Can you ever forgive me? Fraud and plagiarism in the publishing industry

This is a post about authenticity and craft vs. fraud and plagiarism, but it’s not a moral tirade. You can look elsewhere for that. The reason I don’t want to point fingers or make ultimatums is because ethical concerns often ignore market conditions.

As we dig deeper into this subject, you’ll find I’m skeptical about demonizing certain tactics in indie publishing that work all-too-well for traditional publishers (why should we suffer when they get away with it?) So while plagiarism is always wrong, I won’t take a hard stance against the use of ghostwriters, and as you’ll see, I’m in favor of cultivating an author persona that is more fantasy than fact (though of course there are limits).

Before we get into all the madness however, I want to start with a movie review (it’s relevant, I promise).

 

Can you ever forgive me?

In the 2018 movie can you ever forgive me, Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, who “falls out of step with current tastes and turns her art form to deception.”

As a creative protagonist, Lee Israel is sympathetic. She refuses to bend on her craft or play the publishing game, which ruins her career. She starts off old, alone, with a sick cat, working a crap job.

She goes to a literary party, thrown by her dismissive agent, to try and pitch new ideas, and overhears some blowhard author say:

“Writer’s block is a term invented by the writing community to justify their laziness. My success is nothing more than that I have the determination and stamina to sit and get the work done. It’s simple.”

She steals a coat on her way out; she can’t get treatment for her cat until she pays her bills. She’s months behind on rent and has a fly infestation. This is all storytelling, by the way – a sympathetic character, hard on luck, forced to take action to protect something they care about. I don’t know how much of it is true, but it helps you care about the story, because story is what happens to the protagonist, and people have to care about them or they’ll tune out.

She goes to sell some of her own books, and the bookstore doesn’t want them. Her books are already on the discount rack. Apparently, she’s a famous biographer. She had a book on the NYT list, but her career bombed because she wrote an expose of Estee Lauder – then Lauder rushed her own biography to market at the same time and destroyed Lee’s book sales.

She TRIES to write another book but is blocked. She decides to sell a treasured possession (a note from Katherine Hepburn), then hears a rumor that Tom Clancy is getting three million to write “more macho right wing bullshit.”

“Oh to be a white male that doesn’t even know he’s full of crap.”

So she challenges her agent at her office. She wants to write a biography about Fanny Brice (classic American comedian).

“I need you to get me a book advance, I need $10,000 – give me one reason why that cocky shit gets three million dollars and you can’t get me $10,000 – are you that bad of an agent?”

The agent responds coolly,

“I’ll give you three reasons.”

(These are important so pay attention.)

 

1. Tom Clancy is famous while she disappears behind her subject.

“Nobody knows who you are!”

“Because I’m doing my job!”

 

2. Tom Clancy does every radio show, every book signing, he plays the game.

“Meanwhile you’ve burned every bridge.”

“That’s besides the point, I’m doing good writing!”

 

3. Nobody wants a book about Fanny Brice – there’s nothing new or sexy about Fanny Brice.

I couldn’t get you a ten dollar advance for a book about Fanny Brice.

Then tell me what to do, I’ll do anything.

 

The agent tells her, she has two options.

“Either become a nicer person”

“Give me a fucking break, please!”

 

“Or you can take the time to go out and make a name for yourself.”

“How is it that I’m supposed to do that, I’m a 51 year old woman who likes cats better than people.”

“So write a book in your own voice.”

“I’d love to, but I have bills to pay.”

“You can be an asshole when you’re famous. But as an unknown, you can’t be such a bitch. Nobody is going to pay for the write Lee Israel right now. I suggest you go out and find another way to make a living.”

 

That’s the crisis that prompts the main story.

Lee Israel starts forging letters. As a biographer, her historical research and attention to detail pays off – she uses different typewriters for each writer for authenticity. She writes over 400 letters, getting roughly $200 each.

But then people start figuring it out. The FBI gets involved. One of the bookstore owners asks for five grand in damages.

She starts stealing signed pages from libraries, with forged credentials. Finally, she gets punished, but is without regret because she’s proud of her work.

