Is Your Self Published Book Too Original?

Updated on March 30, 2020
heidithorne profile image

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing expert and advocate. Author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. Former trade newspaper editor.


I’ve received comments from authors who are concerned about people stealing their book “ideas.” Others have expressed concern about getting their self published books out into the marketplace before someone else with the same "original" idea gets there first. But having a book idea that's too original isn't a good thing either.

Your Book “Idea” Cannot Be Protected

Let's get a few things straight about book ideas and your ownership of them.

That book idea you have is not protectable while it’s in your head. Under United States’ copyright law, “ideas” cannot be protected; only the fixed form of the idea can. “Fixed form” means that it is in a physical form, either literally physical (e.g., written or typed on paper, printed in a book, sculpture, painting) or electronic (e.g., a Microsoft Word document, online video, eBook, audio file). This philosophy makes sense logically since lots of people have ideas, but very few actually implement them. And imagine what it would mean to enforce protection of ideas that may just be in people’s heads!

Therefore, under United States’ copyright law, your work is technically copyrighted from the moment it is expressed in physical fixed form. For those who wish additional protection, the work can be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office for a fee. This would be helpful in the event of claims for copyright infringement. If you’re not in the United States, check for applicable copyright laws in your country or region.

Since “ideas” cannot be protected, there is some justification to getting the idea into a fixed form and into the market as soon as possible. But let’s revisit that concern about getting your book idea to the market before someone else does. That’s very telling. If you think you need to get to the market first with your “original” idea, that means you believe others have the same idea. So then is it really original?

Your Book Idea May Not Be That Original

Chances are your book idea isn’t that original. It’s just a variation, interpretation, or explanation of an existing story or topic.

In his 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots, author Christopher Booker posits that there are only seven basic plots when it comes to stories. Where the originality comes in is in the setting, characters, and details you bring to that story arc.

When it comes to nonfiction, the number of topics is vast. However, there are really only a few “plots” in this arena, too: historical account, opinion, critique, how-to, research, analysis, and showcasing (e.g., photo or art books). Let’s take cookbooks as a perfect how-to example. There are probably thousands of ways to make chocolate chip cookies. But they all create a cookie that has chocolate chips in it.

So readers are not going to automatically be clamoring for your “original” work because there are probably already thousands of others out there to choose from. But that’s not really a bad thing.

Is Your Book Idea Too Original? The Unicorns and “No Shoes” Problems

As I discussed in my book, Small Business Failures Solopreneurs and Self-Employed Consultants Need to Avoid, products and services that are too original have the American Pickers or Pawn Stars reality show problem. Sellers on these shows who want to sell a one-of-a-kind “unicorn” item to the shows’ hosts believe that the scarcity of it means it’s worth lots of money. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

As the hosts often have to explain to these sellers, there may be no demand for the item and it will be difficult to resell it. No one knows exactly how to value it because there’s nothing to compare it to. Buyers may be hesitant to buy it because they don’t know if they’re paying too much for something that may have little or no value.

Relating this situation to self publishing, if there are no books even remotely like yours on the market, it might be because there’s no real demand for it. So when evaluating book ideas, do your research on Amazon to see what else is for sale in your niche genre or topic. Your goal is to create a book that can be easily positioned within an established genre or niche, but whose unique value is obvious when compared to other works on the market.

Ideally the book’s genre or niche should have many other books in it, making it more likely that a market demand exists for it. In assessing market demand for your type of book, check reviews for similar books in your niche. If no or very few current books like yours exist, you might be marketing a unicorn. Buyers for your book will be as rare as unicorns, too.

One of my books fell into the unicorn situation. Fortunately, it is still selling many years later. The niche I address is extremely small and there were very few books dedicated exclusively to this topic. I think there are less than 10 or so books of a similar nature even now. So while I’m providing a go-to book for the topic, the market demand for it is minuscule.

“But I’ll create a new market niche!”

No, you won’t.

What unicorn books suffer from is the “no shoes” problem. Some sales training I listened to many years ago (I think it was from sales guru Brian Tracy) told the story about two salespeople who were tasked with selling shoes to a new territory. The first salesperson reported that there was no market demand because no one wore shoes in that territory. The optimistic second salesperson reported that vast opportunity existed because no one wore shoes. The point that was trying to be made is that you should be like the second salesperson and always be optimistic about opportunity. But that’s not really true because the investment it takes to convert a disinterested non-user market is immense. It can take years to educate the market, and it ultimately may be unsuccessful.

Assess the demand before you assess the opportunity.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2020 Heidi Thorne


Submit a Comment
  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 months ago from Chicago Area

    CMHypno, as long as it appeals to you and those like you, what you write is a win! You're writing to connect with them, not everyone. (And I love the topics you talk about.) Keep writing! Hope you're staying safe and well. Cheers!

  • CMHypno profile image


    2 months ago from Other Side of the Sun

    Interesting hub Heidi. I probably don't make as much money on HubPages as I could do as I write on subjects that interest me, rather than looking at popular topics and putting a new twist on them. Suppose it depends on whether someone is writing to make money or for pleasure. Ideally it is both, but what interests me does not always appeal to large audience.

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    3 months ago from Chicago Area

    Adrienne, sadly, I think we've all had a "hard way" experience as writers and authors! I guess you could say you were lucky that the person at least linked back to you. Most don't.

