Friday, February 27, 2009

Are Your Ideas Safe?

My question to you is regarding the safety of a nonfiction book proposal. I have heard of situations when a proposal is turned down because the platform is not as strong as one would like (perhaps no previous publication or degrees, but written by a writer with valid experience and a website with 50,000 hits/year) and then the publisher approaches an in-house writer or subject matter expert to write a book based on the idea because of its marketing potential.

There’s no doubt that since the beginning of publishing time authors have been fearful of publishers stealing their ideas, and certainly last year’s lawsuit between authors Jessica Seinfeld and Missy Chase Lapine only perpetuated this fear. But the question is, do publishers really do this?

And since I’ve always been as honest with you as possible I’m going to tell you that no, publishers do not steal ideas . . . sort of. Okay, before you freak out, let me explain.

I haven’t been following the case of Lapine v. Seinfeld lately, but my understanding is that Lapine is accusing Harper of basically taking the book proposal she submitted to them and turning it over to Seinfeld, whom they thought would be a better author. I just don’t buy that. Never once, in all my years of publishing, have I ever seen or heard of an editor stealing a proposal and passing it to another author to rip off. Does that mean it’s never happened? While certainly I can’t say it’s never happened in the history of publishing, frankly it doesn’t make sense. Lapine didn’t have outstanding credentials, but she did have credentials (although not a huge platform) and Seinfeld had no credentials at all, she’s just married to one of the most famous comedians of our time. If Harper was going to steal a book to pass to Seinfeld, why would they chose that one? It’s just ludicrous.

Most important, though, and outside of that particular case, if a book has that much merit, the idea is that brilliant, and the proposal is that well done, a publisher is going to try to make it work with that author. It’s in their best interest to do so. By the time they steal the idea, find an author to write it and publish it, someone else will have already snapped up the book and published it themselves. At this point Crook Publisher is already late to the dance, so to speak, and probably with an inferior project. If the publisher feels the author needs better or stronger credentials or a better platform, they certainly can suggest ways to make that happen. They could bring in a foreword writer with the credentials or even ask the original writer if she might be willing to work with someone with a platform or credentials. They can also help the author create a platform by setting up speaking events, and of course interviews with magazines, etc. The truth is that if the publisher likes the book that much they are going to offer to buy it. If the book is truly that great, the idea is that brilliant, and the execution is that perfect, and you have your platform, it’s not in the author, but in the book.

Now, is it possible that Seinfeld came to Harper with a cookbook idea and Harper didn’t see that as a possibility, but the editor instead suggested she write a book on sneaking vegetables into her child’s food? Absolutely. Is it possible the editor liked the idea Lapine submitted, but for whatever reason didn’t offer on the proposal and, remembering Lapine’s book suggested it to Seinfeld? Absolutely. Is that a punishable offense? Not at all. ***Please note that I have no information on how the book idea came about and personally I don't think the editor tried to rip of Lapine and give the story to Seinfeld. I'm just using this as a hypothesis and no one should think this is fact.*** Ideas are not copyrightable and publishers, like authors, have every right to develop their ideas in whatever way works for them. I know, I know that sounds horrible. But hold up a minute. How else do you explain the number of military fiction thrillers a la Tom Clancy? At one point in time there were none. Until Tom Clancy, this style of book didn’t sell. Or how do you explain the vast number of baby name books on the market? At one point there were no baby name books. Then someone wrote one, someone published it, it was successful and everyone else jumped on the bandwagon. The truth is that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and imitation happens in everything, it happens in publishing, it happens in TV, movies, art (look at the Impressionists), and it happens in business. Does that make it right? Yes and no.

We would certainly have a very limited number of books on the market if we couldn’t steal a little bit of idea here and a little bit there. Wouldn’t you be disappointed to learn that you no longer had a choice when looking for French cookbooks because Julia Child already had that idea and therefore Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris would be a rip-off and can’t be done? Or legal thrillers were assigned to John Grisham only and no one else could write that idea?

It takes a whole heck of a lot more than an idea to make a book and certainly more than just an idea to make a book successful. Fiction or nonfiction, the execution of the idea is far more important than the idea itself, and I’m reminded of that every single day when I’m reading through submissions. Daily, I receive nonfiction proposals for books with brilliant ideas and daily I reject them. Never have I rejected a fabulously executed project simply because of platform. In fact, this month I plan to go out with a new nonfiction submission where I have concerns about the author’s platform, but think the idea has such merit and is so well executed that I’m willing to take the chance. I also know that not just anyone can write this book. These authors have done their research and written a great proposal. They’ve executed something that not just anyone can do.

I have a feeling I’m going to get a lot of flack for this post and I’ve spent a lot more time than normal writing it in the hope that I explained myself properly. I don’t condone plagiarism in any way and I don’t condone thievery of proposals, outlines, or fully executed book plans. However, an idea is a very abstract thing and can be interpreted in many different ways, and it’s that interpretation that makes it unique. So don’t worry about the theft of an idea and don’t worry about the theft of your proposal. Instead concentrate on making your interpretation, your execution, uniquely you, and then there’s no way anyone can steal it (without plagiarizing, that is).