Writing is made to be shared. But too often, people worry about editors, agents, or critique partners stealing their ideas. I hate to break it to you, but this is just an excuse these people are telling themselves to avoid the scary reality of showing their work to the public. Any serious plagiarism in the publishing world is quickly spotted and judiciously dealt with—and even this doesn’t happen that often. So, how likely is it that someone will steal your book idea?
Ideas vs Words
Let’s get one thing straight right now: under current US copyright law, ideas cannot be copyrighted. If your book features a teenage superhero riding a dragon and another book gets published with a similar storyline, you do not have the right to dispute it. The law does, however, give you automatic copyright over your exact written words as soon as you type them out. In fact, it’s important that your book be similar in plot or theme to other published books so you can point them out as comps in your query!
The simultaneous invention phenomenon, also known as “multiple discovery,” is an occurrence where similar ideas are developed by different people in different places at the same time. For example, the telegraph machine was patented in the U.S. by Samuel F.B. Morse in the same year (1837) as a patent was granted to Charles Wheatstone in England. One man did not steal the other’s idea. They had simply thought of the same thing at the same time. Similar occurrences can and do happen in literature, no doubt.
Reality of Time
If an agent, editor, or publisher really wanted to steal your book, they would still need to rewrite it to avoid a plagiarism lawsuit. This takes time and lots of it. The reality is, industry professionals don’t have the time to steal your idea. Editors are busy with editing projects; agents are busy pitching to publishers; publishers are too busy fighting the decline in popularity of the printed word. No one has time to steal your idea.
Likelihood of Theft
In order to truly steal your idea, another writer would have to take your exact plot and theme, write it better than you could, and make a ton of profit for any of it to have been worth it. While you may consider your manuscript to be the next bestseller, it’s unlikely other writers will see it that way. Writers are inspired by different things and their ideas spark from deep within. Why would someone else suddenly drop their own precious work and take yours?
When you google “writer sues [editor/agent/publisher] over stolen work,” you don’t find pages of news articles screaming Writer Beware. You get articles like this one, telling you everything will be fine and you have nothing to worry about. Am I the first person to have come up with this topic? Clearly not. Am I the first person to take this exact viewpoint and write about this topic in these exact words? Yes, absolutely. So, stop procrastinating and telling yourself excuses—because everything will be fine, and no one will ever be able to write your book the way you can.
How to “Ask the Editor”
Have a burning question for the editor? Just ask!
Jeanette is always accepting questions for our Ask the Editor column. Send a few paragraphs introducing yourself and your question to Jeanette@diymfa.com. You can also send up to five pages of your WIP for critique. We do our best to answer every question we receive, so keep an eye out for our next Ask the Editor article. Your question may be featured!
Jeanette the Writer is an editor, coach, and freelance writer who wants to help others demolish their editing fears and finish their manuscript. As a former scuba instructor turned entrepreneur, Jeanette knows about putting in the hard work to pursue your passions. She has worked with authors, speakers, coaches, and entrepreneurs—empowering them with the right mindset, knowledge, and tools to help them tackle their editing goals. You can learn more about Jeanette by visiting JeanetteTheWriter.com.