An Epidemic of Plagiarism in the Indie World

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.

Posted in biz, industry, writing industry, writing life

26 Responses to An Epidemic of Plagiarism in the Indie World

  1. Pingback: Buzz Worthy News: 29th July 2013 | Cuddlebuggery Book Blog

  2. Pili says:

    Wow, that’s just… mind-boggling and disgusting! But then again, it shows people are willing to do anything and don’t care about how illegal or immoral it might be for the money… such a sad world we’re living in!

  3. Definitely a sad state of affairs, but not surprising at all, especially these days when people are financially desperate. I agree that incidents like this will continue to be a huge blow for the unknown indie writers who are credible in their work.

    • Chris Lawson says:

      I agree with your sentiment, but can’t say I think financial desperation has anything to do with it. Does anyone fall behind in their rent and think “I know, I’ll get some quick cash republishing someone else’s work on Kindle”?

      • Arial Burnz says:

        Actually, Chris…that’s exactly what I think happens. Not in all situations, but definitely part of the mix. I know plenty of people out of work for more than a year and running out of options. The state of the economy is really bad and making people desperate.

        But that only scratches the surface. I think a big part of this problem is the get rich quick mentality…but that’s been around forever. Everyone wants to make a quick buck and self-publishing is just another way of doing it. Everything in this world gets exploited.

        Policing this kind of thing is difficult. Google alerts helps out with some of it, but I think readers and writers do their best by banning together and outing those violators when they get caught, as mentioned in this post.

  4. MaijaS says:

    I knew that plagiarism was a problem these days, but for someone to copy wide known authors like MfGuire and Webber? I didn`t know they went this far! Or to copy fanfiction!
    I do try to support indie authors, even now when I`ve become a blogger myself. But when I see that the book description seems similar to what I have read, unfortunately, I don`t trust that it`s going to be anything more than another book. Unless, there are a bunch of other positive reviews of it already out there.

    Hmm, couldn`t seem not to notice you mentioned Latvia, my home country. I don`t know if that`s supposed to be like joke…but are there pirate sites in here?

    • Diana says:

      You’re right, Maija. I used “Latvia” as shorthand for some Eastern European countries known for hosting such sites, but I do not in fact know of sites hosted in Latvia, so I’ll remove the reference. THank you for keeping me honest!

      The crazy part about this scandal is not that the plagiarist stole from bestselling authors (which is actually depressingly common, as one see with the Nora Roberts/Janet Daily case, or with kaavya Viswanathan, who stole from Meg Cabot and others), but that he thought he was taking from powerless amateurs on a fanfiction site, not realizing that they had ALREADY stolen from the bestselling authors who had agents and publishing houses that could fight for them. Had the fanficcers not been plagiarists, it’s doubtful this scammer would ever have been caught.

      • MaijaS says:

        No, no, it’s okay! I was just surprised to even see it mentioned more than finding out that there are pirate sites in Latvia.
        It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that someone would ever do such thing, and what for? The money isn’t worth the risk of finding yourself in jail. I don’t think the fanfiction sites should exsist if an published author finds it surprising that a fan actually wrote a more ir less original fanfiction. All they bring is plagiarism.
        Of course, there are fans who are truthful about their writing, but how many are they out there?

  5. Yeah, this is a case of serious mis-reporting. Anyone who buys Kindle books understands the true nature of this problem. Amazon is not one of those whack-a-mole sites. If they won’t work to stop this, then they can and should be sued.

  6. Li says:

    You made me laugh with this line – poor Williams indeed!

    (No wonder poor Williams felt like he was the victim here. How was he to know his stolen work was already stolen?)

    Apart from that – I’m a fan of indie publishing, so I hate it that people who lack integrity are spoiling things for everyone. I’m not sure what the solution is though – I’m not even sure that there IS a solution?

  7. Anya says:

    This reminds me of how my teachers in high school would upload our papers to an anti-plagiarism service (forgot the name of it). It scans and matches the words in the paper with the papers that had already been previously uploaded to the site, and uses algorithms to determine if the word structure is too similar to suspect it of being plagiarized, with options like excluding/skipping quotes from sources.

    It seems like something Amazon can use on self published books and free fiction aggregation sites, though with the sheer amount of words they’ll probably be able to check only certain segments of each file.

    Well, assuming Amazon gets pressured enough to devote resources to developing and running it.

  8. Jami Gold says:

    Fantastic post! I’ve been following this issue for a while, both from the fanfic perspective and the plagiarism perspective (I’ve outed a plagiarist blogger :) ), and I agree with everything you mention here.

    While I’d love for Amazon to be more proactive about this, I’m not sure of their technical ability to get it done. However, I do think we’re going to become more suspicious of debut authors with no previous online presence. Many of these scrapers–since they’re not real people–are essentially nobodies in the online writing world. That’s going to become a huge red flag.

    In other words, writers–real writers–will need to make a name for themselves before publishing. I suppose there’s something to be said for social media and blogging in that respect. ;)

  9. Sheila says:

    How would Williams know his stolen work had been stolen, indeed. Almost makes you sad for him… Not. lol

    I see this problem only growing. As you say, places like the warrior forums are rampant with plans and schemes on how to, if not outright steal work, to shimmy around and get it any underhanded way possible.