Her art have value, for the first time, but it wasn’t her own, it was fake – people loved it and treasured it, and were eager to pay for it, even though it wasn’t real. If Lee Israel learned anything in the movie, she sums it up here:

“I’m too much of a coward to open myself up to criticism. And I lost my cat. I think I’ve realized that I am not a real writer, and it was not worth it.”

But then the movie ends with her confronting a shop who is selling one of her forgeries; even after she tells him it’s fake, he leaves it in the window – making the whole industry complicit in her crime, because the demand is there and most people can’t tell the difference.

It’s an interesting story, even if it does glorify criminal behavior (so do most movies). But the crisis could have been averted if she actually overcome the three big limitations her agent threw at her:

  1. Tell your own stories, and build your platform
  2. Be friendly, nice, network and play the game
  3. Write something people actually want

 

A few real-life publishing scandals

Last week’s news cycle was about an editor named Dan Mallory who “worked” his way up the industry on lies and pretext and name-dropping, then used his connections to sell a book for a two million dollar, two book deal. The New Yorker has a nice writeup: A suspense novelist’s trail of deception.

To be clear, it seems like the actual book is pretty good: Dan deliberately wrote a bestselling book, by copying other models of similar successful books and trying to make a new rehash that would satisfy readers looking for more of the same – and it was successful.

So even if he might be a narcissist, or a pathological liar, we can’t discount his writing ability or business acumen by calling him out for disagreeable behavior. I also respect his decision to embellish his author persona, even though he took it too far and it got creepy, I’m not against the impulse – more on that later.

Before that, I stumbled upon the curious case of Instagram Influencer Caroline Calloway. Based on her one million followers, she scheduled a meeting with an agent; he said he wanted actual pages. 18 months later, she sent a proposal and reportedly got a $500,000 book deal based on her time at Oxford.

Apparently, after getting criticized for romanticizing the campus, she decided it would be more authentic NOT to write the book. Having already spent the $165,000 advance, and needing other ways to make money, she tried scheduling a few events; but without any experience in event planning, it became a shitshow and she ended up refunding most people and cancelling future events.

Again – I have sympathy for Caroline, because I can easily see myself tacking a big goal or dream with sheer optimism and getting myself in over my head. (Though, if I was getting paid to write a book, I would have written the book). The problem with the influencer culture is that they can get people to invest in an idea, but don’t personally have the experience to create real things – the Fyre festival is the most infamous example of a big idea without the logistical support.

And you’ve probably seen the news about YA author Amelie Wen Zhao who pulled her debut fantasy novel because of pre-release reviews that accused her of plagiarism and racism. It’s fueled a raging debate about the power of book-critics on Twitter.

In my opinion, the plagiarism charge is entirely ungrounded (readers had to dig pretty far to find one questionable phrase “don’t go where I can’t follow” and claim it was taken from Lord of the Rings). I won’t speak to the racism charge, but in my understanding, Zhao was writing from a non-USA, non-white background about racial prejudices and is being held accountable for not considering how the content would affect those who speak for the black experience.

(Which, on the one hand, it’s GREAT that we’re all being more sensitive to how other groups will respond to your content, and this is stuff we should talk about; but let readers read the book and engage in discussion, not close the discussion by limiting controversial content).

Then this week, an indie author was accused of blatantly copying another author’s work. The Brazilian author quickly responded by blaming ghostwriters.

According to author Skye Malone, readers and authors have identified twenty-six authors that Cristiane Serruya has plagiarized, twenty-nine books, two articles, and two recipes. Authors plagiarized include Nora Roberts, Karen Marie Moning, Courtney Milan, Tessa Dare, Kresley Cole and more.

Serruya has now deleted her website and her Twitter presence, and while she has pulled down one of her books in ebook format, many others (and other formats of the removed title) remain for sale. As of this morning, this story has made the LA Times and The Guardian.

 

Moral outrage and finger-pointing

Plagiarism is always wrong, however this controversy has brought out some deeper issues. The author claimed to have been hiring cheap ghostwriters, and the ghostwriters were the ones copying – the author is still responsible, but it could be a case of bad decisions and mistakes, rather than willful maleficence.

