EDIT: I thought I’d unpublished this article but apparently not – and it’s getting traffic so let me preface this with some comments.
This is an article about plagiarism that attempts to consider both sides, but plagiarism is wrong. Don’t do it.
I didn’t mean to call out EM Knight specifically but it is a good example of this issue. Nobody can say Knight’s cover wasn’t influenced or inspired by Forrest’s, and yet it’s original and distinct enough not to be actual copying. There are loads of examples like this – and the success of Knight’s books proves that similar cover design can be a great way to capture an existing audience. It’s good business savvy, but get too close and you can be accused of copying. This is a highly inflammable issue, but is also not a simple one to resolve… please leave comments sharing your opinion or stories if you’ve ever been copied before.
This has been a weird week. First a friend, whose book has sold well and been optioned for film, found another author who had published a very similar book – too similar to be coincidental. Even the blurbs were similar. When confronted, the author admitted that she’d used the blurb as her model, but that her book was changed and significantly different from the original.
My friend was upset that somebody else was making money off her ideas.
For me, the issue is more complicated. Let me start by giving you a few more examples.
Also this week, I saw that another book cover designer was selling some templates… templates that I’d made and sell on my site. For me, it was surprising but humorous. Not really a big deal. I politely asked that he change the fonts so they aren’t identical, so we both keep our brands unique. He politely agreed. I think we probably have a better professional relationship now than we did last week.
(Incidentally, another author had taken my book cover templates, changed them up a bit, and was reselling them at a premium. Other people have mentioned it to me, but I never told her to stop, because I didn’t explicitly say my templates couldn’t be used that way…)
Yesterday, I posted something on Facebook, and mentioned a quote I’d seen recently, which I paraphrased. Someone pointed out to me that the quote was actually from an indie author, and that days earlier she’d complained that everyone was taking her quote and sharing it without attribution – exactly like I’d done.
Did I do it on purpose? No. Was it “stealing” because I was too lazy to track down the source and include it in my post? Maybe.
What qualifies as stealing?
I think it’s increasingly common for people to take stuff they found online and reuse it, because hey, what does it really matter, or who is going to find out, or what difference does it make?
I also realize I might be guilty of encouraging “stealing” because I tell people they should look at what’s selling, what’s resonating with readers, and try to write something like it. I tell people to look at other successful book covers and blurbs for inspiration.
Maybe I haven’t been clear enough that it can’t be noticeably similar.
Maybe it matters whether the product is for sale, or just online content. But, actually, probably not… you can’t take a photographer’s picture and use it on your site without permission. You can’t paint a picture or book cover and use someone else’s picture without permission (trust me, I know).
And what qualifies as “too similar?”
In the case of the two books, the plotlines are very, very close, but also different in many ways. It’s not like some guy republished the whole book under a new book cover and title. The author wrote a whole new book, with the first book as a basis.
I’m tempted to say the depth of similarity that is permissible is difficult to define, and possibly subjective *(I mean in general, not specifically… the blurb of this book was copied from the original, and the new author admitted so – so the copying is real even if some readers might think the similarities are somehow excusable).
And yet, I think the majority of authors would, like my friend, be properly outraged if a story they’d come up with had gotten appropriated by another author and was making money. I think we probably need to be more aware of this issue and more careful not to make it seem like acceptable behavior (like, “Hey, Cassandra Clare did it and she’s super rich and famous now…”).
I’ve decided not to link to the books in question, but I will use another example… Bella Forrest is a powerhouse in the teen and young adult/paranormal space – she has 29 books in her Shade of Vampire series. Her success has brewed copycats, like this one by E.M. Knight. Interestingly, while this is an obvious rip-off of Bella Forrest’s covers, the design is actually better than the original (I think). I won’t comment on the writing, other than to say some people really like it, and the book is doing really well (top 1000 in paid).
Knight also acknowledges the connection openly, in bold at the top of the description,
“A dazzling new paranormal series for fans of Bella Forrest’s Shade of Vampire…”
The covers seem too similar side by side… on the other hand, I often say you should make your book look, feel and sound like the bestsellers in your category. It’s pretty common to say “For fans of XXX” and list other bestselling books in your genre. I do it in some of my books.
In the description to The Scarlet Thread I say, “Fans of Fallen and Percy Jackson will be captivated by this mashup of fallen angels and forgotten gods.” In fact, The Scarlet Thread is probably my most derivative, cliched, copy-cat novel… it’s also by far the most successful. When I started writing it I had two different successful indie books in mind. Mine is pretty different, in so many ways, but there are a lot of similarities still that readers could recognize.
I picked up all the basics of young adult paranormal fantasy (that may not be the right term for the genre) that are hot right now… a girl is locked up, caged, imprisoned; she meets an devil, an angel, a monster; she is whisked away to a beautiful, luxurious mansion to learn how to develop her secret powers… I threw in all the necessary gothic elements: a spooky mansion, a cemetery, death, violence, crows, masks… my book is heavily based on a couple bestselling books, but the similarities are probably generic enough that they apply to thousands of other indie books. But then are similarities that stick: when she touches people, she sees how they die. I’ve seen that used in books before this one, and I’ve seen it in some books I discovered after I published this one. I also modeled most of my covers on the Fallen series covers.