    Those of us who are working hard at creating and publishing our own work suffer because of this, and Amazon could do something about it (as could all the retailers and distributors) if they wanted to. But it doesn’t cost them anything, and they get to keep the proceeds of stolen work. :(

  10. Sherryl says:

    This is a very timely post and I hope is widely shared (I’ll be sharing it). I’ve been finding pirated copies of my children’s books and all attempts by me and my publisher to get them taken down have so far failed.
    This situation you’ve highlighted takes it to a whole new level.
    I use Google Alerts for titles and anything with my name on it, but as you say, if they change those two things, I have little hope of finding plagiarized work unless by pure luck!

  11. Jen says:

    Loved your article. I’m a freelance writer (in the advertising space), and I see jobs like the above $20 one on freelance sites ALL THE TIME.

    I tried (and still try) my hand at novel writing. It’s hard. And there is no way I would give up my half-formed, ugly baby, much less my beautiful ones to anyone for $20.

    I always wondered what kind of writer would do this sort of thing. Now I understand and I’m really sickened.

  12. Deb E says:

    Jami makes a good point above: I think this is the best case I’ve seen yet for why we need an online platform as authors. Fake, lazy, scam artists are hardly likely (some will, though!) to take the time necessary to build an online presence for months or years before they make any money at this game. They can buy Twitter followers apparently (http://cuddlebuggery.com/blog/2013/07/26/how-to-trick-bloggers-into-reading-your-book/), but it seems all these tactics CAN be discovered, if anyone takes an interest.

    Genuine writers will write and engage with their fan base.

    It IS a shame, because some of the best writers simply won’t be comfortable in the spotlight, but hiding is going to make it that much harder to tell the real from the fake.

    This is a problem, and it leaves a sick feeling to learn just how bad it is.

    Thank you for bringing it to our attention. I would happily have carried on not knowing this, but better to know and work towards dealing with it than to carry on with blinders on.

  13. Pingback: The New Face of Book Pirates: Plagiarists | Jami Gold, Paranormal Author

  14. Plagiarism, better known as copyright infringement, is as old as the pyramids themselves. The Pharaohs in ancient Egypt were known for removing the faces of previous rulers on statues and substituting their own. Because I could not afford what intellectual property lawyers charge and because I have been the victim of copyright infringement so many times I went to NYU and the Practicing Law Institute to study copyright, trademark, and trade secret law. I am not a lawyer but this education has helped me put an end to several infringements of my work. As much as you think plagiarism is rampant in writing, it is far more common in art. For every one infringement of my writing I average between 15 to 20 of my artwork. I recently moved across state lines. My mover did not steal my books, he stole my paintings. So I find it easier to protect my written work than my artwork.

  15. Randall Lang says:

    These pirates are claiming $40 to 300 a month with no work and no marketing? I have 14 legitimate books out there, with marketing, and I cannot earn close to that. Whoever these guys are, they must be well connected.

  16. I uploaded a short story at Smashwords, then tried to upload it to Amazon the next day. That’s when I discovered that someone had stolen the story and uploaded it because I had two product pages. It took a couple of days but Amazon suddenly realized that the person had downloaded the story at Smashwords then uploaded it. They took the book down for me. But now I’m very vigilant and make sure that Smashwords is the last place I upload to.

    Teresa Reasor

  17. Pingback: On The Internet — Jill James | Jill James, romance author

  18. Antonia T. Tiger says:

    I know I write my own stuff, but how can I prove it?

    Some of these cases are obvious DMCA material, but pro-writers I know have told of Amazon ignoring valid notices if they are not sent by a lawyer.

    And non-US writer, so Amazon would screw me over with the tax system.

    Blood, toil, tears, and sweat, and all I could get from Amazon is this. They don’t have my bill for cleaning the office carpet.

  19. Anonymous name says:

    I *only* write fanfiction (which is 100% original, though based on characters that are already established, obviously.)

    It makes me sad to think of someone taking my rather popular erotic fanfiction and filing off the identifying details in order to make money. These are created as a fun hobby to share gratis with fandom, not for this. Piracy and plagiarism are apt terms.

  20. I can not express how terribly appalling I feel this is! Now I’m wondering if every Indie book I receive for review is legitimate as well. How could I possibly figure that out? It makes me not want to except any. Originally I had thought that those plagiarizing wouldn’t market for reviews and such, but with the whole blog tour book not being legitimate, that changes my whole safety net with that. This really hurts everyone. Thanks for posting about this!

  21. Pingback: Providing Free Writing Could Come at a Cost | Falls Into Writing

  22. When I find my book copied on a site, or I see it promoted through an email, I call the writer out who stole it. The last time my book was stolen I wrote a review on Amazon where my book was being sold, calling the author out, and then I contacted all of the sites he promoted it through, telling them he was a fake. I may not ever see a dime that he claimed he made, but I made sure everyone knew he was a thief.