What do you do if an editor steals your story idea?

It’s every writer’s nightmare. You hack away and come up with a fantastic idea. You ship it off to an editor of a big-time magazine and bite your nails. You feel it in your blood—this one’s a winner! This one’s going to put you on the map!

Then you don’t hear back from the editor about your pitch. You wait the requisite one month before you nudge him. He doesn’t respond. You nudge again.

Then, disaster strikes. You see the article in print, but not by you. Your big-time editor assigned it to somebody else. Not only that, but that other writer used your sources!!!

Well, that happened to me just now. Except it was even worse. The editor said he liked my idea first. We batted it back and forth. He asked me to do a little more work honing the pitch. Things seemed like they were going great. Then he went dark.

When the article came out, I agonized. What went wrong? Here’s a list of what my brain came up with:

  • I completely failed to hone the pitch properly.
  • The editor (Let’s call him Bob) read one of my past stories online and hated it.
  • I accidentally tagged him in a Google Docs comment for another publication and he saw this as an egregious breach of journalism etiquette.
  • He called one of my former editors, and that editor said I’m basically Sirhan Sirhan with a keyboard.
  • He got fired.
  • He died.

What do you do in that case? There are plenty of other editors in the sea, sure, but not that many.

It’s not so much losing an editor that hurts. (Okay, it is, BUT. Not knowing why he ghosted makes it worse.)

Am I sabotaging myself? What am I doing wrong? How can I make sure this doesn’t happen again?

Here’s what I decided to do:

I decided to sue.

No, no, I didn’t. See, “idea stealing” is built in to journalism. As an ASJA member, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to some really great journalists. They say again and again that the real key to pitching is to make your idea unstealable. Get exclusive access to a source. Show you have a good rapport, or special information. Or just build up a great reputation. Make it harder for the editor to hire someone else.

Second, it’s not really stealing—especially in this case. See, I asked the editor if I could write a story about a topic. I didn’t own the topic, any more than I own the moon. You can’t say, “Hey, you can’t make money on computers! I thought of that in 1975!” Well guess what, Captain Obvious. So did everybody else.

If we really want to dig into who’s idea it was, the editor suggested details that narrowed down the topic. Not really my idea at all.

Plus, this whole thing had happened to me before. Many years ago I sold a one-liner to the BBC news-comedy show, Weekending. It was something like, “95% of voters are confused about violent crime statistics, while 68% of voters aren’t confused about non-violent crime, and 42% of all confusion goes unreported.”

I was so excited that I submitted a full sketch idea: “Invading Something Small.” In it, the U.S. President (Bill Clinton at the time) decides to invade a small country to boost sagging poll numbers. Hilarity ensues. Except I never heard back.

Until, that is, one night as I sat watching the Krofft Puppets do their thing. Suddenly, there was my sketch, in living technicolor. I was so stunned I spit out my nutella-marmite sandwich.

My boss at the time, a gracious Oxford grad named Michael, gave me some sage advice.

“Tom,” he said, “you’ll find BBC Light Entertainment are a free-thinking bunch. When I worked there, we’d toss all our rejects in a box. Then everybody on the floor would go through the box looking for ideas. If you make a fuss, you’ll get yourself shut out.”

He may have said something like “blimey” in there—I can’t remember.

Regardless, his advice fits snugly with a bit of wisdom from Dale Carnegie, Zig Ziglar et al. Namely, help others and you’ll help yourself.

So I decided to write a very gracious letter.

Remember, my goal here was to fix my career. To figure out what went wrong so I could avoid the problem in the future.

So, here’s the letter I wrote:


I read the article on [XYZ TOPIC]. Great article! I can see why you hired [XYZ OTHER WRITER]. She did a great job!

I’d still love to write for [XYZ MAGAZINE]. Of course you don’t owe me anything, but it would hugely help my career if you could answer two questions.

First, could you give me a glimpse at where I went wrong? [XYZ WRITER’S] article was very similar to what I envisioned writing—combining the best advice from several experts into one strong message. It’s very similar to an article I just wrote for [XYZ OTHER MAGAZINE]. (The editor said “Very nicely done!” and agreed to let me show it to you—it’s attached.)

Second, what would I need to do to write for you? Do I just need to keep submitting pitches? Are there definite things I lack that I could improve?

Thank you very much for your time.

Best regards,

Tom Gerencer
Gerencer Creative

I wasn’t sure I’d hear back. I figured the chance was somewhere around 20%, especially since three emails to the editor had fallen into a black hole. However, I did hear back, three minutes later:

Hi Tom,

Thanks for this gracious note. At this point, I owe you a call, not an email.
I’ll try to connect with you later today.
This is an editor of a huge magazine, mind you. I was very excited! At the very least, I knew I’d find out what went wrong. At best, I might even still get work from this editor!
I waited for his call. And waited. He didn’t call. Not that day. Not the next. And not the next.
The next day was Friday, so I figured he wouldn’t call. But he did. I had three things in my hands at the time, one in my teeth, and two balanced on the tip of my nose. I couldn’t pick up the phone. But he left a message. I called back, and he answered almost instantly.
He sounded very sheepish as he described what happened.
“Your first few ideas,” he said, “were somewhat unfocused. Your next ideas were very focused. In the meantime, my boss spoke to me and said that in deference to our deadlines, I should assign the article to a writer we’d worked with for years. I did that, but I should have reached out to you and told you what happened.”
I told him not to worry about it.
“I was talking with a new writer recently,” I said, “and she was complaining to me that she submitted a few pitches to an editor and hadn’t heard back yet. I told her I always picture these editors about three millimeters from a heart attack.”
When I said that, the editor burst into relieved laughter. He also told me to keep pitching him ideas.
In other words, I didn’t do anything wrong. The editor decided to assign the story to someone else. Did he steal my idea? No. I was being dramatic. Llama Llama Cut the Melodrama.
So, let’s look at the situation. I’ve now got an editor I can pitch to. A “big magazine” editor. We’ve connected on a personal level. If anything, he may feel just a little bit ingratiated to me because he felt he wasn’t courteous to me, yet I reacted with professionalism.
In other words, I’ve got a client. Had I become angry or decided he “stole” my idea, I’d be in a far worse position. Had I decided I’m a lame hack, things would be a lot worse.
I guess my point is, editors are busy. Picture them having a really hard time getting through the day. Pitch them stories, then don’t worry so much whether they get back to you. Ideas are free.
Of course you want to make it hard for them to hire someone else. Try to find a unique angle. Get access to a hard-to-contact source before you pitch. Or find some other way to make yourself unique.
Either way, pitch early, pitch often, and then forget the result and move forward. Except don’t really forget the result. Nudge the editor a month later, courteously. They’ll appreciate your follow-through. Then keep pitching. The more you pitch them great ideas, the better your chance of catching them in their hour of need, when they’ve got a blank space to fill that your story would patch up perfectly.

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