Protecting Your Idea
Blogger: Rachelle Gardner
What if someone steals your idea, and writes a book on the same topic as you?
Angela Mills wrote:
I’m finishing up my first novel and I feel it’s a pretty timely, unique idea. I have scoured Christian fiction bookstores and catalogs and haven’t found any book with this kind of plot/setting. Should I keep the idea to myself until I find an agent and get it sold? I’m one of those people that doesn’t like to talk about what I’m writing anyway, but I’m trying to figure out how to answer when other writers ask what my book is about.
The best way to deal with this particular situation is simply to be vague when discussing your book. Don’t give details about your plot or subject matter. “It’s a romance set against the backdrop of a modern day reality show,” or “It’s a story about life in Auschwitz during World War II.”
The bigger question on many writers’ minds seems to be, what if other authors are writing books on the same idea as mine?
My philosophy has always been that you can give 100 writers the same book idea, and you’d end up with 100 different books. While there are some really great ideas out there, and some ideas are better than others, the execution is what matters and determines whether readers enjoy the book. The “same idea” isn’t going to result in the “same book.” Additionally, many readers don’t mind reading multiple books with similar ideas, and may even seek them out. So it’s usually not a problem.
I sense the real question on people’s minds, the one nobody’s asking, is, “What if somebody takes my fantastic, original idea, and writes a book better than mine?” It’s not a completely irrational thought, but neither is it something on which to focus. It’s a fear, and should be put in its place as such.
In response to last week’s blog post, Stephanie wondered about “when you are seeking representation for your completed novel and a book with 80% of your plotline gets published by one of the Big 6.” Do you start over? Do you completely change everything in the book? What does one do?
This is certainly disappointing, but not uncommon. The collective consciousness is powerful, and it causes numerous people to come up with startlingly similar story ideas around the same time. It makes sense—we live in the same world, experience the same culture, hear the same news stories. Since we share similar influences, it’s not surprising that we create similar stories.
So what do you do? In most cases, I wouldn’t advise scrapping your work, especially if it’s complete or nearly so. As mentioned above, your plot may be the same but everything else will be yours—your writing style, your voice, your unique perspective. Go forward bravely! You should probably still seek publication. Meanwhile, you’ll be working on your next story, right?
Think about how many important moments in history have been written about in dozens, hundreds or even thousands of books. Why is that? Because each author brings a fresh perspective. Each new book adds something valuable to the conversation. Yours can, too.
On a related note, a writer recently wrote me that she was concerned about the submission guidelines for S & S’s new digital-first imprint, which read:
“In connection with your Submission, you acknowledge that Simon451 may already be exploring, may have already explored, or may in the future explore publications with concepts and ideas generated by others that are similar to and may resemble your Submission. As a condition of your Submission, you agree that you shall not have any claim against Simon451 arising out of any such similarity in any future publications by Simon451 and third parties.”
I responded that it’s common for writers to submit stories with themes and plots that are similar to one another, then later assume their idea was “stolen” when in fact, people just naturally, independently come up with the same ideas.
In fact, the problem of writers claiming a publisher stole their idea is one of the reasons publishers stopped accepting unsolicited submissions from unagented authors — to protect themselves from claims of idea theft. This publisher is now accepting submissions from writers and they want to mitigate the risk of lawsuits, so they’ve included this notice.
In my earlier days, I worked for a television network and we were exposed to the same risk. For that reason, all unsolicited submissions from writers were returned unopened (this was the era of snail mail) so the writer could never claim we stole their idea, since we never read it.
Is it possible for your idea to actually be stolen? Yes. Has it happened? Sadly, yes. But I maintain that your focus needs to be straight ahead on your work. Protect yourself as much as reasonably possible, but don’t obsess over it.
Ever had an idea stolen? Have you worried about it? What are some ways you protect yourself?
Image credit: dinozzz / 123RF Stock Photo