Writers — Don’t Help Your Editor Rip You Off!

Recently read this tale of freelancer woe on the Web site of freelance writer¬†Robert Felton under the title “Editorial Ethics and Respecting Respect,” about how he got ripped off by an editor. His story:

“After returning from a trip, I was talking on the phone with the editor of a magazine for which I occasionally write. We chatted about a number of ideas for his magazine, including one we both thought was interesting. I followed up with an email, to which he replied that the magazine was seriously considering the story idea we had discussed. He then asked me for more information.

I did my research and put out a HARO on the idea. I forwarded the relevant emails to him and reiterated my interest in doing the story. I heard nothing for a while. Then, yesterday, I opened the most recent issue of the magazine to find the exact same story idea written by the editor and based on the sources I had provided.

I emailed him and heard back this morning. His explanation was that another story fell through and he wrote the story quickly. He apologized and told me that since his magazine is a small niche market, I shouldn’t have any trouble reselling the idea.

What do you suggest I do?”

Here’s my response:

You made a mistake here, Robert…why on earth would you forward all your source contacts to your editor? I’ve never done that in my life, ahead of turning in a story. Are you a very new writer, and felt maybe you had to prove you knew how to find sources or something? A little mystified there.

That sort of handed them the ability to do the story easily themselves. Keep your source contact info to yourself! And it won’t happen again. When I query, I might mention that I know a top expert in this field who’s a university researcher, or whatever…but I tend to not say their names. Or if I do, I certainly don’t provide their emails and phone numbers!

Here’s more bad news: This client is unethical. They should have at least TOLD you this was happening, even though you were kinda dumb to hand them your sources. You shouldn’t ever open a magazine to discover they’ve ripped off your idea. If I were you, I’d move on and never work with them again. If as he said it’s a resellable idea I’d get busy reselling — and use those resales to establish new editor relationships elsewhere.

Yet more bad news: Story ideas are not copyrightable or protected in any way. Same with story headlines. So there’s no recourse when this kind of thing happens. You can only learn not to deal with that person again and move on.