The first few posts I saw dealing with this issue were in condemnation of a worrying trend towards production speed. People shouldn’t be racing to market, trying to crank out crappy books, and should instead focus on slow craftsmanship.

Others were outright condemnations of ghostwriting in general, because “real writers write their own books.”

Several of the most prolific authors I know got harassed, because they “couldn’t possibly write books that fast” so they must be liars or frauds (and/or they must also be writing absolute crap to game the system).

An insightful Facebook post by author Katie M John listed three kinds of writers, without condemning any:

  1. They just want to write “with a pure creative heart”, and don’t care about the money
  2. They compromise a LITTLE and try to learn enough about marketing to sell what they want to write
  3. The money writers: they deliberately write books as a business. They write fast, write hard, and are marketing savvy. They are the experts, and they’re doing this as a living.

 

The problem: controversies like this push people towards camp one. The problem with writing books for yourself, for the passion, is 99% of the time, nobody else will enjoy what you’ve written. You’re not writing “better books” by writing for yourself, nor are they better because you wrote them slowly.

And when you’re tired of failing, shifting into camp 2 won’t help that much. If you try and “compromise” what you like with what readers want, or compromise on things like cover design or blurb or website or ANYTHING, and think “it doesn’t really matter, I’m not all about the money, I’ll just do what feels good to me without testing what works” – you’re setting yourself up to fail, which means, even if you work three times as hard, you will always be struggling.

So it’s easy to envy or blame the writers who are actually making money. They MUST be doing something shady, or consorting with demons, if they’re able to write and publish successful books so quickly. And even if they aren’t, it’s morally reprehensible to be a successful writer, without the years of slow, thoughtful reflection. It has to be accidental, it has to be earned, it can’t be sought out.

In an article a few years ago I wrote that writing is the only field where if you write quickly and well, and actually make money, you must be doing something wrong. In any other business, hobby, endeavor, anything, we would expect mastery to come with dedication and practice. What bothers me is all the authors who take pride in saying things like “I’m absolutely rubbish at marketing” or “I couldn’t market if my life depended on it” or “I HATE marketing and just want to write.” Then they demonize those authors who actually get good at book marketing.

To be clear: I’m not defending plagiarism. I am defending the right for people to treat publishing as a business, not an art. Even if it means working (ethically) with ghostwriters to boost production speed. As long as readers are happy with what they’ve paid for; as long as the content is fresh and new and good (more on that later) there is a HUGE gap in the marketplace, between what readers actually want (well-told, fast-paced stories) and what most authors are writing (practice novels with poor story-telling, no framework, no clear genre).

Authors assume the MARKET is to blame for their own book’s failure; or perhaps it’s these crazy “hackers” who are impossibly cranking out a book or two a month, when the truth is, it’s not actually that hard to compete if you’re writing better content than what’s out there (and by “better” I mean fun, easy to read stories: it’s a mistake to assume the market wants the literary novel you spent a decade polishing, or that it’s higher quality even if nobody appreciates it).

Most people also assume, the value is increased by the time and effort put in: so books that were harder to write are worth more; and this isn’t true.

I’ve read quick-release authors who write crap and publish quickly… and even if it feels like a light sketch of a real story, without all the details fleshed out, they hit the right scenes: for example, the hot-and-heavy steamy scenes, which are the actually selling feature of the book (all that plot backstory was just the premise to get to these emotionally-charged sex scenes, so readers don’t mind if it’s a skimpy scaffolding to hold a few pages of juicy content.

I’ve also read quick-release authors who are really good. Their setup and story-telling is powerful and immediate, I’m sucked into the conflict.

My point is, the value of your work is based on what readers want and are willing to pay for. There’s nothing wrong with creating content to satisfy a certain audience, and if you’re capable of doing it, the only limit to your income is your own output and productivity. It’s not that hard to write 2000 words a day, in less than three hours of work. In theory, I can be maintaining that long term, while also spending another 3 hours on editing a rough draft, designing covers or managing my marketing. That’s six hours of work – less than a full-time job – to become a full time writer. Of course, it only works if your books are making money. 

