There are villains amongst us, we learn as we go. And, if we're to survive in this game, our arsenal of defenses must include pitbulls for lawyers and instincts we sharpen like claws through the years.
Agents love to reassure us that we have nothing to fear: they're far too busy and powerful to need to steal from us. But Preditors and Editors alerts us to names--well, in question: agents suspected of selling storylines to Hollywood scouts, etc. And anyone sending out hundreds of queries has good cause to fear. Almost certainly, the book itself isn't about to be stolen--but the concept may be ripped.
1) When I first worked on SOUTHERN SCOTCH (then titled MR. EXCITEMENT), a rich, famous and powerful agent asked excitedly to see it. He said the time was perfect for a hardboiled thriller. Well, he passed, and there's no crime in that. But I felt flooded with doody when about 18 months later his star client came out with...you guessed it, a hardboiled thriller.
2) My query letters at the time featured a reference to Boot Camp: getting back to the basics of writing. After hundreds on hundreds of rejections, I came across a just-published writers' guide entitled...you guessed it, Boot Camp.
3) I had high hopes for a little book about writing which included a unique proposal for arranging (Midlist) Monster Tours. Once again, a few hundred queries resulted in form rejections. But two interesting things occurred. First, one form rejection included a handwritten note at top, in big letters reading: CALL ME! I did. And, no, the form rejection hadn't been an error. The agent simply wanted to know if I could share more details about the Monster tour, assisting both him and his clients. Two: a few years later, Lady Gaga introduced her Monster Tour. I love Lady G, who did not rip me off. But I believe that agents talk and ideas do get into the air. Every query that you send raises the level of risk, as things stand.
4) To take some of the heat off from agents. When I was only starting out, I sent a short-short story--unsolicited--to a famous and very prolific American writer. I never heard anything back. But a year or so later, a story appeared in (FAMOUS MEN'S MAGAZINE), with her byline. Different title, different prose...identical story hook and execution, right down to the trick ending.
The doody, friends, will break your hearts. And if you choose trad. pubbing, be prepared for loads of it because, as surely as you breathe, now and then something will drop from the sky. And it won't smell like roses. BUT...
If you choose the indie route, reducing your exposure...if you hone your instincts and exercise due prudence...if, at the same time, you open your hearts: you'll meet some wonderful people and have less fear of hearing the soundtrack from JAWS.