It’s every author’s nightmare - someone comes out with a very, very similar book

Starting with an anecdote about two authors who wrote alphabet books featuring animals who are too impatient to wait their proper turn (a musk ox and a moose), Publishers Weekly looked at what happens when authors come out with books that have quite a bit in common.

Read more here.

In February 2006 I had a book come out called Shock Point. I put "Shock Point" in as a Google Search term, and began to get emails when it was mentioned on the Web. A few months after my book came out, I got this little snippet from Kirkus for a book called The Silent Room. "With a plot that mirrors April Henry's rather shallow Shock Point..." I didn't get any more, just that.

I had three thoughts.

One: "rather shallow"? Kirkus seems to pride itself on snide comments. (Full disclosure: Although I always discount their snideness, if they ever gave me a starred review, I would decide they were the most insightful folks ever.) (Full disclosure two: likelihood of this ever happening? Close to zero.)

Two: WTF? With a plot that "mirrors" mine? From an imprint of the same house?

Three: Thank God mine came out first.

I was desperate to read the rest of the review, but no one I knew subscribed to Kirkus. Finally, I managed to finagle a copy of the advanced readers edition of the other book. It did have some similarities, but there were also many differences. The similarities came about because Walter Sorrells and I had obviously read the same newspaper accounts of this chain of boot-camp schools for troubled teens run by a former used car salesman.

So neither of us copied from each other. It was just a coincidence. That's the danger when you write about something in real life. Some other author may already be writing that story. May already have written it.

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And one of the reviewers compared THE SILENT ROOM to HOLES.

And I can see a bit of Hamlet in both your premises.

Doesn't mean anyone copied anyone. There are only so many main plots (36 according to one book, 20 according to another).
I think new authors always worry about copying, and that it rarely (vanishingly small) happens.
With THE WAY WE FALL, I had several blog reviews compare it to the movie Contagion (a few suggesting I'd ripped off my plot). Which... the movie came out a few months before the book, but a few months *after* my ARCs were printed. Next time I clearly need to time travel a couple years farther into the future so my book can come out before the movie I'm "borrowing" from. ;)

It does seem that certain ideas and themes will just be in the air at certain times, and various creative people pick up on the same ones. Frustrating, but like you said, coincidental. I always watch the book deal announcements with a little bit of worry that one will be too much like one of my WIPs.
After the Vermeer show at the National Gallery that was sidelined by a blizzard and Gingrich, a bunch of authors wrote books about Vermeer. There were at least four of them - including my first book.