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In The Absence of Traditional Publishers

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Given all the discussion about community and critique and policing lately, a couple of recent author-to-author situations give these issues a kind of practical relevance.

First there is the “genre experiment” undertaken by C.S. Lakin, who discussed her process and results at both Joel Friedlander and Barbara Rogan’s blogs. At the time the first post went live at Friedlander’s blog, author Debra Holland made a very mild suggestion that her books, specifically Wild Montana Sky and Starry Montana Sky, may have been the “inspiration” for Lakin’s experiment, as she wrote a sweet Western that had a very similar cover design (apparently she went to the same cover designer and represented a friendship with Holland to the designer) to Lakin’s sweet Western, Colorado Promise. In recent days, Holland has started to publicly confront Lakin for the way she used her books.

In her defense, Lakin says the following:

I am perfectly fine with crediting her book as the one I used to study and deconstruct the structure. Authors do this in every genre all the time, including romance writers. It is the best and a most honest way to write to a genre. It has nothing to do with stealing ideas or copying style, although plenty of writers try to write exactly like Stephen King or Dean Koontz, and even in those cases, there is nothing truly wrong with that.

If you take the time–and I would encourage you, and Debra, and anyone questioning what I’ve done–to actually read the book I wrote, you will see it bears almost no resemblance at all to her book in style or content. The fact that I hired the same cover designer to get a similar look is something many, if not most, savvy writers do. Writers find covers they like and then try to copy the look.

Holland’s issue is, in part, this:

I have asked her to be honest about using my books, but she has REFUSED, even though she’s admitted to me that she used my books. Therefore her claim above that she has my wholehearted approval is FALSE. I initially wasn’t bothered by her claim until she refused my request for her to be honest about the author she used.

I’m all for studying a specific author’s books or a certain line or even genre to learn how to become a better writer or more about a certain type of story. I’ve done it myself before and know many others who have.

I’m bothered that C.S./Susanne saw an OLD blog post by me that said I sold as well as I did without promotion, which was true at the time. It’s NO LONGER true. I promote now. Nor did she Tweet as infrequently as she claimed. Go look at her Tweets. She did promote the book.

What she did was capitalize on MY platform without giving me credit so she can set herself up as a guru and make money on a how-to book. Taking cover designs and other successful elements from best-selling authors’ books doesn’t bother me because it makes sense, and I’d be the first to tell you what to do to make your cover and your book a success.

There has not been a tremendous amount of discussion about this publicly, and I wonder if some of that is a reflection of the sentiment Barbara Rogan articulates: “I think writers have enough problems in life without attacking each other.”

For what it’s worth (and since I value Sunita’s opinion, I think it’s worth something), Sunita was seriously unimpressed with Lakin’s book. Still, even if Lakin has written a crappy book, what should we all be making of the fact that she clearly used other authors’ (likely more than Holland) work and cover design (and if it’s true that Lakin represented herself as a close friend of Holland, that could put the cover designer in a very difficult and uncomfortable position), to build and profit from her own author platform?

I’ll admit to having very mixed feelings about this situation, and would love to see more discussion among authors about the ethical dimensions of such “deconstruction,” as Lakin calls it. For example, if Lakin isn’t copying what Holland did, why does she need to study her books so closely? And if Holland isn’t upset about the modeling, but rather some of the representations Lakin made, does that mean that authors as a rule endorse this kind of approach? As a reader, I find the latter thought incredibly frustrating, because with all of the opportunity self-publishing is supposed to create for authors outside traditional cookie cutter publishing, it seems like some sub-genres are actually contracting rather than expanding (Historical Romance, I’m looking at you). And if that’s the case, then it seems like fewer readers and authors will ultimately benefit. Which, even under the best circumstances, is incredibly, ironically, sad.

But the fact that Holland and Lakin are both self-published – meaning that there is no corporate entity behind them, acting as their legal agent – is uniquely important in other ways. Without third-party publishers behind them, authors must negotiate conflicts over textual originality, copyright protection, and brand integrity on their own. And if the muted discussion between Lakin and Holland is any indication, I’m concerned about how that’s going to look, especially with Rogan’s ‘play nice’ comment. The issues between Lakin and Holland are valid and important. The discussions around how much borrowing is too much, where modeling becomes appropriation, and how intra-genre overlap can narrow generic options are all relevant. And they are relevant beyond private author loops, because readers are on the receiving end of the books, and are also often on the front lines of what I’ll call ‘plagiarism spotting.’

I do think Lakin has a point about the way in which even publishers have used the work of more successful authors to build new and midlist author brands. We know about authors choosing pseudonyms that will put their books on a shelf next to a bestseller (didn’t a very successful historical Romance author admit that she chose her pen name on that basis?), not to mention the tagging intended to generate suggested reads, and the cover designs that are clearly intended to mimic perceived trends (just look at the factory of Fifty Shades-esque covers, for example, including Sylvia Day’s, despite her comments that Fifty has not catalyzed the success of her recent books).  In some ways, publishers are responsible for the intense mimicry that occurs across the Romance genre, even for sub-genres like historicals that are so clearly in decline (ahem).  Remember the questions surrounding Christina Dodd’s Lost in Your Arms and its similarities to Linda Howard’s White Lies? Not to mention the whole P2P trend among publishers, which has left a bad taste in the mouth of many fan fiction readers and writers.

