Non-Disclosure Agreements and the Writing Community

Non-Disclosure Agreements and the Writing Community

Prior to dedicating 100% of my energy and time into the writing of my first book, I worked as a Salesforce Consultant. Before that, I spent years managing a Salesforce environment at a nonprofit think tank in Washington, DC. And before that, I logged even more years doing other Salesforce-related work. Yeah... the Salesforce platform dominated my professional life for a very long time, though I have zero regrets of that because I genuinely feel that the platform is awesome across the board.

But this post isn't about my extolling the benefits of Salesforce, though if you sat down with me at a bar and wanted to talk Salesforce I'll be more than happy to do so. No, today is about an aspect of the writing world that, despite throwing myself headlong into it just over a year ago, still baffles me.

What I am consistently surprised and impressed by is how trusting the writing community is. The writer-writer, writer-editor, and writer-beta reader relationships that form over time, minus the presence of contracts, are pretty amazing. Why is that?

As someone that worked in the tech industry for over a decade, what blows my mind is this. Writers share unpublished works - in many cases in their entirety - with people they barely know without them signing an NDA (non-disclosure agreement).

On the Dotted Line, Please

For those not familiar, a non-disclosure agreement is a legal contract between two parties that outlines a variety of details related to information or property that is considered confidential. These agreements outline the purpose of said agreement, what rights and restrictions (as they relate to what's being shared) are bestowed on the signer, and what can happen if said agreement is violated. The most common NDA that most people are familiar with is "doctor-patient confidentiality" where you can share as much detail about your physical/mental health with your doctor without worrying about that doctor divulging your private details to others. 

In this discussion, I refer to the sort of NDA that you sign as part of working in the tech industry.

As a Salesforce CRM Manager, I signed a lengthy NDA because of the highly sensitive information I could see thanks to my global administrative privileges. As a Salesforce Consultant, I signed contracts all the time whenever I managed a new client due to their sharing loads of confidential information related to their business which ranged from contact details of their clients to internal salary information on their employees.

From what I've seen, particularly once I was ready to recruit beta readers, was that most writers don't care to draft anything related to a formal contract for their betas to sign. Similarly, no formal contract was signed between my editor, Kim Chance, and me. Granted, there was the exchange of money in the case of my editor, and you could argue that the email communications can be considered contractual. Still, no formal NDA.

On Twitter, I occasionally see calls from other writers looking for people to beta-read their work, to which handfuls of people usually reply. Though I didn't do this for my story, I did have a group of eleven beta readers that, over the last few months, got back to me with full summary documents and in-line commentary. In all cases, nothing was signed - they read my work and returned documentation back to me. 

For those that wrote their own unpublished stories, we agreed to exchange our works and read them, provided that we'd each write up our thoughts and answer provided questions in return. Even so... you have two writers sharing complete manuscripts with each other without anything other than the emails between the two of you showing that there was a sort of agreement set forth. In most cases (my experience, at least), I received fully editable MS Word documents - nothing was locked down in the slightest.

Even with agents, you don't formally sign anything until they inform you of their interest in representing you. Up until that point, a writer can submit as much as their entire manuscript to an agent if requested. No contracts. Just... attach your manuscript to an email and click "Send."

And (so far... <knocks on wood>) nothing's ever been stolen or claimed by someone else as their own creation. Seriously... this is amazing.

My First - and Only - NDA

Very early into my writing, I did draft an NDA which my first alpha reader signed. He was a fellow techie - he specialized in data engineering (sounds a bit nebulous, but that's tech for you). When I first approached him regarding my wanting him to be an alpha reader, the first thing he asked me - after expressing his excitement for the opportunity - was "When do I sign the NDA?" I didn't think about that at the time, but it quickly made sense: I had something unpublished and incomplete, which meant that someone else could attempt to lay claim to it if they had malicious intentions. Of course, malicious intent was the last thing on my mind regarding my friend, as I trusted him completely. However, he felt better about the entire process if he could sign off on an NDA before receiving my manuscript. After working with him in finding a NDA template, I modified some of the language, established some e-signature and security functionality into the PDF, and sent it over to him. He e-signed right away, after which my manuscript landed into his inbox and more spoiler-filled details regarding my book were shared over the following months.

The first paragraph of the "short" NDA that I sent my friend in order for him to become one of my alpha readers.

The first paragraph of the "short" NDA that I sent my friend in order for him to become one of my alpha readers.

I confessed to him afterwards that it felt weird having him sign an NDA. However, I get it. They cover that legal grey area that immediately appears once you start sharing your written work with other people. One thing that I didn't really know at that time was that copyright law protected my manuscript once it was saved for the first time on my computer. Having an NDA brings additional levels of legal coverage that would otherwise be challenging (not impossible) for the creator to implement against another. 

Society is indeed a contract. ... It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.
— Edmund Burke

Are NDAs used between writers in any capacity? From what I can tell, the answer is no. I'm sure such situations do arise, but the overwhelming majority do not leverage the power of non-disclosure agreements.

Is that a bad thing? Not when the writing community, at large, is seemingly invested in a level of trust, openness, and camaraderie not seen in many other industries. Perhaps it's just because I'm still, in many ways, on the ground floor with the hundreds of thousands of other unpublished writers. I dunno. It's just really fascinating that such legal tools are effectively shunned in favor of more soft approaches to the handling of relationships where the exchange of creative information is involved.

Coming from the tech world, the back of my mind still generates an itch whenever I connect with a writer with the intent on exchanging manuscripts for mutual critiques. At the same time, however... I feel relieved that such formal contractual obligations aren't mandatory.

It's nice to be able to share information with folks and agree on terms that benefit both parties without reviewing a multi-page contract.

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