In some cases, I could have copied from certain books but didn’t know about them, so an accusation of copying, though likely, wouldn’t be true. In other cases, I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if a reader found similarities between my book and another and accused me of copying. The important thing is that I didn’t base the book exactly on any one other book, it’s a mashup of themes and elements I found in several other books; and those books are borrowing themes and elements from ancient mythology or pop culture (public knowledge). However if I took one, specific creative innovation, I would be stealing (on the other hand…. my book Shearwater, which is kind of like Twilight with mermaids, has sparkling mermaids. Is that stealing since vampires didn’t sparkle before Twilight? Even if mermaids have always been glittering and sparkly?)
Even though The Scarlet Thread is maybe my least original story, it’s also the runaway success… the others get about 200 downloads a day, this one gets 2000. It’s in the top 20 of the entire Teen and Young Adult (free) section on Amazon. That’s pretty amazing. Originality, one might argue, is rarely the secret to indie publishing success.
To get traditionally published successfully, you must be original, because no publisher is looking for another vampire or werewolf novel. But readers are looking for more books that are very similar to the ones they love. They want something new and different and well written, but they also want to relive the thrills of their favorite books.
To successfully self-publish, it’s much easier to fill that void by being very similar to the other bestsellers in your genre. Even if people call you a hack or a cliche or a copy-cat. In some cases, this can be absolutely deliberate. I’m not saying it’s good, I’m just pointing out that it works.
In my opinion the design shouldn’t look so exactly the same that it’s an obvious copy of one other book; the sales description shouldn’t be based on one other book (word for word at least); nor should the plot or story line – and ideally the story line will actually be very, very different or lead off in a strange, twisted new direction that surprises readers.
But, it’s far easier to market a book that’s been written to fill a need, and know who your audience is, and what they want – and to do that you need to do market research (read what’s bestselling in your genre) and make your book a lot like, and hopefully better than, those others. (I’ve started some things that begin nearly the same as A Shade of Vampire too – a girl is suddenly imprisoned to be food for vampires, but falls in love with a prince of vampires… and… that’s about it, because truthfully I didn’t read Shade of Vampire closely. I got the general gist, the premise, the instigating idea…
If I write a book about a boy who goes to magic school, am I copying Harry Potter?
Even if it’s only the premise that’s similar?
How about if I write a paranormal romance where the girl is torn between a vampire and a werewolf?
It gets more complicated when we do consider the ethics. Is it legal? Is it shameless? Readers don’t seem to mind, as long as they’re entertained. Saying your book is for fans of “these other books” helps readers discover you. As long as you fulfill the expectations you’ve set for yourself, it seems to be OK… unless/until the similarities are so close you get accused of copying. And even then, risk versus reward: what’s the damage to my reputation as an author in the indie community vs. this book is being enjoyed by loads of new readers… should you revise it? Unpublish it? Who is the judge of how similar is too similar?
For me, if, after the premise, the same things happen, in roughly the same order, with matching locations/conflicts/precise details to make the story work… then that’s obviously not OK.
But there is no standard, enforceable, common solution to this increasingly common problem in publishing.
I like to think these things can be handled politely and professionally, without getting upset about it or turning it into a big online mud-slinging hate-fest. But when you find someone has taken your hard work and creation away from you and turned it into something else, it hurts. It’s hard to just be pals or pretend like nothing has happened (the internet is a big place, but not that big. Most of us indie authors are in the same Facebook groups).
If I seem morally ambiguous…
I kind of feel like I’m expected to take a firm stand. This article would definitely get more traffic if it was an impassioned condemnation of any and all creative copying. I think authors and artists are terrified of their ideas being appropriated and reused without attribution, which is why they are so protective of their content.
And, given the ubiquity of copying among creatives (e.g. “Steal like an artist”) maybe they need to be.
On the other hand, I can see myself easily falling into either role.
A few years ago, someone accused me of copying the cover design of another designer (both authors had written a yacht-romance called “The Lust Boat”). I hadn’t seen the other designs, and there’s only so many ways you can do a cover for a book with that title (If you want to see the designs I wrote a post about it here). At the time, I didn’t think that anybody intentionally would copy another book design, and that if someone incidentally makes something similar to yours, it’s because you weren’t famous enough to be seen.
In other words, the solution to anti-piracy is being so famous and well-known that nobody can get away with copying. Since then, I’ve learned that was a naive view.
People often copy more famous or more successful work.
Also, it seems in many circumstances, people either
A) think it’s OK to copy, because they are changing the story/art significantly enough to make something new
B) just do stupid stuff because they’re lazy and don’t see the issue of piracy/stealing as a big deal.