Still, publishers can also be gatekeepers in important ways, as Signet’s response to the revelations about Cassie Edwards’s historicals demonstrated. Publishers will defend books against unjust charges of plagiarism and copyright infringement, and pursue alleged infringers, allowing authors to focus on writing and ‘playing nice.’  Without publishers — and their editors and attorneys — standing behind them, authors must engage with each other as both craftsperson and publisher. And, if Rogan’s response to the perfectly legitimate conflict between Holland and Lakin is any indication, that could be very problematic.

Take the case of Shey Stahl, for example, whose book, For the Summer, has been the subject of intense plagiarism scrutiny. In fact Stahl’s books were pulled from Amazon at the time this situation emerged, and they are not yet back. Still, Stahl has denied wrongdoing, called her accusers the b-word (and I don’t mean “bitches”), and refused to take any responsibility for the extensive similarities her book bears to Dusty, a very popular work of Twilight fan fiction, that likely raised the profile of Stahl’s book to the attention of Dusty fans. In fact, Stahl has threatened legal action against her accusers, which seems to be a relatively common strategy these days (that, not surprisingly, usually ends up going nowhere), as does getting the accused author’s loyal fan base to go after the authors whose books have been preyed upon.

If Stahl intentionally pulled from Dusty, did she think that because Dusty was fan fiction, no one would notice the similarities – or worse, that the in-between space fan fiction has traditionally occupied would make it legally unprotectable?  It’s a very difficult situation, because the rise of self-publishing – including fan fiction P2P – has complicated things for authors and readers in many different ways. Self-publishing authors must now bear all the risks associated with marketing their work for commercial sale, and there’s some bitter irony in the fact that these legal and ethical conflicts arise from claims of unoriginality within an environment that suggests greater freedom to innovate.

Still, not clarifying ethical standards within the self-publishing author community strikes me as even riskier than speaking out and debating the many questions around what constitutes ethical writing, marketing, and publishing. Are there well-formed standards, and are they widely accepted among self-published authors?

I know that a lot of this discussion goes on within private author loops. However, it’s often readers who informally police these plagiarism cases, and who are recruited to defend an author on either side of the accusation. And in an environment where you would think that authors would be supporting each other in pursuit of those who step past clear ethical and legal boundaries, that does not seem to be the case. I was struck by Barbara Rogan’s comment that Holland and Lakin should find some “amicable solution” to their conflict. Frankly, I thought the public discussion — such as it was — was incredibly amicable, given the circumstances. Also, what’s an “amicable solution” for the author who believes her work has been infringed? As Shiloh Walker points out, more and more accused authors seem to believe they can just brazen the situation out and then return, perhaps under another pen name. If amicability is going to be defined as sitting down and shutting up, well, who and what does that benefit?

If, as Rogan’s comment suggests, authors feel constrained from participating in these conflicts, who is going to hold the ethical and legal lines? Where are those lines going to be? I realize that some of the more extreme marketing techniques have perhaps made authors wary of stepping too far out in challenge to each other, but these are precisely the issues and lines that need to be debated. And, as I said before, I believe that they should be discussed in public venues, as well as private ones,  because authors are directly engaging with readers within the self-publishing model, and readers are so often doing indirect and direct marketing and support for authors. Readers need to be educated about what’s okay and what’s not, too, and given the number of authors who come from the reading community, public discussion can serve as ethical seeding.

As it stands, standards seem sort of hit and miss. In the case of Kay Manning, perhaps the only author I’ve ever seen take full responsibility for her plagiarism, I felt there was an unfair persecution of her even after she made her admission and took her lumps. Then there were all the authors who defended Cassie Edwards, in contrast with those who dogged on Nora Roberts when it was discovered that Janet Dailey plagiarized her books. It’s got to sting to have your colleagues and readers lash out at you for something someone else did, but it’s got to suck double when you have no one to pursue valid legal action — and possible money damages — on your behalf.

Are authors afraid to speak out on their own behalf, and if so, why? What’s the resistance to having more of these discussions in public? And what, as readers, do we want and expect from self-published books and authors? 

Haven’t we had enough of the ‘be nice’ culture? As self-publishing becomes more and more competitive, as paid reviews abound, and as god-knows-what-else is being employed to sell self-published books, fair or foul, authors need more, not fewer, legitimate community resources and standards to rely on.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

24 Comments

  1. kt grant
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 05:11:44

    I see more and more plagiarism accusations occurring, especially now that P2P fan fiction, specifically in self publishing has become the norm. Also, it appears that people don’t know what plagiarism actually is, as is now the case with Shey Stahl and her letter she has written claiming she is being bullied and using the Shia Labeouf defense that nothing is 100% original. It’s one thing to be influenced, by another, but to copy and paste from someone’s original work, change it up a bit and claim it as your own is so wrong. Why can’t people see that?

  2. Jamie Beck
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 06:10:38

    @kt grant: I agree with you, but it seems we are fighting a losing battle. After reading your comment, I recalled an article about the culture of cheating (which I found: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/08/education/studies-show-more-students-cheat-even-high-achievers.html?_r=00 ) that basically speaks to the root of this issue (and your question about why people don’t seem to “see” cheating as bad anymore). I have to agree with a lot of what is suggested in the article (about the internet, about success over struggle/actual learning, etc.). In almost every industry, you will find people looking for shortcuts (or just plain filled with greed). What I can’t understand is how anyone who cheats can ever truly feel proud or accomplished, despite whatever monetary gains (or fame or GPA) they attain.

