Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Someone stole my NF idea.

Last year at a conference, I pitched an idea for a non-fiction book to two people from a Big Publisher. I was convinced my idea would be a perfect fit for BP. I gave them a synopsis, a list of chapters and my contact details.

For months, I heard nothing.

Recently, I learnt that the very same publisher has an Already Established Writer working on the book I pitched. This is definitely not a coincidence. The subject and approach are exactly what I pitched to them. They are a bit too specific to be a matter of chance.

I know that an idea in itself is not legally protected. But this seems a bit unfair.

When does an idea stop and the execution of an idea start? Is there anything I can do about this? Can I ask for a credit for example?

I sure wish I had really, really, really sharp teeth now too.

Thank you in advance for your time and advice!

Where does the idea stop and execution begin? In the writing. The actual words. Not the approach and certainly not the idea.

I'm sure you are convinced your idea was stolen but it probably was not. Here's why:

1. The people you met at the conference from Big Ass Publisher are two of THOUSANDS of BAP employees, and two among hundreds of editors. Unless those two specific people are the editors of the book similar to yours, the chances they told someone who then ran with the idea is very very low.

2. Non-fiction is often years in the making. If you've heard about a book similar to yours it's entirely possible that book was under contract long before you pitched your idea.

3. You'd be surprised at how many people have the same kinds of ideas. Just recently a client of mine and I were tossing around ideas for her next book, and we were pretty excited about the topic we hit on. A couple weeks later, that topic was a deal announced in Publishers Marketplace. If my author had mentioned that book to a publisher at a conference, it would look very much like what you described.

But it wasn't. Two authors had the same idea. It happens, PARTICULARLY IN NON-FICTION all the damn time. Nobody's stealing ideas, but we're all looking at bookshelves to see what's not there. We all see gaps, then propose books. It's not beyond belief that two people would have the same idea.

Now, where you are headed for real trouble is contacting Big Ass Publisher, or author, or author's editor/agent and asking for credit.

This will get you flagged as a crackpot, and honestly, it would get you noted as someone I'd never work with or communicate with again. There is nothing you're going to do about this, other than write to me and believe what I tell you.

Never discuss this with anyone or mention it again. Don't let it fester. Don't hope the other book fails.

You're going to come up with another idea, or a different approach to your first idea, and you're going to write a proposal and query again.

If you had one publishable idea, you'll have others. Time to dust yourself off, count this as an experience you don't want to repeat (don't pitch editors at conferences) and get back to work.


Sharyn Ekbergh said...

I had a TV spot copied by Disney. Not a coincidence. Mine was shown in Orlando at an awards contest (we were there) and next year, yup. With their budget they did a great job of it. It had a neat software effect the Other Person had worked out.
We just laughed. They're not going to call and say hey we love your idea how much?

Peter Taylor said...

There is no reason why a different publisher won’t want your book. When I asked reps/editors on publishers’ stands at the London Book Fair if there were gaps in their lists for which I could send a proposal, I was amazed when one of them was pleading with me, desperate to receive ideas and sample chapters for a book of recipes that children can cook. There are dozens of those books already published …but that publisher didn’t have one (at the time) …but I couldn’t help – I write calligraphy and papercrafts books, antiques, natural history and science. I'm just writing a book on Modern Calligraphy. There are plenty already in print, but not another one written by me. Of course, it may not be accepted, but I don't believe it's impossible.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

This happens all the damn time- in fiction as well. Look at all the “crackpots” who tried to sue JK Rowling for Harry Potter. A kid wizard is not an unique idea. The words Rowling put to paper made it sing, made it hers, made it stand out from thousands of books with similar premises.

Put your words to paper and get to work on next idea. Don’t get caught up in getting a “unique” idea. Write what matters to you, make it your own, and query widely when done.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Years ago a writer I know told me about her book idea. It was fiction, with a premise not done before and crazy-good. I loved her idea and wanted to run with it. For my own enjoyment I did an outline, came up with fantastic characters and loved my time soaking in someone else's dream.
She did not write the book and is on to other creative endeavors. Though I still think about her premise, and what I might have been able to do with it, I will not write the book either.
It was her baby. I am not into kidnapping.

Colin Smith said...

