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February 21, 2019

What Can Authors and Readers Learn from #CopyPasteCris?

Crowbar with text: Thieves on Amazon... What Can We Learn?

If you haven’t been on Twitter in the last two days, you might not have heard of the recent issue known as #CopyPasteCris. The short version is that a reader notified romance author (and former Supreme Court clerk and intellectual property law professor!) Courtney Milan that Cristiane Serruya had plagiarized one of her books.

Word spread throughout social media because Courtney is a popular author with over 30,000 followers on Twitter, and it was shocking that anyone would be so stupid as to plagiarize someone with her background and expertise. Soon, other readers and authors found more evidence of plagiarism from Cristiane.

Now writers, authors, and readers are all analyzing how it happened and what (if anything) can be done to prevent it from happening again. Let’s take a look…

A Closer Claim at the Plagiarism

Given her background, Courtney knows that many cries of “plagiarism!” are due to similar phrases or tropes. This was not that kind of situation.

In this case, Cristiane literally copied and pasted (hence the hashtag) not just phrases, or sentences, or even an entire paragraph. The plagiarism was of whole passages, two and three paragraphs in a row with only a few words changed.

Many legitimate authors worry about inadvertently plagiarizing—just by wording something similarly—especially if they’re reading in their own genre while drafting new stories. So when first looking at the screenshots capturing the evidence, we might have a quick gut punch of “Uh oh, I’ve written a similar phrase before.”

Many phrases are common, especially within our own genre, so that’s not a case of plagiarism. But if we keep reading the evidence in this case, we’ll see the following sentences and paragraphs are also the same. That’s not accidental.

How Widespread Is the Plagiarism?

Throughout the past two days, authors and readers have been using Google Books searches and any copies they have of Cristiane’s books to check for more evidence. Dozens upon dozens of screenshot examples have been posted on Twitter in the #CopyPasteCris hashtag.

As of the time of writing this post, this thread by @CaffeinatedFae has tracked 35 books, 27 authors, 2 recipes, and 2 non-fiction articles that have been plagiarized in Cristiane’s books. That number is still increasing as readers and authors find more examples.

(Newsletter readers: Click through to the post to see images.)

In other words, Cristiane’s books are a Frankenstein’d copy-and-paste mess. And a quick look at the names on the list in those images reveal many of the biggest authors in romance.

What’s Been the Fallout to This Plagiarism?

Cristiane denied responsibility, blaming her “ghostwriter” from Fiverr:

Cristiane Serruya: "...I am taking down all the works I did with a ghostwriter on Fiverr..."

This tweet is no longer available “live,” as Cristiane has since attempted to erase most of her existence off the internet—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, website, etc.—all but some of the books she was claiming to be taking down. *sigh*

I’ll get more into all the issues with her claims and blaming in a minute, but before that, I want to share that Courtney has created a to-do list for the plagiarism victims, which includes the formation of a private group to consider legal actions. Those contributing to the evidence and looking for more victims are encouraged to participate in her private group as well.

Is Any Part of Cristiane’s Claim Believable?

Virtually every aspect of Cristiane’s side of the story is suspect:

  • It’s debatable whether Cristiane is a real person at all, or just a group of scammers. Some evidence, such as this interview, show a real person (and several of the plagiarized books are on the bookshelf above her laptop), but the name and images might just be a fake persona.
  • One ghostwriter who worked with Cristiane has said they were given “mishmashed scenes that needed “expanding” … Now I can see that it’s very possible those were plagiarized scenes that she was hoping a ghostwriter would change enough to make unrecognizable.” Others have made similar statements.
    In other words, the suspicion is that Cristiane gathered the plagiarized snippets and told the ghostwriter to make “her ideas” a story—the opposite of her claim of innocence. Especially as other ghostwriters have chimed in with how the copy/paste method makes no sense for how they work.
  • Even if the ghostwriter she worked with was actually a scammer/plagiarist themselves, that doesn’t change how Cristiane is solely—and legally—responsible for the work she published under her name. Legitimate authors who use ghostwriters get strict contracts, read the work for quality, and often check for plagiarism themselves (at the very least with the free plagiarism checker through Grammarly).

