I recently corresponded with a gentleman who wondered whether he would stymie his submission efforts if he sent an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) along with his query letters. Every situation is different, and I’m certainly not a lawyer, but here are some thoughts I shared with him that might also help guide you.
You’re Not That Special
More authors get NDAs out of paranoia than necessity or as the result of informed advice. Would sharing some of your story ideas or research be enough for someone else to reproduce your work? Not likely. It isn’t so much the concept that makes something awesome, but how it’s executed. How many times has a new product or movie or whatever come out and left you feeling, “Aw man, I thought of that first!” Among billions of humans, many have similar or even identical ideas simultaneously. Not all follow through, and among those who do, each brings his or her own talents, skill, experience, and perspective to create a unique expression. Try to consider your work from this perspective and ask yourself if you really need that NDA and, if so, at what point you’d really need it signed. The more concrete material you can give a prospective agent or editor, the more willing they’ll be to sign an NDA, since they’ll be better able to judge if the project is right for them without wasting time.
First Impressions Count
Publishing is a tough business full of quirky personalities, so agents and other professionals will pick up on certain things about an author as signs that he or she will be difficult to work with—sometimes this is fair, other times it’s based on broad assumptions. Agents and editors are wary of authors who require them to sign NDAs before they can read the full submission because it strikes everyone as paranoid and unnecessary. It also can sometimes indicate an overblown ego (an example where such assumptions are unfair). Cases where an NDA is actually justified are so rare that the knee-jerk response to reject and simply not deal with it can overcome any curiosity an agent might have.
Time Is Not Your Friend
Agents and editors are extremely busy and overburdened, especially these days with so many imprints closing and people getting laid off. If you send a vague query and proposal making a lot of huge promises about how groundbreaking your discoveries are without actually telling them anything, they aren’t going to bite. They’re going to think, “Ugh, how many steps am I going to have to take just to figure out if I’m actually interested in this project?” Or worse, “Yeah yeah, another author who thinks he’s the next greatest thing.” This is your biggest challenge. You need to be able to put enough in the query letter that they will see a real need for the NDA and understand it as a practical decision on your part—that you aren’t just another author who erroneously thinks his ideas are the most amazing and unique ever. You have to give them something real so they’ll be willing to be a little patient and sign papers before they can peer behind the curtain.
If you’re uncertain, do yourself a favor and talk to a lawyer specializing in intellectual property law and preferably with some experience in book publishing. It’ll cost you, but they won’t shy away from signing your NDA, and then they can offer you professional advice on whether they think you need it and/or when to implement it. You can find templates for NDAs online, but that’s no substitute—if you feel you need legal protection for your work, you really should get legal advice.