  3. Kat Morrisey
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 08:59:08

    @kt: I think it all goes back to culture, for me. At least, from the anecdotal evidence of my own observations as a teacher at a local college. I spend hours of class time trying to get my students to understand not only what plagiarism is, but that it’s actually, ya know, wrong. Trying to explain to them things like “giving the original author credit” in their papers or paying for things they want (like the music, tv shows, books I mentioned before), is almost a foreign concept to many of them. And this attitude, I think, bleeds into (and helps support) those who plagiarize. In other words, either the “writer” (and I use that term loosely for those who are stealing others’ work) and/or their sometimes rabid fanbase just do not understand the concept that taking someone’s words and using it as their own is wrong. That it’s stealing. Or maybe they just don’t care. Which is an even scarier thought.

    And that in and of itself is just completely baffling to me. I mean, stealing is stealing whether it’s a tangible object or just a file on a computer. I know as a kid, if I stole even a ten cent piece of bubblegum from the corner store, my parents would have grounded me and I wouldn’t be able to sit for a week.

    As for authors speaking up and having these discussions, I think many are nervous about the reactions they will receive in the online community–whether they will be supported or attacked, or even worse, ignored all together. Example: What if Author A accuses a popular Author B of copying her cover work (with good cause and proof of course)? What if Author B has a more intense, and loud, fanbase who attacks Author A all over social media and just starts one starring all over the place at review sites? Then Author A has stepped out there -and done what is right– but now has less of a chance of ever making it, because her brand has been shot and she’d probably be scared out of her wits to ever attempt it again. Just an example, but the variations of the scenario could be detrimental to the one who speaks out, even if they are in the right.

    Now, I’m not saying this should keep authors silent. I think authors (self pubbed or traditional) do need to speak up when their work is taken. But I think that only works if that “speaking up” is done in a courtroom or having some other legal action is taken. Until consumers and writers start seeing there are actual, real life consequences to stealing another’s work, attitudes won’t change. Right now, like you mentioned in your article, those who plagiarize just re-brand and come back again, sometime with the same name, sometimes under a different one. Yeah, the legal route is a pain in the butt (and I say this as a lawyer myself) and it takes a long time, but until someone gets hit hard in the wallet (either in paying damages or legal bills) I don’t think it’s going to stop.

    (And sorry for the long post. Guess I had a lot to say on this topic. :D )

  4. Lorenda Christensen
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 09:11:58

    I’m a very new author, and I will readily admit that I buy books from bestselling authors with the intention of studying them to find out what makes them special. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most new authors serious about their work do this as well – whether consciously as I do, or unconsciously as they read books by their favorite authors.

    Have I ever taken sentences from my textbooks and represented them as my own? Absolutely not.

    Have I approached an agent/editor and pitched my book and said, “the tone of my books are similar to xxx” in an attempt to sell them? Yes. In fact, there are many agents who recommend you do this, and include the information in your query letter. I’m not indie, so I didn’t create my own covers, but I can tell you that I know many authors who study the Amazon lists for the covers that sell, and try to make theirs similar in style.

    I don’t think ANY of this is wrong. In fact, most of the big name authors I’ve spoken with are generally flattered when you tell them you studied their stuff to make yours better. The romance writing world (the only publishing world I’m familiar with), is incredibly open and sharing.

    But I’m with Ms. Holland – it’s more the ATTITUDE in which Lakin did this stuff, and the fact that she was extremely hesitant to give credit where credit was due. It’s like taking a hand-knit scarf your sister painstakingly made for you, and telling the world YOU were the one who spent hours looping yarn around needles. It’s dishonest, and like spitting in the face of the person who gave you a gift of time. And in the current romance writing culture, completely and totally unnecessary. If she really did pretend to be a close friend of Ms. Holland’s in order to get good cover designs, that just crossed the decency line.

    Because saying in a query letter “my book reads a lot like xxx” is worlds away from saying “xxx says my books are similar to hers”. When you start speaking FOR other authors, you’ve gone too far.

  5. hapax
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 09:35:28

    I know that this is tangential, but Lakin lost me completely when she called her technique “deconstruction.”

    The English language already has plenty of good works for what she does to her model text — “study”; “analysis”; “deliberate practice”; “pastiche”; “imitate”; etc.

    “Deconstruction” ALSO has a meaning, as a specific literary critical approach, that has NOTHING to do with Lakin’s product.

    I know this may seem pedantic, but Words Have Meaning. This mushy Humpty-Dumpty-ish “words mean whatever I want them to mean” destroys the clarity, elegance, and precision of a writer’s most important tool.

    Anyone who claims to be a writer should know that.

  6. Sunita
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 09:47:44

    I read the sample of the Holland book. It’s a lot better than the Lakin sample, for one thing it doesn’t infodump. The structure of the two samples is similar (set up conflict for heroine, then introduce hero) but the writing choices are pretty different. But I’d buy the Holland whereas I wouldn’t buy the Lakin. The Holland is just better at showing rather than telling and even though the initial setting is a very familiar one, she puts her own stamp on it.

    Lakin says she used a Catherine Anderson western romance for “research” on American Indians. Genre novels as primary sources. That always works out so well.

  7. Moriah Jovan
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 09:48:30

    Yanno, I’ve heard this “Study your favorite author and try to mimic that” all my writing life. I’ve never done it.