Wait…Is Ghostwriting Fiction Books a Thing?

The vast majority of authors write their own work. I, for one, am too much of a control freak to do anything else. *grin* However, ghostwriting is not unheard of or considered a scam on its own.

Why the #CopyPasteCris scandal isn't about ghostwriting... Click To TweetMany readers are aware that ghostwriting exists in the celebrity and/or memoir categories, but we can also think of work-for-hire under a single pen name (Carolyn Keene for Nancy Drew, etc.), carrying on after an author’s death (V.C. Andrews, Robert Ludlum, etc.), or publishing for a brand (James Patterson). Other authors might use ghostwriters due to physical disabilities, a publisher moving up impossible deadlines, etc.

In most cases, the authors provide ghostwriters with character sketches, plot points, story outline, story bible, etc. There’s valid debate of whether (or how much) an author’s use of ghostwriters misleads readers—and that’s a question for those doing the hiring, not those doing the ghostwriting—but ghostwriting and ghostwriters aren’t the issue in this situation.

Legitimate ghostwriters are professionals, just as much as some authors freelance edit on the side. When wearing my developmental editor hat, I’ve occasionally rewritten whole scenes, reordered a story’s plot points, and reworked (or created from scratch) the final chapter or two for my clients (all in suggestion form, for the client to keep or adapt as desired). Helping authors realize their vision for their story idea isn’t the issue.

Legitimate ghostwriters would never plagiarize. The problem here is the plagiarism.

The Unhealthy State of Publishing

For as long as there have been published books, there have been plagiarists. Some people want the shortcut. Or don’t want to do the work themselves. Or don’t care about hurting the original author. Etc., etc.

The romance genre is popular, with the most readers and the most sales. That makes the genre a target for scammers looking to cash in, but that popularity, especially with a fair number of voracious readers, also means the chances of being caught plagiarizing are higher.

Plagiarism didn’t start with Amazon. However, the current state of publishing pressures authors like never before and actually encourages shady behavior:

  • Amazon rewards authors who release every month—which is an inconceivably insane release schedule for 99% of writers—by keeping their name in the New Release lists and often including extra promotional consideration.
  • Within the Kindle Unlimited system, the All-Star bonuses paid out for the highest number of page reads led scammers to game the system with book-stuffing, including multiple books in a single file.
  • Even outside KU, the problems with visibility and discoverability lead authors to pay for reviews and clicks (click farms), figuring they’ll make up the money in higher sales.

Marketers Gaming the System Don’t Care about Writing

Whole communities of people interested more in the quick buck than quality writing brag about making money—without ever writing a word. They create false personas left and right, spreading stories out between pen names to reduce suspicions when they release every few days or weeks.

Of course they’re using ghostwriters, but not the legitimate kind. They’re paying someone—anyone—as cheaply as they can, without a care for whether the results are plagiarized or not.

(And when I say cheap, I mean $5 for 5000 words. That’s $100 for a full-length book, which is obviously not a professional wage. Who’s going to write a real book from scratch—at least several weeks’ worth of work—for $100? No one good.)

Their “success” is a house of cards ready to fall. But when one pen name falls, they simply close up shop on that persona and focus on their other names, relying on the same shady techniques that led to #cockygate.

Unfortunately, real authors are stuck having to compete against them, so those gaming the system shift the norms of what it takes to succeed.

As Kilby Blades says in that last link:

“The real losers here are authors writing great books at human speed—authors whose books don’t get bought because they’re less visible. Authors who deserve to make the big lists, but never do. There are also larger ecosystem implications. Major publishers are losing ground to Amazon sensations that seem to come out of nowhere. The question is: how many out-of-nowhere authors are even real?”

Amazon Rakes in Money, Not Caring about Readers

Just as we saw with #cockygate, Amazon doesn’t discourage scammers, and as I mentioned above, they often encourage shady behavior. Amazon could do so much if they cared about protecting readers, but their site is being invaded by counterfeit items across the board.

