Have you ever pitched an editor a story idea, only to read that publication a few weeks or months later and discover someone else has written your exact topic? It’s a fairly common experience for freelance writers, especially new writers.
I recently got a mailbag question about this problem, from KT of the blog Gluten Free Safari. She writes:
Recently, one of the blogs Media Bistro follows discussed the issue of a freelance writer who had pitched a political expose to his hometown paper. They passed – then proceeded to assign the story to a staffer.
It seems that once you trust an editor, this is less likely to happen. But, if pitching to an editor you know not, how do you help ensure that your crackerjack pitches aren’t assigned elsewhere — because, after all, they’re only ideas.
Here’s my answer:
There is absolutely no way you can ensure your “crackerjack” pitches are not assigned to other writers. I know, because I’ve had some of those assignments sent to me to write on occasion! And I’ve certainly seen publications write stories similar to ones I pitched that carried another writer’s byline.
I believe most editors are ethical and will assign a story to the writer that brought it to them as much as possible.
But ideas cannot be copyrighted. If you suspect your idea was stolen, there’s really nothing you can do about it, except not pitch that editor again.
Before we assume an editor is a thief, though, let’s examine a couple other possibilities:
- The editor may have already assigned a story on your topic. If there’s a sleazy political figure on the local scene, a writer can hardly think they’re the only person who will have the idea of looking into the person’s background for a story. This is one reason many magazines have boilerplate in their writer’s guidelines to the effect that they receive many submissions, many ideas are similar, and you can’t sue them if you think you’ve been ripped off.
- The editor thinks you don’t have the experience or skills to execute the idea you pitched. If you haven’t made a strong case in your query letter or phone pitch for why you are the person to write the story, your idea may well float off to another writer. Be sure to mention any special expertise you have, technical abilities such as online database mining, or knowledge of where the experts are for your topic.
The one weapon that fights idea theft
I’ve seen my story ideas pop up with someone else’s byline. Here’s how much time I spent fuming, fretting, or otherwise feeling pissed off about it:
Why doesn’t it piss me off? Because I have a lot of story ideas. So when faced with a possible idea ripoff, I can simply move on to one of my dozens of other ideas. Trust me, this is the most emotionally healthy way to handle it.
Generating many potential story ideas is your most potent weapon against editor ripoffs. You move on and don’t care because you have many other query letters ready to write.
If you’re feeling like your one, precious idea has been stolen and now your career is ruined, then you’re not developing enough ideas.
If I thought an editor really ripped off my idea, I might not pitch them again. That’s about all you can do.
But you can also turn this around and consider it another way. Maybe seeing your idea in print in the publication you pitched it to shows you have a good sense of what that publication needs.
You might try pitching them a few more ideas in queries that make a stronger pitch and a better case that you’re the writer for the job. Maybe you’re getting close, and a little persistence and stronger query-writing would land you an assignment.