On the surface, this might seem like a clear-cut question. Unless we’ve turned the copyright over to another entity, it seems like we should be able to reuse our own work. However the issues surrounding what is sometimes termed “self-plagiarism” are more complicated than they might first appear.
Many of us who blog will occasionally rerun blog posts, sometimes with updates and sometimes without. If we don’t acknowledge that we’re re-posting material, are we misleading our readers by implying the post is new and original? What about when we post material we’d previously submitted for a guest post?
I’ve rerun and re-posted blog articles. Granted, I think I’ve always acknowledged and updated the previous post, but I have to wonder how wrong it would be if I forgot. To a great extent, that depends on whom you ask.
Is “Self-Plagiarism” a Problem?
We saw this issue in the news several months ago with Jonah Lehrer, a former writer for The New Yorker. Although his problems turned out to be deeper than mere recycling of content, the fact remains that the discovery of his unacknowledged reuse of material started his downfall.
Many people reacted as though Jonah recycling his content was fraudulent. Some saw it as a lazy shortcut. And others didn’t understand why it was a big deal.
In other mediums, we expect that recycling. Workshop presenters, stand-up comedians, artistic painters, etc. all repeat their insights regularly. Why are those circumstances okay while repurposing the written form is not?
All Authors Reuse Ideas
The Slate article linked in the last paragraph above tries to make a case that Jonah Lehrer had become an idea person and that’s why he plagiarized himself:
“Lehrer has moved into the idea business. This is the world of TED talks and corporate lectures, a realm in which your thoughts are your product. For the idea man, the written word is just one of many mediums for conveying your message and building your brand.”
However, those of us who write books (non-fiction or fiction) are almost all idea people.
Non-fiction book-length authors usually try out their ideas ahead of time. Maybe their book is even a repackaging and updating of blog posts, anecdotal stories they’ve shared, or lectures they’ve given over the years.
Fiction authors frequently re-use ideas: themes, worldviews, character goals, etc. We might repeat turns of phrase from one book to another. Heck, I can think of several bestselling authors who reuse the same premise for Every. Single. Book.
Author Bob Mayer shared in a workshop about how he’d written a USSR spy story, and then the Berlin Wall came down and no one was interested in USSR stories anymore. He took the same idea, changed the characters and the location to China, and rewrote the story. Same idea, new story.
Yet even with that understanding, there are some circumstances when it’s not okay for a writer to reuse their work—at least not without significant rewriting. Enter fan fiction authors and the pull-to-publish movement.
Is There a “Right” Way to Pull-to-Publish?
Pull-to-publish (P2P) is when a fan fiction (fanfic) author pulls their work off a fanfic site (like fanfiction.net) and publishes the story for profit. If you’ve followed my other posts about the ethics of fan fiction or what authors should know about fan fiction, you can probably guess that a writer profiting off the fans, characters, or worldbuilding of another author doesn’t sit well with me.
Most P2P cases involve a fanfic author “self-plagiarizing” to publish their fanfic story with character names changed from those of the original author’s story. As I’ve previously pointed out, name-change-only stories don’t pass my ethics test.
However, in all those posts, I also stated that I thought there was a “right” way to publish a previous fanfic story. Like how Bob Mayer tackled his problem, fanfic authors can take their unique premise, change the characters, and rewrite the story.
Now some fanfic authors are doing (or claiming to do) exactly that. This has led to interesting discussions about all the reasons why P2P is ethically wrong and what exactly it takes to do it “right.”
The Many Shades of Pull-to-Publish
The P2P issue is typically described with one broad brush, but I’ve seen fanfic authors take different approaches, so I don’t think they should all be lumped together. At one end, we have the P2P stories that most would agree are unethical and other end, we have the P2P stories where the fanfic authors tried to do things “right.”
- Name-Change-Only Stories
The fanfic author takes their story, including the characters they copied from the original author, and changes the names. The infamous Fifty Shades of Grey falls into this category. The Turnitin plagiarism software found an 89% similarity between Fifty Shades of Grey and its fanfic version Master of the Universe, meaning only the names were changed and some very minor rewording was done.
Stories like these typically appeal to the fans who loved the story in fanfic form and want the print version to keep. In other words, the ethics of this situation also includes issues about exploiting (or at least borrowing) fans of the original author.
