Business Musings: Ghostwriting, Plagiarism, and The Latest Scandal
Recently, I’ve been getting a lot of questions from interviewers that I have never gotten before. They ask, “Are you going to join the latest trend and hire ghostwriters to put out more books in your series?”
So far, I have managed to refrain (at least on podcasts) from responding, “Are you fucking kidding me?” and simply say, “No, I’m too much of a control freak.”
But I have a longer answer in my head. The answer is complicated. Let me see if I can break it down for you.
Readers don’t buy plots. They buy a writer’s point of view, her style, and the way she tells a story. Some idiot whose name I will not repeat and whose blog I will not link to wrote in response to the latest scandal (which I will discuss below): “What constitutes plagiarism in a genre in which formulaic storylines and themes are the norm?”
If the idiot understood copyright, she would know the answer to that question: What gets copyrighted is the form the work takes, not tropes or the formula.
Readers like tropes and formulas. They like familiar stories well told. They also like familiar stories with twists that take the familiar and make it something new.
Readers follow writers, as a brand, and readers are very smart. Readers know that a book by James Patterson will have one voice, but a book by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro will have a completely different voice. Readers will often say (even in the reviews) that they might like Patterson by himself, but refuse to read the books he’s written in collaboration with someone else.
The voice changes when someone else writes a book in the same series. Ian Fleming’s James Bond is not the same as Jeffrey Deaver’s, no matter how hard Deaver (whose work I love) tried to catch Fleming’s Bond.
If I want to remain true to my characters and my readers, I will never bring in a ghostwriter. Never.
If I worked with another writer, that writer would get credit in a shared byline. That’s what Patterson does. As outlined clearly in a ThoughtCo article, here’s how the collaboration works. Patterson hires an established writer with publishing credits, and gives them a 60-80 page treatment of the story.
Then begins a pretty intense back-and-forth; Mark Sullivan, who co-wrote several of Patterson’s Private series as well as Cross Justice, described weekly phone calls, brutally honest feedback, and a tireless pursuit of the “terrific.” So it’s not fair to imply that Patterson is simply coasting on his brand name; the collaborative novels are his ideas, his characters, and a great deal of his input. As Patterson himself says, “I’m very good at plot and characterization but there are better stylists.”
Note that Patterson, one of the smartest writers alive, knows that the style will change with a collaborator—and he likes that.
Other bestsellers have tried the same thing, and ran screaming. Dean Koontz tried the same method, and ended up rewriting the books himself, republishing them to adhere to his original vision. Not because the other writers were bad—they’re great writers, all of them—but because they couldn’t pull off the work that Koontz wanted at the level he wanted them to achieve.
Working with a collaborator is hard. It’s more work to collaborate, which I have done, than it is to write a book yourself.
Now, to save time (which is what all of those interview questions were about) or to get to stories that I might never get to, I might consider bringing in other writers. If there was a universe of mine or a series of side stories that I have only marginal interest in, I might bring in other established writers to write books in that series.
Then the byline would be theirs, writing in my series. So the readers would know I didn’t write the stories.
Because, as I said, readers are smart, and many of them wouldn’t want to read someone else’s take on my series, even though I had approved the take. Some readers want to spend a long time in a series, no matter who writes it. They’ve fallen for the setting or the world-building or something, and to those readers, more is better.
Not to all readers, though.
But, again, it would take work to do that. I’d have to approve each manuscript. I would oversee it all. Which is editing. And worse, it’s editing in my world. I can easily see myself reacting like Dean Koontz, with great frustration that someone whiffed an easy (to me) plot point or didn’t get enough depth in the characters or wrote a passive scene.
I’m not James Patterson. I don’t like writing collaboratively, even on projects that are peripheral to my own.
I am, as I said to all those interviewers, too much of a control freak.
I’m also aware of the fact that writing in someone else’s universe is a skill that not every writer has. I’ve played in other people’s universes. I’ve written more tie-in novels than I want to think about. My favorites were Star Trek novels, but I have written a Star Wars novel, and X-Men, and several others, often in collaboration with my husband Dean. Note that these are media properties that already have more than one writer on board. In fact, they have an entire team of people putting the properties together, because media properties are, by definition, assembled collaboratively.
And still, people oversee these novelizations. The licensors review them with a fine-tooth comb. They make sure that nothing violates the rules of the universe and that the characters are consistent and that everything fits into what the fans expect.
Because fans get angry when someone writes something that doesn’t fit in an established universe. Some established universes bring in lawyers. And all involve contracts state in unequivocal terms that the writer is writing original material in a particular universe, and that the words and writings are the writer’s own, not cribbed from other sources.
Here’s the thing about contracts: the lawyers who write them try to see every eventuality, but sometimes they miss. And when they miss, they rectify that miss in the next contract. So the fact that there are long clauses about originality and plagiarism and libel and all of those things in traditional publishing work-for-hire contracts means that somewhere, somewhen, someone plagiarized or libeled someone in a work-for-hire project.
There is nothing new under the sun, after all.
So whenever I get these ghostwriting and collaboration questions, I see the issue in all of its complexity. I want to write my own fiction, and have time to write even more. I can see each and every day being eaten up with author issues. Even if I hire an editor to oversee the project, I would still be approving these books, reading things I don’t even want in my head.
Nope. No. Not at all.
When I watched the collaboration start in the indie world—and when one big selling KDP author told me that he doesn’t have contracts with his collaborators because they all trust each other, well, I just about had a fit. I tried to talk him into contracts, but no, that’s a trust thing, apparently. And it’ll bite him one day, in a very bad way.