In practice, I haven’t been able to keep this kind of schedule, even though I think it’s possible and it’s something to shoot for, I get distracted or demotivated, or focus on other kinds of business or income because…

It’s easier to help other people solve problems doing what you’re great at, than stepping into the void of creative uncertainty where you’re bound to come up against your own limited capabilities.

Addendum

In response to the plagiarism, Nora Roberts published a call to arms against shady publishing tactics:

“Enjoy it while it lasts, because it’s now my mission to turn over the rocks you hide under, then stomp you deep in the muck you breed in.

To the black hats who exploit, steal, tutor others to do the same, your day of reckoning’s coming.

I swear I’ll do whatever I can, use whatever resources, connections, clout, megaphone I have to out every damn one of you… the culture that fosters this ugly behavior has to be pulled out into the light and burned to cinders.

Then we’re going to salt the freaking earth.”

 

And on the one hand – that’s great. Yes, this stuff does hurt the little authors starting out without a huge backlist. Absolutely, Amazon should be able to use copyright protection scanners to make sure people aren’t plagiarizing. Absolutely, writers should write their own books.

nora roberts plagiarism copypaste publishing

But she continues by writing,

“And to readers, those of you who keep pushing for more and cheaper books, just stop it. Writing, real writing, is work, it takes time and talent and effort. By snapping up a book just because it’s ninety-nine cents on line, you’re encouraging this. The creator and the content they work so hard to produce is devalued.”

How do you fix saturated market conditions?

Sure, creators should all be ethical. But readers will always want more, cheaper books. 99cent and free deals have long been a stable of indie publishing, which has lead to behemoths like BookBub; yes some scammers with fake books are using the same tactics.

By telling authors not to “devalue” their work, you’re robbing them of their only effective marketing strategy. By hinting that authors should write books slowly, when they don’t have the platform or skills to make that books successful, sets them up for failure, that we should sweat over the fruit of our labor, virtually guarantees lifelong frustration, but only if you pair it with a third commonly held assumption: That you should never write to market.

I heard it again today on an article on WritersDigest, from an agent debunking common myths:

“Please don’t write a book with a trend in mind. By the time it gets published, interests will have shifted. Agents can detect authors who are writing only what they think people will want to read. The results are often clunky and disingenuous—like when an ethnic character is plunked into a story to answer the call for diversity. What agents really want to see is the story that you really want to write. An amazing story that is brilliantly told will never go out of style.”

This is traditional writing advice, and it may work in the most extreme cases – for those trying to go traditional. However, 95% of authors are writing what they think are “amazing stories, brilliantly told” – but it isn’t the right story; it’s not a story anybody cares about or wants to hear.

Advice that works for a small minority but fails for the majority in actual practice should be questioned. Do we want a new system with gatekeepers, where authors have to put in their dues and struggle and fail before they’re legitimized? What does it have to be that hard? (Often because of advice like this: if you deliberate study craft and write a great book for a big audience, on purpose, it gets easier. It’s still just as hard, just as much work, but you have a much clearer view of expectations and earnings, which prevents a lot of the fear, doubt and frustration.)

I also saw on Facebook today a thread about the difference between self and traditional publishing, and the common theme was, traditional publishing will make much less money, and they won’t do much marketing for you.

In indie publishing, the difference between a book you spent three months or three years is unlikely to pay you 10X the revenue, but writing 9 more books in the same amount of time gives you 2, 5 book series, and suddenly you’re a contender and can afford advertising (not to mention, you have 10X the practice and writing experience).

People use to write 10 crappy books and put them in a drawer before writing a good one. Now, people can get those 10 crappy books out of the way in a year and also actually publish them, for instant feedback in the trial-by-fire arena of public opinion. It means we can publish sloppy, unfinished things but learn quickly and make profit as soon as possible: it may not be a perfect system, but I think it’s better than dreaming about being a writer for a decade, or writing a few books but stalling out because you’re sinking time and money into an experience hobby nobody else cares about.

As we saw last year in the Amazon purges, Amazon sometimes DOES go after the “bad actors” – and accidentally penalizes a bunch of the big indie authors who were crying for justice, because the market is too big and the content and tactics authors are using are too similar.