The truth can be told: I invented digital music. At least I thought I did. Picture if you will a young me, around 11 or 12 years old, happily loading a game onto our computer from cassette tape, listening to the squeals and bleeps of the data as it fed into the machine, when it hit me. If we can take computer code used to create games and pictures and convert it into 1s and 0s on cassette tape, why not music? Just think! You could take a studio master tape, convert the music into squeals and bleeps, and it would be preserved exactly as it was on the master tape. You could make hundreds, even thousands of copies of that same recording without any loss of quality. And it wouldn't scratch or warp or pick up dust. All you need is a way to encode and decode it--something like the compiler and decompiler used for reading and writing computer games.

Then a show came on TV introducing us to the Compact Disc. "WHAT??!" I said. "They stole my idea!!" I wanted to call someone, let the world know that I thought of it first. Who did Sony and Philips think they are? I should get a cut of that pie!

Of course, if you look up Compact Discs on Wikipedia, you soon discover that the original idea for capturing sound digitally was documented in the 1960s. Just 'cause I hadn't heard of it, didn't mean no-one else had thought of it.

Without any way of proving intellectual property theft, I let it go. Very magnanimous of me, I know. :)

All that to say yeah, what Janet said. :D

Ann Bennett said...

I wish I could reply to comments. But to Carolynn with 2Ns; I could not write someone else's story either. It is like dating your sister's old boyfriend. There is nothing wrong with it. It's just not to my taste. Plus there are so many stories we all have swirling in our head, Why?

With non-fiction, if I felt passionate about the topic, I would continue to try to sell the book to another publisher. Imagine one book on any given topic, how are students to write their term papers. lol

Craig F said...

When I am doing research, I look for articles that have at least six footnotes from other authors. That way I know it is close to legitimate. I see no reason your name could not be added to a couple of those lists.

As everyone else has said, there are no new ideas. There are new perspectives and new ways to shine up some words and take them to town.

JEN Garrett said...

Janet is probably right. The idea probably wasn't stolen. More than once, I've critiqued a fiction manuscript that is EXACTLY the same approach (down to the character's names!) as a "sneak peek" I got of an upcoming book. The writer was totally unaware of the upcoming title. It happens.

All that means is you need to do a little more brainstorming, a little more craft honing, and you'll come up with something that isn't already in the works.

I know you can do it!

Megan V said...

Ah, the age-old battle between ideas and execution. It's a lot easier to spot a thief when they've stolen something more tangible than an idea.
And unfortunately, even brilliant ideas can be a dime a dozen.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

I'm also guilty of starting "Caturday" and to prove it I own the domain!

BrendaLynn said...

In movies you see the major studios compete with each other on a theme in the same year. I’m wondering if you see that same phenomena in publishing. Would a competing house be interested in your take on a hot topic?
I’ve had people offer me their ideas and I try to stop them because I have way too many of my own. Unfortunately, Uncle Harold won’t take no for an answer and I’m forced to listen to his take on a western that sounds suspiciously like ‘The Cowboys’ starring John Wayne.

immortalincreate said...

In 1994 I explained to a friend about an idea for a spec movie script. I had too much coffee so I was talkative that day. The hero and villain have face transplants. The title...get this...would be "Face Off." My friend laughed long and hard at that stupid idea and I turned pretty red. I never mentioned it to another soul. I don't think anybody "stole" my idea. Seriously, I don't.

Claire Bobrow said...

OP, I feel your pain, but it's most likely a coincidence. I just wrapped up a 6-week class last night that involved the sharing and critiquing of manuscripts. Unfortunately, one of my classmates and I had not only similar concepts, but almost identical titles. Fortunately, in the execution, our stories were very different. Hooray! And onwards!

Beth Carpenter said...

Remember this Flash Fiction when Nate and I had a mind meld? [The Usual Santas](

Robert Ceres said...

Whoosh! It feels like harsh advice, but it also has the ring of truth. I'm guessing that OP already knew the right answer. But still, it's nice to know that Janet answers the questions without prejudice. And anonymously.

C.M. Monson said...

So true about people coming up with the same ideas for stories. A long time ago, I had a dream about a wizarding school. (I was into witchcraft books when I was little, though at the time there wasn't much around except Broom Hilda, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and Miss Switch.) Anyway, Rowling wrote her story. I did not. And, I am fine with that because her vision was much better than mine. I'm just happy today's kids have more books like hers to read than I did. Because, in all honestly, isn't that why we give future generations stories to read and books to remember us by.

DeadSpiderEye said...

Anyone who's done time chained to the keyboard has come across the I had my idea stolen feeling so often, that they've generally worked out for themselves, that ideas are permeable. Or rather the minds that conceive them are, we're all fish swimming in the same bowl and subject to the same subliminal influences. Yep people do swipe ideas too but generally they're not even aware they've done so. Some author mentions something in passing over a desk and it goes in one ear and rattles about till it's regurgitated at a later date with no return address on it.

