Can Someone Steal Your Book Idea?

21 Apr

Can someone steal your book idea?

I tend to find there are two responses to this question:

  1. Absolutely! YES! Someone did that to meeee!
  2. NO WAY. Never happens. It’s impossible, because your idea can only be written by you.

To be honest, I think both of these answers are a little too black and white. If I had to share my opinion—which, obvs, I am—I believe “stealing an idea” lands somewhere in the middle of these two responses.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that I agree with both of them. Because, yes, someone can steal your idea. If you hand them your pitch or outline or character sheet, those people can take it and do something with it. Granted, now siding with the second answer, no matter what that person does with your idea, it will never be exactly how you would’ve done it, so one way or another, they will make it their own.

Publishing crimes 101

So is it stealing?

I DON’T KNOW.

I think this is one of those gray, really uncomfortable areas of publishing that many people tiptoe around because they are afraid of looking paranoid or offending others or causing an uproar, but why can’t we talk about it? Why can’t we talk about the fact that this does happen sometimes?

When I was younger, lots of writers were on Wattpad; many of which did blatantly “borrow” premises or literal lines from one another’s work without permission. In fact, sometimes I think this happens a lot when writers transition from writing fan fiction to writing something independent of other works. Fan fiction can be a fantastic place to learn about the craft of writing, but it is one of those blurry places. So is “inspiration.” For instance, we can be inspired by another tale, and recreate it into something new.

We never call a fairytale retelling stealing for a reason. That’s because those writers are making that tale their own. It’s unique in the way they reconstruct the story and how they tell the story throughout the piece. But what if someone took Harry Potter and retold it? Would everyone be okay with that? I think it would depend on how similar the two pieces were and what was changed. And to be honest, it wouldn’t surprise me if we see something like that happen sooner rather than later.

So let’s talk about those blurred lines. You know, the ones that happen when #PitMad tweets suddenly seem the same, or how similar novels get sold to different editors at the same time, or how novelists will use current best-sellers as influences when writing a piece. We could get into trends and talk about how publishing is still a business and la la la. But I could go on forever about that, so I thought I’d share a story of my own.

I’ve had something like idea stealing happen to me before.

About two years ago, when MSWL was first taking off, I had my first manuscript I felt was ready to query to agents, and I found a new agent on that hashtag that I thought was a good fit. I sent her my work. She loved the sample pages and requested more, and then she asked for an R&R, outlining what parts she liked and didn’t like. I rewrote, but it still didn’t work out. Not a big deal, right? Right. I totally agree that we weren’t a good fit for one another with that manuscript. However, to my surprise (and a bit of horror), when I logged into Twitter that evening, she had tweeted out a near-replica of my manuscript’s pitch to MSWL. Long story short, another author out in the Twitter verse responded to that sort-of-mine-pitch (seriously, I wish I could explain how close it was, but just trust me, it was unbearably close), and she signed that author who later went on to get a three-figure deal in less than six months. Granted, the book releases later this year, so I have no clue just how similar it is. I doubt it’s that similar. That’s not what bothers me. What bothers me is that I felt like there was a direct violation of author-agent trust. She shared my pitch without asking me, end of story.

So did that agent steal my idea? No, not really. Because she didn’t go and shop my story pretending she had written it. She simply reached out to others who happened to have a similar idea to mine already written. But was it shady as hell? Yes, I think so. To this day, I have anxiety around MSWL because of it, even though it was one instance that I doubt would happen again. In fact, I still sent my next manuscript to this agent, because she asked me to send her my next piece. Her response? Form rejection. But did she tweet out my new idea on MSWL? No. How do I feel now? Still a little weird about the whole thing, I won’t lie, but I don’t think any of it was that personal either, even if it feels that way some days.

Sometimes many of us have similar ideas at the same time. Why wouldn’t we? We all live at the same time in this weird world, often influenced by the same constructs (whether it be celebrities or politics or social scandals). So, it shouldn’t be a surprise when a dozen, if not hundreds, of writers are writing similar stories. To be honest, I think this is what happens most of the time. We share our idea, someone already has a similar idea, and we automatically think they stole it rather than thought of it themselves. But there’s truly no way to prove it. And that’s why this topic is such a sensitive, slippery slope.

The masses in publishing have deemed this sort of claim as immature rubbish, but I think that’s super harsh. After my experience with having my pitch shared without permission, I felt a little violated. I actually stopped participating in many Twitter events for most of last year because of it. But then, I realized that I let this one shady experience ruin all the fun times I was having with other writers. So, I started to share again, and I am having a blast.