Then, shortly thereafter, I learned that dozens of big selling indie authors can’t produce books fast enough to game the Amazon algorithms, so those writers started hiring ghostwriters to produce more books, so the writer had time to write more books too.
I remembered thinking: that’s not how it works. A writer with a dozen ghostwriters would be spending all her time overseeing those writers, not writing more. She’d have less time not more.
Unless she hired someone to oversee them. And then she’d have to trust that person implicitly. I thought about the infrastructure it would take to maintain that, the readers and the lawyers for the contracts and thought, well that’s a blog post one day, warning writers away from doing this.
And then I forgot about it, because really, I’m not in the business of enabling writers to scam their readers. Because that’s what this ghostwriting thing is. It’s writers who are in it for the money, and who don’t care what their readers think. They don’t respect their readers at all or understand why readers fall in love with a book in the first place.
It’s all about numbers and not about the love of storytelling.
And yet here I am, writing this blog.
Because this week, historical romance writer and lawyer (who specializes in intellectual property) Courtney Milan discovered—thanks to some eagle-eyed readers—that some “writer” named Cristiane Serruya plagiarized her novel The Duchess War.
I found out a few days ago, and had to deal with some things in my own life, and by the time I returned to Twitter, I discovered this scandal had mushroomed beyond Courtney. At most recent count (as I write this), Serruya has plagiarized 35 books, 27 authors, 2 recipes, and 2 articles. The authors include a lot of bestsellers and favorites, including lawyers like Courtney and writers who have sued plagiarizers before, like Nora Roberts. Nora’s particularly outspoken about what she has gone through, and I have to admit, I snorted tea when I read this comment from Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books:
When I saw “Nora Roberts” [on this list] my first thought was, “Everybody, get underground NOW.”
Exactly. This scandal is getting uglier by the hour.
Initially, Serruya responded to Courtney Milan’s original post about the plagiarism with a tweet, blaming a ghostwriter. Which made me think about all of this stuff. Because it’s logical to me that a ghostwriter might cobble together books from a bunch of other books.
Even if that had happened, the legal burden is still on Serruya. She put her name on the book. She also didn’t vet what she was putting her name on. And we’ll get back to that point in a minute.
In the last twenty-four hours, things got even more complicated. A few people Serruya had hired as ghostwriters –and who quit when they saw what they had to work with—claim that Serruya cobbled the books together from random quotes from various novels, and had the ghostwriters polish the damn things.
That makes more sense to me, considering how pervasive this is. And frankly, if I were a ghostwriter who decided to plagiarize, I’d just pick off one or two books, rather than a whole mess of them. Because that description above sounds like too much work.
The courts will go after this, and Serruya will owe these writers (and maybe more) buckets of money, which will probably go unpaid, because I can’t imagine she’s earning enough to handle the millions of dollars she’s going to owe.
I feel for these writers caught in this mess. I do. Because they have to be vigilant to protect their copyrights. Courtney Milan posted what writers need to do if they’re caught in this mess.
They will be dealing with this for months, maybe years. And I sure wish them the best.
That’s bad enough, but what this mess has revealed is that ugly underbelly of indie that I noticed a while ago, and decided to run away from.
This ghostwriting thing? It’s a disaster waiting to happen. For everyone. I expected the problems to be contractual with the writers who hired the ghostwriters, particularly the dumbfucks who don’t have a contract or any kind of written agreement with their ghostwriters.
I did not expect plagiarism although, given the contracts I’ve seen from traditional publishers, I should have.
I mean, what’s to stop the ghostwriters from plagiarizing? It’s not their name on the manuscript. And I know some of the writers who are hiring ghostwriters. Those writers aren’t vetting the books. They’re not doing the kind of due diligence that college professors and high school teachers do to see if the writing is plagiarized. (There are programs that search for similar wording all over the internet.)
The writers are not overseeing the projects at all, and are doing it for all the wrong reasons. These writers want more product out, to goose Amazon algorithms, not to get the best stories possible to their readers. (Clearly I’m not the only one who sees this problem. Writer Kilby Blades published a blog post about this before I got mine up, and she explores all the algorithm issues and everything else. Go forth and read this.)
This is a function of the write-faster-and-get-more-sales school of indie. And it’s going to bite the writers who are doing it, particularly if they are doing so with ghostwriters.
If you’re one of those writers, stop using ghostwriters now. Hire collaborators, give them byline credit, and for godssake, have a contract with them. Oversee the work for quality, and run the stupid basic plagiarism check that every teacher in the world now uses.
Be smart about this.
The smartest thing, though, is to write your books at your pace, and stop flooding the market with mediocre books, written by people who don’t care about your worlds or your characters as much as you do.
If you got into this business because you love writing, then write for heaven’s sake. And if you’re worried about maintaining your income, then the real key is to cut expenses, not add to them. If you can’t survive without gaming the system, then maybe consider a part-time job until you have enough money put away to augment your writing income in the lean months. Then live on a percentage of what your writing earns, not on the entire amount.
I realize I’m probably talking to the choir, folks who are already writing for the love of the work and wouldn’t think of hiring ghostwriters. But on the off-chance that you’re one of the people with ghostwriters writing under your byline, please look at this train wreck and realize that there’s another train bearing down on you.
Change your behavior now.
Before it’s too late.
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“Business Musings: Ghostwriting, Plagiarism, and The Latest Scandal,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / 4774344sean.