Stealing Books in the Age of Self-Publishing

Many authors who sell their work directly on platforms like Amazon are having their stories plagiarized, which can take an emotional and financial toll.

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One day two years ago Rachel Ann Nunes, who writes Mormon fiction and romance novels, received an email from a reader asking a strange question: Had she collaborated with someone named Sam Taylor Mullens? Nunes had never heard the name before. But the reader went on to say she had noticed similarities between one of Nunes’s novels, A Bid for Love, and another self-published book by Mullens. When the reader confronted Mullens about the parallels, she was told the two authors were simply collaborators. If that was a lie, the reader said—and it was—then Nunes may have been the unwitting victim of plagiarism.

With that single exchange, Nunes found herself part of a trend affecting many professional authors in the age of self-publishing. An anonymous stranger seemed to have stolen her book, changed it superficially, and passed it off as her own work. First published in 1998, A Bid for Love did well enough to spawn two sequels before it eventually went out-of-print. Mullens’ book, titled The Auction Deal, looked like the same story with much of the same language. In Chapter 2, Nunes writes, “The dark brown curls were everywhere. They were a curse, and had been for twenty-eight of Cassi’s twenty-nine years.” Compare that to Chapter 2 of Mullen’s book, which begins, “Dark brunette curls were everywhere. They were a curse, and had been for the thirty-one years of my life.”

There was one major difference between the books: The Auction Deal had sex scenes and was being marketed as mainstream romance—the most profitable category in self-publishing. “I was floored,” Nunes said. “I didn’t believe it was true that someone would do that.”

In the world of self-publishing, where anyone can put a document on Amazon and call it a book, many writers are seeing their work being appropriated without their permission. Some books are copied word-for-word while others are tinkered with just enough to make it tough for an automated plagiarism-checker to flag them. (Though the practice is legally considered copyright infringement, the term “plagiarism” is more widely used.) The offending books often stay up for weeks or even months at a time before they’re detected, usually by an astute reader. For the authors, this intrusion goes beyond threatening their livelihood. Writing a novel is a form of creative expression, and having it stolen by someone else, many say, can feel like a personal violation.

Often, the perpetrator’s identity is shrouded in mystery. When Nunes tried to find out more about Mullens, things started to get weird. The anonymous person on the other side of the computer seemed to multiply into an array of fake online identities. Strangers posted Facebook messages attacking Nunes’s character, and hostile one-star reviews began appearing on her Amazon author page. “I felt like I was being attacked,” Nunes said. “When I went on social media, I didn’t know what would be waiting for me.”

The stress took its toll on Nunes. She couldn’t sleep or write and gained 20 pounds. She was faced with the choice of either letting the plagiarism go in the hopes the harassment would stop, or fighting back through the legal system. Finally, Nunes decided to sue for $150,000 in damages, rallying financial support with a GoFundMe page. She alleges that the person behind it all is Tiffanie Rushton, a third-grade teacher who didn’t return attempts to contact her about this article. The case is set to go to trial later this year.

Nunes’s situation is hardly an isolated incident. There are pages on sites like Goodreads dedicated to identifying fake books, including plagiarized novels. Most of the plagiarism is happening to romance novels, which accounts for the largest proportion of ebook sales, but new cases are popping up in other genres as well, from cookbooks to mystery novels. Even public-domain classics like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Dracula have been adapted and passed off as original works.

For authors, finding out their book has been plagiarized can be traumatic. This was especially the case for the best-selling author Opal Carew, who learned her serial romance Riding Steele had been plagiarized the same day her sister died from cancer. An hour after her sister passed away, Carew got an email from a friend saying the novelist Laura Harner had changed the genders of the characters in Carew’s work and published it under a different title. Apparently, Harner had done this before, stealing Becky McGraw’s novel My Kind of Trouble, switching genders, and calling it Coming Home Texas. For Carew, the news added surreal stress to her grief. “All my writing friends were sending me condolences about plagiarism, and all I could think about was my sister,” she said.

