On stealing ideas.

| Monday, November 7, 2011
Today's Tune: The Winter


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 So I have several sub-answers that better explain why being worried about having one's idea or unpublished work stolen is (mostly) an unfounded concern.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.


{ KarenG } at: November 7, 2011 at 7:07 AM said...

I've heard this question and concern so many times and it always makes me laugh. It shows such ignorance about how things really work in publishing. But I think the fear stems from what happens in Hollywood where ideas for movies are stolen all the time, even scripts are stolen changed around a bit and then the writer who originally pitched the idea sees it up on the big screen.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: November 7, 2011 at 7:16 AM said...

Karen - I've heard that about Hollywood before! It sounds awful. Fortunately, publishing is a little different. Not always, but most of the time.

{ K.T. Hanna } at: November 7, 2011 at 7:19 AM said...

I don't think I've ever been skeptical about sending to a publisher/agent. My only fear of having my work 'stolen' is in sending it out to an online critique group. Not one of the big ones like critters or owfi - but a small group of people.
Mainly because I may have just met them, and secondly because I have a friend who did get their story (not idea) stolen by a 'crit partner' and currently has a publishing deal for that manuscript. Yes, I think she's doing something about it.

Still though - I have 2 crit groups I've known for a very long time, that I trust and I think that's the key. Crits will help your work - but be sure of who you send it to.

And thank you - I like my hair too :p

{ Mel Fowler } at: November 7, 2011 at 7:24 AM said...

You always have very encouraging posts! I think this will help people be less afraid.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: November 7, 2011 at 7:30 AM said...

KT - Oh man, that is awful :( I'll be honest: this was always a concern of mine with critique partners. I managed to find some great ones, and I'm so thankful for them. I think, largely, this is a non-issue, because someone who would steal a manuscript that isn't theirs probably isn't the sort of person who can reproduce something of the same quality again. That's why they had to steal in the first place. Even so, I very much hope your friend is able to nail that jerk to the wall. Plagiarists make so irate.

Mel - Glad to help :)

{ Seabrooke } at: November 7, 2011 at 8:46 AM said...

This reminds me of the comparison between Jane Yolen's Wizard's Hall and JK Rowling's Harry Potter books. There's quite a bit of overlap, as they seem to start out with the same premise: young boy named H__ry goes to wizard school where he makes friends with a boy with red hair and a very intelligent girl, and is being trained up to eventually have to face a wicked wizard in battle; pictures move and the ceilings show the real sky, a monster sucks souls from people (this all from Wikipedia; I haven't read Wizard's Hall).

The idea was conceived independently, and while Jane Yolen jokes that "if Ms. Rowling would like to cut me a very large check, I would cash it" (Yolen's came out first), she's never approached or sued Rowling for ripping off her idea, presumably recognizing that similar ideas often happen. In any case, Yolen's book is a completely different story than Rowling's because the authors didn't develop the idea the same way. (Not to mention differences in writing style/voice.)

I've never felt worried about sending my work out. I've got a (bad?) habit of giving people the benefit of the doubt, plus I figure that the majority of people wouldn't be able to convincingly reproduce my voice in revisions (as you say in your last comment) and someone would (hopefully) clue in that something wasn't quite right.

{ kelly } at: November 7, 2011 at 8:56 AM said...

I think an underlying fear might go something like this:

(circa 1995) - "I have an idea for a book about a boy who goes to a school for wizards, and cool stuff happens to him there."

(circa 1997) "ACK! Someone wrote a book like that already, and it's really popular! If I write my book now everyone will think I'm a copycat! But I had the idea BEFORE her book came out!"

I really do believe there is something to the concept of "universal consciousness." But still, it's unnerving to go to a movie and see trailers for two upcoming movies that both share key pieces of my idea (which just happened to me last week. Yes, I'm especially attuned to noticing such things now that I've started my work). It's the fear of being made irrelevant, or worse, being called a copycat.

Paranoid, yes. We just need to get over it. Stealing, no. But it might feel like it if we've opened our mouths and spilled our ideas to someone.

Universal Consciousness is a GOOD thing. :)

{ Miss Cole } at: November 7, 2011 at 11:23 AM said...

I find the idea that no one can be entirely original liberating. We all take and give ideas to each other without realising. It's like a creative circle of life.

...There, I made a Lion King reference ;)

{ Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina } at: November 7, 2011 at 1:18 PM said...

Nice reminders. I was struck by #2, that your idea might be similar to others. I once wrote a book and was just getting ready to send it out when I checked out a library book and chapter one started with such a similar premise as my chapter one that I almost dropped the book! But then the whole story took off in a different direction, so I calmed down again. The point being that no agent or editor had seen this book yet, and the idea had still appealed to another writer who had never heard of my work.

{ Jessica Love } at: November 7, 2011 at 2:36 PM said...

This is a great post!

I think I suffer from a lack of confidence, because I'm always pretty sure that my ideas are so lackluster that no one would even want to steal them. Heh.

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: November 8, 2011 at 6:56 AM said...

so very true!
sometimes i fear the seeping of ideas i've taken in via other people's work into my own work. but then i sort of think a lot of who we are is built upon what we observe and learn. being well-read in your genre of choice helps you to recognize some of the over-used tropes, but it also makes me paranoid that eeks! does this character act too much like peeta? ohman! is that creature too much like the velociraptors on jurassic park? eeep!

i keep remembering a particularly inflammatory thread over at the bransforums where some yeckle tried to accuse nb (all bow) of unwitting plagurism, and that's when it really hit me, i'm not sure who (or how many) said it, but it's the same you argue here, there's no way that two people will write the same story given the exact same premise.
sorry, i'm just babbling circles! my brain's still not working yet today. i woke up certain that it was saturday... why? i have no clue. excuse me while i go get more coffee.
great post maybe!

{ David Powers King } at: November 8, 2011 at 8:28 AM said...

This is a great post, and shows exactly the kind of paranoia that often follows new writers. Or so it was when I started. You nailed the topic.

This would look great on inkPageant.com. Just say'n. :)

{ Emy Shin } at: November 9, 2011 at 6:11 PM said...

So true! Writers have similar ideas all the time, which is evident by how many times agents and/or editors remark that their inboxes are flooded with similar-sounding queries. But it's all about the execution.

I'm hesitant to talk about my novels online -- except I totally fail at keeping quiet and blather on anyway -- not because I'm afraid others will steal them, but rather because I've seen an agent mention, once, that when aspiring authors put too much of their works online, share their queries widely, the agent felt as though she had already read the book when she saw their query later. It was no longer original to her. But I think that's something else entirely.

{ wilk } at: November 14, 2011 at 9:11 PM said...

I think the problem is that everyones being too reductionist about it. Ideas can't be summarized well enough to steal. Or summarized well enough to be conveyed. The merit of it to me seems it what you want your story to be seen as. And that done first thing. I think it's pretty real but harry potter is great and nothing stops jk rowling.

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