If someone “steals” my idea, fine. I have plenty more, and so do most writers. In fact, I think writers really need to keep that in mind when considering if someone “stole” their idea or not. Most of us already have too many ideas in our own heads to have time to consider other people’s ideas. Also, most writers need to feel passionate about something in order to write 80,000 words or more, and then rewrite it over and over and over again. “Stealing” an idea is probably the last way to become successful. Why? Well, A) It’s not your story, and B) You will eventually burnout, or C) The publishing gods will sick writing-idea demons on you, and you will forever be on the ominous blacklist.

Okay. So maybe not that last one. But you get what I mean.

Someone “stealing” ideas is probably very rare, but if you’re feeling that way, take a few breaths and reflect on if it’s truly stolen, and if so, don’t let it get you down. You thought it up. You planned it out. You can still write it. At the end of the day, your story will always be your story. 

Besides, your voice will be how you tell your story. And no one can steal that.

~SAT

 

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21 Responses to “Can Someone Steal Your Book Idea?”

  1. Kelly | Another Book in the Wall April 21, 2018 at 2:40 am #

    This is such a great post, and I love how you outline the complexities of this issue! It’s definitely a gray area discussion, and I think you did a fantastic job sharing your opinion! I agree that it was shady as hell for that agent to do that! I’m sorry that happened! 💕

    • Shannon A Thompson April 21, 2018 at 2:44 am #

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! I do think it’s a gray issue that deserves a civil discussion. Thank you for adding to it. 😀
      ~SAT

  2. MishaBurnett April 21, 2018 at 4:55 am #

    I think that how a writer answers that question says a lot about that author’s personal creative process. Personally, I would say, “No, you can’t steal my ideas, because I don’t have any ideas worth stealing.”

    “Ideas” in the sense of something that you could express in 200 words or less aren’t a factor in my writing. I create characters and put them into situations. Even if someone were able to steal the “idea” of my characters–say, a man with a demon in his head and a half-plant hermaphrodite–they wouldn’t be the same characters as James&Catskinner and Godiva.

    But I write stories that are largely character studies, and the weird stuff that happens is just backdrop for the the personalities.

    Someone who writes thrillers or heist novels where the situation is the main thrust of the plot would, I expect, answer differently. For those writers, it’s the plot that makes the story, and that can be summarized in 200 words.

    • Shannon A Thompson April 21, 2018 at 5:08 am #

      You know, you brought up a fantastic point I didn’t consider here: genre, plot, etc.! You’re so right. It often depends on what “idea” we’re talking about. Is it super specific or all-encompassing? Great thoughts! Thank you for sharing. You left me with a lot to consider. 🙂
      ~SAT

  3. Charles Yallowitz April 21, 2018 at 6:40 am #

    I’ve heard of this from so many and I’m still in the fence. I do think it gets tricky if you present an idea, get rejected, and later find another author with that idea. Different characters and twists, but you can see it’s eerily similar. It creates a problem of perspective if you go through with your version. Readers will compare the two and call you the copycat even if you wrote your version first. It’s that environment of comparison, rivalries, and social media fandoms that can drive an author to not go through with their idea. Long ago, you wouldn’t get as turn apart. Maybe this is why so many are trying to be unique and freak out if they’re too similar to another story. We fear the accusation of copycat plagiarist.

    • Shannon A Thompson April 22, 2018 at 1:09 am #

      I’m right there with you. If you ask me one day, I’ll probably have a different answer than if you ask me a week later. It’s a weird issue that’s difficult to tackle, let alone talk about. I’m glad you brought up fandoms! I definitely think they can add fuel to the fire in this case. Hopefully, more and more people can chill out a little bit? *insert smirk* We’ll see.
      ~SAT

  4. Book Club Mom April 21, 2018 at 9:18 am #

    This is a great subject and you are right, there is a wide, gray area in which many of the issues of idea-stealing happen. I think it’s true that some ideas happen at the same time. My father recently told me about a story idea and I had just read one that was very similar, written by someone thousands of miles away. But there is a definite ethical breach when something like what happened to you occurs.

    • Shannon A Thompson April 22, 2018 at 1:11 am #

      I’m glad you enjoyed the piece! Thank you for sharing your story about your father. I definitely think similar ideas at the same time is the most common occurrence. Also, thank you for your comment on the ethical breach, too. I struggled for a long time about whether or not it was a breach or not, let alone if I should talk about it here, even though it’s been years. But after talking to a couple of writers behind closed doors, I realized they felt the same way about what had happened to me. A great reason to have writer friends: the sanity they provide in sticky situations like this. 🙂 Thank you for commenting!
      ~SAT

  5. The Animation Commendation April 21, 2018 at 10:23 am #

    I feel it happens more in the medium of films rather than books.