Unlike most offenders, Harner was well-known in the self-publishing community as an author of male/male romance novels. She has publicly acknowledged her actions, saying that “personal and professional issues ... stretched me in ways that haven’t always been good for me.” The cases against her were settled for undisclosed amounts.

Some observers believed Harner resorted to plagiarism to keep her rankings up, Carew said. Before she was caught, Harner was considered unusually prolific, producing 75 novels in five years. Amazon rewards writers who come out with new books quickly by putting them higher in the rankings, which in turn means more sales. This policy also puts pressure on authors to write more to maintain visibility and to offset the dropping price of ebooks. “This may sound crazy, but I have 18 releases planned for this year,” Carew said. “In order to survive, I have to put out as many books as I can ... If you’re living on your writing like I am, the stress can get to you.”

When a reader buys a self-published book, Amazon keeps 30 percent of the royalties and gives the rest to the authors—meaning the company makes money whether the book is plagiarized or not. A traditional publisher is liable if it puts out a book that violates copyright. But Amazon is protected from the same fate by  federal law as long as it removes the offending content.

Amazon regularly complies with this rule, and plagiarized books are removed from the site. However, it can take a while for the company to respond to complaints, which can be maddening for authors, since every day a fake book is up is a day they’re losing sales. The company spokesperson Justin O’Kelly said Amazon has a team dedicated to stopping plagiarism, but he wouldn’t go into details about their methods for fear of giving plagiarists ideas. “In the rare instance when plagiarized titles make it through, that same team makes sure they are taken down quickly, and repeat offenders are blocked,” he said.

It’s unclear what constitutes a “repeat offender.” Though Harner admitted she plagiarized several books, her work is still up for sale on Amazon. There’s also nothing stopping a plagiarist from reregistering on the site and doing it all over again under another name. Some writers, like McGraw, feel that Amazon doesn’t do enough to protect authors. When she asked the company to remove Harner’s backlist, they refused, saying they’re only required to remove plagiarized titles. “Whenever plagiarism happens, and [Amazon] can verify it, they should pull the whole list, you know—one strike, you’re out,” said McGraw. “But you know what? When they take 50 or 75 books down, they’re losing money.”

To be fair to Amazon, copyright infringement also occurs with other self-publishing retailers, including Barnes & Noble, iBookstore, Kobo, and Smashwords. Google Play has been accused of “rampant” piracy, with spammers selling books by Malcolm Gladwell, Sidney Sheldon, and Ellery Queen for $2.11 each. Still, Amazon has the biggest chunk of the self-published ebook market, with some estimates putting it at 85 percent. Without Amazon, few authors could make a living self publishing.

These issues become especially sticky when the plagiarized book sells well. The Irish author Eilis O’Hanlon and her partner Ian McConnell co-wrote the mystery novel The Dead, which they published in 2003 under the pen name Ingrid Black. The novel won awards and sold well but eventually went out of print, and the copyright reverted to the authors. Last year, O’Hanlon wrote about learning The Dead was being sold as Tear Drop by Joanne Clancy. Even worse, Tear Drop was a number-one bestseller in the Irish crime-fiction category. Readers were raving about it on Amazon, (“A well-plotted, perfectly paced book. I was hooked from the start”), not knowing Clancy was profiting off the work of other writers.

“I was quite angry about it all, but it was followed very quickly with a feeling that I can only describe as a violation,” O’Hanlon said. “Neither of us had thought about these books in years, because they were very much in the past, but suddenly all these memories came flooding back. Memories of late nights, pulling our hair out over plot problems, tending to young children, and now some stranger had come along and stolen them.” When Clancy moved onto the second book in the series, publishing The Dark Eye as Insincere, O’Hanlon contacted Amazon, which eventually removed the pirated novels and banned Clancy. (Many of her books are still available on the site through third-party sellers.)