Still, yes, absolutely, Amazon should deal with its plagiarism problem, and hopefully issues like this make it get it’s act together; and Amazon could also easily take care of duplicated content and book stuffing and other egregious infractions.

But it’s not Amazon’s job to incentivize good author behavior, because we are not its clients: Amazon’s clients are real readers, and if readers like the content, Amazon should step in and say “actually, that book was written quickly and is on discount, so why don’t you go back here to the better, more expensive books.”

In many ways, Amazon democratized the system and allowed millions of rejected authors the chance to publish a book and have it up for sale in a real bookstore. It even allowed some of those writers to make a living: without being famous; without a huge advance. The worked their asses off for years, found tactics that cut through the bullshit, and kept publishing until they hit paydirt.

Now that the concept is proven, yes there are others who are trying to get into the game, but mostly because the market demand is huge and it isn’t being properly met: voracious readers in certain categories (dragon shifter reverse harem) literally can’t get enough books, and a few dozen authors are single-handedly cranking out books to meet the demand.

The good writers float to the top; a bunch of copycats who can’t write probably won’t get ahead. But sometimes, they do – by using a bunch of sneaky tactics for short-lived profit.

I’m cursed with seeing too deeply into both sides of an issue, which can make me sound wishy washy, or lead to the conclusion that none of it really matters… and I don’t want to be dismissive about real plagiarism, which should never happen.

But I also hate to see indie authors clinging to beliefs about the value of literature, who refuse to grow their platform, consider the market, discount books, improve their craft by focusing on what readers actually want, refuse the idea that they are capable of writing books faster, won’t work with anyone else or accept criticism to be true to their art, and submit to agents for over a decade without ever giving up on their writing (but also, never actually writing because they’re still trying to pitch that one book).

 

Solutions

Solution one: YOU are responsible for everything you do, including who you work with. Building a team to improve your quality and quantity output is good business (but only if you’re writing great books readers will love). Teams of authors creating excellent content, written to market, marketed and packaged well, will continue to dominate the market because they can afford to spend more (more content = more product = more income).

Solution two: FOCUS on yourself and your own career. Do everything you can to be the kind of writer you dream about being, whether or not this involves income (keep in mind, however, the more you make, the more you can invest in visibility – famous authors are the ones people KNOW.)

Solution three: build your own platform, boost conversion where ever you can. Stand out by being the best, by creating things so unique and awesome and new that people share them. Don’t ask for favors; don’t ask someone to “support” you – if your book is good and people want it, in other words if it has commercial appeal, you won’t need to beg for support.

Solution four: triple check your work to make sure you haven’t accidentally included any quotes or inspiration. If anything doesn’t sound like your voice and you don’t remember writing it, rewrite it.

Solution five: listen to your audience. Don’t argue or defend your work, diffuse the issues by rewriting – we have that power, and if our book isn’t good enough or has issues that bother readers, fix it (you can’t please everyone, and you don’t have to try, but you should be willing to accept legitimate criticisms).

Solution six: be someone worth following. Everything you do online may come back to haunt you. Don’t be boring or ordinary; create an author persona that captivates your audience; tell your own hero’s journey; curate your feed – you are providing the experience of interacting with you. It’s not a big deal when you’re starting out, focus on the craft, but eventually what you do and saw online becomes your brand.

I saw one comment today on Twitter about Nora Robert’s article that said “I’ve never read her books, but now I’m a lifelong fan.”

 

Conclusions

  1. Don’t lie, cheat or steal.
  2. Don’t assume others are doing it either.
  3. That said, stand up for yourself and your work.

Bad behavior is common in any business where you can make lots of money. It’s the job of the marketplace to regulate the sellers (both readers for reporting, and Amazon for taking action – though I’m very worried about bands of angry readers who report, flag or 1-star books they haven’t read for assumed infractions).

A better question is, why is publishing specifically so fucked up? Mostly because, unlike any other business, the majority of writers are creating things people don’t want, and they’re willing to pay for the privilege, which means spammy marketing hacks exist in part because they are being funded by desperate authors who have no idea why their books aren’t selling. Putting their books at full price, writing slowly and spending time polishing won’t fix the main issues. The real issue is the disconnect between what readers want and what writers are writing.

