YES, NO, MAYBE SO: OR, Congratulations, Your Book Is Coming Out Again, But Written By Someone Else!

A little story about strangely full circle writing careers and saying yes for you.

In the summer of 2004, I was 27 years old, and at the Breadloaf Writer’s conference, where I was boring an editor to tears by talking about my short story collection. No editor wants to hear those words, particularly not out of the mouth of a mostly-unpublished writer. In some desperation, I decided that maybe I could save the meeting by making him laugh, and so I started to tell stories about my “Year of Yes,” a year in which I’d accepted every invitation to go on a date – or random experience, as it turned out – in New York City. I did a lot of things that year, including swimming at Coney Island in February with a subway conductor, because hey, NYC. It was, in fact, how I met my then-husband. The editor perked up, and said, “I’d buy that. That sounds like a book.”

A few months later, I had an agent at William Morris, and I’d sold The Year of Yes at auction, not to that original editor, but to Hyperion. It was my first book, and I wrote it in a wild-eyed few months. Tons of my experiences from that year, mostly done in a comedic way, and discussion of how saying yes to all of this changed my life utterly.

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It came out to a lot of fanfare in January 2006. (It typically takes a year or thereabouts from sale of a book to the book hitting the shelves.)The day it came out, I went on The Today Show and got interviewed by Katie Couric. I did lots of other national TV too (Remember Keith Olbermann? I did his show on MSNBC), as well as tours, international appearances (I appeared on Australian TV against a green screen, while wearing a green sweater, and I sincerely hope that there’s no video of the brief floating head crisis that ensued), newspaper articles, radio…in short, the giant, easy publicity publicists dream of. Everywhere I went, I talked about saying yes for a year to every invitation. Everywhere I went, I said The Year of Yes, over and over, so many times that I got sick of myself, and felt like I was a strange string-pull story doll, telling this one-year 5 question version of my life. That’s one of the things that is weird about publishing a book about yourself. Another one is that people feel compelled to review YOU, rather than the book. The whole thing was a swift education in how people felt about young women saying yes instead of no, as well as in the many ways in which people could mis-hear a title. The Year of Ass, anyone? Er, no.

It’s nearly 10 years later, and I still hear from people who read it, saw me on TV or read about my book, started doing their own yes years and even fell in love, married and had babies with people they’d never have dated before reading THE YEAR OF YES. It had a pretty great cultural impact, and it continues to, at least if my inbox is any indication. Lots of people remember it. I’ve done tons of other things, and even now, that’s the one the most people know about.

Since that first book, I’ve written in other genres. QUEEN OF KINGS, a novel about Cleopatra, monsters and gods, the short novel THE END OF THE SENTENCE, co-written with Kat Howard, and just last month, I published MAGONIA, a young adult novel, with Harper Collins. I’ve been a working writer in the book world, at this point, for 11 years, and in the world of theater, which is where I started, since I was 17. So, this is my 20th year in this strange profession, that of the writer in many forms and genres. So far, I’ve written and published poetry, erotica, plays, nonfiction, literary fiction, science-fiction, horror, fantasy, YA, and co-edited Unnatural Creatures, a book of YA monster stories benefitting 826DC, with Neil Gaiman. That hit the NYT list. I’ve been very lucky, because unlike a lot of writers, I’ve had the kind of career wherein nearly all of the things I’ve done have been seen by lots of people, beginning with that first book, The Year of Yes. All kinds of things have happened over the years. Award nominations and bestseller lists, crazy interviews, beautiful letters from people who’ve read the things I’ve written. Life is pretty good.

But all this time The Year of Yes has been rolling along in Hollywood, unlikely as that is.

Upon publication, my agents immediately optioned the book to the then-partnership of Jinks/Cohen at Paramount, for a film, and they met with every actress you can think of. This was ten years ago, though, and it was a different time for female leads in big Hollywood films. The past ten years have changed not-everything, but a lot in this regard, both in TV and in film. The model for sexy female-driven TV back then was Sex & The City, and this wasn’t that. So, there was a lot of confusion.

