Stolen ideas

Stolen ideas

The paradox of non-fiction book publishing (and I’d stretch it to include popular fiction as well) has two components:

  1. Authors steal to write.
  2. And the writing they do gets stolen.

It’s easy to get up in arms about the second, but essential to embrace the first.

One can’t write without using the ideas, metaphors, styles, tropes, processes, concepts, examples and successes that came before. The writing would be incoherent, it wouldn’t resonate with anyone and failure would ensue.

It can’t be 100% original, but it often rhymes with what came before.

The converse of this, of course, is that if you do good work, the books and articles and conversations that follow will be inspired by (and stolen from) the work you do.

You won’t be acknowledged, and you’ll be quoted or misquoted. Or paraphrased.

If you’re successful.

If you’re not, you’ll discover that your work is merely invisible.

Here’s the cover for a book I did with Penguin about a decade ago, alongside the cover of a new book, yes, published by Penguin. I ran into the artist who did the work on my cover, and neither he nor I was informed. If I were him, having drawn all those little people with shadows, I’d be pretty annoyed. Giving him credit doesn’t hurt anyone.


Bad form aside, this is not only part of the deal, it’s the most important part of the deal. Culture is nothing but a sedimentary layering of ideas, each contributing to the next. That’s what we signed up for.

Steal and be stolen from. That’s how ideas work.