Pick any non-book product now, and we might find a single listing for multiple sellers of a product. Guess what? Some of those sellers are shipping counterfeit products but relying on the positive reviews of the other sellers to bring in money. The real sellers can’t do a thing to stop the counterfeiters piggybacking onto their listing and can only watch as their ratings and reviews tank with the poor quality counterfeit products, as most reviewers don’t specify which vendor was listed in the “Sold By” detail.

For books, Amazon could do far more to protect readers (and authors) from plagiarized work. They could use a program like TurnItIn to verify originality. They could flag accounts with several authors using a single payment method (like several personas registered to a single user and/or one bank account) and then watch for indications of system gaming and punish the scammer behind the whole operation (such as taking back royalty payments).

They could change the rules that the scammers game, such as how they reward prolific authors. Or any other of a dozens ways the scammers game the system.

What Can Authors and Readers Do?

No one has time to do a background check on every author before buying or reading their book. However, there are things we can do and flags we can watch for…

Both readers and authors can:

  • check their bookshelves for any by Cristiane Serruya. If you find any, demand a refund from the retailer due to plagiarized material. (Amazon’s 7-day limit for refunds might not apply in cases of fraud.) Not only will you get your money back, this might encourage Amazon to check published books for plagiarism issues.
  • watch out for plagiarized sections in books you read
  • notify the author and/or their agent/publisher if you find plagiarism—screenshots are especially helpful. Many eyes working together are better than using just our own. If even a blurb on Amazon sounds too familiar, let the author know.
  • report scammers/plagiarists to Amazon, such as through the book page’s “Feedback” and/or “violates a copyright” sections (We can report low quality, scammer-style mishmash writing too, just like how Amazon wants to know about egregious typos.)
  • keep our ears open for others calling out scammers to know who to avoid
  • help spread the word about other scams and victims (others have been victimized by plagiarist scams before this, but they lacked Courtney’s platform to get attention)
  • ensure we don’t support scammers—don’t buy their books, read them through Kindle Unlimited, or promote their work
  • support authors victimized by plagiarists by buying, reviewing, and/or promoting their work
  • use Amazon’s Look Inside sample to do a Google search before purchasing, checking for quality and plagiarism issues
  • watch out for other scammer behavior, such as “book stuffing” or offering gifts to reviewers (Twitter thread on how to spot scammers and Twitter thread on how scams are often related)
  • learn flags that might indicate a scammer—see below…

Authors (and industry people) can:

  • avoid legitimizing the methods of scammers by not inviting them to conferences or holding them up as experts, by pushing back against teachings that claim editing or quality writing (or even writing our own books) is for suckers, and by establishing rules for qualifications of memberships and recognition awards (such as, should ghostwritten books be eligible for awards?), etc.
  • register for copyright protection—In the U.S., all original writing is automatically covered by copyright, but we can’t sue for damages unless the work is registered.
  • set up Google Alerts for phrases from our books
  • watch out for clients who might be scammers, especially those with consistently quick release schedules, always need insanely fast turnaround times, don’t seem concerned about quality, etc. (Here’s a note from one of Cristiane’s editors for insight.) Specifically, ghostwriters and editors can check submitted writing for plagiarism (again, Grammarly’s check is free).

Additional Red Flags to Watch For

As mentioned in the lists above, we can watch out for plagiarism and the other types of shady behaviors, but what else might indicate a plagiarist-type of scammer?

  • Quick Release Schedule:
    As I said before, most real authors aren’t releasing a book a month. However, a quick release schedule doesn’t always indicate a scammer, as they might be releasing shorter books or ones they’d “banked” by completing in advance or simply be fast writers.
    But even naturally fast writers are likely to maintain a quick release schedule for a while but then take a month off to avoid burn out. So a long-term, unvarying quick release schedule of novels would definitely be suspicious.
  • Uneven Writing Voice and/or Quality:
    Scammers using whoever they can get on the cheap on their quick schedule won’t look for quality or consistency of writing voice when choosing ghostwriters.
  • Lack of an Authentic Platform:
    • How long have they been active on Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads?
    • Do they interact with others beyond sales mode?
    • Are they friends—real friends—with anyone we know or trust?
    • Have others met them in person?
    • Are there candid shots of them on Facebook?
    • Are they members of a writing group like RWA?
    • Do they have a blog and sound reasonable?