    I’ve heard “Approach literary agents with ‘If you like X, you’ll like mine.” Never did that, either.

    I’ve been hit with, “X writes just like Y. You’ll love his/her books.” You know what? I didn’t. In fact, historical romance has been like that for the last 10 years, everyone sounding like each other.

    What I HAVE done is try out copycat recipes for restaurant dishes, and while most of them are spot-on, if I wanted the restaurant dish, I’d rather just go to the restaurant so I don’t have to wash the dishes.

    As a reader, I want different voices. If I wanted to read the same book over and over again, I’d read the same book over and over again.

  8. coribo25
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 10:11:53

    Ms Holland does have a corporate entity behind her – Amazon. Not sure when they contracted it, but the book is an Amazon Montlake Romance book.

  9. spanglemaker9
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 10:19:45

    I’m one of the fanfic authors Shey Stahl plagiarized. If you google it, I’m sure you can find side-by-side comparisons of my story and hers so you can see for yourself.

    Anyway, expanding on Kat Morrisey’s comments on attitudes towards plagiarism, I encountered it when the Shey issue first came to light last fall. Initially I would engage with some of her fangirls who still supported her (I’ve since given up on that fruitless mission). I was aghast at the attitudes I encountered. “I like the story, so what does it matter who wrote it?” “She didn’t steal anything from me so I don’t know why you think *I* should be mad about it”. It’s really depressing. So many people really don’t understand what constitutes plagiarism or what’s so wrong with it.

    As far as being quiet vs engaging… After the first few (very angry) days, I did largely keep quiet about Shey Stahl on social media. I’d sent her a cease and desist and while I waited for that situation to be resolved, it seemed wise not to comment. Here’s the deal. She ignored my C&D. A lawyer told me I could sue, but it would likely cost me many thousands of dollars. I researched Shey Stahl’s financial situation online (all stuff readily available through public filings if you have her real name, which I did) and it rapidly became apparent to me that even if I sued her and won, I probably wouldn’t get enough out of her to pay my lawyers. And I’m just not wealthy enough to pursue legal action to prove a point, even when I know I’m right. It makes me ragey and frustrated that I’m stuck here, but there it is.

    So what am I left with? She sails back in and posts an 8-page non-apology that admits no wrong-doing, doesn’t apologize to me or anyone else she stole from and asserts that she fully intends to keep writing, possibly even re-posting the books containing the plagiarized work.

    The way I see it, my only recourse is social media. She wouldn’t engage privately with me, so all I can do is put my side out there publicly. I posted the 16 page side-by-side comparison that I prepared for the C&D of my words next to hers on the internet for anyone to see, so they can judge for themselves.

    In this case, polite behavior and taking the high road got me nowhere. She’s taken to social media to plead her sob story. Then as far as I’m concerned, it’s my right to take to social media, too, and outline what she’s done. Of course, that opens the door to ugly internet fights. My fandom has been by and large completely supportive of its authors, including me, but a few have expressed concern that by speaking out, we’re somehow encouraging the piling on or “bullying”. I guess I’m willing to face that blow back so that what Shey has done becomes public knowledge in some way. I don’t really have another option.

    Sorry for the rant. I clearly have a lot of feelings!

  10. Isobel Carr
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 10:42:41

    As far as I can tell, Lakin crossed an ethical line, but not a legal one. What she produced is a knock-off (and seemingly a low quality one), but so long as she didn’t lift the actual original expression of the idea (aka the wording), there’s really nothing actionable. In a perfect world, the gods of publishing would smite her. Sadly, we do not live in a perfect world.

  11. P. J. Dean
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 11:31:18

    @Kat Morrisey: I agree with it being culture. I believe many writers are chasing the dollar and a trend when they engage in this type of stealing and really are not in it to express their talent. If so-and-so is penning stories about lactose intolerant trolls and getting recognition and monster cash, folks who can string together a coherent sentence will attempt the same too. What does anyone get from this? Tons more books(good or bad or mediocre)about trolls who can’t do dairy, less variety in reading material and a possibly, pissed off author who has been “gleaned” from or “sampled.” Check out the bruhaha with Robin Thicke and his hit song “Blurred Lines” which was clearly lifted from a Marvin Gaye song. People with tin ears and even the RCA dog can hear it was “sampled.” Hate that word.

    There are no winners in this scenario. The culture encourages copy-catting (sp) because readers love the familiar, the routine, and will re-read the same material in different packages over and over again and then complain that there is no original subject matter out there. Well duh?

    As far as authors being afraid to speak out, that probably is true. No one wants to be the “odd man out” or the whistleblower or seem to have bitter grapes. All I can say is as an author, I put a Hell of a lot of blood, sweat and time into creating a book. If another writer lifted stuff from my work completely, I would not be flattered. I’d be having a quite terse discussion. In a law office somewhere.

  12. Lindsay
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 12:29:31

    I can understand Rogan not wanting them to have it out in the comments of her blog — her space, her rules — but I definitely don’t think that shut up and be nice is any kind of advice, as it doesn’t benefit anyone but the person in the wrong.

    I don’t know what the resolution is for self-published authors behaving badly, but I think spanglemaker9 above has one of the few methods: a platform with which to speak, and social media provides that. It’s not the best answer but I think it’s the one that is available to everyone, with legal action and action from a publisher both being absent.