There was also the question of how much money Clancy made. O’Hanlon emailed Clancy directly to ask and was surprised to receive a response. Clancy admitted what she’d done and apologized, saying, “I published Tear Drop on August 25th, so I only earned a few hundred Euro from that.” Amazon had a different figure, reporting that Clancy made $15,791.60 on Tear Drop and $3,844.40 on Insincere. Roughly $2,000 had been transferred to her before she was caught.

Amazon reimburses royalties if the author can prove plagiarism, but it’s not a straightforward process. Even in cases where the company has removed books for copyright infringement, the author must provide further documentation to receive royalties. Luckily, O’Hanlon had the email from Clancy admitting guilt, which she forwarded to Amazon to receive payment. Still, most authors won’t be lucky enough to get a confession from their plagiarist and will likely have to hire a lawyer to get any royalties they’re owed.

Because plagiarists are driven more by financial motivations than creative or artistic ones, they tend to be repeat offenders. Clancy, for example, might have repackaged all four Ingrid Black mysteries if she hadn’t been stopped. In a blog post, she explained that she got into self-publishing because she was inspired by Amanda Hocking, who famously got rich via Amazon. “In early 2010, she began self-publishing her books, and by March 2011, she was a Kindle millionaire!” Clancy wrote. “Amanda’s story was the catalyst that changed my life.”

There’s certainly money to be made in self-publishing, as the writers Tammara Webber and Jamie McGuire demonstrate. Webber’s new adult novel Easy made the New York Times bestseller list, prompting Penguin to offer her a publishing contract. McGuire’s Beautiful Redemption was the first self-published novel sold at Walmart. Their success probably didn’t escape the notice of Jordin B. Williams, who plagiarized both authors in one book, Amazingly Broken. Using the work of two successful authors in one novel turned out well for Williams: Although Amazingly Broken was only up for a week, it reached number 50 in the Kindle store, which meant it made enough to force Webber and McGuire to get lawyers involved.

Plagiarists usually hide behind multiple aliases, stolen biographies, and fake photographs. Bloggers and readers discovered that Williams used several identities and that the blonde woman on the author profile was a photograph from a modeling site. In legal proceedings, it surfaced that Williams is a man. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount, which Webbers and McGuire ended up donating to charity. When Webber found out her work was plagiarized, she cried. To describe how she felt at the time, Webber used a word that comes up repeatedly when authors talk about plagiarism: violated. “I think it has to do with a sudden, blinding awareness of vulnerability,” she said. “You had something you believed belonged to you and someone took it.”

The effects of plagiarism go beyond lawsuits and royalties, as was the case for Chase Weston, whom Tiffanie Rushton also allegedly targeted. A former soldier who served in Iraq, Weston survived an IED attack with a broken back and brain injury. He wrote about his experiences at a treatment center for combat veterans with PTSD, which was published online as Terror in a Cloud of Dust. Rushton seems to have used Weston’s words in her romance novel Hasty Resolution, and Weston was upset to see his personal experiences used in someone else’s erotic fiction. In an open letter to Rushton, Weston’s wife Lilah said it bothered him so much he had trouble sleeping. “That writing of his was something he was actually proud of, and now he feels that [it] is something cheap and ruined,” she wrote. “Ruined by a complete stranger with no consideration for the soldiers who were there that day.”

Though the specifics vary from case to case, being the subject of Internet plagiarism is inevitably an ordeal. While some authors have publishers to fight for them, many are left on their own and must decide whether to sue, an expensive endeavor that may not be worth it in the end. However, in virtually every case I studied, the author found out about the copyright infringement from readers. An informal community of bloggers, book lovers, and writers has sprung up to protect authors from having their work stolen. When it happens, they rally in support of the victim, scouring the Internet for clues of the culprit’s identity and other evidence to help the author build a case. There’s a certain irony to the whole cycle: The circumstances that enable criminals to profit off other people’s work also help to expose their misdeeds, however messily. The result is an imperfect ecosystem that authors, readers, and self-publishing platforms will likely help to refine in the future as digital technology and culture continue to merge.