In a post I did on Deciphering #MSWL, one reader made an interesting comment when she said,
Not to mention the potential legal pickle a writer who actually ran with one of these hyper-specific requests could find him or herself in if that idea turned into a bestseller with a different agent onboard.
My takeaway from the comment is that writing a book inspired by an MSWL and then selling it with an agent other than the one who inspired you, or to an editor other than the one who inspired you, puts you in risk of a lawsuit for stealing or plagiarising an idea. I’m here to tell you that, to the best of my knowledge (since I am not a lawyer), that is virtually impossible.
The number one rule everyone in publishing knows is that an idea cannot be copyrighted. A book idea and MSWL ideas are just that, ideas. They tend to be very vague thoughts on what someone would like to see in a book, but don’t include plot outlines, character developments, or even titles. Therefore, there’s not a lot to steal. Who’s to say where the idea came for your book about a family’s reaction to their child coming out as transgender or the story of a mother who becomes obsessed with her daughter’s best friend.
In fact, when you look at an agent’s MSWL, many of them are inspired by already successful books or books they love. Many of my own MSWL posts are based on my love for books by Sarah Addison Allen, Laurie Frankel, and Clare MacKintosh to name a few.
When it comes to MSWL, and anything else, agents and editors know it’s all about the execution and sometimes one person’s vision, or preferences are different from another’s. For example, ten of you could sit down right now to write a story about best friends who own a bookstore and I guarantee that not one of those books will be remotely like the other. In fact, my guess is there will be more than a few genres mixed in as well. What I’m looking for in voice, tone, and execution for a book on two women who own a bookstore is likely completely different from another agent so just because I made the call for that type of book doesn’t mean the one you complete is the one I had in mind or the one that fits my list.
The last thing I would worry about with MSWL is being accused of stealing. Ideas are there for everyone to take, they are free for all, so take them, mold them and shape them into a book that delights you.