The WinterToday's Tune:
CONTEST CONTEST CONTEST! ENTER ENTER ENTER! OPEN TILL 11-11-11!
When I talk to people who don't know very much about the publishing industry (writers or non-writers), there's a question I get asked over and over again: "How can you talk about your book idea/premise so casually? How can you send out queries to these 'agents' and 'editors?' How do you know they're not just going to steal your idea and write it themselves or give it to one of their other authors to write instead? WHAT IF THEY STEAL YOUR MANUSCRIPT????"
This can be a difficult question to answer, even though my default answer is pretty simple: "No one can steal an idea, and no legitimate publishing professional worth their salt would ever compromise their career and reputation by committing plagiarism."
That answer doesn't seem good enough for many people, however. So I have several sub-answers that better explain why being worried about having one's idea or unpublished work stolen is (mostly) an unfounded concern.
1.) You can't steal an idea. Ideas are insubstantial things that really don't have value by themselves. Everyone has ideas. I have a million ideas. You probably have a million ideas. But none of that matters unless you have the chops and the willingness to create something from that idea.
2.) Your idea probably isn't as original as you think it is. Sorry. LOTS of people come up with similar ideas for a novel premise. How many people do you think have an idea for a novel about a war between werewolves and vampires? About a spunky detective and his/her loyal sidekick? Steampunk pirates with automatons and eye patches? This is actually why a lot of publishers or literary agencies have a clause that says you can't sue them if you send them a query/pages and then another one of their authors releases a book with a similar premise (SIMILAR PREMISE, not "exact copy of your words"). Because other people already have your idea. And they think it's their idea. They're just the one who executed it in their own style. It's not plagiarism. It's shared creative consciousness. And if your idea really IS that unique and original? It's unlikely another person would be able to do it justice.
I mean, here, this is the premise of TICK-TOCK: A 16-year-old society girl from Edwardian-era Chicago discovers her father was murdered by a secret society seeking immortality via cybernetic upgrades, and she sets out to stop them at any cost. Reasonably unique premise. Sounds interesting. Could be cool. But do you have ANY IDEA AT ALL how I've executed it? Probably not. Because I won't show you the pages. NEENER NEENER. But this is my point. Yeah, I have a fairly original (but not totally original!) idea. Theoretically someone could "steal" it and write their own book. But it would be absolutely nothing like mine. They don't know about my characters, my subplots, my themes, my style choices, blah blah blah.
3.) Agents and editors aren't writers. That's why they're agents and editors. I mean, setting aside those agents/editors who are also authors. But usually, agents and editors don't actually want to write. They have the best time doing their job -- which is managing the careers of authors or editing authors' books. They're not looking to steal ideas to write on their own. That's not what they do. And for those who ARE authors, I assure you they have plenty of their own ideas. They don't need yours. Promise.
4.) They're also not going to hand off your ideas to their own authors. First, as I mentioned above, authors already have their own ideas. It's true that sometimes publishers suggest an author go in a certain direction, ("Your vampire monkey book did really well. What if you wrote something similar, but with spider-pigs instead?" or "Readers are really enjoying your historical. More historical, please."), but they don't ever "steal" an unpublished manuscript, send it to that author, and go, "Here. Write this, but better." The purpose of signing an author is that they already like that authors work, style, and novel ideas. Giving the authors something that isn't theirs to write probably isn't going to give them a good result.
5.) Plagiarism is publishing career suicide. There's probably no greater crime in the creative writing world than taking someone else's work and passing it off as your own. First, IT'S ILLEGAL to profit off of work that isn't yours and you can get the pants sued off of you. Next, no one in the industry will work with someone who has been found guilty of plagiarism. But let me clarify again: plagiarism is the direct copying of another writer's work and/or significant, identifiable elements of their work without proper credit. Ideas CAN NOT be plagiarized.
6.) It's highly unlikely for unpublished work to be plagiarized. Unpublished work is unpublished for a reason. Whether that reason is that it's just not right for the market, it's not polished enough, it's too niche, it's too ambiguous, or it's just not ready, there's a reason it wasn't picked up. (I'm purposely avoiding self-publishing for the moment, as that's an entirely different discussion). It isn't the best use of a publisher's talent pool and time to go through the slush and pick out ideas that maybe-sorta-might be good if they were written a little differently. It's a much better use to dip in to the ready-and-waiting pool of available talent and already-salable books they have at their disposal.
So, this is why I've never been afraid of having my ideas or work stolen. I didn't send to shady/unscrupulous agents or publishers, I knew from the start that my idea was hardly the part that mattered, and I knew it just wasn't a logical thing for agents/publishers to do. It is totally okay to be protective of your work. I completely understand that. But there's a difference between protective and paranoid. Make sure you know that difference.