    In response to your question above, I’d like to see more of this made public because it lets me make my own decisions on authors and purchasing their books. I know a lot of people don’t care, or want to separate the work from the person, but I believe very strongly in voting with my dollars when it comes to ethical issues. I also expect self-published authors to be ethical and honest, but I expect that from the rest of the population as well, and… I’ll let you know how that goes. Things like this are incredibly discouraging, the same as the people who loudly proclaim that piracy/plagiarism/stealing isn’t theft and doesn’t hurt anyone, but I really do feel that they’re a small minority of people who happen to be super vocal. I just look at my list of auto-buy self-pub authors and realize it’s a whole lot bigger than my “don’t buy for ethical reasons” list.

    I think as a self-published author that lack of checks and balances from a traditional publisher means I will be expecting a higher amount of individual responsibility, including proper editing and y’know, not plagiarizing. I wouldn’t give a pass to a trad-pub author if they pulled something, but I also know there would be someone else who would be taking partial responsibility for the mess.

  13. Kat Morrisey
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 13:05:24

    I think ALL of the books I’ve read in my entire life have shaped who I am as a writer and how I write, but I don’t study them like that. I just write. And read craftbooks. And just, write. Maybe I have it all wrong and my books will never amount to be worth even the trees its printed on. But if I am, I’m going to keep doing it that way. Because I don’t want my story to fit into another writers’ formula, even if it is Nora Roberts’ or someone else who does really well. Same with covers. I don’t control this since I didn’t self pub but I don’t want to get readers by copying someone else’s cover or making it look like all the rest. I believe (and maybe it’s naive of me to but I do) that if my story is good, it will have an impact. Somewhere. I hope. And if it’s not good, then I go back to the drawing board and try again, learning from the mistakes I made the first time around.

    spanglemaker9: You’re right. It’s horribly depressing to encounter people with these attitudes. I’m not looking forward to tomorrow when I have to try and explain all this to my students. I never thought I’d ever have to explain this to college kids-but I have been, for the last 10 years.

    And I feel your pain about how expensive the legal route is. It sucks how expensive going to court is on something that you can so easily prove. The copyright laws need to be changed to make it easier for wronged authors/creators to recover. Even if it’s arbitration, that tends to be a heck of a lot cheaper than going to court.

    @Hapax: I now have the Princess Bride line in my head “You keep using that word. I do not think that word means what you think it means.” :D Because I honestly thought the same thing when I saw the word “deconstruction”. Took me right back to my literary theory class. That class gave me nightmares. *shudders*

    @P.J.: Your mention of Robin Thicke is interesting. And I can’t believe I’m going to bring this up, but does anyone remember when Vanilla Ice got slammed for using a “sample”of Queen without credit/permission? He was crucified back in the 90s . Same with Milli Vanili too though the situation is a little bit different. And they were both rightly taken to task for what they did. But today the Robin Thicke issue is barely a blip on the radar. I mean, god, would it have been so hard to get the okay to use it, and give Gaye credit? See, now you’ve got me started on another rant (and having horrid flashbacks to my life in the 90s :D ) It seems to all go back to many people just not caring and/or thinking that taking another’s work is WRONG. Again, a concept I just have no ability to understand since for me stealing is stealing.

  14. Kate
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 13:08:36

    The problem for me with the idea of checks and balances being provided by traditional publishers is that a lot of this mess boils down to traditional publishers muddying their own ethics in a way. I look at the Fifty Shades nonsense as proof, because taking what was essentially a Twilight fanfiction and paying huge dollar figures for it is half of what caused this influx of self publishing as it is. And, whether the names were changed and there were no more vampires or not, Fifty Shades was a story with real roots in the source material’s characterization. The published version didn’t change that. For me, what happened to that book was the equivalent of money laundering. “Yes, see, I used another author’s ideas but now I’ve filtered it through this other thing and voila, it’s not based on their work anymore.” And that’s a business model that continues to be endorsed over and over as time passes. As these authors attempt to mimic the success of EL James, they keep dipping back into the same well and marketing what they haul out in the same way. It’s an endorsement of the idea that sales matter more than content, and that idea has trickled down throughout the entire publishing industry.

    Basically, the readership community has to rely on the internet to police everything now. The internet is what let people know that Fifty Shades (and its ilk) were originally fanfiction when the major media blitz about the book (sigh) seemed to be ignoring it. The internet caught Shey Stahl. The internet community catches authors creating sock puppets on Goodreads etc. And I’m glad about that. Sites that bring attention to these issues are doing important work (I’d never have known about the Lakin/Holland stuff if not for DA) and I’m grateful because it helps ME police what ends up on my bookshelves. Of course, the only problem is that these issues can’t be caught until copies have been sold, but how many times has plagiarism slipped through the cracks in traditional publication as well? (See Kaavya Viswanathan, the Shey Stahl of Little Brown).

