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Protecting Your Book Idea While Building Fans Before Publishing

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.


An author sent me a question about doing readings or videos about her upcoming book prior to publishing to help build her author fan base. She was concerned about protecting the work prior to its release. But her concern went beyond typical author worries that someone might steal their book ideas.

Later in our message chat, I learned her concern was more about protecting the work since she might want to pursue a traditional book deal and that sharing excerpts publicly would make it a no-go for a publisher.

There’s a lot to unpack here. But I’m sure other authors have similar concerns about protecting their work and marketing their work prior to publication to build an author platform. Let’s dig in to what this all means.

The Big First Question: Traditional or Self-Publishing?

I was very encouraged that this author had the forethought to consider legalities and book deal potential before doing any marketing or publishing. Her concerns were valid.

Traditional publishers want what are called first rights to book manuscripts they buy. If you self-publish your book, they will not have first rights because you own those. It gets very messy from a legal standpoint. Only a self-published work that has high sales and future potential would be worth a publisher’s investment to sort out and negotiate the legalities, rights, and royalties.

That’s why you’ll see many authors try to get a book deal with a traditional publisher first. Then when that fails, as it often does, the authors turn to self-publishing. If you even have the slightest interest in getting a book deal, pursue that first before deciding on self-publishing.

If you are going to pursue the traditional publishing path, curb your urge to share the book online. If people can access your book, or a significant portion of it, for free or cheaply everywhere already, why would a publisher want to pay you for it? If you do land a book deal, the publisher may also have some rules and expectations about how you promote the book.

How Do You Build an Audience Before You Publish a Book?

Authors who aren’t yet published often feel that they cannot gain fans unless they have a book. At the center of this problem is that authors often don’t feel they’re real authors until they have a book published. The reality is that you’re an author the minute you start writing. Yes, there’s a difference between a published and unpublished author status. But with either status, you’re an author.

The problem with the “I’m not an author until I’m published” mindset is that authors don’t start sharing their writing and building fans until after the book is published. Notice that I said “sharing their writing,” not “sharing their books.” Then they’ll cry that prospective publishers aren’t interested because they have no platform. Or, if they self-publish, they panic at book launch and wonder why there aren’t any buyers and spend a lot of time and money in book marketing.

Authors sometimes get delusional about their first, and maybe last, grand opus of a book. All their writing is for this masterpiece book. The publishing world has been completely upended by the likes of Kindle Direct Publishing and social media, too. Now, authors who want to get a book deal with a publisher must often show they have a platform or audience for their work and sometimes a track record of sales of other books than the one they’re pitching.

Authors need to be building an audience for themselves, as authors, not for their books. You’re a writer, right? Are you telling me that you only have the capability to do one book in your writing life? Can you write some shorter books, blog, publish on Wattpad or similar book sites, or even publish some Kindle Vella serialized fiction?

You need to start developing potential fans and book buyers regardless of whether you actually get a book deal or you eventually just self-publish. Always read the terms of service for any fiction-sharing platform for your genre to make sure you can republish it elsewhere someday and how to go about that, as well as to make sure your content complies with guidelines for your genre.

Your Book Idea Cannot Be Protected . . . and Why That’s Okay

Copyright laws in the United States do not protect ideas, only the expression of ideas in a fixed form, physical or electronic.

Imagine a world where mere ideas and thoughts were copyrighted. With current technology, it would be impossible to get inside everyone’s head to see if they had the same or similar idea. And whose brains should be investigated? Everyone’s? What if someone says you stole their idea out of their brain?

News flash, your book idea isn’t that original. Author Christopher Booker suggested in his 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots, that there are seven basic plots when it comes to stories. The character, settings, and details you add to those plots are what make it original. For nonfiction, it’s very rare that you would be the only one writing a book on any topic. Need proof for either fiction or nonfiction? Just type in your genre or topic for the Books product category on Amazon. I’d be willing to bet money that the results are a non-zero number.

Yet you’ll come across authors who panic that someone will steal their unpublished book idea. Even if someone thinks the same idea or actually learns of your idea because you shared it somewhere, it doesn’t mean they’ll expend the effort and expense to turn it into anything that can be sold or shared.

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.

© 2022 Heidi Thorne