#copypastecris and the sad reality of book publishing

Confused woman on telephone

I write all of my own books, and yes, in 2019, I have to actually say that so you, dear reader, can be one-hundred percent certain whose words you’re actually reading. Buy my book? Those are my words, every single one. I don’t hire ghostwriters. I don’t lift phrases, lines or paragraphs out of any other author’s books. I write it all myself. I do the best I can to give you a good story. I will never try to scam you. I only want to entertain you, to give your brain a little candy to make life sweeter. I swear.

Seems obvious, right? That’s what authors do, right? Sadly, that isn’t universally true in the untamed wild west of independent book publishing. And the dark underbelly of that world has been brought to the light once again by the most recent scandal referred to as #copypastecris. (You can search that on twitter if you want to spend the afternoon down the rabbit hole.)

To sum up, a self-published romance “author” allegedly– I say allegedly because, as a former journalist, the standard is you have to say allegedly until there’s a settlement or conviction in a court of law– stole pieces of novels by other romance novelists, repackaged them into ebooks, and sold them online as her own work. We’re not talking little bits here and there, we’re talking whole scenes and paragraphs. If you’d like to see scene-to-scene comparisons to judge the level of plagiarism for yourself, head over to Romancelandia and have a look. Even Nora Roberts, who this author plagiarized, weighed in. Check that out, too. It’s cool. I’ll wait here until you get back.

So yeah…This is the sad state of publishing in 2019. But I’m not writing this to pile on to the #copypastecris hate wagon.

I see this is an opportunity to discuss important issues in publishing. First, how the seedy underbelly burns readers and real authors. And second, why many authors feel self-publishing is still the better option, even with so many scammers out there stealing their lunches. (note: I’ve put links to more-detailed articles in each section, so you can find more info if you want it.)

First, the scammers. Here are some super common eBook scams.

Plagiarism is sadly common. The #copypastecris scandal is just the plain-vanilla type: stealing bits and pieces of others’ writing and passing it off as their own work. Other scammers have bigger balls, and outright steal entire books– content, cover, and all–and post the books for sale or free online without the author’s consent or knowledge. It might seem harmless, but it can be a career killer, as this article in The Guardian illustrates. (Especially when combined with society’s “meh” attitude to art piracy and the persistent expectation that artists should work for exposure, rather than money.)

Wait, there’s more!

A “Stuffed” eBook contains one normal-length novel followed by thousands of pages of random stuff, including unrelated books or extended newsletter articles. The goal of the book stuffer is to get people to click to the very end, so Amazon counts all the extras as legitimate “page reads” in the Amazon Kindle Unlimited program. Authors in Kindle Unlimited are paid for each page of their book people read, ergo the stuffers can steal millions of dollars in page reads payments and superstar bonuses from the KU program’s monthly money pot. This reduces the payout to real, authentic authors. Chance Carter is the poster child for this scam and here is a more in-depth description of how book stuffing works.

Catfishing isn’t just for online dating. It exists in ebook form, wherein poorly written, or ‘trash’ books, often written under pseudonyms, make the best-seller lists in online bookstores using bots and servers. Basically, catfishers game algorithms to make bad books look like bestsellers so real people will buy them. Readers end up with a crappy book, real authors lose out on a potential sale, and readers are less likely to take a chance on unknown authors and ebooks again.

This stuff goes on an on because ebook sellers (I’m looking at your Amazon) either don’t have the tools or the incentive to stop these guys.

And, as if catfishing and book stuffing wasn’t bad enough, some of these guys also sell online courses teaching other people how to run these same scams. Yay!

Given the state of things, I understand why readers are skittish. But authors are in a bad spot, too, so why do so many authors self-publish if there are so many scammers out there and readers are wary?

It’s complicated, of course, but a few things ring true.

First, traditional publishing deals aren’t what they used to be, and even already-published authors are walking away. Jane Friedman sums it up.

Just for a start, advances– the money an author is given up front for the book, as an ‘advance’ on future royalties– are getting tinier, and most authors never earn a penny more than that.

Also, publishers want to own more copyrights and for longer. It’s becoming harder to get paid extra if film options and foreign translations are sold, and harder to get your copyright back when a book goes out of print. (IMO, trad publishing is becoming work for hire at low rates.) Publishers barely help with marketing. That’s now the author’s job. Non-compete clauses stop authors from creating and selling any other work, making it harder for them to make a living writing.

Big name writers might be able to negotiate better deals, but noobs don’t have the leverage. (If you want to get technical about all the shadiness in contracts, check this out.)

When you realize you have to do all your own marketing, can’t write or sell new work, and might lose your copyright forever? Traditional publishing seems like a terrible deal. Self-publishing offers higher royalties, more freedom, and authors get to keep the copyright. It’s also fast. That’s why many of us choose to become indies. (And please, for the sake of argument, remember this is my perspective. Other authors may feel differently.)

I, like many others, wanted to be traditionally published at first. Long story, but basically the more I considered it, the more I realized it wasn’t for me. I’ve been a freelance writer since I was 18 years old, and I’ve watched my payment per article decline over time even as publications demanded more and more rights. Freelance journalism has gone from one-time rights to publish an article (meaning I could resell it eventually to someone else) to work for hire, meaning the company owned the copyright and could sell it or reuse it without paying me again. I see traditional publishers moving in the same direction. I already knew how hard that road was, so I wanted to take a different route. And so far, it’s a good fit for me.

So yes. That is my quick two cents on a complicated topic.

I wish it was better out there. I wish people who write good books were always at the top of the charts, easy to find, and were never crowded out by scammers. I wish readers were never ripped off. But that just isn’t the world we live in.

(I’d love to hear the thoughts of readers and writers on all of this, so please share your thoughts/experiences in the comments.)

With that, I want you to know that if you bought an ebook and got burned because it was hastily pieced together by a content mill, or blatantly lifted from another, more successful author’s work, I’m sorry. So so sorry. But I beg you not to give up on indie titles. There are a lot of us out there releasing good work. New, honest, original work. You’ll love it. We promise. Give us a chance, and we won’t let you down.

 

Don’t forget you can stay up-to-date on all the awesomeness around here by clicking the “follow” button on the bottom of this page. I’ve got some reasonably exciting things coming up. Book three of the Guardians of Salt Creek trilogy will be out soon, I’ll be giving my recommendations for steamy paranormal romance reads for cold winter nights, and my books will soon be available at more retail sites all over the world, so stay tuned!

 

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