What to do if your book gets scooped
And why it's not time to panic
Hi Manuscript Workers,
Today’s post was inspired by several emails I’ve received over the years from scholarly authors. While the specifics of each situation vary, the upshot is that when people find out that someone else is about to publish a book that feels very similar to their book and they start to panic about what that means for their chances of publication.
I’ve responded to these authors privately, but I have received enough of these emails that I thought it would be worth writing a newsletter on the topic, in case anyone out there is panicking alone and needs some reassurance. Or if you’re merely anxious that this situation might happen to you someday, even if it hasn’t yet.
Before I jump into that, I just want to give a quick reminder that I have a free webinar TODAY at 10am Pacific about how to connect with publishers and land a contract for your scholarly book. It’s called How to Publish Your First Scholarly Book, though I welcome second-time authors and anyone else who wants to feel more in control of your publishing process this time around. Even if you can’t make it live today, by registering you’ll get access to the recording and handouts.
Ok, back to getting scooped on your book. There are a few different scenarios authors tend to find themselves in that are relevant here, so I’m going to go through each one and then offer my advice about what to do.
First, let’s define what we mean and don’t mean by “scooped.” I’m not talking about someone stealing your research and publishing it under their name. That is an egregious offense and I would never downplay that or tell you not to be upset about it. I may cover that kind of situation in a future newsletter, but it’s not what I’m talking about today.
What I mean by scooped is someone publishing on a topic that seems similar enough to yours that you think it could jeopardize your chances of getting published or otherwise detract from your publication in some way. This could happen at multiple points in your publishing journey:
before your book is under contract with a press
after your book is under contract but before it’s accepted for publication
after your book has been accepted but before it’s been released
There’s one thing I think everyone should do regardless of which stage they’re at, so I’ll discuss that first. Then I’ll go through each of the different stages above to help you strategize your next steps if you find yourself in any of these situations.
The first thing you should do when you find out about a book that feels dangerously similar to yours is to examine that book carefully. It may not be available to actually read yet, but you can still probably ascertain provisional answers to some meta questions about the book that will help you understand where it will sit in the publishing landscape:
Who are the intended readers for this book? If the book is aimed at scholarly readers, which scholarly disciplines do they belong to?
What methods, literatures, and theoretical frameworks does the book rely on?
What is the author’s thesis or unique take on their subject matter (as best as you can tell)?
Which press is publishing the book? Will the book appear in a particular series or subject area list? What kinds of books is this press/list known for?
I’m advising you to try to answer these questions — instead of immediately panicking — because I would bet that in almost every case you will discover something that makes your book quite distinct from the book you’re worried about. You may well find that instead of this book being an identical competitor with your book, it’s either (1) aimed at a different audience or (2) aimed at the same audience but dovetails with your contribution in a complementary way such that most readers will want to read both books when they are released.
I’m also advising you to come up with answers to the questions above because you will be able to use your answers to make your case to publishers (and later to readers) that your book is just as worthy of publication (and engagement) as the other book. You may even want to write your answers down somewhere so you can reference them if/when you need to. Write down answers for your own book while you’re at it.
Once you’ve answered those questions, it’s time to think about what stage you’re at in the publishing process. It really doesn’t matter what stage the other book is at because I don’t think you should treat it as a race in which as long as your book comes out first, everything will be fine. For one thing, you will have little control over the timelines for either book and I would not suggest rushing your own process just to have an earlier release date than someone else. For another thing, your contribution should be robust enough (i.e. arising from well-constructed research and analysis) that being first to the topic by a few months or even a year is unlikely to be the main appeal of your book.
(That said, if another forthcoming book motivates you to prioritize working on your own book and that makes sense for your career and life, then go ahead and utilize the motivation. Just don’t let yourself get derailed if you happen to not beat the other book to the punch.)
I said above that you will probably be at one of three stages when you learn of another book similar to yours. Here’s what I’d tell you to do at each of these stages if you emailed me in a panic and wanted my advice:
If you learn of a similar book before your book is under contract with a press
Decide whether your book shares an audience with the other book and/or whether you want to publish your book in a similar venue (i.e. at the same press or even in the same series). If any of those are true, then you should add that book to the comps list in your book proposal. In your description of the book, highlight both what your book has in common with the other book and how your book will provide something distinct.
You might assume that the press the other book is being published with is now off-limits to you but that’s definitely not always the case. Some presses like to acquire lots of books on similar topics, because they specialize in reaching audiences who care about those topics. It therefore behooves you to explicitly talk about the other book when you approach that press and explain how your book will complement that one and be appreciated by the same readers.
