Thursday, July 31, 2008


Question of the day: How common is it that a writer submit an idea to a magazine, only to have the magazine poach the idea and give it to another writer?

Ah yes. The "they stole my idea" moment! We've all had at least one of those moments. That moment when you open up a magazine and see the exact story that you yourself pitched to the same magazine just months prior.

Before you send off a scathing email to your editor, take a deep breath. And read this post.

Here's the deal with poaching ideas: sure, it happens, but it happens rarely. Far less than writers seem to think. In fact, if you run this question by a board of really seasoned magazine writers, most of them will tell you that this is an urban legend: that poaching is sort of a newbie's myth, a way of suggesting that their idea and their writing should have been included in a mag, and that they were robbed.

Which isn't to say that it doesn't happen. Because I'm sure it does. But remember this: if you have an idea for an article, the odds are very, very, very, very, very, very high that somewhere out there in the freelancing world, someone else has that same idea. I know it's hard to admit because we all like to think that our ideas are uniquely genius, but the truth that they're not. We all come up with our ideas from more or less the same pool: the same access to the same research; the same obstacles with our kids and our marriages and our careers and our bank accounts and our parents and our pets and our get the idea. Editors get pitched very similar queries all the time - it's inevitable - and if they choose a different writer, maybe one whom they're familiar with - over you, it isn't that they're stealing your idea, it's just that this writer got the gig because he or she has already proven himself to said editor. Also keep in mind that the lead time for most monthly magazines is at least six months (yes, editors are working on winter 2009 issues right now), so if you submitted your idea in less than that, there is simply no chance that it was stolen.

Okay. So you've heard what I have to say. But let's say that you're 100% convinced that your idea was taken. It does happen. I'm sure. Maybe the editor didn't want to trust a new-to-her writer or maybe - and this definitely happens - it was something less duplicitous and the editor just forgot about your pitch or overlooked it or had it slip her mind. So what now? Some writers will send off a kind but not-entirely-subtle note to the editor, along the lines of, "Hey! I read your great story on XYZ, and I'm so glad to know that since I pitched this idea a while ago, that I'm on the right track. I look forward to hitting the target again with you in the near future." Or something like that. Other writers will take a more forward approach: sending the editor a note basically stating that they pitched XYZ and were very surprised to see it appear in the magazine when it was so, so similar to the very query they fired off.

I dunno. I fall into the camp of: will these notes really do anything other than assuage your irritation? Maybe the former will guilt the editor into assigning you something, but really, do you want to work with editors whom you don't trust? Do you want to worry that when you send off a well-researched pitch, that said research is going to end up in the hands of another writer via the editor? I wouldn't, and I don't. So in the rare case when I really and truly thought that an idea had been poached (and come to think of it, I really can't think of anything concrete in the span of my career), I would probably just cross that editor off my pitch list. Maybe this is akin to tucking your tail beneath your legs - and it might not be the approach that everyone would choose, I know this - but I'd probably just let that bridge go unburned and walk away.

But chime in here: has this happened to you? How have you handled it? Do you think poaching is as common in the industry as some writers suspect? Or as others believe, is it more of an urban myth?


Anonymous said...

As a magazine editor, I can tell you that no matter how original you think your idea is, someone--either another freelancer or someone on staff--has likely thought of it first. We have planning meetings every month, and we're constantly thinking of ideas to pitch to the top editors. It's our paid job. That said, we're so thankful when someone will present a "fresh" idea, and we usually do all we can to allow that writer to write the piece. But, if we've had a bad experience with that writer and have thought of the idea in general but maybe not as specifically as that writer, we may go with someone else.

However, it does happen that a story gets slotted and the editor forgets who pitched it and assigns it to someone else. So, I think it is OK to e-mail an editor and mention nicely that that was your idea. But it's true about the lead time. If you submitted your idea less than six months in advance, it's likely someone else pitched it first.


Allison Winn Scotch said...

Thanks so much for sharing your insights! That's what makes this blog tick, and I really appreciate it!

Mediainski said...

I had an idea stolen but never complained because I was afraid I would never get work from this magazine again. It was a major trade magazine. I pitched an idea to an editor, and he loved it. He said yes to the story. It wasn't going to run for awhile, so when I checked back in re: the deadline, I was told that they decided not to go with the story because the section it was to run in was dropped. Cut to the month the story was supposed to run: There it was! The same story with the same sources I proposed talking to written by an in-house writer! Looking back, maybe I should have said something. Instead, I decided to go elsewhere with it, and another magazine said yes to the pitch. While I was happy to get it published, I was upset that I didn't get credit for being the first person to think up this unusual take on the subject!

Anonymous said...

I had a hard time finding the place to e-mail you a question, so I thought I'd put it here. I'm still in college, but graduating soon with my degree in Creative Writing. All I've ever wanted to do was write, and my plan has been to start small with submitting stories and trying my best to get published, then work my way from there. Right now I write for my college's newspaper and have been published by them several times. My post-graduation plan is to try finding a full-time job in publishing and write when I can.

My main question is, in your opinion, is that the right course I should take, or rather, what do you think the best course might be when my main goal is to just write? Of course I need a job, which I have, but I want to get into the editing field. I would love to edit stories and such, so I guess I'm wondering what options someone like me has at this point in time.

Thank you for your consideration, this blog is wonderful. :-)

cherryl252 was here said...

i try to send out so many pitches that i don't miss the ones that i get rejected on. if you send out enough pitches it averages out to where you won't have time to worry about the ones that got away - or got "stolen" - because you'll be too busy writing.