How much am I allowed to quote while writing nonfiction?
November 1, 2011 3:26 PM   Subscribe

Writing a nonfiction book. I am a total quote whore. How much am I allowed to quote from my sources directly if I get this published?

I am rewriting the second draft of a nonfiction book for NaNoWriMo (I'm a rebel). At this point I'm not even close to worrying about publication, and I have no qualifications/agent/anything to recommend me anyway. However, I am not 100% ruling out the possibility of working towards the direction of publication eventually, if it ever comes out well.

I have a ton of sources I have quoted from. A few folks who saw the first chapter told me I quoted too much, but also said that I would have to get legal permission for every single quote I used if it got published, and I would not be allowed to quote much at all. I also got "it varies" when I asked how much I would be allowed to use.

So, yeah, I know "it varies" and "it depends on what the lawyers tell you" and "each source is different", blah blah that-is-not-a-helpful-guideline-cakes. I will not be calling a lawyer for assistance when I don't even have a book deal right now. But I'd rather not have to rewrite it even more times to cut/purge quotes when I can just get a general idea of how much I can use. And I'd like to leave the option of publishing open, so just writing it as is is not acceptable.

So how much typically would someone be allowed to quote in a nonfiction book? I honestly can't tell what the rule is from books I've seen, if there is any rule. 1-2 sentences? One paragraph? Some books in my research pile seem to even have an entire page quoted from another book. Basically I just want a guideline to go by so I know approximately how much I can use or not use/have to take out without having to rewrite bloody everything multiple times to work around direct quoting.

(Song lyrics are not being quoted in here, so that's not an issue.)
posted by jenfullmoon to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
but also said that I would have to get legal permission for every single quote I used if it got published, and I would not be allowed to quote much at all.

Who are these people who told you this? I edit nonfiction (art) books and we absolutely do not ever get permission for quotations of any length (whether a dozen words or hundreds) -- though of course we attribute them fully. The only time we get permission for using prose for is if we are actually reprinting something (for example, an essay or a translation of a primary source) in full or as a significant exerpt.
posted by scody at 3:36 PM on November 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Short answer: it depends.
Quoting James Joyce? Good luck fighting with his estate.
Quoting Emily Dickinson? Feel free.

You can always use footnotes.

Don't sidetrack your writing worrying about this now. Any publisher or editor will figure it out, once you're done with the book.

Write what you want, and then sort it out, when you get an agent or book deal.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:47 PM on November 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

One rule of thumb I've heard is that quotes of more than 500 words, cumulative, from a single prose source should get permission. Poetry and song lyrics are much stricter. Typically you want permission for anything more than 2 lines.
posted by libraryhead at 3:51 PM on November 1, 2011

& while Ideefixee is right that this can all be sorted out upon eventual publication, it's not a bad idea to keep an eye on total quote lengths with "fair use" in mind. If you're quoting many thousands of words from in-copyright sources, see if you can cut it down to the most relevant section. The Chicago manual of style is a good source for info about fair use, permissions, and attribution.
posted by libraryhead at 3:57 PM on November 1, 2011

Oh, and also, here's a bit on fair use from the current Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.):
4.77 / Overview of the legal doctrine. The doctrine of fair use was originally developed by courts as an equitable limit on absolute right of copyright. Although incorporated into new copyright law, the doctrine does not attempt to define the exact limits of the fair use of copyrighted material.... Essentially, the doctrine excuses copying that would otherwise be infringement. For example, it allows authors to quote from other authors' work [emphasis mine] or to reproduce small amounts of graphic or pictorial material for purpose of review or criticism or to illustrate or buttress their own points. Ahtours invoking fair use should transcribe accurately and give credit to their sources. They should not quote out of context, making the author of the quoted passage seem to be saying something opposite to, or different from, what was intended.


4.79 / A few general rules. Fair use is use that is fair -- simply that. Uses that are tangential in purpose to the original, and uses that transform the copied material by changing its context or the way it is perceived, will always be judged more leniently than those that merely parallel or parrot the original. For example, substantial quotation of the original is acceptable in the context of a critique but may well not be acceptable if one is simply using the first author's words to reiterate the same argument or embellish one's own prose. Use of any literary work in its entirety... is hardly ever acceptable.... As a general rule, one should never quote more than a few contiguous paragraphs of prose or lines of poetry at a time or let the quotations, even if scattered, begin to overshadow the quoter's own material.
posted by scody at 3:58 PM on November 1, 2011

Pictures and scans need permission (and sometimes a fee; it's usually quite easy to negotiate this kind of thing, and doesn't break the bank). Publishers often expect authors to see that process through. You would, then, find the publisher/library from where your material stems, informally email them with your request, and they will contact you with a proposal, or send you a form, or whatever. This is typically done while you work with your final proofreading, so much later than where you're now.
(I have no experience with lyrics and poems.)
Quotes are to be footnoted. If you use entire huge chunks of text, it's probably better to contact the source and ask what their deal is.

