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, her two neurotic dogs, and her precious prince--er, cat.
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