DON’T PANIC: 10 Dos and Don’ts for When Someone Else Has Already Written (and Published) Your Novel

Man screamingIt’s happened to me twice now. I’ve gone to a bookstore or some kind person on the Internet has informed me that there is another book with a premise exactly like mine that has ALREADY BEEN PUBLISHED. *Cue wailing, rending of garments, and gnashing of teeth* In fact, it happened to me again just a few weeks ago.

After calming down from my epic bout of hysterics (which took days of abject misery and was no fun at all for my family), I managed to gain a modicum of perspective. In the event that this authorial tragedy will someday happen to you, dear reader, I wanted to share that perspective. Perhaps it will lessen the blow.

1. DON’T PANIC – No, really. Don’t panic. Put the liquor down. Years of your life have not been wasted. After all, if there can be thousands of vampire books, why can’t there be just two of yours?

2. DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER – 95 percent of the time, the well meaning writer/reader/friend who told you about your literary doppelganger had no intention of causing you distress. In fact, said friend probably thought he/she was doing you a favor. And actually, your friend was right. There are advantages to knowing what else is out there. It makes you look well read in your genre, for one. And it prepares you for when the agent you’re pitching to inevitably asks, “Isn’t that the same thing as [INSERT NAME OF IMPOSTOR BOOK HERE]?”

3. DON’T DELETE YOUR MANUSCRIPT – If you’re anything like me, the thought of any part of you being derivative of someone else is anathema to your very soul. In other words, it makes you want to peel your own skin off. You’d rather flush the entire story down the toilet and start from scratch than have to live in the shadow of someone who came before. Don’t do it! At least not before completing the do’s at the end of this list. You may be surprised at how unique your book still is.

4. DON’T SUE/STALK THE OTHER AUTHOR – This one is hard. But much like the messenger, the other author is not to blame for your predicament. Try to focus on the positive and stay away from the Interwebs for at least a day or two until you’ve regained a little equilibrium. Making rash legal decisions is probably not the wisest choice during this delicate time. Also, when your book does eventually get published, you don’t want to be known as that author who drunk-dialed so-and-so and wept angrily at her voicemail.

5. DON’T RUSH TO FINISH YOUR MANUSCRIPT – Slow and steady wins the race. Eh, who are we kidding? You already lost the race, darling. So why not take the scenic route? Your book might be the better for it. And you never know—maybe vampires will be the popular premise again when you finish.

6. DO READ THE OTHER BOOK – Do yourself a favor and read the other book. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s one of the best (and healthiest) things you can do to make yourself feel better. Because each of us is such a different person, chances are that the book that sounds so much like yours is actually not at all the same. You’re more likely to be comforted by reading it than to be distraught by it.

7. DO TWEAK YOUR MANUSCRIPT – Now that you’ve read the other book, you can devise cunning ways to emphasize the book’s differences. In my most recent experience with this, I discovered that my premise about a high school con artist has several alarming similarities to the YA novel Heist Society. But after reading Heist Society, I can easily pick out the differences and emphasize them in my next edit. For example, my heroine is dirt poor, while the heroine in Heist Society comes from a wealthy background. Also, the tone in each book is radically different. I’ll tease out those details even more to give my story a unique flavor.

8. DO COME UP WITH A SPIEL – Once one person notices the similarities, the floodgates will open, and you’ll have all kinds of people saying, “…oh, you mean like XYZ?” Trust me, you’ll need a spiel—some clever but humble response to this question that will turn the potentially awkward situation on its head and maybe even give you a bit of an advantage. For example, the spiel I came up with for mine is: My story is kind of like Heist Society, if you were to grind some dirt into it, rip a few of the pages, take out the art thievery, put in some old-school con games, and sprinkle in a little human trafficking. Almost sounds like a completely different book, doesn’t it? Well, that’s because it is.

9. DO REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE NOT ALONE – This happens to everyone at some point. Everyone. Okay, maybe not Douglas Adams. But everyone else. In fact, it probably happened to the author of the other book that’s just like yours. Publishers know this and will likely still want your book if it meets all the other criteria of having a strong voice, good writing, and compelling characters—especially if the other book (the one that went first) sold well.

10. DO MAINTAIN A SENSE OF HUMOR – This one is a must for all aspects of the writing process. In this case, keeping your sense of humor about the situation will go a long way to reducing the stress it causes. No one ever said writing would be easy. Just worth it.

Have you had this experience? Care to share your coping techniques? Leave a comment!

About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, and her evil overlor--er, cat. TRUST ME, I'M LYING, a YA mystery, will be released by Delacorte in Fall 2014.
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23 Responses to DON’T PANIC: 10 Dos and Don’ts for When Someone Else Has Already Written (and Published) Your Novel

  1. taureanw says:

    Great points!
    For one of my stories this was my GREATEST fears, then I realized that it is not who gets there first, it’s who puts out the best book.

  2. Bluestocking says:

    Gosh, I’m with taureanw about this being my biggest fear. It can be so hard just to fully realize your story, and then to find someone else beat you to it? Cue the gnashing of teeth. But I like your suggestions for trying to salvage the situation. Thanks!