The reality of Hollywood and the book world is that lots of books get optioned, and few things get made. Any writer who’s been writing a while knows this. Still, though, the book was shopped all over Hollywood, everywhere, and deals were announced in Variety, as well as across the internet. In 2008 or so, after a couple years of option and development, we shopped and optioned the book again, this time to Barry Josephson at 20th Century Fox for TV, and there was another round of development and dealmaking. The book has never died in Hollywood, which is unusual, and kind of great. People kept calling my agents up. A couple of years ago, another round yielded a TV option at the WB, which died in the dissolution of a producing partnership. So, we optioned it again last year, this time to NBC. All this time, things have been getting easier for female protagonists on TV, and at last, it seemed as though maybe we could get it going.

Fast forward to yesterday, June 2nd. Lo, suddenly, I got a lot of excited emails and tweets and Facebook messages. People congratulating me on AT LAST, The Year of Yes being adapted for TV. By a really famous person, no less!

I was like…REALLY? THAT WOULD BE AWESOME.

Except, oh, careful readers, the articles these emails referenced weren’t talking about my book, nor even about a TV show. They were talking about the announcements, all over the news, of someone famous from the TV world, Shonda Rhimes, creator and showrunner of Grey’s Anatomy, and her book deal at Simon & Schuster, for…

YEAR OF YES.

 HER memoir about a year in which she accepted every invitation offered her.

So, yeah, I kinda wrote that book already. It was no wonder lots of people assumed she’d optioned my book and decided to make a show about it. That’s something that had happened before, after all.

Of course Shonda Rimes can write anything she wants to about her life. She needs no permission from me, nor from anyone. I have a few questions as to the decision-making process on the part of her publisher that resulted in her book having both the same title AND nearly the same concept, but that said, I can’t fault the logic of the product! It was, after all, a successful book the first time around. Why not do it again, this time with a famous person at the center, rather than an unknown writer?

So, when I watch Shonda Rhime’s version of Year of Yes become a giant bestseller, (and I suspect eventually a really successful TV series,) I’ll be like, yeah, I know. It’s commercially viable, that title combined with that idea. I should know! I had it eleven years ago.

Since it’s come up, I’ll bring it up too. YES MAN, by Danny Wallace. Yeah, that book exists as well, and no, I didn’t steal my idea from it. Yes Man came out in July, 2005, and was later made into a film starring Jim Carrey. My Year of Yes, which I sold in 2004, came out in January 2006, but Wallace and I sold the books to our publishers around the same time and the events depicted in mine took place in ’98-99. Funny man, funny book, and clearly we’ve got things in common world-view wise, but I didn’t know anything about him when I sold my book, and I’m sure he knew nothing about me either. We were just zeitgeistily yessing. Zeitgeistily? Is that a word?

Wallace was on tour in America about the same time I was, and everywhere I went, people told me that a)he was lovely and b) the room might explode (hopefully in a good way) if we were in it at the same time.

There’s a difference between the 2006 Zeitgeist version and that one, of course, and it is that we’re now years later, with the whole internet at our beck and call. Any quick Google search for the title Year of Yes since 2006 would reveal that there’s already been a successful book with that title, and indeed, that it is very similar to Rhimes’ version. That same search would reveal Yes Man too, I imagine, and also reveal that it too is very similar. Any publisher who didn’t do that search would be…weird. Check it out this morning, for example:

Screenshot 2015-06-03 17.09.39

But the world is weird.

I saw Danny Wallace’s very amusing response on Twitter this morning, a poster for his next major project, him starring in SCANDALOUS, from the writer of Yes Man & Green’s Anatomy.

As for me, I tweeted that my next book would be called Grey’s Anatomy and it’d be set in an NYC hospital wherein the surgeons stole patient’s organs. TOTALLY DIFFERENT from the existing version.

Er, actually, that’d be a pretty good book. Maybe I’ll write the horror version.

PS: There’s actually a third book with this title, a self-published situation from 2014 called The Year of Yes! (Exclamation point is intended.) It has a semi-naked woman on the cover, and she looks happy. The subtitle is What if you said YES! to everything your Soul told you to do for one year? Some explicit things, apparently. Yet another genre!

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31 thoughts on “YES, NO, MAYBE SO: OR, Congratulations, Your Book Is Coming Out Again, But Written By Someone Else!