Any of these red flags could exist for legitimate reasons. Fast writers do exist. Authors might have legitimate reasons for using ghostwriters. Some authors avoid in-person events or photos for gender, race, or other reasons. Etc., etc. However, a red flag can point to situations where we should take a closer look, maybe do some searches or deeper checks.

Final Thoughts

What red flags can we look for to avoid scammers? Click To TweetWe have to look out for each other because authors and readers are both hurt by the scammers. Readers pay money, expecting decent quality. They want to believe that hundreds of glowing reviews must be legitimate. When those aren’t true, money, time, and trust is wasted.

For authors, Abby Wheeler speaks for too many writers in her thread when she says:

“TBH, as someone who is still fairly new, I feel like I picked the wrong business. … I can’t churn out a book a month and I don’t have the money to Market myself, so why bother? … Maybe I should…give up on being an indie author. I can’t compete in this sharktank”

Believe me, I understand. I haven’t been motivated to advertise or do much promotion in this crazy system because it feels like it would be a wasted drop in the bucket in comparison.

At the same time, I know what I do have control over—my storytelling. So if I can avoid comparing my levels of “success” to others, I can be happy with the readers I do have. I can act like a professional when it comes to quality, but try to chill like a hobbyist writing for fun when it comes to rankings and sales numbers.

No matter our situation, at the end of the day, I hope we can feel that our writing—even when not seen by as many readers as we deserve—is good for the world. A reader might need to read the message of our story, or see their situation echoed in our story world, to feel heard and valued. If our writing helps just one reader turn around a crappy day, maybe it’s worth it. *smile*

Had you heard of this plagiarism scandal? Have you seen scammers or books that might be from scammers in your Amazon searches? What do you think of the various scandals and scams or about the issues surrounding ghostwriting? What would you suggest to Amazon to address the problems? Do you have any other advice or red-flag tips to share?

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[…] you might also like to read this excellent post by paranormal author Jami Gold, which summarizes the story, validates the plagiarism, upholds the […]

Julie S
Julie S

Ohhhh, so this is what happened? I heard about it Second-hand via a writer who was vague-book accused indirectly of being a hack fake writer. She’s one of those faster writers, and was really upset.

Thank you for clarifying what was going on.

Colleen
Colleen

Mentioning #cockygate. That author just released another book and teased about doing a memoir of what happened from her POV.

Nicolas Nelson

Alright, this is the fourth time in four days that I’ve seen #cockygate in these #copypastecris blogposts. I’m going to look it up so I know what’s going on there too.

Amanda K
Amanda K

Seems like an awareness movement is in order. As a beginner author, I thank you for the advice and links.

Sieran

Alas. There was a Chinese book series I really enjoyed, only to find out some years later that almost all of the books (save a few chapters), were copy-and-pasted from another author’s work… What??

Donovan Quesenberry
Donovan Quesenberry

WOW. BTW, the graphics on your posts are getting better and better. Kudos. Primary reason I am writing a reply to your post is I had a parallel experience and was wondering if there is a way where a writer can have some type of tool that will warn of similar scenes? I don’t even know if that is possible. But what if someone makes a mistake and writes a parallel scene? Just got around to reading this blog. Like…Wow. Quite frankly, I just never even thought about plagiarism, I guess because I never though anyone would want to copy my writing. Then I started thinking about how SiFi reuses the same themes and tech over and over. Currently working on a new book, SiFi, and attempted to develop a new way of FTL (faster than light). But some of the terms are the same like warp, jump, integral, square root of negative one. Stuff like that. That in itself isn’t plagiarism, but, seriously, I didn’t come up with these terms. So…. Anyway, at our critique group I discussed my opening chapter, space ships, etc. and another David Weber fan (I love David Weber) pointed out that the sequence of scenes was similar to one of his early novels called, “The Troll”. I almost freaked out. Then I read your blog. Then…freaked out again. I re-looked at The Troll, and the sequence isn’t the same. But the sequence is close. Hum… It’s just that, there are only so many ways…  — Read More »

Tinthia Clemant

I have a list of comments I’d like to make but I’ll stick to two: 1. I hope this doesn’t turn into a quest by readers to expose as many authors as they can. As you stated, if we write in a specific genre, there will be crossovers. I, myself, have searched for other works containing phrases I believed I created and have found them in multiple books. Those of us who write romance love ‘broad shoulders and narrow waists’ on our heroes. However, as you stated, that isn’t what’s going on with the copying of multiple paragraphs.

