Thursday, September 18, 2008

Can someone really beat you to your own book?

Being "scooped" in the publishing world is perhaps a universal anxiety. I certainly feel it when I'm writing, and other authors report it to me as well. One of my favorite colleagues said it best in an e-mail this morning: "What [concerns] me is that maybe someone else, with less expertise, might publish a book about [this] . . . sorry for my vanity."

Someone else writing "your" book is an interesting concern, and certainly one I respect (the worry feels so real!) (it gets me right in the chest), but it is also almost never a problem. From a publisher's perspective, finding other books on a particular topic can help justify publishing a book -- it means the subject is viable in book-length form. Many publishers worry about making a book out of what should really be an article, and suffering the resulting low sales that result from producing a book that no one really wants or needs. From an author's perspective, no one else can write your book. Even if a book on your topic should appear while you're writing, that simply gives you one more interesting obstacle to push against, and (we hope) argue with. If you're lucky, it will be a book with which you disagree so thoroughly that you can have a wonderful time taking it to task. Both you and your "opponent" author will benefit from the exposure.

Firsts are overrated in publishing. What counts more is bests. Do a terrific job, and you'll be the one everyone turns to and quotes. Yes, readers can tell the difference, and just because someone beats you to the finish line doesn't mean that anyone will necessarily think they wrote the best book. My shelf is dotted with quickie treatments of the author I'm writing about. They're good books, but there is a lot they missed, and the precise one I'm writing has never been done. I don't fret a moment that it will be done, because only I can write my book, and only you can write yours.

1 comment:

TPS said...

This is an interesting column.

As the managing director of an independent publishing company specializing in military and general history titles, I have seen this happen many times in our area of expertise (primarily the American Civil War).
I can attest to both being beaten to press by a very good book (the one you were hoping to write yourself), and being beaten to press by a mediocre title on the same subject.

Gary Gallagher, a prominent writer in this field, spent years working on a biography of General Jubal Early, only to discover a very well done biography on the shelves well in advance of his own by a relatively unknown author. He put his long years of work aside.

We recently published a book on Jeb Stuart's ride to Gettysburg called Plenty of Blame to Go Around, by Eric J. Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi. Ironically, another author submitted his manuscript to us on the same subject during the same general timeframe. His was generally acceptable, but did not hold a candle to the Wittenberg and Petruzzi effort, which has gone through two printings and continues to sell very well. The other title, to the best of my knowledge, has been largely ignored by the community.

Timing (and a dollop of luck) is everything.

Best Regards,

Theodore P. Savas
Savas Beatie LLC
989 Governor Drive, Suite 102
El Dorado Hills, CA 95762
916.941.6896 (Voice)
916-941.6895 (Fax)

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