February 25, 2019

Plagiarism, Ghostwriting, and the Business of Writing Fiction

Last week was a bit of a mess in the romance world. Monday, Courtney Milan—a well-respected author who also used to clerk for a Supreme Court Justice—posted about a startling revelation: her work had been plagiarized. As it turned out, the person involved had plagiarized work from dozens of romance authors, plus things like online recipes for good measure.

The situation blew up quickly as more and more instances of plagiarism were found within work bearing that name. You can read another quick summary from BookRiot here. Personally, I'm caught somewhere in between:
    Wondering just how stupid someone has to be to steal from huge names like Tessa Dare, Courtney Milan, Lisa Kleypas, and oh yeah, Nora Roberts. Seriously, if you're going to plagiarize, why would you choose such massive hitters? And lawyers? Many of the authors involved also have the weight of Big 5 publishers (and their legal teams);
    And feeling pretty hopeless at the financial success this person was able to achieve with stolen work, and likely other scammy practices.
But believe it or not, that's only the beginning. In "defense" of her plagiarism, the person publishing as Cristiane Serruya (who knows if this is a real name, a pen name, or a false persona for a publishing group) then blamed a ghostwriter. Ghostwriters then came forward claiming Serruya provided written chunks that they had to rework into a book. Presumably those chunks were the plagiarized pieces, but that's not actually the point of my post.

This "revelation" brought to the forefront another big conversation in the romance world. Thankfully we all (except the perpetrators) agree that plagiarism is wrong. What the fiction world can't agree on? How we should approach ghostwritten fiction. (Everyone seems to be on the same page that ghostwriting things like memoirs is fine. I'd personally still prefer it if those ghostwriters were at least acknowledged in the book somewhere, if not on the front cover.) Many authors took up a new rallying cry: I Write My Own Books. Sometimes, there's an expletive involved.

I've known about ghostwriting in fiction for a while. It's a favorite tool of scammers—underpaying ghostwriters to have content they can pump out every 2–4 weeks, to take advantage of KU's algorithms which reward frequent releases, and then add other scammy tactics like buying reviews and click-farming KU "reads," to earn out massive bonuses. Amazon doesn't seem to care and usually doesn't go after these accounts until pressured to by evidence supplied by other authors. But ghostwriting is also used by many others (trad and indie) who don't engage in otherwise scammy practices.

The question is: do readers care? Do fellow authors?

Personally, I've been pretty disheartened to see how many people support "writers" hiring ghostwriters then slapping their own name (or pen name) on the cover. To be clear, this is not about the ghostwriters, who are performing a service and (hopefully) being paid. Many don't want everything that goes along with being an author in the modern world. (It's quite a lot of work outside of the writing itself.) But should the person whose name (or pseudonym, I'm counting them as the same thing) is on the book necessarily be the one who wrote it? Should the "packagers" who are publishing ghostwritten work stop claiming that work as their own?

I think the answer is "yes." Packagers (they aren't quite publishers since they also do the work normally done by the author, except for the writing itself) create false personas, both online and for in-person networking, pretending to be part of a community of writers—whose blood, sweat, tears, and many other sacrifices go into creating their work—without having ever written a word themselves. They make life infinitely harder for authors, who can't legitimately compete with the kind of production schedule someone who isn't actually writing the books can maintain. (Sure, some authors write incredibly fast, but the pace just isn't sustainable—nor should it have to be.) They lie to their readers, to fellow authors, and to anyone else with whom they interact as their persona. To me, claiming work that isn't your own—even if legally you own it, as it's work for hire—is fraudulent, unethical behavior.

But as one conversation I had on this topic pointed out, that's partially because I see writing and fiction in general as something with a deep emotional impact—as an art. People who hire ghostwriters see it as a business, and they do what they have to do to profit from that business. And since work for hire is legal, the argument goes, we should all just shut up and let them keep creating these false author personas. Because romance readers are, on the whole, quite voracious, many such people (both packagers who keep things legal and scammers who don't) infiltrate our genre, perhaps more than any other.

To me, it still feels fraudulent and wrong. Or, to quote Nora Roberts from her response to this whole situation (worth a read):
"I personally don’t believe fiction writers should use ghosts. Celebrity auto-biographies and such, that’s the job. If a fiction writer uses a ghost to help flesh out a book, or hires a book doctor to whip a book into shape, I strongly believe that person should be acknowledged—on the book. 
The reader deserves honesty. The reader’s entitled to know she’s buying the author’s—the one whose name’s on the book—work, not somebody that writer hired for speed or convenience."
I completely agree. And in case it needs stating: I write every single one of my own books (and, for that matter, blog posts—unless they're clearly labeled as guest posts).

Of course, I'd still love to hear your thoughts on this question of ghostwriting in fiction—sketchy (at best) or just business?

No comments

Post a Comment: