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Reputable Publishers Don't Steal Ideas


A potential O'Reilly author wrote the following question to our proposals@oreilly.com alias:

I have a proposal for a book, but before I explain it, how do I know you will not reject my proposal, then assign the topic to someone else? In other words, how can I be sure my idea stays my idea?

Here is an expanded version of what I told him:

One point to remember is that, unless you share your idea with a publisher, you'll never be published. It's similar to any other possession you have. You want to protect it, but you want to use it also. You might put cash in a safe; if you weld the safe shut, your cash is safer, but difficult to access when the paperboy is at the door. There will always be a similar element of risk when you share your book idea with a publisher.

[Some potential authors ask that I sign a non-disclosure form before looking at their proposal. I never do that. Non-disclosure forms are used by companies or individuals that already know a lot about each other and have mutually decided that they want to know more. Agreements not to disclose happen only after much disclosure. I don't know what a potential author is about to disclose. It may be amazing new information or it may be something we've been developing with another author for months. So I don't sign anything until I know what is being offered, and I'm pretty sure we want it. By the way, our proposals alias received 134 proposals and suggestions in the last month. Imagine signing that many non-disclosures.]

One form of protection is to offer your idea only to a reputable publisher (like, I blush to say, O'Reilly & Associates). Reputable publishers don't steal ideas. If a publisher gets a reputation for stealing ideas, potential authors would send that publisher fewer and fewer good ideas. It would soon be out of business. As you probably know, our editors actively seek out certain books from certain authors; but many unsolicited proposals we receive result in book contracts. We would not want to poison this well by stealing ideas.

Another protection is to send in a fully developed idea--that is, a complete proposal of the sort described on the O'Reilly Web site. There is little copyright protection of ideas, and it is often difficult to prove that you had an idea that we hadn't already thought of ourselves or heard about from someone else. Copyright law likes to protect written work. If the proposal you send us is complex and detailed and includes an overall description of the concept, an outline, and some indication of your qualifications, however, your ability (and a court's) to recognize your idea in any finished work increases. (By the way, a complete proposal like this is not only easier to protect but also more likely to be accepted.)

But most importantly, my publishing experience leads me to believe that mere ideas are overrated. There are very few book ideas in our areas of publishing that somebody hasn't already thought of, or which a thoughtful person couldn't think of in a few minutes. Our editors spend much of their time with both technical innovators and readers from the technical communities we serve. They know the book topics they want and they probably also know how they want those topics treated. A book about a subject that nobody has yet thought of is probably of no interest to us. What we're looking for is an author who has the knowledge, experience, and ability to write a high-quality, practical, technically satisfying, example-laden book on a topic. These books are full of ideas, both large and small.

The truth is that we get many ideas; a few of them garner book contracts; fewer still become published books. If we were tempted to steal, we would steal authors capable of writing such books, not the ideas they write about. (Ooops! Sometimes we do that!) Writing a book involves testing ideas through development, editing, response to technical reviewers, and additional research. So much happens between conceiving the original idea and publishing the book that some authors might not even recognize the idea they submitted in the final manuscript they deliver to us.

We occasionally get a brilliant but unsolicited proposal on a topic that we hadn't even considered. An example of such a book is Jon Udell's Practical Internet Groupware. Jon showed us how he had developed a method of using standard, freely-available, Internet-based software to build applications that perform the useful functions of expensive, proprietary software. Such authors never need to worry about a publisher stealing their ideas, however, because they are the only people capable of developing these ideas. Jon, for example, had developed his ideas into applications that he had put into use on his Web site and in his job. How could another author steal this idea?

I hope we get a proposal from the fellow who sent in this question. I hope we get proposals from lots of interesting, technically experienced, and thought-provoking potential authors. I also know, however, that the proposal is the easy part. The work follows.

Frank Willison

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