    • Shannon A Thompson April 22, 2018 at 1:12 am #

      Good point! I don’t spend enough time watching movies, so I can’t really comment, but I’m sure “idea stealing” is gray in a lot of art mediums.
      ~SAT

  6. Deborah Fredericks April 21, 2018 at 10:36 am #

    I think your gut reaction is right, Shannon. That agent took your pitch and ran. There may be some way to file a complaint. Usually this is hard to prove, but you have a tweet with a time/date stamp and text that is a near-replica of your pitch. I assume you also have copies of your e-mails and other correspondence that is dated. So it isn’t a case of he said/she said. This tweet was released to the public.

    Will this effect your ability to work with that person again? Of course — but why would you want to? Think also of other authors you may protect by speaking out.

    • Shannon A Thompson April 22, 2018 at 1:20 am #

      I considered it, I won’t lie. I even reached out to a couple of other authors to see if they felt the way I did about they pitch/tweet (to make sure I wasn’t being paranoid or sensitive). They agreed with me, but I still err on the side of caution with this. At the end of the day, that agent is in a position of power, and I am not. She has a lot more backing, and “idea stealing” is still extremely frowned upon in traditional publishing (meaning, they don’t think it’s real at all), so sharing the exact details would probably hurt me indefinitely rather than help anyone for a brief amount of time. However, I have communicated details with writer friends I know who are in the querying process and asked me for help. There are a lot of backdoor groups where these things are discussed, to be honest, but unfortunately, it seems like there still isn’t a “safe” place for writers to discuss agents with complete honesty. (Last year, for instance, I recall a couple writing mentors in a contest created a place for writers to discuss agents only for someone to leak the info. It caused a lot of ugly backlash I just don’t want to be a part of.) I also don’t want to call her out, because she was a brand-new agent on a brand-new platform, and might not have intended to do what she did. (She didn’t do it with my second pitch, after all.) She also has some awesome clients that I support, and I wouldn’t want to throw them under any sort of bus. But I appreciate your support. One day, I think these things will get better. In fact, I think agents themselves are working very hard to make these things better. But it’s a process.
      ~SAT

  7. Phoenix Rainez April 21, 2018 at 12:28 pm #

    Reblogged this on Phoenix Rainez and commented:
    This is something to think about…
    Has anyone stolen your story idea?

  8. claire plaisted April 21, 2018 at 6:05 pm #

    Reblogged this on Claire Plaisted – Indie Author and commented:
    My brother once said there are 10 stories in the world. All the others are ideas developed from those stories in different ways. I have also seen stories or movies with similar aspects to my writing, generally after i’ve written it. Amuses the heck out of my. Good read and good luck. Thanks for the excellent post.

    • Shannon A Thompson April 22, 2018 at 1:22 am #

      A great point! Most of our stories stem from somewhere. Thank you for commenting and sharing!
      ~SAT

      • claire plaisted April 22, 2018 at 3:26 am #

        Thanks for a great blog Shannon 🙂

  9. frasersherman April 21, 2018 at 6:41 pm #

    The late Marion Zimmer Bradley brought this up in relation to borrowing ideas for two of her own books. She was proud of The Colors of Space because it took someone else’s idea (Leigh Brackett’s Starmen of Llyrdis, set in a world where only one race can withstand space travel) and gave it a twist (in MZB’s book, the race is lying to maintain its monopoly). On the other hand she hated Falcons of Narabedla because she lifted the plot of Henry Kuttner’s The Dark World and just reused it with minor tweaks.

    • Shannon A Thompson April 22, 2018 at 1:23 am #

      A great story! Thank you for sharing. I see authors admit inspirations all the time, but I couldn’t recall one off the top of my head when I was writing the article, so I’m truly grateful you brought this up. It’s a fantastic addition to consider when looking at this gray area in publishing.
      ~SAT

  10. Jason Case April 26, 2018 at 9:53 am #

    Great article

    As for can Your idea be stolen I would say yes.

    Your idea with papers is reviewed by a Publisher, and is rejected.
    That same publisher decides to make modifications except it is still the same story including when it is set, the plot, where it is set, etc.
    The Publisher makes books using the fictional story.

    Another is if a person hacked into your computer, and stole the file of your story.

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