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?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

I Want a Divorce

(Admin note: I've noticed a lot of new readers at the blog. Welcome! Just so you know how this whole thing works: if you have a question about the book or magazine biz, take a spin through the archives, and if you don't find your answer, shoot me an email, and I'll post the question and answer on the blog. Thanks for stopping by!)

Question of the day: If I don't feel like my agent is a good match for me or lacks enthusiasm about my work at this point, how do you divorce an agent?

I am a divorcee. This will come as news, however, to my husband. :) No, really, I have divorced an agent, and like many divorcees (both from their agents and their spouses), I am so much the better for it. So I do speak from experience here.

The first step in breaking ties with your agent, in my opinion, is to have a frank discussion about where the relationship is and where the relationship is heading. Not unlike what you'd do when you're debating breaking up with a boyfriend (or feel like he might be gearing up to break up with you - sob). You'll inevitably dread this discussion - I lost countless nights of sleep and probably a few pounds too - anticipating mine, but it's a necessity. It's also the fair thing to do both for your agent and for your career. It's possible, for example, that you have different expectations in terms of communication than she does, and you just need to have a head-to-head to get on the same page. Be clear about what isn't working for you in this discussion and ask her (or him) if she feels the same - if you've, in fact, reached an impasse or if this is something that you can get past.

In my case, it was clear that my first agent had lost faith in me, and I was frustrated to all hell with her. So I called her, and we chatted. She was willing to keep working with me, but I certainly didn't want someone in my corner who barely wanted to be there. So I walked. (And felt 100% liberated in doing so.)

If you're at the point where you don't even want to have this conversation (which again, I think can be critically important because your agent might not even be aware of your complaints) and just truly believe that it's time to cut bait, you need to notify your agent before you shop around for a new one. I've actually read recently that some agents don't mind you putting out feelers - sending out some referral emails or "hey, would you be interested in this" emails - before you cut ties, but I'm not so sure. I think it's sketchy - agents know each other, they know each other's clients, and in my opinion, I think you should fully wash your hands clean of one agent before moving on to your search for another. Is that a horrifyingly scary step? Of course. But it's the ethical thing to do, and as I always say here: it's better to have no agent than a crappy agent.

So if you decide to move on, either send your agent a kind but professional note or give her a call, and simply say that you think you should amicably part ways. You don't have to get into the nitty-gritty and you certainly shouldn't convey a sense of anger or bad blood. This is a business relationship, though many of us tend to personalize it, and you should try to keep your parting as business-like as possible, in my opinion. This industry is small - and who knows when you'll run into this agent again? Best to leave it amicable and instead devote your attention to finding someone new.

Anyone else out there leave their agents? If so, did you look for someone new BEFORE getting out? How do you feel about that? How did you take steps to getting your divorce?

Monday, July 28, 2008

The First Review!

If at any moment over the weekend, you heard a loud whoosh of wind, it actually might have been me exhaling. Yes, I exhaled so forcefully upon reading my first big review from Publishers Weekly that you might have heard it 'round the nation.

It's funny: I know, as a writer, that books and writer are subjective and that certainly, not everyone will like what I put out there. I read plenty of books that I don't necessarily adore but understand that somewhere out there, someone else does. I get that I'll get the occasional (hopefully just occasional!) bad review from someone, and that's okay. You have to have an awfully thick skin to make it in this industry, and mine is certainly thick.


I was totally internally freaking out all of last week about my first review, which I knew was coming from PW. Because the first review is the toughest. Because you worry that maybe you're walking around in this complete cloud of self-delusion, thinking, "I wrote a kick-ass book," which, by the way, every writer thinks, when, in fact, you wrote a crap book. And that first review might just shoot you off of that cloud. So, yeah, I was a little bit (or a lot of bit) of a stress ball.

So when it popped up late Friday, I was soooooo relieved that I could enjoy my weekend! Because they liked it! They really really liked it! They called the book "an engaging, fast-moving, high-concept drama," and said that "Scotch keeps one dexterous step ahead of page-flipping readers eager to guess the outcome." Whoohoo!

Now. I know that reviews are just that: a review from one single person's viewpoint, and if I'm going to enjoy the good ones, I damn well better read the bad ones too. And I will. With Kirkus just around the corner, that time might be sooner rather than later. LOL. But still. For this past weekend, I could exhale and know that I wasn't self-delusional. At least not completely. :)

Other writers - how do you cope with reviews? Do you read 'em? Do you take them to heart?