  15. Lynne Connolly
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 13:17:41

    Deconstructing is also something students of literature do. But it’s to bring out plot points, points of view, pacing and that kind of thing. And language, as the innumerable studies of Shakespearean language attest to.
    So when I started writing for publication, I did the same thing. However I took something like ten books and broke them down to “first kiss,” “first plot point,” and how close together they were, that kind of thing. That’s how you learn. I’d always advocate that, and then tell the student to do their own thing. Which is what I did, because my characters tend to demand different things.
    There’s also a lot of confusion as to what plagiarism actually is, in a legal sense. I hasten to add, not in the Lakin/Holland issue. Both ladies seem perfectly clear about it. But I’ve seen the word used very loosely. There are supposed to be, what, seven original plots ever? I’ve seen that used as an excuse, too.
    But I’ve also seen Linda Howard’s plots ripped off in a big way, even recently. I don’t know why her, or maybe it’s because I’m a big Linda Howard fan, so I tend to notice when I read a similar plot.
    Authors are told that it’s voice that matters, but technique is important too. Like the dreaded backstory someone noticed earlier.
    I tell you one thing Lakin has got from all this. Lots of lovely publicity. Watch her sales go up.

  16. Debra Holland
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 13:29:02

    Thank you for such a well thought out and reasoned blog. I appreciate the encouragement to speak up and will take the opportunity to do so. I’m coming off two nights of very late deadlines, two very ill family members, and the need to shower, change out of the pjs I’ve been wearing for the last three days, put on my Dr. Debra “hat,” and leave for my office. I’m a psychotherapist, and today’s my day to see clients. So I might have to post in chunks over the next day or so because I have a lot to say.

    Some backstory. I wrote Wild Montana Sky, the first book in my Montana Sky series in the late 1990s, early 2000. It won the Romance Writers of America Golden Heart award in 2001. I had two agents who tried to sell the series, but couldn’t because the book was sweet, meaning not sexy, and historical. The market started changing at that time and becoming sexier, and historicals were tanking. I wrote the next book in the series, Starry Montana Sky, and 50 pages of Stormy Montana Sky before setting aside the series. I went on to write fantasy and science fiction romance (also not sexy so it wouldn’t sell, although the first of both books were GH finalists.) Then I switched my focus to nonfiction. My first sale to a traditional publisher was actually for The Essential Guide to Grief and Grieving.

    It was during writing the grief book, that I became aware of the success some authors were having with self-publishing. I had to first finish the grief book, but many of my friends launched their books one to two months ahead of me and shared all the information about what to do. At the end of April, 2011, I put Wild Montana Sky and Starry Montana Sky on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords, and to my huge surprise my (what I considered) simple stories started to sell. Why?

    I hit two niche markets–people who liked traditional romance (or any heat level of romance) AND historical Western romance. Both markets had readers who were starved for stories. Delle Jacobs lovely covers helped considerable. Delle designed the covers to MY specifications. I told her exactly what I wanted and she delivered. It also helped that I had Golden Heart Winner on the cover and in the product page of Wild Montana Sky.

    I was SO excited about this new opportunity that I talked to every author I knew about self-publishing. I showed my cover on my iPhone to authors at my local RWA meetings and I started doing sporadic blog posts about what I thought I did that was working. I answered a flood of emails from people seeking information. I had long talks with authors who were discouraged by the traditional publishing experience, some who’d stopped writing and submitting to New York. I “counseled” them on how this could be a freeing and healing experience, how people could write the books in their hearts and not have them taken apart by editors. In other words, I’ve been beating the drum for self-publishing and doing everything I could to help other authors succeed. That’s who I am. I do that in the rest of my life as well.

    In January, 2012, an editor from Montlake approached me to acquire the series, promising to respect my vision, keep my stories the same, keep my covers and titles. They were not the first publishers to make offers, but they made the best deal. I definitely had a satisfying moment in turning down an offer from an big six traditional editor who’d rejected the book several years earlier.

    In April of 2012, while the books were still my versions, not Montlake’s, Wild Montana Sky made the USA Today list–the biggest shock of my life!!!

    Currently Amazon Montlake has Wild Montana Sky, Starry Montana Sky, Stormy Montana Sky, and I’m under contract for Glorious Montana Sky. I’m self-publishing shorter works in the series, including a subseries called Mail-Order Brides of the West. So the series is a combination of traditional and self-published books.

    I first had my attention called to Joel Friedlander’s blog by someone who was in a large self-publishing yahoo group run by New York Times Bestselling author Marie Force. When I read the blog, I at first only skimmed it and skipped most of the comments (remember I was on deadline.) I’d seen the cover of Charlene Whitman’s cover several weeks earlier and thought at the time it was very similar to mine, but I put it out of my thoughts. But in reading the blog post, I was pretty sure that the author C.S. Lakin/ Susanne Lakin/Charlene Whitman was referring to was me. I MISSED that she was going to write her own self-help book.

    I did write a mild response, and said I didn’t mind what she was doing because at the time I didn’t. I didn’t like the arrogance of the blog, nor the fact that she was saying she disliked romance and didn’t read it. But I’m all for an author educating herself about craft and the market and am always willing to help.

    C.S/Susanne emailed me right away. She did apologize for her lack of truth when she contacted me about wanting the name and contact info about my cover artist, which I’d given her. She told me she’d constructed TWO of my books. She asked me a lot more questions, which I answered (remember I didn’t know about the self-help book) so I freely gave her the answers, just like I would anyone else.

    I asked her to publicly admit to using my stories and suggested we write a joint blog. I was concerned that she might be misleading aspiring authors about how to appropriately use another author’s work for learning purposes, as well as not fully understanding the “sweet” market. There’s more to it then no sex.