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. I wish I could say I empathize with the situation, but never having published a novel (or anything else, for that matter, I can’t. I can tell you this is one of my hidden fears; that I will eventually write a really, really great book, find a publisher and break into print, only to have another writer, with an equally great book with the same title, be published simultaneously and then outsell my book. God, I hope that never happens! On a lighter note, I want to say I read “Queen of Kings” and found it unexpectedly entertaining — kind of a “Cleopatra meets the Queen of the Damned” thing going on there. I really enjoyed the historical aspects of that book. I’l have to find a copy of “Year of Yes” now.

  2. A great adventure in the lonely life of a writer. I resonate with it all–as a new/old kid on the block as a writer, and an extended career in the motion picture industry. Question: wouldn’t a WGA REGISTRATION have prevented your book title and content from being published? But thanks for the whole magilla. How about “For a Good Time, Call xxxx.” as your next?

  3. The moral of the story is… We need to develop a writer’s assassin’s guild whereby all those who are members have access to contract killers paid to disappear all those who profit off our good ideas.

  4. I have certainly had my ideas “borrowed” or had others get the credit for something I’ve poured blood, sweat and tears, so I empathize with you. Maybe your next book should be about a woman who confronts everyone who wronged her and entitle it, “The Year I Said HELL NO.” Then when you’re on the publishing tour you can tell everyone that the idea came about because Shonda Rhimes pilfered your concept AND book title.

  5. I’m forever hearing stories about famous song writers being successfully sued for (sometimes inadvertently) taking bits and pieces from somebody else’s original. Perhaps if we called plagiarising stealing less people would be tempted to ride on other people’s coat tails. So sorry for you, but hope that writing out this delightful post and getting it all off your chest lightened the load a bit.

  6. Thanks so much for writing about this. What first comes to my weary brain is that is SO not cool for Shonda to copy your title!!!!!!You’d think she would have simply chosen another title, because you know she knew about your book – there’s no way she couldn’t have.

    I have a book deal with Post Hill Press, and my book’s title is very important to me for various reasons but of course it’s key to the overall theme of the book. I feel dumb admitting this, but I don’t know the legalities when it comes to book titles & copycats (Are there any?) but in your case, I think the silver lining is that your book will sell more copies!

    Take comfort and pride in the fact that YOU came up with the title first and you are a TRUE ORIGINAL!!!!

  7. p.s. sorry to go on and on, but I just spoke with my husband, author of the critically acclaimed, award-winning book “Quest for Flight – John J. Montgomery and the Dawn of Aviation in the West” and he said that anyone can use the same title, but when it comes to content, it’s a different, eh, story. (Bad pun! sorry – too much sugar today!)

    shameless plug:

    http://www.amazon.com/Quest-Flight-John-Montgomery-Aviation/dp/0806142642/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1438475351&sr=8-1&keywords=Quest+for+Flight+John

  8. Disheartening post for a writer without a book, yet. And a very good post. Thanks for sharing your triumphs and challenges. And, yes, your title & concept were/are great. Every great idea has been conceived before and apparently so have titles. Thanks for the humor too.

  9. Wow….. is all I can say. It’s scary stuff, but I applaud your boldness….. Being a Scandal fanatic, my heart is cracked right now… It’s crazy how people can just up and take what’s not there’s. That’s all I can say. Great post, though!!!

  10. Hello thaar!

    I haven’t read any of your books (my bad), and I’m not published anywhere but WordPress and a few anthologies with friends, but this feels like the stuff nightmares are made of, to me. I would love to publish too some day, but this is scary stuff right here.

    I understand the logic, of course. But it still feels rather unfair to you. Isn’t there some sort of intellectual copyright clause which covers this? I really hope you find one. It feels very, very, very unfair and I would send you a giant basket of assorted cookies if I could.

    I really hope you find a way. And I’m going to find and read *your* book.

    Cheers,
    Cookie.

    Ps. I don’t like Shonda Rhimes a little more now. >:-(

  11. I must say, I am quite apologetic to your situation. This is the reason why I have decided to adapt my writing to an autobiographical standpoint. My story is unique because no one has walked in my shoes. Sure, my current “novel” may be plagerised because I am posting it here on WordPress.
    Although, that thought does not bother me. In the end, I am the only person who could answer any question regarding the content truthfully. That reassures me.

    “Among my most prized possessions are words that I have never spoken” – Orson Scott Card

    In my case, this englobes even words written down. I wouldn’t fret. 🙂

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