In The Absence of Traditional Publishers
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.