    But these situations do give us pause to figure out how to protect our work in this brave new internet world.

    Thanks for sharing your experience--and your deep animal knowledge!--with us. Hope you and your pups are staying safe and well during this time!

  • alexadry profile image

    Adrienne Farricelli 

    3 months ago

    Thanks for sharing all these valuable tips. I discovered that ideas are not protected the hard way. I once wrote an article sharing several ideas I personally came up with that were very unique only to have the article astutely re-written and published by a person who refused to take the article down despite the evidence. At least, though this author had the decency to give me a back link!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    3 months ago from Chicago Area

    Glad you found it interesting, Peggy! Thank you for your kind words and sharing!

  • Peggy W profile image

    Peggy Woods 

    3 months ago from Houston, Texas

    You have presented an idea that I would never have given much thought .ahead of time. You offer so many useful tips when it comes to the publishing of books, and I am sharing it with others.

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    3 months ago from Chicago Area

    Hi William (Bill)! I have unicorns, too! :) And, yes, you probably did really good with selling a couple hundred copies. Many self published books don't even hit that level. Glad you got some realistic perspective so that you don't beat yourself up for not selling more. Also glad that you did it for the fun of it, not the monetary value.

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience, as always! Hope you're staying safe and well!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    3 months ago from Chicago Area

    Doris, I agree there is no such thing as a truly original idea. In fact, we couldn't even function if every idea had to be wildly different from a preceding one. For example, the iPhone was groundbreaking. But it wasn't the first "smart" phone by any means. Indeed, it's the original rendition that makes it worthy.

    As for telepathy, I've heard that theory, too. Who knows? Maybe Carl Jung was right with his theory of the collective unconscious.

    Unicorn examples. I alluded to one of my own books being a unicorn. The book I was referring to has 18 books in its entire category on Amazon. And I published 4 of the 18 books in that category. Do you know how rare that is on Amazon. Yep, I still make sales of it nearly a decade later because, well, it still fills a limited need. But I have to be realistic about the book's future.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, as always! Hope you're staying safe and well!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    3 months ago from Chicago Area

    Liz, I couldn't have said it better! Ideas can be wildly original, but not exactly relevant. Glad you found it thought provoking. Hope you're staying safe and well where you are!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    3 months ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Pamela! The "there's nothing new under the sun" adage is so true. :) There are many similar ideas. Original ideas are rare because everything builds on something from the past. Thanks so much for reading. Hope you're staying safe and well!

  • Homeplace Series profile image

    William Leverne Smith 

    3 months ago from Hollister, MO

    Ten years later, it is interesting to see you describe my first novel, "Back to the Homeplace," almost perfectly. It was a unicorn. While generally fitting in the Family Saga genre, that is a tiny niche itself. Looking back, I am probably very fortunate to have sold the couple of hundred books that I did, though at the time, I thought that was disappointing. I've certainly never replicated it, wanting to continue to share my unicorn extensions, rather that creating something new. I has been much fun, just not remunerative!! ;-)

  • MizBejabbers profile image

    Doris James MizBejabbers 

    3 months ago from Beautiful South

    That is something I've never thought about, Heidi. Thanks for alerting us to it. What they told us in journalism school was that you can't copyright an idea, but you can copyright your rendition of it. for original ideas, I agree that there is no such thing, or if so, it is very rare. That comes down to a problem of our muses. I've seen the theory that when several people simultaneously come up with the idea, that telepathy is at work. Are our muses telepathic. Take that or leave it. LOL

    I wish you had given us an example of a "unicorn". Thanks.

  • Eurofile profile image

    Liz Westwood 

    3 months ago from UK

    This is a very thought provoking article, which makes a good point. It helps to focus writers' minds on the relevance of their ideas to their proposed readership.

  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 

    3 months ago from Sunny Florida

    This article is very good. I think many ideas are very similar to the ideas of other people. Being totally original is probably not easy. I would imagine that you have seen a little bit of everything regarding people selling books. This article is very interesting, Heidi.

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    3 months ago from Chicago Area

    Oh, Bill! Remember that Winnie-the-Pooh could also be a very wise bear. Ever read the Tao of Pooh?

    I, too, know that my topics have been addressed ad nauseum over the years. But, yet, it's my take on it that makes it original.

    Happy Sunday to you and your crew, too!

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    3 months ago from Olympia, WA

    That's something I've never worried about. I am creative, but no way are my plots terribly original. The characters, yes, but basic plots of novels pretty much follow the same formula, or so it seems to me. But then again, I'm just a bear of very little brain.

    Happy Sunday my friend. Be safe!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    3 months ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Flourish! I've seen 'em, too. Sadly, I've even published a couple and can speak from experience. ;) I've had to deliver the "ugly baby" news to a number of authors. I never heard from them again. So I don't know if they went ahead with the books or not. But I hope they didn't have to learn an expensive lesson.

    Thanks for your kind comments, as always! Have a restful and healthful weekend!

  • FlourishAnyway profile image


    3 months ago from USA

    I have seen examples of unicorns and no shoes problems, even in HP. Loved the descriptions you provide. I don’t think you can ever tell an author their baby fits these categories. It’s like saying they have an ugly baby. Hopefully they figure this out in the concept stage rather than after they wrote the book. Great honest article!


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