Also, fanfic is more collaborative in nature than non-fanfic, so the hundreds, or even thousands, of reviewers (similar to beta readers in non-fanfic circles) have often significantly added to and/or changed the story. However, the ego and ethical issues of the fanfic authors who have taken this approach mean that many ignore the contributions of the fanfic community.
- “Re-Worked” Stories
The fanfic author does some amount of reworking to the story. This might include deeper character changes, plot changes, and/or heavy editing. One Twilight fanfic story, The Office, recently sold in a two-book deal. The Turnitin analysis showed a 20% similarity between the to-be-published version and the fanfic version. However, no one is claiming the story itself is different, as one reason the fanfic authors decided to pursue publication was that several copycat stories were attempting to go the P2P route.
The fact that the publisher announced the deal in connection to Twilight and the fanfic story shows they’ve chosen to appeal to those fans of the fanfic. Some people will accept a 20% similarity as different enough and some won’t, and some will protest the release regardless, due to the fan exploitation issue.
Depending on the nature of the changes, reworked stories might still have benefited from the work of fanfic reviewers who added to the story. And depending on the ethics of the fanfic authors involved and how much they’re attempting to do things “right,” some might acknowledge those contributions and some will not.
- Completely Rewritten Stories
The fanfic author keeps the premise and ditches virtually everything else. Like Bob Mayer’s approach, the author creates new characters, who no longer evoke—or are meant to evoke the original author’s characters. These new characters react differently to the inciting incident of the premise, which in a domino effect, completely changes the rest of the story, from turning points to plot events.
On Thursday, I’ll be interviewing one such author, and the Turnitin analysis shows only 1% similarity between the published version and the fanfic version of her story. In this case, the story itself is completely different, so the collaborative nature of fanfic reviewers is likely irrelevant, or nearly so.
Some fanfic authors who take this approach choose to maintain their ties to the fanfic world—possibly leaving themselves open to charges of exploiting the fandom—and some choose to leave the fandom in an attempt to make or break their story on their own. Whether or not we all agree on if there is a “right” way to do P2P, these fanfic authors have put in the time and effort to make the attempt.
Opinions Vary on How to Do P2P “Right”
In a Twitter conversation, agent Pam van Hylckama and I were talking about how much would need to be changed in a story before she’d consider it a new story. For agents, this could refer to P2P or to the idea of when they’d be willing to take another look at a story they’d previously rejected. Her response:
“Pretty extreme. Idea the same but reworked bones.”
What percentage qualifies as “pretty extreme”? Anything over 50% reworked? Only something close to 1% (which any two random stories in the same genre might trigger)? Everyone might have a different idea about what percentage is necessary to avoid the ethical issues.
In my polling of several anti-P2P people, some saw the 20% case as acceptable, some thought only a 1% case would be acceptable, and some didn’t accept even the 1% case because the entire idea of removing a story from the fandom is disrespectful to the fans (especially to those who put in the time and effort to leave comments and reviews, all of which are deleted when a story is pulled).
The Problem with Lumping All P2P Together
Several places list Twilight P2P books, such as TwiFanfictionRecs and a Goodreads group, but these lists don’t differentiate between name-change-only, reworked, or rewritten stories. They’re all being treated as equally bad, regardless of the intentions and ethics of the fanfic author.
Most fanfic authors don’t have the benefit of knowing and being able to point to their story’s Turnitin percentage of similarity. And I’m sure many more fanfic authors claim they’ve reworked their stories than have actually done so to a significant extent.
However, as I said last March when I was first aware of the P2P issue, I personally don’t think all fanfic authors deserve to be tarred with the same brush. If some have taken the time to attempt to do things “right,” I think we should allow them the opportunity to reuse their unique premise. A premise does not a story make, and I wouldn’t even call that situation a P2P story.
Those authors might still make missteps, like reaching out to (and possibly exploiting) their fanfic readers more than some are comfortable with, or like pulling their fanfic stories to avoid those exploitation issues without realizing that’s disrespectful to their reader-reviewers. But those missteps are not—in my opinion—on the same level as stealing characters and blatant exploitation of the fandom. I do see shades of gray in the P2P issue. *smile*
Do you think a writer can reuse their work? Have you ever reused some of your writing? What do you think about P2P? Is there a “right” way to do it? If so, how? Or are all P2P stories equally bad?Pin It