Several years ago I was in a large writers club in which members read for five minutes from a work in progress and then received comments on the writing from other members. We had a gentleman who talked about his writing but never actually read from it. We asked why and were finally told that he was afraid someone would steal his totally original idea. We all wondered what that unique idea was, and finally he told us: His theme was reincarnation, and he followed his protagonist through several reincarnations. I had to clamp my lips together to keep from laughing. As it happened, I was at that time reading my way through Katharine Kerr’s wonderful Deverry series, a series in which–guess what?–not one but a group characters go through several reincarnations. And there’s also the 1974 novel The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, by Max Ehrlich. And probably many more that I have forgotten or don’t know about.
I don’t know whether that particular gentleman ever got his book published. If he did, he probably self-published it, because he was too afraid of having his “unique” tale stolen to send it out to editors. I don’t say that to disparage self-published authors. There are many valid reasons for self-publishing, but fear of a rapacious editor stealing your work isn’t one of them.
Furthermore, ideas can’t be copyrighted. Actual written work is copyrighted from the time it’s written, but ideas, well, they are everywhere, free for the taking. When my first book, A School for Sorcery, was published, many people thought I’d gotten the idea from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The truth is that A School for Sorcery and its sequel When the Beast Ravens were written before 1992, well before the first Harry Potter book appeared, though they weren’t published until later. Nor were they the first or only books to use the idea of students attending a school to learn or hone the use of magic. Jane Yolen had published a charming children’s book called Wizard’s Hall. And Caroline Stevermer had a book out titled A College of Magics. And those are just the books I know about. We all had the same idea, but we each treated it in a completely different way. It often seems that several authors will hit upon a similar idea within the same general time frame, and there is no connection, no collaboration, and certainly no stealing going on. The ideas are floating around in the ether somehow, and we all just happen to hit on the same one around the same time.
What makes a book unique isn’t the idea behind it. It isn’t the plot. It’s how the author develops that idea. It can be the portrayal of characters so memorable the reader feels she knows them and will never forget them. It can be a setting so integral to the story as to become a kind of character in itself (think Dune). It can be the clever and unexpected plot twists. It can be a powerful lesson delivered painlessly through the powerful events of the story (as in Fahrenheit 451). It can be a combination of some or all of these and other things.
It is not the idea that is unique; it is the author’s treatment of that idea.