    Susanne refused, saying she was concerned that I would be flooded with inquiries about self-publishing and the market (as if I’m not already) and that she’d be perceived as plagiarizing me. I wrote back that she could just link my name to a book I’ve co-authored with The Indie Voice, titled, The Naked Truth About Self-Publishing, because much of my story is in there. She refused, probably fearing people would go buy our self-help book and not hers.

    At that point, I began to see what I was up against. (I’m a psychotherapist, remember.) And I immediately disengaged all contact with her.

    I returned to the blog and read it more carefully. That’s when I realized she was going to write a book using my experience and presenting much of them as her own discoveries. Again, I have no objection to authors knowing whatever I can tell them that will help. It would only be polite, and make sense, and be respectful to credit the author you’ve learned from.

    I went to Susanne’s/ Charlene Whitman’s Amazon’s product page and read the blurb. I could see that she had a different plot, although she’d taken the same unusual occupation/dream of botanical illustrator that I have in Painted Montana Sky and used it for her heroine. She’d also taken the same set up, and used a very similar beginning of her blurb as my original one in Wild Montana Sky. (Note to authors. If you use another author’s work to learn from, make sure EVERYTHING is different in the story you write.)

    Marie Force’s publishing yahoo group began to discuss the blog, and I admitted to them that I was the “secret” author. I also told The Indie Voice and a couple of other close friends. I REQUESTED that people NOT go post on the blog and not spread the word to other writers groups. In other words, much of the reason for no out-cry about about the original blog was because I specifically held back some of my friends who wanted to go blast her. I had NO desire to engage in a flame war. That is not how I handle things. My friends and fellow authors in Marie’s group knew I was stressed and upset–to the point of tears–and were very supportive. I did not respond on the blog.

    I called up Delle (who is a good friend) and we had a long talk. Turns out Susanne had represented herself to Delle as one of my friends. Because of that, Delle thought she was doing me a favor by taking her on as a client. At the time, Delle was not accepting new commissions due to coping with her husband’s death and having as much as she could handle. She thought she was doing me a favor by taking on my “friend.”

    Delle had originally told me that she was having to educate one of my “friends” about not copying my covers and told me a little about the boundaries she was having to set down. She did not tell me the name of her client and I didn’t ask. But we were both thinking “friend” and didn’t give the situation the more serious discussion we should have. In retrospect, Delle (a former social worker) and me as the psychotherapist placed too much concern over client confidentiality. We both have the client confidentiality belief deeply engrained in our minds, and neither of us stopped to think that this was not a confidential situation.

    Delle, as an artist, saw the differences in the covers she did for me–different font, not as much sky–and the ones she did for Susanne/Charlene Whitman. But Delle has a very distinctive style that’s going to carry over, making the covers look more similar to the rest of us.

    I did NOT post on Twitter or Facebook and alert my fans that someone who didn’t like romance and was out to make a quick buck had used me to do so. I had several people suggest I do so, and I chose not to. Again, I didn’t want a flame war, and I want my readers to feel free to read and enjoy whatever they want.

    Fearing that flame war, though, I sent a copy of the blog, my email correspondence with Susanne, and my thoughts on the matter to my Montlake editor, the head of Amazon publishing (a huge fan of mine), my local RWA chapter president, and the head of RWA National. If I did find myself caught up in something that turned publicly nasty (although I wasn’t going to be nasty) I wanted them to know beforehand what was going on.

    They all expressed concern and support. Because this isn’t an incidence of plagiarism, right now, there’s nothing to be done. I refused to read Susanne’s sample or the book (deadline and sick stomach feeling.) I’m sure if there’s plagiarism, someone will bring it to my attention.

    When no one else commented on Joel’s blog (aside from some comments about whether a free book is helpful) I assumed the situation had died down, and hoped that Susanne had changed her mind about the self-help book.

    It wasn’t until someone emailed me about Barbara Rogan’s blog, that I saw from the comments (up until Jan 12th at that point) that I realized that Susanne hadn’t changed her mind. When someone posted, chiding her for keeping the original author a secret, Susanne wrote back (I’m writing from memory here, not going to look at the exact words) that the author was giving Susanne her full support.

    At that lie, I knew I had to break my public silence.

    There’s more to the story, but I have to go to the office. Will finish later.

  17. AlexaB
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 13:52:19

    @Sunita:
    Thanks for taking the bullet and reading the sample. I hate-read it, so I appreciate your objective take on it.

    I agree with @Isobel Carr that Lakin’s actions aren’t actionable. But they are…annoying.

    The reason why C.S. Lakin’s blog post so irked me, and continues to irk me, is pinpointed in Debra Holland’s comment excerpted above:

    What she did was capitalize on MY platform without giving me credit so she can set herself up as a guru and make money on a how-to book.

    It’s one thing to read other authors in your genre and study the tropes; it’s quite another to break down someone else’s work and offer up for sale “the winning formula” to other desperate would-be authors.

    So that, coupled with Lakin’s obvious disdain for the romance genre (“I don’t read or particularly like romance”) and especially its readers (she waxes poetic about spending twenty years writing books that matter, damn it, but the masses were too ignorant to buy her books in bulk until she switched to writing by numbers) is why I had a strong negative reaction to the blog the first time it appeared on Dear Author.

    The last thing the romance genre needs is an influx of authors who think they are too good for the genre, but don’t mind taking romance readers’ dollars. Because apparently we’re just walking wallets who blindly purchase whatever formulaic tripe is put in front of us as long it’s labeled with the correct genre. And maybe we are, judging by Lakin’s results – and crap, that’s depressing.