In general, excessive quoting kind of is a bit suspect, I mean, it's you who writes the book, no? In my experience, texts tend to get too long anyway and need to be shortened, sometimes substantially. I'd try to cut the quoting from the start. (Obviously I see that this may be topic-sensitive to some degree, but still...)
posted by Namlit at 4:07 PM on November 1, 2011

I handle reprint permissions as part of my job, and it always makes me sad when a college student calls or emails to ask for permission to quote from one of our reports. When I tell them they don't need formal reprint permission to do so, they often tell me their professors tell them they must. (The Joyce people are crazy.)

Getting permission for graphics, or to reprint something in its entirety, is something that needs to happen if the thing isn't in the public domain. Quote away, and always give clear attribution to the source material.
posted by rtha at 5:05 PM on November 1, 2011

It depends totally on what you are quoting - I published the whole of a poem with the permission of the archive. But (as noted above) the Joyce heir is really anal.

But stylistically - quoting too much from published or manuscript sources (as opposed to transcripts of conversations) is frowned on. Unless you are publishing an edition of an otherwise unpublished document (like my poem), people want to read your words and your interpretation of the sources.

So paraphrase, and quote only the juiciest bits. I often quote only part of a sentence, and no more than 1-2 sentences at most. I would never quote a whole paragraph -- I would summarize the point in my own words, and quote only the most pointed bits for colour. But this is definitely a stylistic choice, not a legal one.
posted by jb at 6:13 PM on November 1, 2011

It will also depend on the publishing house and their legal team, so don't waste any time seeking legal counsel if it's not from the house that will ultimately publish the book.

I'd leave the quotes in unless you hear from an agent or editor that they are passing based on the amount of quotations - I would not rely on what friends and family said about either the amount of quotes or the legal requirements (unless one of them is a lawyer for the house that's publishing your book). People outside of the publishing industry have lovely intentions but no clue about how things work.

I work in publishing.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:47 PM on November 1, 2011

Peanut is right--different houses have different standards. I work in publishing, too. Just to give you a general idea of what these kinds of rules look like, here's the short version of our house rules regarding permissions:
-no more than 300 words in your entire manuscript from a book-length work--quoting more requires perms
-no more than 10% of the total length of the original work for shorter works (again, this is across your entire manuscript)--quoting more requires perms
-even a phrase from a song or poem must get perms
-all visuals must get perms
posted by TEA at 8:01 PM on November 1, 2011

Quote a couple of sentences with full attribution, either in footnotes or endnotes, and make it clear in the text that you're quoting. Don't take more than three or four quotes from the same source in the whole book.

Don't quote full paragraphs or full pages. Write the book yourself, yes it's hard but you can't just make a collage of other people's stuff and expect to get anywhere, unless you're T.S. Eliot.
posted by joannemullen at 9:41 PM on November 1, 2011

I published a non-fiction book this year and even though I had a contract with my publishers that said I was responsible for making sure that I had the rights for everything, they were still pains in the ass about things I used including

- quotes from people - every person I quoted [I had a lot of short quotes that came from personal communication] had to send a signed "This is okay with me and this is indeed what i said" letter to my publisher
- quotes from print sources - my publisher wanted me to stick to sub-200 word quotations. I didn't necessarily want to go to the mat over this, so I trimmed a few quotations.

What they were really weirdos about was screenshots, requiring me to get permission from, say, Google to use a screenshot of a search box. I did go to the mat over these and we compromised with me asking for permission but them sending the book to the printers anyhow when Google not unsurprisingly, never got back to me.
posted by jessamyn at 10:21 PM on November 1, 2011

Quote whore translates to "plagiarist" in the real world. Dont do it.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:23 AM on November 2, 2011

"If they're marked as quotes and properly attributed, lots of quotes won't translate to 'plagiarist' because you're not trying to pass off someone else's work as your own," MetaFilter user rtha said.1

They may, though, clutter the page, interfere with the point you're trying to make, or just make for confusing reading. But these are things that can be wrangled after NaNoWriMo. The point now is to write write write, right? Do that, keep good track of your sources/attributions/footnotes, and worry about getting permission for stuff when you've got a publishing contract in hand or nearby.

1. Comment at MetaFilter,, accessed November 2, 2011
posted by rtha at 5:58 AM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

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