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I raced home from the newsstand, the magazine hot in my hands. A colleague had called me breathlessly that morning. "I just got my new issue of Less Is More magazine"—as I'll call it here—"and your book is in it! It's just a mention, but they included an image."
She paused, ominously. "But, um. Well. On the next page, I think they might have used your chrome-coffee-mug tip. It sounds really similar to that section of your book."
Ugg. My book, City Chic: An Urban Girl's Guide to Livin' Large on Less, is coming out in May. Less Is More magazine had seemed a natural fit for a review or even a blurb. In a meeting back in January, I'd made the amateur's mistake of eagerly offering up too many ideas. "This book is packed with ideas we could turn into articles," I gushed. "We could mine it for stories!"
Fast forward three months. It appears they've taken me up on my offer—without assigning the stories to me.
As I looked through that issue of Less Is More, my stomach sank. In three separate items in the front-of-the-book, there were echoes of my ideas: How to buy flowers with the longest shelf lives; investing in a cool chrome mug in lieu of shelling out for Starbucks every day; and in one instance, I even saw my wording, a phrase from the back of my galley that I believed was my own. To make matters worse, in an article about the magazine I read recently, a staffer was quoted talking about a piece they were doing on Dumpster diving. There is a chapter on Dumpster diving in my book.
I got up and started pacing. OK, they could all have been coincidences. Anyone could have had these ideas. They're not terribly original to begin with. And the phrasing was a sort of a natural play with alliteration.
Then I remembered something I'd read in Folio: magazine last month. Less Is More had been accused of lifting story ideas and headlines from a West Coast magazine, a bible for DIY divas called ReadyMade. "Although imitation can be construed as the best form of flattery, in this case the word 'cloning' comes to mind," ReadyMade's publisher had said. The editor-in-chief of Less Is More proclaimed it a "bummer" of a coincidence and denied that there had been any foul play.
Ay yi yi. My mind raced. Was this a serial thing at that mag? And, even if it was, what could I do? I called my agent, who smoothly tried to calm me down and urged me to call the people at Less Is More. "At least play the guilt card, and pick up some pity assignments," he offered.
Following his advice, I got in touch with a top editor at Less Is More, who said that the three instances were unfortunate coincidences. "I can assure you with 100 percent confidence that we're such a dysfunctional organization that the only people who even saw your book weren't involved in working on those stories," he told me. Harrumph.
I got off the phone, dissatisfied. I promptly dialed a friend in Boston who urged me to tip off Keith Kelly or David Carr. (Less Is More just won a prestigious honor; you know the press loves takedowns!)
Dizzy with varying opinions, I called a former colleague, now a mentor. I left him a panicky voicemail message: "I have a question for you. It's of the ethics variety. Please. Call. Me. Back."
A few hours later, on the phone, he began schooling me. This was, apparently, my first lesson in "Magazine Editing 102: Co-opting, Lifting, and Denying." See, I didn't go to journalism school. I received my training scrappily, with internships and fellowships, traversing the country for good gigs and pay cuts. I made embarrassing mistakes. And I cultivated mentors, who became my de facto professors and advisors. Though I didn't learn my code of ethics out of a textbook, I assumed that this kind of thing wasn't, well, kosher.
My mentor pal began my first lesson on the Underbelly of the Biz with an anecdote about a major monthly lifestyle magazine. A friend of his had been asked to work on a special issue on the music industry, with the understanding that it would be developed into a major feature package. He ended up providing extensive, exhaustive research, under the agreement that he would receive money and credit. When the issue hit the stands, he discovered that the magazine staffers had used his work to inform the package. In the editor's note, they sent a shout out to him, unnamed, as an aside. Needless to say, he didn't see a penny—and he couldn't resell his work, because it had already been published.
Then my mentor offered another story, this one his own. In a previous incarnation as a freelance writer (he's now an editor), he put together an elegant, thorough pitch for a women's fitness magazine. He even named sources he would contact. "I ended up getting nowhere with the story," he explained. "And then, months later, I saw the story in their magazine. The editor had assigned it in-house, and they'd contacted all of the sources I'd pitched. I still had the pitch in my Hotmail account. But what can you do?"
"So is this just, like, the norm?" I asked, deflatedly staring out my window.
"I'm sad to say it is really common. As a freelance writer, you're the lowest of the low. You really don't have too many defenses."
We talked about my options at length. Like my agent had, he encouraged me to play the guilt card to rack up some assignments. After all, a girl needs to eat. "You need to think in the long term. How valuable is this magazine to you? If you can get some good assignments out of this, that may be your best option."
Informally polling pals around town, I discovered that having ideas poached is par for the course. In many ways, freelance writers get the bum end of the deal. Finding your work in print, without attribution or your byline, is just the final blow in a long uphill battle (pitch, hound, pitch, hound). Understanding why this happens—and how to prevent it in the future—would be my only recourse.
Well, why does this happen?
Often, poached ideas fall into the shades-of-grey realm. Sure enough, the material in the current issue of Less Is More could possibly not have come from my book. Who is to say that they didn't just happen to come up with the same ideas?
Bombarded by pitches, editors can lose track of what came from where. As ideas swirl around in their heads and shift focus, it can become hard to backtrack and remember where the seed of the idea came from. Was it an email from a few days ago? A brief aside over drinks with a writer? And once the idea has changed significantly, does the writer even own it anymore?
The idea and the writer don't match. If an editor receives a great idea from a mediocre writer, it can be easier to tweak it slightly, and assign it to a pro, who can be reliably called upon to turn in clean copy promptly.
This isn't science. After an idea changes form, or becomes part of a larger package, the chemistry has certainly changed. The idea is simply part of a larger story. But at what point does it cease being the writer's idea?
Hello, these are tough times. Taking an idea from a freelance writer and assigning it in-house, slightly changed, is free. But the best editors will acknowledge the strength of an idea, and pay a finders' fee. I write regularly for major women's magazine, and I have pitched ideas they've ended up doing in house. They always compensate me for the idea.
But what can we do to protect ourselves?
Keep records of your pitches. Whether in email form or as Word documents, keep track of what you sent to whom. If necessary, you can resend and ask for an explanation.
Leave something to the imagination. As a writer, your only commodity is your ideas. So when blessed with a hot one, pitch only what is necessary to get the assignment—the hook, thesis, previous research. Instead of naming sources, offer one tantalizing quote to pique interest.
Make yourself essential. Try to pitch stories where only you have the goods—an exclusive source, a previous interview, or something similar.
Work with editors you trust. Find people you like, and stick with them. This is a squirrelly biz. Good relationships are the only way you can really ensure fair play.
Of course, if I knew then what I know now, yada yada yada. Still, in the haze of being played, I am comforted by one final power, a simple elegant time-proven technique to make things right, at least in my own little head. I've launched a whisper campaign. Commended by friends and colleagues about my book being included in the issue of Less Is More, I have one response: "You'll never guess what else is in the issue. And did you see last month's Folio:?"
Nina Willdorf has been both an editor and a freelance writer. She plans in the future to phrase her pitches as haikus. City Chic: An Urban Girl's Guide to Livin' Large on Less will be out in May; you can order it at Amazon.com.