Adele said...

My writing group used to discuss our book ideas. Sitting around one night with a glass of wine, I described a book idea - the characters, their backgrounds, the time and location, what happened, and even a pretty nifty plot twist about 2/3 of the way through. Two weeks later, I was deluged with e-mails - "Hey! Jane Fonda stole your idea!" For sure enough, Ms Fonda was behind a TV movie that had aired the night before, featuring the plot, characters, and plot twist exactly as I had described - a movie that must have been nearly finished at the time I described it. I can only assume the wine made my psychic!

Julie Weathers said...

I took a scene to Surrey two years ago for a blue pencil session with a best-selling historical author. He read through it, made a few notes and I held my breath thinking he's hating it. Then he laughed at the end. It was at something the POV character was thinking and was just the right reaction. Then we discussed the scene. He said this is gorgeous writing. You captured the aftermath of a battle perfectly.

I'm not patting myself on the back because it's a small tidbit out of a very large work, but I was glad he saw the scene because he writes battles.

I was still concerned. I knew there had been battles where certain things happened, but I wasn't sure about this one. The creek has some steep banks in places so I might be off kilter. Also, I might be off on timing.

Then I started reading a memoir of one of JEB Stuart's officers who was at the battle hed described exactly what I had written to the smallest detail. If I hadn't known better, I would have sworn I wrote the scene based on his description, but I just bought the book. He gave details I haven't read anywhere else and I read a LOT.

I believe there's a creative consciousness that the boys in the back tap into. It's the only way to explain why chunk writers who have very complex stories are able to pull things together so seamlessly.

There's nothing new under the sun, only the way the story is told.

OP, I'm sorry this happened, but you have a creative mind. What a blessing. Move on with the next great project.

Something to think about.

"I failed, I failed, and that is about all that can be said about it."

- Abraham Lincoln's self-criticism of his famous "Gettysburg Address"

Elissa M said...

When you're alone in your garret, you feel like everything you think of is brand new. It's only when you're exposed to the rest of the world that you see how there's truly nothing new under the sun.

My sister is a middle-school librarian. She could rattle off close to a dozen boy/girl-in-wizard/witch/magic-school stories that were published before Rowling.

Go to a nice, large public library. Ask the marvelous librarians there for a book about (whatever your WiP is about). I'll bet money they find you several.

Melissa said...

Nonfiction is different from fiction. I worked in nonfiction publishing, and I had a coworker who worked at another nonfiction publisher prior. They took ideas all the time. Little known authors would reach out to them with concepts, and they would turn around and ask one of their established and sold authors to write the same thing.

It was definitely not coincidence.

Do you know what those other authors did? Nothing, because there was nothing they could do other than be more careful in pitching to them again. Here's my advice, pitch to another publisher. If this idea takes off, other publishers will want their own version of it.

Lennon Faris said...

Oh, OP, I feel for you. I know Janet is right, but it is such a frustrating feeling. Try not to focus on that.

As Melanie says: "Onward!"

Tony Clavelli said...

When I first read John Scalzi's Red Shirts, I was so angry. I thought it was such a rip-off of Charles Yu's story "Yeoman," another story showing a new perspective on what it would be like to be one of the doomed "red shirts" from Star Trek. Nearly identical premises. But as I read further, I realized they were two totally different pieces. Both were surprisingly excellent. Like Janet said, it's the execution that matters.

Ideas have an almost comically low exchange rate in writing. They're like pennies--they cost more to make than they're actually worth.

Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MA Hudson said...

OP - from what Melissa says, your idea may well have been taken but there's nothing you can do about it. However, as other have said, there may be rival publishers who'd be interested in your version of the book.
I think the best thing to do is keep developing other ideas and only pitch to agents - not editors. And also... keep building your platform - that would make your book much more appealing than that of an anonymous in-house writer. Good luck.

LynnRodz said...

OP, I feel for you, but like the majority of comments here, this may very well be happenstance. I had a unique idea (haha) for a story some 35 years ago and wrote a first and second draft, then put it in the trunk where it belonged. I never saw that idea executed until ten years ago when a bestselling author (somewhat) wrote the same story.

Then again, as Melissa said, maybe they did take your story and ran with it, but unfortunately there's not much you can do about it except query other BAP. Who knows, maybe you're way of telling things will interest readers more than the one being worked on. Good luck!