Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Stolen, Schmolen

I pitched an idea to an editor I'd never worked with before. A few months later, I saw a story in the magazine that was virtually the exact same idea I pitched! I'm irate. Can I do anything about it?

No. And you shouldn't either. WHY?? You might ask/fume? Because the odds are slim to none that YOUR idea inspired this story. Stick with me here, and I'll explain.

At some point in many fledgling writers' careers, they assume that one of their ideas has been ripped off. It's an easy enough assumption: ideas aren't copy-writable (yes, I think I made that word up), and hey, since you sent it into your editor, surely, she read it, loved it, but just passed it on to someone else. Right? Right? Wrong.

Here's the deal: as genius as we like to think of our ideas, most of them, sadly, aren't really that unique. Chances are, if you thought of it, so too did at least one - if not six - other writers. Think about this. We all have access to the same research, news reports and general trends. If you develop a pitch on how yoga can save your life, the odds are very likely that someone else has too. Sometimes, landing a story is simply a matter of who presses "send" first. I can't tell you the number of times that an editor has come back to me and said, "we just assigned a piece on this subject, sorry!" And I'll stew over my keyboard thinking, "why didn't I motivate and get off my ass and send that in sooner??" Ah well, c'est la vie.

The thing is, it really doesn't serve any purpose for your editor to take your idea and run in the other direction. Why would he or she do that? Editors aren't there to screw you, and they're not unethical or amoral. If you deliver a well thought-out and researched query, they'll be impressed. But just as importantly, you have to deliver a unique query. "10 Ways to Lose Weight" is not unique. "10 Ways to Spice Up Your Sex Life" is not unique. Get the picture here? If you send in a pitch like this, well, of course you're going to think that they ripped you off because at some point in the near future, an article will appear on these subjects....but that doesn't mean that the editor took her inspiration from you. In fact, if it was a fairly generic pitch, she probably read it, hopefully responded, and then deleted it. (Sorry, it's true.) It didn't haunt her enough so that she took the time to farm it out to a different writer. Trust me, really, she didn't.

If you're 100% certain that you've been ripped off, because sure, it does occasionally happen, then I'd send her an email saying something like, "I loved the story in the November issue on how to turn your garden into a kibbutz. I remember pitching you something very similar, and that you responded to it positively. I was hoping to, of course, be assigned this piece. Was there a mix-up along the way?" Or something like that. I wouldn't make flagrant accusations because unless she used your intro word for word or cited the exact anecdotes that you provided, you really have no way of knowing what truly happened. Sometimes, you'll send in an idea, it won't be right for them at the time, then several months later, someone else will submit a similar idea, and it will fit. It might LOOK like the editor stole your idea, but, in fact, she'd forgotten about the original pitch and was just struck by this one.

And don't forget: most monthly mags work on at least six months lead time. So if you've pitched something and see similar a story three months later, it wasn't stolen at all. You were simply behind the game.

The bottom line is that you can stew and steam all you want. But moving forward and developing finely-honed and researched ideas is a much better use of your time.

Ever thought you had your idea stolen? How did you react? Editors on this board: want to chime in and explain how often you see the same idea over and over again?


Anonymous said...

Hi Allison,
just wanted to say hey and let you know I dropped in on your blog as I said I would. I have already forwarded it to three friends who I know are trying to get their start in writing for magasinzes & papers.
Good stuff!
-- tavia.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Thanks, Tavia! You're the best!