When Agents FOFA*


(Fuck Around & Find Out)

This week’s top What Were You Thinking story also falls into a category called Things That I Thought Never Happened…


Back in the 90s, in the days of the Guild of Erotic Writers and a few other slushpile reading jobs, we sometimes used to get covering letters from aspiring authors who had this awful fear – that those to whom they submitted their work would steal their Great Idea and write it themselves. Of course, we laughed at these people, not least because I do not recall a single one of them ever having an idea that was worth ‘stealing’ in the first place: their submissions were always utterly bog-standard, thoroughly overfamiliar tales in terms of plot and concept.

But now someone seems to have actually tried it. TwiX (as someone other than me has exquisitely renamed it) is going predictably berserk and the agent has now been given the push, which serves them right. Because that was a massively stupid thing to do.

It is entirely true that you can’t copyright an IDEA. it is also true that more than one person can spontaneously have what is pretty much the same storyagents idea. I have had two submissions to one anthology that had a very, very similar premise with roughly zero likelihood that one of those submitters had ‘stolen’ the concept from the other. Neither story was an outrageously new plotline in the first place. I have also had a story of my own rejected one the grounds that the anthology editor had recieved a very similar one: I took the rejection with good grace because I am a professional and a grown up and I knew very well that I had not nicked this idea from anyone else: it was only when I read the published collection that I saw the story that editor had been talking about and, yes, it was sufficiently close to my story that the two could not have appeared side by side. Again, it wasn’t a particularly unusual idea.

This is fine. There are really very few original ideas. Just about every story you’ve ever read involves a set of building blocks that have been used time after time: the stranger in town, the lovers facing a huge obstacle, the flaw in a protagonist that must either be overcome or the protagonist will be destroyed by it, the terrible secret uncovered at last… Add your own favourites to the list.

So why is this agent such an idiot, why is this agent had such a kicking that their social media accounts (along with their career prospects) just vanished? First of all, it’s invariably a big mistake to go public with the fact that you want to take someone else’s stuff because you think they are a loser with no clout and therefore stealing from them is perfectly fine. It surely wouldn’t have been impossible to plant this Great Concept in the head of an author you thought would do a good job of reshaping it to your specifications, without being so blunt about it. Secondly, if the first author had actually had a truly wonderful idea, that would surely suggest the author is one worth spending time on, worth helping to develop whatever writing skills were lacking in the original submission: there are plenty of authors who ‘work with’ heavy editorial support and end up with results that satisfy all concerned.

agentsOK, there are times when (as an editor/agent/publisher) you will get something in that appeals to you in terms of ideas and plot points, but the thought of reworking something that’s a stylistic nightmare, from someone whose basic literacy is seriously lacking, just makes your heart sink. I’ve certainly turned down stuff that I simply couldn’t face trying to edit to a publishable standard (syntax errors in every sentence, no grasp whatsoever of punctuation…). And it may be the case that you can’t face working with this particular author because they are such an unmanageably horrible human being. Even then, there are better ways of dealing with the problem (including just letting it go) than what this idiot chose.

So I’d like to say a big Fuck Off to them on behalf of all those who read submissions, who are now going to be descended on by every unpublishable halfwit who got rejected, demanding ‘proof’ that their idea was not, in fact, stolen and profited from by Evil Literary Establishments.

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