What to Do When Someone Publishes Your Idea Before You

It’s the stuff of nightmares. The thing that keeps established authors up at night during their lowest points of self-confidence; what gets newbies wasting their time trying to copyright their books before they even begin to write them; what causes queries of, “I can’t tell you what my book is about, but it’s going to be a bestseller!”

It’s that awful, needle-in-the-hay moment when somebody else ends up publishing a book idea similar to yours. When they beat you to the market.

It happened to me. And let me tell you, it’s derailing. What made it harder is I never thought it would happen. “What’re the odds,” I’d tell myself, “that somebody would actually get out there before me with an historical novel on queer seafaring?”

And then boom. After five years of me toiling away on my own work, with it now out for consideration with a handful of agents who asked for it directly, and me feeling like I finally, finally had a chance after a childhood of dreaming and an adulthood of dedication and so many years of being told that “a book like this would never sell,” a novel about a bisexual swashbuckler was announced: Mackenzi Lee’s THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE. And it was getting hit with rave reviews, international and third printings, and extra helpings of marketing like woah right out of the gate. (Not to mention it soon hitting the NY Times Bestsellers List.)

Yeah, that was a rough night. It didn’t matter that hers was YA and mine wasn’t. It didn’t matter that her protagonist was a bisexual cisman and mine was a transman. It didn’t matter that my focus was specifically on piracy and hers reached broader. It didn’t matter that our plot points and tones and voices were totally different.

What mattered was someone else got out there first with the idea, this merging of swashbuckling and queerness. It’s a piece of history that has been straight-washed and machismo’d, a noble ancestry that few people know about. And I admit I was proud at the idea of being first to get it to market.

I also admit I was proud of the idea itself. I was praised time and again for being so original, so committed to uncovering the history of my queer community that mainstream people had tried so hard to erase. I felt the idea itself was my claim to fame, and I soaked those compliments up.

But now? The thunder was gone. That space on the queer bookshelf had been filled. And the best-case scenario would be that I’d look like a copycat, should my novel ever actually make it to stores.

I was jealous.

But after a couple of days feeling sorry for myself, of feeling like all my hard work had collapsed to nothing for reasons I couldn’t control, I came to some important realizations:

  1. We’re stronger together. Especially when it comes to marginalized topics and/or writers, getting jealous doesn’t help anyone. Victories are important for the community. Every individual’s victory is our victory. We need to celebrate the shit out of each one. With every successful, realistic, and non-problematic representation of queer life in literature, the more likely other such books will get consideration, too. (Note: I’m making no assumptions or claims either way about Mackenzi’s identities and/or relations to the queer community.) And even if you’re writing a non-marginalized topic, hell, man, a book similar to yours getting out there in the world still means there’s now an interest in the market for it. That’s fantastic news. Somebody simply went first and got some of the weeds out of the way for you.
  2. You’re more than your premise. If the thing you’re most concerned about is someone “stealing your idea,” then that means you have poor confidence in your writing abilities. Unique ideas can be important, sure, but what’s more important is what you do with them. We all know of books that have an intriguing premise, but aren’t well written. We all know of books that have an inane premise, but we just couldn’t put down. Your idea is important, but it will never, ever be what makes or breaks your novel. You are.
  3. No two novels are the same. Nobody can write your book like you can. It sounds like a bad inspirational poster, but it’s true. You bring your own life experiences, your own tastes, your own beliefs; an entire lifetime of being that can’t be replicated by a single other person on this planet. And that’s why, in the end, the stories of Mackenzi and I couldn’t be more different, even if they were so much more the same.
  4. Remind yourself of your strengths in your writing. Banking off #2, keep in mind where you’re strongest. Narrative voice? Suspense and tension? Character development? Setting and scene? Play to those strengths. And if you don’t know what they are, then find out. Your writing depends on it, ideas be damned.
  5. Remember that it’s not a contest. It really isn’t. We’re raised in a cutthroat (ha) country, and the publishing industry in particular can be pretty nasty. But that doesn’t mean writers themselves shouldn’t support each other. Let the people who get part of your commission do the dirty work of finding space for you in stores. But you? You’re an advocate for all non-problematic authors. The writing community is small (especially when you go marginalized), and the work is tough. There’s a huge amount of solidarity in that alone. Don’t waste it.
  6. Get over yourself. Yes, being proud of your work is important. You worked hard, dammit. But you can’t allow yourself to get prideful.
  7. It’s one hell of a writing exercise. When you feel like the selling point of your book has just been stripped from you, you need to make sure you’re writing in a way that still makes the book sellable. Even if that means rewriting the whole thing, your book will be stronger for it. Aaaaaand go.

After these thoughts, I got myself to work in the solidarity department. I gave shout-outs about Mackenzi’s novel to social media, I congratulated her on her book birthday, I went to her launch, I bought a copy, I got it signed. And after I read it, I put positive reviews online (because it is a good book, and there are so few non-problematic bi stories out there), I mentioned it to every queer-related book club I had connections with, I encouraged her to submit to the Bi Book Awards I used to judge, I gave more shout-outs on social media. I did everything I’ve always done to help my fellow writers and then some because, hey, queer books need extra love. And while it may still hurt a little to see so much positivity going to someone else while I’m standing in the corner—because, come on, deep down we all want the shiny thing—I’m still happy to do my little part in helping Mackenzi’s book succeed.

In the end, if someone ever comes out with a book premise like yours, your process should be a quick and simple three-parter: 1) allow only a little time to feel sorry for yourself, 2) return to building community and solidarity, and 3) get your ass back to work.

Don’t waste your time on things that ultimately don’t matter. Because your book is still waiting. And nobody will be able to write it but you.

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5 comments

  1. Such truth here, Milo. This can be crushing, but ultimately no two books are the same and helping other authors is so important. Glad you were able to rally after the initial blow. I can’t wait to read YOUR queer seafaring pirating book!

  2. Anna

    Congratulations on your classy, practical, and eventually wholehearted response to that other book. Now I see a Venn diagram: you in one circle, Mackenzi in the other–and the overlap is so tiny as to be almost invisible, except that the overlap contains all the goodies you describe so well. Hope to hear that Mackenzi reciprocates when your book comes out.

  3. Melanie D.

    These are big-hearted and generous rules. I hope someday your success leads you to be on the same literary conference panel with Mackenzi about the unknown history of queer seafarers.

  4. Laura Roper

    Great, big-hearted blog…just like you are! And your book is a gem that will only shine brighter in good company.

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