It’s possible that the press would feel the books are too similar, but I would let them tell you that rather than assuming it yourself. And you won’t be helping yourself by pretending the other book doesn’t exist — acknowledge it and use it as leverage to show both how well your book will fit in among the press’s current offerings and how you are offering something unique.
If you plan to approach different presses — maybe the other book is coming out with a press that doesn’t feel like a good fit for you or you just want to have multiple options — you can take the same approach. Discuss the other book in the comps section of your proposal and use it to show another press that your book will help them join the conversation and keep up with their peer presses.
(If you’re not sure how to figure out good presses for your book or how to make the strongest case that your book is a fit, do check out my free 5-day challenge coming up in a couple weeks!)
If you learn of a similar book after your book is under contract but before it’s accepted for publication
Again, don’t panic. I’ve heard from authors who found out their publisher acquired a similar book and were worried this meant their publisher wasn’t invested in their book anymore and might even break their contract. As I have told those authors, it’s highly unlikely that the publisher would break your contract unless you fail to hold up your end of the deal (i.e. you don’t turn in the manuscript or you refuse to engage with the peer review process). The most likely scenario is that the publisher sees both books as a good fit for their list and either expects them to be released in different seasons/years or sees some opportunity to promote the books together to the same readership.
My advice in this case — if the similar book is under contract with the same publisher as yours — is to reach out to your editor. Say that you’ve learned about the new book and want to ensure everyone is on the same page about how the books will be in conversation with each other, both content-wise and during the promotion phase. Your publisher may even be able to put you and the other author in contact — not so you can change your book to make sure there’s no overlap (which should not be necessary), but so that you can be mindful of citing each other and possibly even coordinate some events/reviews/roundtables that would celebrate both books.
You may also want to get the attention of your publisher’s marketing and publicity teams. They’re probably already aware of how the two books could complement each other and be promoted synergistically, but as an expert in your field, you may be able to provide even more insight into your shared audiences and how best to reach them to let them know about both books.
If the other book is not being published at your press, I would still reach out to your editor and eventually your press’s promotions department to make them aware of the other book. You might be paranoid that if you bring the book to their attention, they’ll somehow lose interest in your book, but again, this is highly unlikely to be the case. If anything, they’ll probably be happy they already have your book under contract to compete with the other book and/or be promoted at the same time as the other book. In the attention economy, a rising tide tends to lift all boats — your book may be more likely to be picked up for reviews and other forms of attention if it’s seen as part of a wave of similar books coming out around the same time.
If you learn of a similar book after your book is accepted but before it’s released
Everything I said above still applies. Try to see the other book’s release as something you can use to increase interest in your own book. If the book is with your same publisher, check in with your team to find out how they intend to handle the releases and to offer any ideas you might have about co-promotion. If the book is coming out with another publisher, definitely make sure your publisher is aware of it because they may not be yet. And, if you feel generally collegial toward the other author, you might even reach out to them directly to coordinate with them on promotion efforts.
I hope you now see that there are practical steps you can take to address some of the anxiety you might feel when you learn of a book that seems similar to your own. I hope you’ve also learned that there are much different ways of looking at the situation: it doesn’t have to be that you got “scooped” — it could be that you are at the cutting edge of a vibrant, cooperative scholarly conversation that transcends your work alone.
All that said, I’m not going to say that you’re wrong if you’re feeling kind of shitty about discovering a book that feels like it will be in competition with yours. As someone who hates conflict and competing, I get it. Maybe you just want to do your own thing and not feel as if you have to fend off other people encroaching on your space. This is where I’d go back to examining the other book and recognizing the ways in which you really are doing something different or trying to speak to different people or achieve a different outcome. Because in all likelihood, you are.
I know it’ll be hard, but try not to frame the differences you find in terms of one book being “better” than the other (a “better” press, a “better” series, a “better” audience, “better” attention, or “better” sales, etc.). Focus on identifying a publisher that really understands what you are trying to do and who will help you achieve your own goals. Focus on the readers who are most important to you, and put in the work to make sure they know about your book when it comes out. Then try to let go of the other outcomes and move on to something else that brings you joy.
Before I go, I wanted to let you know that it’s time to start thinking about the upcoming Book Proposal Accelerator cohort if you are hoping to join the program this year. General enrollment will open on May 31st, but if you will be using institutional funding and your institution requires me to register as a vendor/contractor, we need to start that process now.
Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to get started or to ask any questions about whether the program is a good fit for your stage and needs.
See you soon!