Will An Editor Steal Your Ideas?

steal ideaI’d like to send my novel out for publication, but I’m afraid it will get stolen. What would you advise? — An Anxious Writer

Dear Anxious:

This is a question I’ve heard many times from would-be writers. I say “would-be” — because it is a fear that blocks many writers from ever actually submitting their work into the marketplace (and therefore becoming “published” writers). It is a common concern — but is it justified? In other words, do you really have to worry about editors and publishers “stealing” your work (e.g., the novel you’ve spent five years of your life polishing) and publishing it under another name, without giving you a penny of the profit?

To be absolutely blunt, this is a fear one hears only among amateur writers. Professional writers have lots of concerns of their own, but this isn’t one of them. Rather than simply say, “No, you don’t have to worry about this,” however, let’s take a close look at the logic underlying the “fear of theft” — and the logic that can, perhaps, help dispel that fear.

Some Unspoken Assumptions

To believe that agents, editors, and/or publishers (hereafter referred to as “publishing entities”) commonly steal the work of new writers (especially novels, though this fear also surfaces for articles and stories) is to accept at least one of the following premises:

  1. Publishing entities steal manuscripts all the time.If this is true, the following must also be true:
    • Publishing entities publish numerous stolen titles every year, marketing them under false names
    • These stolen titles are successful and profitable (or there would be no incentive for stealing)
    • Many of the successful books on the market, therefore, are “stolen” and the authors to whom they are credited either don’t exist or are part of the scam
    • Despite the number of publishing entities, “fake” authors, and stolen books in the system, no one has ever successfully detected a theft: No “ripped off” author has ever noticed his/her book on the bestseller shelves, filed a suit, or exposed the agencies involved. (While a handful of such suits have been filed, generally by unknown or unpublished writers against bestselling authors with big bucks, most have been overturned.)
  2. Publishing entities steal manuscripts and give them to their “pet” writers. This premise would explain how “stolen” books enter the marketplace under false names. For this to be true, however, one would have to accept that agents or publishers, for some unknown reason, keep a “stable” of really bad writers who can’t get published on their own — authors whose work is consistently worse than that of complete newcomers to the writing/publishing field.
  3. Most publishing entities are honest, but some do steal. This sounds slightly more reasonable, but most of the conditions in Premise #1 must still apply. If even one entity is essentially dishonest, it must steal books on a regular basis. That means it will steal not just one book, but many books — and these books must be making a profit for the entity, or there would be no motivation for theft. Once again, this means that a number of stolen manuscripts must regularly enter the marketplace, with no one the wiser.
  4. Most publishing entities are honest, but my book is so good that it might tempt an agent, editor, or publisher to steal it. This may also sound vaguely plausible on the surface, and would appear to simply reflect an author’s pride in his/her work. Beneath the surface, however, what this premise is really saying is “my book is so good that it could persuade a normally honest person to abandon his/her scruples, put his/her career on the line, and turn to a life of crime.” You wish!

To Steal or Not to Steal: A Question of Economics

The fundamental assumption underlying the “theft” fear is that it somehow benefits a publisher (or agent) to steal an author’s work. Does theft make economic sense? The answer is “no,” for several reasons:

  1. The penalties for deliberate copyright infringement are too high. If caught, an infringer can be liable for more than $20,000 in fines (far more than a publisher might gain in royalties!), plus the immediate necessity of finding a new career. The publishing industry doesn’t take kindly to plagiarism, and people in this business have long memories.
  2. Author royalties are a very small portion of “publication costs.” Typical royalties run between 5% and 15% (even for bestselling authors), and that’s often on the wholesale price of a book rather than its retail price. Thus, if your paperback original retails for $6, it probably wholesales for around $2.40 (40% of cover price), of which you may a 5% royalty, or a whole 12 cents. Thus, no publisher is going to save a significant amount of money by ripping off an author — the author’s share is simply too small to matter.
  3. Publishers (and agents) don’t make their money from books, but from authors. Publishing entities seek authors who can produce not just one good book, but several — i.e., authors who can bring in a following of faithful readers. The better your book, therefore, the more an entity will want to keep you, the author — and not just that single book. If they lose you (by stealing your work), they lose all the moneymaking books you could have written for them in the future. To agents and publishers, authors are cash cows; stealing from authors would be the equivalent of shooting those cows.
  4. Publishing entities don’t need to steal “bad” books either. Some authors fear that if their book is “almost” good enough to be a hit, it will be stolen and given to a “better” author who can polish it up and make it saleable. Again, not so. Mediocre books abound; publishers are flooded with them. They don’t need to “steal” books that “just need a little work.” Nor are established authors interested in rewriting the books of others. (Would you?)
  5. The economics of publishing and theft are in direct opposition. Theft is practical only when the stolen item can be disposed of quietly, without attracting attention. Books are profitable only if they can be marketed publicly, attracting lots of attention. Thus, the more attention and profit a “stolen” book produces, the greater the risk of exposure (and great financial loss).
  6. Publishing entities are in too much danger of being sued for plagiarism as is to risk actually committing it. The writing world has more than its share of flakes — writers who simply can’t imagine why an editor would turn down that precious manuscript handwritten on steno paper and shipped in a cigar box. (I’m not making up that example.) After rejecting such a gem, an editor is far too likely to get an irate letter or call from the author: “Two years ago I sent you my thriller set in Panama, and now I see you’ve published a romance novel set in Panama, naming the exact same hotel my hero stayed in, which means you obviously stole my idea and I’m going to sue.” (This is why most published authors refuse to review unpublished material from beginning writers.)

We all find our manuscripts precious. It is often difficult to understand why agents, editors, and publishers don’t share our view. How, we wonder, could an agent or publisher “refuse” this gem? Believing in theft can be a way to compensate for the pain of rejection — but it can also prevent a writer from developing the skill necessary to actually develop (or submit) a saleable manuscript in the first place.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com and the author of more than 300 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Second Edition), and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.