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 is...is 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 diets...well...you 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?