Whilst searching today for unsolicited manuscript opportunities for this year, I found a children’s picture book that has many similarities to mine! [NB: the author sent examples of the similarities between the two books but because question-askers are anonymous here, I've removed them.]
I wrote and reviewed and rewrote and re-reviewed my book throughout 2012, and submitted it to a publisher January 2013 (not lucky, obviously – possibly due to that very same query letter that lacked finesse). Apparently the other author was working on this book for four years prior to her publication.
My question is… is my book now dead on the vine – did I get pipped at the post? The books are of course different, but outstandingly share those close similarities of wording and essence. Can I even submit my book to publishers now or could it become a copyright or plagiarism issue? I wrote my book independently for over a year before the other book was published (and the only way I could in any way really prove this - your blog with my query letter competition submission)
I guess this would be a situation of ‘great minds thinking alike’ rather than thieving. Or, on the other hand, if I were to pursue the publishing of my book could I then use the other book as an example of similar books already published, since publishers seem to like a writer to mention these in their submission? Perhaps I just have to do a whole rewrite so we’re not using those same phrases – ouch!
I feel really devastated right now that I put so much work into my story, and my query letter, finally ready to make my second attempt at the publisher juggernaut and it might all be for naught. Do I still have a chance? And if I do have a chance how would I, or do I have to, explain this situation to potential publishers? Where can I go from here? In your own words “…you might find you are wasting your time if there is a similar book out there”. Also, even by putting ‘Copyright (year date)’’ on work, how can a writer protect their unpublished writing ideas from others if we enter competitions and make submissions when we need people to read them?
In the world of picture books for children, the similarities you mentioned between your manuscript and the published book are not unprecedented. I've seen many a picture book in my time and there are definitely themes that emerge, and limited ways to explore those themes. If you believe the popular maxim that there are 'only seven stories in fiction' and then apply it children's picture books, you start to see where the doubling up - or quadrupling etc - can happen. Especially when books involve counting, as yours does, there is a risk that someone else will get there first.
If you submit your project now, you won't be considered a plagiarist, for the reason mentioned above, but it could be that picture book editors and publishers think that your project is too similar - at least, for now. Because in the nature of there being not a lot of originality in themes and subject matters, everything 'comes around' (or everything old is new again - you get the picture) and the time for your project may be in a year's time.
You also shouldn't suspect any dodgy behaviour from the other writer, again for the reason mentioned in my first paragraph.You don't know at what point that book was contracted - the author said she was working on it for four years, and they could have been four contracted years, which means she had a publisher well before you sent out your submission.
So: dust yourself off, accept that these things happen (and they really do, with all sorts of books - sometimes books with the exact same title are published very close together, and it's a complete fluke) and make your own submission the very best it can be so that your project is irresistible. Once you send it out or submit it to competitions, copyright law is your only protection - but, honestly, instances of ideas and/or text being 'borrowed' are so rare. People in the publishing industry are generally very much in favour of copyright, and they're also in favour of keeping their reputations intact, so they're not likely to do anything that jeopardises that. There is always a risk, whenever you write anything and release it to anyone other than yourself - for example. how do I know the content of this blog isn't being replicated wholesale by someone else? You can choose whether or not to accept that risk, but in your case it sounds as though the other publication was a coincidence - and you should definitely try to submit again. Just leave it a little while.