The fact that some people are OK deliberately filling the vacuum, and can easily rise above everyone else just by simple basics like great covers and blurbs and a *tiny* bit of platform growth and marketing, shouldn’t automatically be scorned or judged (unless you believe all business is evil, commerce is evil, readers don’t know any better/don’t have the right to decide what to read, someone needs to step in and limit what they have access to).

Even if all the scammers and plagiarists disappeared overnight (and, they totally could – it’s Amazon’s responsibility to take action but our responsibility to let them know this stuff matters to us)… even if that happened, tomorrow the Amazon charts would still be full of bestselling, trad published authors and the quick-release indie authors who run a business, are marketing savvy, and have a few completed series or boxsets out.

Because there are things that work, and if you have good books, and more content, and more experience and understanding of the marketplace, you will absolutely succeed – and I think that’s something to be celebrated.

 

PS. I don’t use ghostwriters. I have tried, and it didn’t work.

But I’m not opposed to training a team of writers to produce great content, which I can outline and edit heavily. I wouldn’t put my own name on them or claim they’re mine (unless I co-wrote them… which by the time I’m done with heavy edits, I basically have). I have some very unique skills as an editor and cover designer that are being underutilized.

There are teams creating content for Netflix or other streaming services; most are written to a tight formula and use a mashup of tropes, but they stand out by having high production quality. I don’t mind if I’m not technically a writer; I don’t mind becoming more – a creative director, investing in quality content – and coaching new writers on how to improve their craft and their business.

Is it morally wrong to be interested in sales, earnings, all star bonuses, etc? I don’t think so – in fact I think you have to focus on the market and the money to discover what kind of value you’re providing. My goal is to provide MORE value with my fiction than I currently do with my nonfiction, but that’s difficult because there is SO much demand from the millions of writers who hope to publish and have no idea where to start.

I’m also determined to become faster AND better at writing; something to be expected in mastery of any skill. Even at a “slow” 1000 words a day, that’s several books a year. I also intend to cultivate my author persona, because how people feel about you and your work is not completely conditioned by the writing itself – sometimes it is about how you make people feel.

PPS. I’m nervous about the trend to say “I write my own books” as a public announcement (I don’t steal, copy or plagiarize, but there’s no doubt I’m influenced by the media I consume and pay attention to genre trends.)

But if you’re into that sort of thing, I made some badges for you: you could even use one this week to let people know clearly where you stand, and if you want to bring more light into these issues, you can put a badge on your websites sidebar and link back to any relevant article you want readers to know about.

 

 

 

A final analogy… some of us survive down here in the muck and the dirt, like rare species or unknown bacteria. We thrive, we pivot every few months when Amazon changes an algorithm, we are quick and spry and prolific and eager, and we’re fighting for every breath because we care about our art, and because each paycheck matters.

We don’t all have the luxury to choose how me make art, for whom or when. This isn’t a pass-time or hobby for us. Since we are exploring brand new publishing methods and content creation – stuff that wasn’t possible a few years ago – it’s easy to villainize us without looking deeper. You can’t police intent, and not all of us should be destroyed by association if we aren’t doing anything wrong. Also, keep in mind, this stuff is not just an indie author problem.

Griping about the trend to publish faster books is like complaining about how families don’t see around the table anymore. Back in the day, almost every “real writer” had a disposable income and a social class status that allowed them to lounge around and write books without ever worrying about income. Now we have a million times the competition with none of the financial support. Yes it’s a swamp and it can get messy down here, and we often don’t have the power to stand up against abuse ourselves, so we welcome anytime someone famous jumps into the fray – but this battle was going on before it impacted them personally.

My point if I have one, is that there is also beauty down here: friendships, enthusiasm, and commiseration. The indie author community is both one of the most terrifying and polarizing, while also being one of the most truly supportive and embracing.

 

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book editor turned book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors write and publish bestselling books. FREE GUIDE: Sell your work without selling out.