Of all the slings and arrows we writers must bear, the worst is pitching a story to an agent or an editor, being rejected and then seeing the very story on the newsstand or on a bookshelf at Border’s. Many times it’s just coincidence. Sometimes, though, the similarities are too close for comfort.
Years ago I pitched a story to Better Homes and Gardens on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The holiday touches several of BH&G’s bases — entertaining, food, diversity. I submitted my proposal and publishing credits, offering to include photos and holiday recipes as well. They never responded. But they must have liked the idea because a wonderful story on Sukkot appeared a year later. Written by someone else. Such are the slings and arrows of the writing life. My puny revenge? I didn’t renew my subscription and have never bought a copy since. This is the writer’s Catch-22. To stay viable and solvent we need to pitch stories. And more often than we’d like to think about, some of these pitches land in someone else’s horseshoe pit.
Four years ago, a good friend and writer buddy began working on a memoir about adjusting to the empty nest. Around that time, an acquisitions editor of a women’s press invited her to submit any book ideas she had on the back burner. Cindy submitted a full proposal package — sample chapters, a marketing plan, and outline, title and the subtitle of the memoir for which she had already completed three chapters. She also submitted an idea for the cover illustration. You know where this is going, don’t you? The editor received the package and told her she’d get back to her. Which she didn’t. The company was reorganized, the acquisitions editor had moved on. So did Cindy. She continued working on the book, researched her market in advance and submitted it to a handful of agents. One requested the complete proposal and 50 sample pages; another wanted the whole manuscript when it was finished. Everyone loved the title. And no one ever got back to her.
Last month Cindy saw an empty nest memoir reviewed in a women’s magazine. Very similar in scope to hers, with her title and subtitle. And a cover illustration close to identical to the visual she’d suggested in her proposal. Coincidence? Perhaps. There are certainly enough of us empty nest writer moms trying to figure out a new flight path. What makes Cindy’s situation so disturbing is that this book has her identical title and subtitle. Not to mention the striking similarity in cover art.
What’s a writer to do? Act on our ideas with lightning speed? Keep titles and developing ideas under lock and key? Writers and editors are one another’s bread and butter. What if the day comes when writers, sick of being “coincidenced out of assignments” quit pitching their stories to editors? The internet is forcing change all over the publishing industry. Marketing firms are now zeroing in those blogs with enough authority and content to merit investment. Why? Because larger, deep-pocketed websites are turning to the blogs of independent journalists to keep their own sites fresh and content driven. The bigger fish are —- get ready! —- seeking bloggers and indie web sites whose content dovetails with theirs . Fancy that! Big guys looking for us! Because they need us!
I have a strong streak of Luddite in me that I am loath to relinquish. I don’t want a Kindle. I like my paper and pen. But the idea that the internet might be tipping the scales even the teensiest bit in favor of writers who have terrific things to say is heartening. Given the coincidences that happen to us all, the Web might just help writers keep authority over their own content.