An original idea? Beaten to it by 600 years

My friend Mike and I have been working on a plan for a new product. Mike likes to look me in the eye and say: “Arthur, we are not geniuses.” This is his way of reminding me that we need to get a move on, because somewhere, someone else has already thought of the same idea, and may get it done faster or better than we can. Almost anyone who has tried to think up a new business idea knows this desperate feeling well.

In the face of it, the trick to sleeping at night is to remember that competition is a good thing, and that bad competition is an even better thing. Someone else’s precedent softens up the market, or at least provides a case study from which you can pretend to learn. And it’s endlessly comforting to know that someone else agrees that your idea is a good one, even if he or she is your new competitor and arch-enemy.

I’ve just discovered a wonderful example of this. On Monday, we received 3 000 copies of our latest children’s book, Wie Is Dit? The book comprises 12 Bible stories, each one told in a single, wacky illustration by artist Louis Barnard. It’s an astonishing book for many reasons, not least that Barnard negotiates a tricky line between genuine love and respect for the stories and a bold, modern retelling (see Daniel in the lions’ den below) that I, for one, have just never seen in a religious children’s book before.

Daniel by Louis Barnard

While every publisher dreams of publishing a book with no clear precedent, such luck comes with a heavy dose of initial anxiety: “Sure, I may think this book is good, but no one has done this before — can I really sell this thing?” Had Mike been there yesterday, he would have said simply: “Arthur, you are not a genius.”

No, I certainly am not. It turns out that Louis and I were beaten to true originality by at least 600 years. The Holkham Bible, described on the British Library website as a “celebrated picture-book”, was a collection of illustrated Bible stories modernised to appeal to 14th-century Londoners.

Holkham Bible

Drawing on an article in Time Out London, über-blogger Cory Doctorow explains: “It features Mary being ribbed for getting knocked up, Noah reeling with drink, and Jesus (residing among the cockneys of Paternoster Row) literally reassembling a lad who falls off a roof and falls into many pieces […] and many other elements that are emblematic of life in 1330s London.”

The resemblance to Louis’s approach in Wie Is Dit? is stark. So it’s great news that, 600 years later, you can buy a British Library copy of the Holkham Bible on Amazon. The publisher’s press release quotes its editor, Michelle Brown, as saying: “It is a book you never tire of, for no matter how many times you look through it, there is more to admire and to intrigue. Every time I open the book and see the glowing colours and lively scenes — the sheer joie de vivre — I’m enchanted all over again.” Damn, I might just steal that for my Wie Is Dit? press release.

From its Amazon ranking, the Holkham Bible seems to be selling pretty well, even at £50 a copy. Our book’s about £11. Whew. That’s the kind of competition I like.

(This post was first published on Thought Leader.)

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