    • mesummer says:

      I know, right? Awful, but not as awful as it seems at first. And they say that the best offense is a good defense. (Nothing like a sports metaphor to round out the evening. ;-))

  3. Rachel says:

    Thanks for all of the sage tips on what to do (and, maybe more importantly, what NOT to do) when this happens. I especially like your suggestions to read the other book, tweak your manuscript, and come up with a spiel. I’ve decided that, even if it’s hard to see your idea in someone else’s book, you can take it as a compliment–you have a great, publishable idea! And now you have an advantage. You can take the time to learn more about your competition and, in turn, learn more about your intended audience. You can refine your ideas. Competition can help push you to create a stronger story, one that you will eventually see on a bookshelf of its own, destined to make other writers say, “But I thought of that first!”. :)

    • mesummer says:

      Great positive spin! I like that–it’s a compliment. :-) And you’re totally right about competition bringing out your A-game. I’m definitely looking over my whole book with a more critical eye, since I was able to analyze the strong and weak points (in my opinion, anyway) of the other book from a semi-objective viewpoint.

  4. Great tips! I had this happen recently. Called my beta readers, got some support and went back to work! Now I’m editing, revising, and using the notes I decided not to throw out, to put a bigger spin in the book. Everything is working out perfect.

    • mesummer says:

      That’s awesome. It was almost like the other book coming out when it did was a good thing–it pushed you to go the extra mile and try something a bit different with your book than you originally intended. I’m sure your story is stronger (and maybe even the stronger of the two books) because of it. Thank goodness for supportive beta readers. Where would we be without them?

  5. I’ve had that “Dang it!” moment too. It’s rather frustrating, and a bit of a downer for a while, but I like how C.S. Lewis put it best:

    “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

    I think that pretty much sums it up. You may have the same general idea as the doppleganger…but no one can tell that same general idea the way YOU can. Write it anyway. It will be, “nine times out of ten,” original.

    • mesummer says:

      Excellent quote. I’d not heard it before, but it is incredibly comforting–and freeing, actually. So much of the time my inner editor is fighting with me about what and how I should be writing when my imagination just wants to tell an enjoyable story. Shifting focus away from what’s already out there and back to what’s in my head is the only thing that’s going to get me to finish this story.

  6. Great post!
    And I agree with Veronika… (C.S. Lewis fan here)

    There really is NOTHING new under the sun….we just have to learn to use our own voice and tell the story in such a unique way that the readers will love the new spin on the “same idea”!

    • mesummer says:

      Yup. Couldn’t agree more. I guess that’s why “voice” is such a strong component of what agents (and publishers) look for. It’s the characters, rather than the plot, that people remember most.

  7. Yes this happens to me a lot. I see similar premises and think, what the heck? But my story is my story and my voice is my voice. Thanks for the tips!!

    • mesummer says:

      Any time! Obviously, it happens to me a lot, too. I figured if these things help me to get past the initial disappointment, then they might help others experiencing a similar circumstance.

  8. This happened to me last year, but once I read the book I realized while the general premise was the same, the story was totally different. Also, it had almost no romantic elements which would be my focus, so I’m not too worried about it. Reading the book definitely eased my concerns. Great tips as always. Thanks!

    • mesummer says:

      Thanks, Gwen! Excellent point about changing up the genre as a method of distinguishing your story. That’s a huge element in any novel that will not only take your story in a different direction, but will put your book in a totally different section of the bookstore. Even your audience will be different. That is probably the best possible scenario for having a similar premise.

  9. Mallory Snow says:

    You have me cracking up! I love this post. I have felt this, as I’m sure we all have and I love your recommendations. Especially about reading the book because I’m sure you’re absolutely right. Thanks for brightening up my day. :)

    • mesummer says:

      Thanks for brightening mine with your lovely comment! :-) I figure if there are going to be slings and arrows, what better armor than humor? Hope you had a great weekend!

  10. I’ve heard there are no new plots under the sun so I suppose it’s bound to happen. But we all have unique voices. Unless there’s actual plagerism going on, there’s no way the story’s going to be exactly the same. That’s comforting, I think. 😀

    • mesummer says:

      Yes–always taking into account the plagiarism issue. It’s amazing to me to hear stories about how there are people out there who don’t realize that copying something word for word and passing it off as their own work is not illegal! But aside from that, yes, thank god we all have our own voices. The world would be a very boring place if we didn’t. Thanks for the comment!

  11. Rainy Kaye says:

    Great post. I especially like the tip of actually reading the “offending” book. There’s really only so many plots and elements, so some books are bound to look the same at first–especially by those fearing the worst. But, with enough creativity, there’s always room to make it your own.

  12. Meg Bignell says:

    This has just this morning happened to me – and I feel utterly sick. The book I have been working on in my spare time for YEARS has just been published by someone else – well not the same book clearly but the same premise, even (as per synopsis) the same story arc. One of the reasons I really believed in it was because it hadn’t been done before. Now it has and the reviews are really good, even though I looked desperately for bad ones. I will buy the book as soon as I can but for the moment I am ready to give it all away and take up daytime television and crochet. Tears on my keyboard.

    • mesummer says:

      Hi, Meg! Sorry it took me so long to reply to this, but I was in the midst of something promising, and I wanted to wait and see how it all shook out so I could report back to you something that will (hopefully) make you feel a lot better.

      I recently submitted my story–the same story this post refers to as being so similar to an already published book–to a query contest, and, long story short, I ended up with not one but THREE offers of representation from agents I’ve been cyberstalking for months. Last week, I accepted representation from one of my top three dream agents. All with a story that has (essentially) already been published.

      There’s a lot of synchronicity in this business (or so my agent tells me), and sometimes similar books come out right around the same time for no quantifiable reason. But in the end, there are lots of readers, and some of them might prefer my style to another writer’s style. There’s always room, it seems, for more awesome. Maybe even for more vampires. :-)

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