Recently, there’s been a rash of cases where indie writers (a.k.a. self publishers), have been outed as plagiarists.
A few months ago, NPR and Fast Company covered a breaking story about rampant plagiarism in the erotica section of the Amazon marketplace. In this story, indie erotica writers discovered that a bestselling “author” in their midst (i.e., beating them out for rankings at Amazon) was really a cover for a plagiarist who’d been scraping stories off of the free erotica site, literotica.com, and selling them as his own.
A few weeks ago, Dear Author uncovered an instance where an indie debut writer named Jordin Williams was plagiarising the work of bestselling indie authors like Tammara Weber and Jamie McGuire. Williams claimed she was a victim herself — that she had hired a ghostwriter to write the book (yes, seriously, this is what she claimed, that she was a former ghostwriter who hired a ghostwriter to write her debut novel). But when you drill down on that story, this is what you discover (as reported on GalleyCat): Jordin Williams is not a woman, she’s a man who published works under a variety of female names and avatars, all of which were “scraped” (Copied, pasted, and published) from fanfiction sites*. The only reason Williams got caught in this instance was that the fanfiction story he scraped was plagiarised. (No wonder poor Williams felt like he was the victim here. How was he to know his stolen work was already stolen?)
And just yesterday Liz Burns at Tea Cozy, her SLJ blog, reported on an instance of another Amazon author, Jessica Beckwith, was outed in the midst of her highly publicized blog tour as having stolen all her work from yet another free-fiction site, Fictionpress. The thirteen authors she’d stolen from were livid.
Do you see a pattern here? Each “author” was in fact merely a cover name and identity (sometimes several) for a person who was making money on Amazon by duping unsuspecting readers into reading fanfiction or other stories they could find on the net for free — stories that do not belong to them. The important piece of information about the Jordin Williams controversy is that it is being presented as plagiarism of Weber and McGuire, but the truth is, that’s only the reason he got caught. This “scraping” is a widespread problem, and it’s being touted as a fast money maker on a variety of internet marketing sites.
This is not an unknown problem. Adam L Penenberg, who reported on the erotica story above for the magazine Fast Company, has also written an article on this scam book empire that some industrious jerks are creating our of copyrighted material.
Nevertheless, Warrior Forum continues to be awash in copyright infringement come-ons. “If you go to the warriorforum and ask around, there are hundreds of people offering to sell you books with publishing rights,” Luke says. Check out this ad, posted in its special offers group, for “The Kindle Secret: Want to Create Kindle Books in 15 Minutes or less?” The person behind it hawks a guide for $17 that explains how he’s “dominating” one “hidden Kindle niche.” He claims to be “outsourcing books” for “$20 a pop (can you get a whole Kindle book created for $20?) and selling them on the Kindle for $2.99 each,” promising that his books “require no marketing and still sell like crazy,” with each title earning between $40 and $300 a month. “I don’t write a thing,” he brags. He just creates the covers, uploads the content then moves on to the next book. “This is completely scalable. Want to go big? Create 100 books for $2,000 and you’ll have major passive income set up for you in just a couple of weeks.”
Aside from this article, this is a aspect of the story that seems to be missing from most people in the publishing industry’s understanding of this phenomenon. Over and over the same thing is happening. These are not a few isolated “plagiarism” cases of the Kaavya Viswanathan/Janet Daily variety. These are not people who so desperately want to be writers that they are stealing other people’s words. These are not writers at all. They are actually more like book pirates. Focusing on Williams “plagiarising” from Weber and McGuire (unwittingly, as it turns out) is missing the point of what is really happening here.
This is an organized, promoted attempt by unscrupulous moneymakers to game the self-publishing system and make some quick cash. They are formatting works they find online and making money off them, with little or no oversight by the publishing platforms (like Amazon/Kindle) and just as little ability for wronged parties to get justice.
So why does this matter?
To readers: I believe most readers do not want to purchase pirated books, and they do not want the money they spend on a book to go to a thief. When you purchase a purse off someone selling it on a folding table in a back alley somewhere, you may realize that your merchandise is ill-gotten. When you walk into a department store to buy a purse, you can be pretty confident it was paid for every step along the way. Readers used to be able to have that confidence when it came to books purchased off of Amazon. Even indie books with their sometimes questionable covers and formatting had the do-it-yourself quality that a lot of buyers admire, same as some lumpy pottery or a hand-stitched sweater at a farmer’s market. But now you can’t trust that the slick, pro-grade covers (seriously, the cover of Williams’s scam-scraped Amazingly Broken is quite pretty) you might be purchasing from KDP isn’t actually someone else’s (or several someone elses’) stolen work. How are you to know?
To book bloggers: Much has been made of the rage directed at Amber of Me, My Shelf, and I over her featuring Beckwith’s scraped Fictionpress book. The authors, horrified by Beckwith’s actions, frustrated by their inability to stop her sales or keep her from making money off their work, and probably ignorant as to how the whole book blogger scene operated, often thought they were directing their outraged comments to the infringer. To them, the book bloggers promoting her were her supporters. To be clear: I’m not condoning threats, and I do realize that book bloggers end up being the unwitting accomplices of these infringers by promoting their products. The outpouring of confusion, embarrassment, and anger toward Williams by the bloggers who had supported his blog tour is proof enough of that. But that is why this issue matters to you. I know book bloggers would never want to promote or support the work of pirates such as these. But how are you to know?
To indie authors: Quite frankly, this crap is giving indie authors a bad name. These scammers are not indie authors at all, but they are presenting themselves as such, and because it’s so hard to tell them apart from actual indie authors, it’s going to start hurting all of us, especially new writers. If bloggers can’t trust that the work they are promoting is genuine, they will stop accepting independent authors for promotion. If readers can’t trust that the debut author they are tempted to read is not a scraper, they’ll be less inclined to check out new reads. Additionally, you have far fewer resources at your command or protection if the scrapers target you (or unwittingly target you through plagiarized fanfic). You don’t have to be a big bestseller to have your work plagiarzed. Amazon will not give you the money the infringer made, even if you can successfully get their work removed. You have to track down (good luck!) and go after the scam artist yourself. (Again, good luck getting some cash off the dude in Kuwait who has scraped plagiarizing fanfic that happens to be of your work.)
To traditionally published authors and their publishers: Your work is being plagiarized right now on a fanfiction site or copied on a pirate site somewhere. I absolutely guarantee it. I know a lot of writers who shrug off piracy, saying there’s no way to stop the whack-a-mole pirate sites that pop up in far-off countries with little to no copyright laws, or even that piracy can help them gain readers. Well, what happens when the pirates are no longer even attaching your name or the name of your characters to the work you sweated and cried and bled over? What do you do when they change the name of your characters and put up the work as their own, making who knows how much money off of your product? Amazon isn’t doing anything about this. Maybe it’s time they should.
* Sadly, plagiarism from actual published works is also endemic to fanfiction. Many many fanfiction writers, either through ignorance, stupidity, lack of caring, or yes, even deceit, like to upload other people’s books with the names changed to their favorite fanfiction characters. It has happened to me (the words of Secret Society Girl with the names changed to Bella, etc, listed as “Secret Society Girl/Twilight fanfiction). It has happened to many others. In fact, the first time I ever told a pro writer that I wrote fanfic she was appalled because her only experience with fanfic was in finding multiple instances of the words of her book being used as fanfiction for some other property.