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Don’t Worry, It Only Looks Like They’re Stealing Ideas

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New writers often fear losing their ideas. They’re the ones who ask agents to commit to total confidentiality before they’ll send a submission. They’re the ones who worry about trusting editors and publishers. It does seem easy, after all, to send in a great idea and have the editor just hand it to his drinking buddy to write.

And it’s sometimes equally easy to understand why writers feel this paranoia. Case in point… On December 3, 2004, I pitched an introduction to wristwatches to GQ magazine. I suggested a primer on buying a fine timepiece. I wanted to include a glossary of key terms, the difference between mechanical movements and quartz, things to look for in a good watch, a run-down of some of the main brands, what was the best investment pieces, and an examination of interesting pieces in each of the various categories. I was a timepiece fanatic long before the current craze began and I’ve written for some watch publications before, so I thought I had a good shot.

My pitch received no response. No rejection, no acceptance, nada.

Then, on my flight back from Hawaii last week, I picked up the May 2007 issue of GQ and what do I see? Right there in big headlines on page 209? The Complete GQ Guide: How to Buy a Watch.

Here’s what they have in this article.

  • A glossary (including a discussion of quartz and mechanical movements)
  • Four classic brands and models
  • How to service a watch
  • What makes an heirloom watch
  • Buying a vintage watch
  • A watch for every occasion (including representative pieces from the dressy category, the sporting category, the office category, and the weekend-type category)
  • And a rundown of watches that have been made in conjunction with high-end auto-manufacturers and clothing designer watches

In all, only the auto-themed watches and the clothing designer watches were not included in my pitch.

Did I want to scream when I saw the article? You bet your ass. Did I think they stole my idea? Absolutely not.

The fact is that editors are inundated with material. They don’t have to steal our ideas. Sometimes it’s a matter of timing. Sometimes it’s a matter of a more well-established writer makes the same pitch. Sometimes it’s just fate.

In all likelihood, some assistant tossed out my pitch in late 2004 and the real editor never saw it. Or, maybe he saw it but didn’t think buying a high-end watch was that big of a deal. Fast forward a year-and-a-half and maybe Mr. Editor has a friend who buys a Rolex, another starts sporting a Panerai, and a third invests in a Patek. Suddenly he thinks it’s a hot trend when before he couldn’t give a rat’s ass about watches.

A friend used to be a music reviewer for one of the biggest publications in the country. More than fifty compact discs stuffed his mailbox each week. Think about that. He got more than fifty CDs, completely unrequested. Ambitious bands just sent them to him. How was he going to wade through all that mess? He looked at it all, but a disc stood a much better chance of getting a listen if he had overheard people discussing that same band on the subway earlier that day. That brief moment of recognition made him think this might be a growing trend, a rising band, something that people are paying attention to, rather than just a CD.

Probably the same thing happened with this watch article.

So is it frustrating? Yep. Is it theft? Nope.