Monday, January 05, 2009


In the comment thread on A very slight diversion into the weird, Henry shares the following anecdote:
Back in the late '70s I was co-editor for a (very) short lived science fiction magazine. We got a manuscript from some guy in India that word for word Ray Bradbury's story "The Sound of Thunder." He was trying to sell it with the oh so original title "The Deafening Sound of Thunder." I don't what angered me more, the flat out attempt to steal one of Bradbury's most famous short stories or the idea that we were so ignorant of the field as to fall for it.
Surprisingly, I've heard some variation on this story from pretty much every fiction editor with whom I've had a close working relationship. With depressing regularity, would-be writers send in, under their own bylines, manuscripts containing word-for-word rewrites of famous stories, usually with very slightly different titles or a few changes to some of the major character names and proper nouns.

As it's been explained to me, these very rarely turn out to be the result of someone thinking he can actually get away with publishing and being paid for a plagiarized work. More often, the person submitting the story turns out to be some hapless yutz who's been collecting rejection slips for bad original stories for years, and who has now decided to submit a plagiarized story in hopes that it too will be rejected, just so he can scream:
Don't try this at home, kids — or at work, or anywhere else, for that matter. All that this stunt proves is that the sort of person who tries it is a real jerk; a total knee-biter. Besides, receiving a rejection slip for "The Unforgivingly Cold Equations" doesn't prove a thing. A large number of factors go into an editor's decision whether or not to buy a story, and the sheer quality of writing, while definitely an important factor, is probably only factor #4 or #5. The story has to be the right length; it has to be appropriate for the publisher's audience demographic; it has to fit in with the publication's general tone and theme; it can't be too much like something else the editor already has in inventory; and it just plain has to catch the editor's eye and imagination in just the right way on the particular day that he or she reads it. The same story can be absolutely perfect for an editor on Monday and rejected without a second glance by the same editor on Wednesday; a story can be absolutely brilliant in the opinion of the editor of Thrilling Wonder Stories and a total turd in the opinion of the editor of Wonder Thrilling Stories. Most importantly, tastes and trends in literature change, and they continue to change, which means that a story that was absolutely perfect for John Campbell fifty years ago (as most of the "classic" SF stories that get plagiarized are) is most likely laughably outdated today.

In short, this is one of those seemingly amusing ideas to add to your list of absolute no-no's. Never submit a plagiarized story to "test" an editor; never leave off the ending to see if they've actually read the entire thing; and never stick in the middle of your story the line, "If you've read this far, tell me and I'll send you $5." (Yes, that has been done.) All that these sorts of stupid little stunts prove is that the person pulling them is a jerk, and editors do make it a point to remember the real jerks, and blackball them. Worse, editors will talk to other editors, and after the second round of drinks, they love to swap stories about the jerks they've met.

For in a world with an almost unlimited supply of adequately talented writers, there simply is no reason to choose to buy work from writers who have proven themselves to be jerks.