Last year, I gave a presentation on book cover design and I grabbed some book covers off my Twitter feed from indie authors as examples of “common book design mistakes.” That was stupid. Then I put a video of the presentation up on YouTube and forgot about it. That was really stupid. Eventually, inevitably, the authors saw I was using their covers without permission and were rightfully pissed off (I offered to make them new covers and deleted the video).
It’s possible to argue that you can’t stop people from saying negative things about what you publish publicly (for example, if someone puts a negative review of your book on their blog, and uses the book cover, you can’t make them take it down). By making something public, you invite criticism.
Still, I owned up to the mistake and offered to reimburse (free covers). If I piss someone off online or fail to impress or live up to expectations, I do everything I can to make it better. I apologize. I stop what I’m doing. But that’s just me.
In the case of the two books, both are doing really well on Amazon. The new book is making money.
So what’s the right thing to do? Unpublish the book and give up the extra income? The similarities are there, and the book is based off another one, but it’s not the same book, and readers seem to be really enjoying it/responding to it. And it probably took a lot of time and effort to write. Sure, maybe it shouldn’t have been written; or the author should have made more of an effort to deliberately deviate from the original so that such easy comparisons couldn’t be made.
My solution would be to just post a note in the front that said “This book was inspired by this other book” or to recommend the other book at the back of her book. But maybe that’s dumb and naive too.
The traditional moral response to stealing would be either A) cut off their hands or B) turn the other cheek – give up your coat if someone steals your shirt.
Neither is a great solution here.
I admit it, I’m amoral
I can’t expect people to respond to things the way I respond to things, and I can’t expect everyone to just get along and be pals when they feel they’ve been violated or had their work stolen away – or, conversely, if they get accused of stealing the work of others. J.K. Rowling was accused (and sued) for stealing from The Adventures Of Willy The Wizard. But like millions, I’d never heard of Willy, while Harry Potter changed my life.
Shades of Grey (and my own book Shearwater – and probably thousands and thousands of other books) are loosely based on Twilight. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun: we all absorb what’s around us to produce something new, more modern, more relevant, more personal.
The thing of course is, you must change it enough to be very unique and different – and if you don’t change it enough, you’re stealing. But maybe readers are the best judge of how close is too close: if it’s the same as a story they’ve already read, they won’t enjoy it as much.
I also like to consider the effects rather than the ethics.
If someone steals your work, you can….
-Email them privately and ask them to remove it. They might.
-Send a cease and desist letter threatening to sue. That might speed things up. (Suing is not a great idea unless you can prove financial damages, and the amount you’re seeking to be reimbursed is higher than the legal fees).
-Go on a moral outrage about justice and virtue. With any luck, that’ll be great for traffic, get you a lot of visibility and shares, you might even go viral. If you call out the person you’re accusing of stealing however, they will also get said boost in visibility, which will probably result in more sales for both of you, so they’ll be less likely to remove the work. Controversy is good for everyone involved.
-In this article (similar case) the authors complained to Amazon, the copying author was banned and all her books were removed. So Amazon can and will protect against plagiarism.
-Do nothing and focus on your own work and success (but why should you, especially when the last option has more potential upsides?). This is usually what I do, but I may be a broken human being (as in, more Stoic philosopher or Zen outcast… I’m not well socialized).
Author Sophie Davis says
1. Submit a DMCA takedown to the site that’s selling it. 2. Report the site to Google for copyright violation (they’ll remove the site from search results for your book)
3. Hire a piracy service to do the above and keep a constant eye out for these issues. I currently pay for two every month (one focuses domestically, one internationally) and it’s actually quite difficult to find my books anywhere other than the authorized channels. It’s about $25/month, but now I don’t have to think about it at all – they find and handle any time my books come up on everything from torrent sites to unauthorized retail sites.
Chris Maloney says:
Now, court cases go on forever, but it might be possible to personally sue in small claims court locally if the amount lost is estimated to be less than 1500. The basics of this situation involve reporting the theft to at least Amazon.https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/reports/infringement
I’m interested in the terms being used, copying, plagiarism, etc. If any individual in our group were to break in and take Leia’s cellphone, none of us would have to discuss anything. What we’re talking about is theft, specifically copyright infringement. As such, it is ” 1 or more copyrighted works, with a retail value of more than $2,500. For stealing that work the person “can be imprisoned for up to 5 years and fined up to $250,000, or both.” https://www.justice.gov/usam/criminal-resource-manual-1852-copyright-infringement-penalties-17-usc-506a-and-18-usc-2319
You can also use the service “Blasty” to get Google to remove your pirated content. Often people don’t actually have your work, even when they sell your book on ebay, they are just taking the details from amazon and making a product listing at a higher price, so IF it sells, they’ll buy your book and order a copy… so it’s actually free marketing for you. Or they list the book and make you sign up for a service, but they don’t actually have the book at all, they’re just showing people whatever they’re searching for.
If nothing else is working, a firm tweet directly to the site that is showing your content might work – it did for author Leia Stone.
— Leia Stone (@LeiaStoneAuthor) August 16, 2016
I feel like it’s an important issue, how about you?
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.