    However, I’ll be curious to see how many of “Charlene Whitman’s” purchasers come back for the second book.

  18. Jane
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 15:02:49

    @Debra Holland: I’m getting eerie flashbacks to Single White Female! Interesting in both Lankin/Stahl’s cases they claim personal experiences which appear to be someone else’s personal experiences.

  19. Sandra Schwab
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 16:11:34

    I’ve spoken up about this issue in various places – not because I’m some kind of rabid fangirl or a friend of Debra’s. Indeed, a month ago I wouldn’t have even called her an acquaintance. Sure, I’d seen her name online, and we’re on one or two indie author loops together, but we had never met and we had never had any kind of conversation.

    Instead, I’ve spoken up about this issue because of my outrage at the disrespect shown to a fellow author. From the beginning (i.e., when I read Lakin’s article on Friedlander’s blog) I thought there was something odd about the way about the way Lakin very carefully avoided mentioning the name of the author and the title of the book she had used to study the conventions of the genre – especially since it was so obvious that it must have been Debra Holland. But rather than acknowledging the debt owed to another author, Lakin turned her article and her replies in the comments into a sales pitch for her own books. I considered this distasteful and disrespectful (still do) – and that was *before* I learnt about what had been going on behind the scenes (talk about blazing across not one, but several ethical lines!!).

    I think one of the reasons why I feel so strongly about this all is that in the fourteen years since I decided to write in English and to write romance, I’ve come to know the romance community as an incredibly generous community. Yes, there is the occasional drama and flame war and scandal and what not, but overall, the generosity outweighs the nasty bits by far. I still get tears in my eyes when I think about what happened when I received The Call (the first one, that is) back in early 2004: I was utterly freaked out because I didn’t have an agent at the time and I didn’t understand a word of the dratted contract. In desperation I e-mailed my author-friends — and within two hours I had a list of agents whom I could call, and for each name on the list, I had the permission of another author to use her name as a door-opener. Even several days later, I received e-mails from authors whom I didn’t even know, but who were happy to reach out a helping hand to newbie. During that week I felt carried by this huge wave of goodwill – and it meant the world to me. (In case you wonder: by the end of the week I had been given by the editor to decide whether or not to accept his offer, I still didn’t have an agent, and so I decided against signing the contract.) A similar generosity and a willingness to help and to share knowledge can now be also found in the self-publishing community (despite the occasional duds).

    I strongly feel that Lakin’s behaviour violates exactly these values of the romance and self-publishing communities. It goes against everything I’ve learnt from both communities.

  20. SonomaLass
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 20:06:40

    @Kat Morrisey: You have my deepest empathy. I struggle with this every semester, because many of today’s college students just really don’t see the ethical lines involved with source citation, attribution, clear marking of direct quotations, and all the rest that seems so obvious to me and to most of my peers. Their idea of “research” is often: Google, then copy & paste. They are genuinely surprised when I call them on it. Very frustrating. I like to think that when I get through to them, it’s a public service.

  21. Robin/Janet
    Jan 22, 2014 @ 17:02:44

    I’ll be back later to post more extensive comments, but I just wanted to thank both @Debra Holland and @spanglemaker9 for commenting here. I think both of you are in very difficult positions, but for somewhat different reasons. I can’t say which situation is more difficult, because each has its own challenges. Still, I think it’s so important to bring attention to the range of ethical (and in the Stahl case, legal) issues, especially for authors who have to go it alone, both in producing and potentially defending their own work.

  22. Copyright vs. Plagiarism: A lay(wo)man’s view of what writers need to know about these two terms used interchangeably but really, REALLY aren’t. | Jada Marne
    Jan 22, 2014 @ 22:10:57

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  24. Mary
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 14:53:24

    I am a reader of both Debra Holland and now C.S Lakin. I am the paying customer whose opinion does matter too. I wanted to look for more information or a website for Charlene Whitman after reading her novel Colorado Promise which I enjoyed. To my surprise, I started to read this discussion over platforms which clearly Debra Holland stated there was no plagiarism, but similarities to her Montana Sky series. In my opinion, I do not see any of these books (several of which I’ve read) vaguely similar other than a historical western theme.

    As a reader, I also do not have an issue with Ms. Lakin stating she had no interest reading or writing romance novels as a negative because she wrote a good, no actually an excellent novel with no spelling or grammar errors. In addition, isn’t making a living a goal with most authors and if she found a winning formula to sell books or found a demand for her writing, who would have an issue with this is difficult to understand.

    As far as using a similar cover for her books with an artist Debra Holland has use; I simply do not understand. All romance novels have a similar look and what I base buying a book these days is on downloading a sample. So the first chapter better be a good one for me to buy the complete novel.

    If I were C.S Lakin, I would not find it necessary to give any credit to Debra Holland. As far as the authors above stating negative comments about Ms. Lakin, unless you can prove plagiarism I think you are boarding on slander with the comments made about her both here or other websites which I see on a personal nature by questioning her ethics. If you “nervous” about speaking up in the online community, you better be able to back up your claims in a legal nature or not look so petty, for example, using a similar book cover.

    I also like to know if anyone has read her book Colorado Promise which reader’s response is positive including 4.7 out of 5 stars with Amazon Customer Reviews. Any author would be pleased with this result and I look forward to this series.

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