Believe it or not, editors are people. Like any other group of people, there is much variety among them. I am lucky enough to work with some terrific editors—ones that give me interesting work and decent pay, ones that are enthusiastic and supportive and funny and smart. I like to consider some of them my friends. But of course, some editors suck.
The one all writers know is the editor that sits on your invoice for days, weeks, months because they forgot or never knew what it’s like not to have a regular salary. Other unappealing editors include those that rewrite your stuff constantly because they have writer envy (but are too scared to take the freelance dive) or they’re socially incapable of telling you what they want. Editors that can’t type a quick “no, thanks” to story pitches are pretty bad, too. But I think the worst kind of editor must be the Thieving Editor, followed closely by the Sanctimonious Editor. Here goes my sordid tale.
Last fall, I was setting out on a trip and did the usual round of story pitching. An editor at a large paper (one you know) responded positively to my list of pitches, specifically one angle. It was agreed that I would go on my trip and report back, most likely writing that story unless it really didn’t work. So I went. And came home to an email from the Thieving Editor that she was “really, really” sorry, but my idea fit so well into a package she had put together when I was gone that she had assigned it to another writer. She apologized, but she was sure that I could think of another angle for my travel story because I was “so full of good ideas.” Now, I’ve had ideas rejected and massaged, and dealt with editors both dismissive and generous. But I’d never been outright ripped off. I. was. speechless.
Well, not really. I called every writer I knew for sympathy and advice. Eventually what happened is that I was turned on to the very persistent Derek Finkle (whose CWG I should join, and would, if I didn’t think about quitting freelancing every day lately). Currently Canada’s self-appointed defender of freelance journalists’ rights, DF went to bat for me for no good reason. (I really suck for not joining his agency, dang. Maybe he should do a post about me.) He got the Thieving Editor on the defensive. She called my idea “unoriginal” (although apparently still good enough to steal) and said she hadn’t stolen it (I don’t think that train of thought works). DF asked her why she had apologized if she hadn’t done anything wrong. She hedged. He called her boss. Long story short, I got an “idea fee” of about 30 per cent of what I would have got for the story. I also did come up with another angle (cause I’m so full of good ideas) and wrote about my trip. But I was insulted and demoralized. Since then, I have always been wary of pitching editors I don’t know, and have mostly done it Stateside, because the potential byline is worth the risk. Apparently, this experience-based fear makes me overly paranoid and prejudiced.
Why, you ask? I heard through the grapevine last week that another newspaper (yes, one you know) was looking for a new columnist. So, I sent ideas, and received a very positive response. However, the editor in question had agreed to try out another writer on the column. But she liked my clips, so she hoped I would send her more ideas (cause I’m so full of good ones!). I said thanks. A few hours later, I got nervous. I think there’s a cliché about it—oh yes, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Not wanting to be a fool, I emailed the Sanctimonious Editor back and said:
Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I had a terrible experience last year – an editor … solicited ideas from me and then assigned them to another writer, explaining that I was “just so full of good ideas.” … I am absolutely not suggesting you’d ever do that, but once bitten, twice shy – if for some reason you’d like to assign your chosen writer the…ideas I suggest, please negotiate with me first… I just wanted to be clear that I consider those ideas mine, all mine.
Well, boom! The Sanctimonious Editor was very offended and wrote back to tell me so before outlining her entire CV and history of airtight ethics. I felt badly. I wrote her back and told her my experience in more detail and said that it wasn’t personal at all. I asked her if a veteran such as herself had any suggestions for a writer seeking to protect her ideas. I told her that I knew of other incidents that had been similar to mine (which I do, don’t I little freelancer friends?). I said that I hoped that she had some room to be sympathetic towards me, and I offered a genuine apology.
Not good enough. Sanctimonious Editor wrote back again. She didn’t offer any ideas of how not to get ripped off by editors without her impeccable moral standards. Instead, she said that to even mention the possibility of my ideas being taken from me—despite my outlining for her how that has happened to me in the past—was to colour all editors with the same brush. It is, she says, akin to racism and sexism (yes, that’s what she said). Sanctimonious Editor has no trust in me and she never wants any ideas from me ever again.
Well, I didn’t want to send her any. I felt I understood her position, I just wanted an indication that she might try and understand mine. Apparently not. Despite how very full of good ideas I am, it seems that a) I’ve made myself an enemy, and b) I still don’t know how to cover my ass.