2. I teach college science and I have to report that many people are of the mindset if it’s on the internet it’s free. I have students handing in work that, when I run the text through a program, come back clearly not their words but, hold onto your butts (oops), seats, the college turns a blind eye. Why? Because the students are customers and the customers are always right.

You are so right to suggest copyrighting our works but that won’t protect us from pirates and scammers. And yes, Amazon does reward the book pushers who crank out crap each and every month. I know a few authors who publish four books a month! 60,000 word books! I’m not going to scan their books for plagiarism, that’s the publisher’s job.

The world is changing. As always thank you for a great article. 🙁

Nicolas Nelson

I have one foot in academia too, and every week it feels like I’m fighting for natural language (vs. overly erudite academese) and against plagiarism and its close cousin, misattribution. And its ugly twin, “thesaurusation” (when someone, usually with a poor command of English, copies and pastes a passage and then goes through it carefully changing every verb and noun to a randomly selected “synonym” from a thesaurus).

But the world may be changing for the better. This is a huge opportunity for Grammarly or Turnitin or Copyscape (etc.) to win contracts with major on-demand publishers, and even traditional publishers and imprints of all sizes. Since there’s money to be made, and certainly a fuss being made, we really might see a sea change against plagiarism. Or at least a systemic change that makes life a bit more challenging for the plagiarists, scammers, and content mills.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks.
Nora Roberts has a good post too, starting with how she says Janet Dailey plagiarised her years ago and now this Brazilian scammer.
Amazon does hold earnings over for two months, so get in there and report if you find an issue. If the KU doesn’t make money for these people they will stop using it to plagiarise.

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[…] so often a plagiarism scandal rocks the writing world. Jami Gold looks at what authors and readers can learn from #copypastecris, the latest scandal to erupt, and Alison Flood delves deeper into the murky world of […]

Nicolas Nelson

First, thanks so much, Jami, for posting this and for all the other hard work you do for all of us. Now to Abby Wheeler’s sense of despair: it’s not what it seems! You truly do not need to “churn out a book a month” and you don’t need to have a huge ad budget to market yourself. It’s only those who play indie publishing as if it is merely a numbers game that make it seem like a “sharktank”. It’s honestly not. Yes, one part of it is a “numbers game” in a way: the idea of a marketing “funnel.” True, the more people go in the top, the more sales you’ll eventually make out the bottom. But there are two completely opposite approaches to the funnel. Think of it like selling socks. The “sharktank” is populated by folks who crank out formulaic stuff that isn’t original or truly excellent but at least it’s out there, and looks okay. These folks are selling white tube socks. Sure, there’s a huge market for white tube socks, but to win a decent chunk of it, you need to mass-produce those socks and spam them all over the place. Because most people will want white tube socks sooner or later, but no one cares where they buy them: they look for serviceable-looking tube socks at the lowest possible price, at some sort of attractive bargain. They buy the socks and promptly forget where they bought them. Or at least they have no…  — Read More »

Nicolas Nelson

TL:DR— the “shark tank” of Amazon rankings, KU bonuses and clickfarms isn’t the only way to make it as an author. Indie authors were able to build strong fanbases before Kindle Unlimited, and we can do it now too. You do you, and find people who love what you do: not all of them haunt the Amazon New Releases lists. It’s hard work, but so is the shark tank. I can’t win in the shark tank, so I’ll play this other fanbuilding game that I can win, instead.

(…but with that said, I’m all for taming the shark tank, too!)

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[…] you and I can implement right now. In the interest of full disclosure and proper attribution (!), I have adapted these from the amazingly helpful Jami Gold, paranormal […]

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