Blog-reader Harry put the following question to me:
You mention that critiques are important and how you’ve used a writing group to get feedback from all your work, including what gets published. Are you ever worried that someone in the club will steal your work and publish it? It sounds crazy given the success rate of the business but is it a real worry? How do you deal with it? Hard copies only with watermarks or just the honor system?
Aspiring writers want to know…
I’ll give a short answer, then a long answer. The short answer is, no. I don’t worry about it in the least, because I trust the people in my writing group. They’re my friends, we’ve been together for years, and if I didn’t trust them with my work I wouldn’t trust them to critique it, either.
Okay (I can hear you thinking), easy for you to say. You’ve been with a group for years, but what about me? I’m just thinking of joining a group. How can I know whether to trust these new people?
Fair question. Clearly any writing support group, especially a new one, must set out guidelines for treating members and their work with respect, and clearly there is an element of trust involved. I can’t tell you who to trust; you have to use your own instincts for that. I guess I’d say that if your instincts are causing you unease about the group you’re in, maybe you should look for another group. But that’s true whether or not you are worried about them stealing your work.
So let’s look at whether it’s a realistic worry. Suppose some new member had you all bamboozled about being trustworthy and decided to steal your story. What are the chances that he or she would get away with it? Pretty damn small. You’ve got an entire group that saw the piece and knows you wrote it. If someone did take your work, submit it to a publisher, and get it published (a very long shot in itself), wouldn’t all hell break loose when someone (like one of your friends) noticed that your story had just appeared under the name of the other person in your group? Imagine what that would do to the thief’s future career when the publisher was informed.
Does it ever happen? Yes. (But not within a writers’ group, so far as I know.)
I’ll tell you about it, because it happened to me. One of my stories, a novelette called Reality School: In the Entropy Zone, was plagiarized after it was published. A student at a university took the story, changed a few words, and submitted it as her own work to an online student anthology, put up on the web by the English Department. I think it was there for about a year before someone came along, read it, and thought, I’ve seen that before. Thanks to the web and the SF community, word eventually reached me that I should take a look. I did–and within a week, the student was up before the deans for disciplinary action. (She also had stolen another writer’s work. Though I was never officially told the disposition of her case, due to confidentiality rules, I have good reason to believe she was expelled soon after.) A sad irony of this particular case is that the university decided to prohibit future web-publication of student work. The irony, which I guess escaped the administrators, was that if the story had not been published on the web, the plagiarism would never have been discovered.
So didn’t that change my feeling about showing my work to my group? Why would it? After all, this happened after publication, and the perpetrator was a complete stranger. Which, if you think about it, makes a lot more sense than stealing from someone you know. If you’re going to steal.
So basically, I’d say: read my short answer again.