Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic
Bots and Spammers are routinely purged.
I'm enjoying a leisurely reread, after many, many years, of this classic from 1749.
The Wikipedia entry even gives me the word count! I'm way behind on my goal of ten million words for the year, but this will add exactly 346,747 to my tally.
This is going to be a long essay and possibly a rambling one. Bear with me, and fasten your seatbelts.
As most of you know, another "author" has been accused of copyright infringement. As of the time I begin the post, 24 books and/or authors have been tagged as having material -- lines, paragraphs, plot elements -- lifted by Brazilian lawyer and would-be romance novelist Cristiane Serruya. The list began with Courtney Milan and has spread,
(Apologies for crappy screen shot,)
Cristiane Serruya confessed (?) that she had purchased the books from Fiverr ghostwriters and blamed them for the infringements. According to a Courtney Milan blogpost, two or perhaps three of the ghost writers contacted her and said that Serruya asked them to flesh out texts she gave them, texts that may have been snippets taken from other books.
The final determination of what Serruya and her ghosts actually did is far less important than the fact that this scheme has been going on for years. Goodreads shows Serruya's books have been around since at least 2012.
How did Serruya get away with it all this long? Why did no one else notice these copied passages?
It's true that the readers of romance are both voracious and loyal -- and knowledgeable. We reread our favorites. We talk endlessly about books and share both our favorites and our, well, not-favorites. We read and review . . . and we remember.
But for six years, no one noticed copied material in any of Serruya's many books?
The world of indie publishing and especially Amazon indie publishing has come in for some well deserved criticism. Copyright infringement has been around almost since Kindle launched. One of my first discoveries when I learned Kindle Direct Publishing existed was a bunch of infringed books that showed up with bizarre new titles and cover art. I don't even remember how I figured out they were stolen, but they were, and the infringers were caught and the books were taken down. This was in 2012.
Amazon's "safe harbor" status under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA") basically means they are not responsible for vetting material that is published on their site. Amazon isn't the infringement police. When you upload a file, you certify that you have the rights to publish it, and that's all there is. Amazon does not check to see if you're honest.
Many people suggest Amazon should put every new Kindle document through a plagiarism detecting software. One problem with this is that copied content may be perfectly legal, whether it's an attributed passage quoted in a non-fiction book or a republished novel by the author using either a different pseudonym or their own name after previously using a pseudonym.
Amazon, however, is only a platform for publishing, not an actual publisher, when it comes to KDP. The burden therefore falls to the KDP author to declare the work is legally theirs to publish, or to the infringed/plagiarized author to discover and issue a DMCA takedown notice.
There have been copyright infringement scandals in the past. The Janet Dailey/Nora Roberts is probably the best known simply because the authors involved were so well known. I don't know how much material was copied. A few lines? A plot thread? I don't know. I've never read the books involved to compare the contents.
Is it important? Yes, it is. Copying a few lines, regardless how distinctive, is probably not going to reach lawsuit level. Lifting several long passages verbatim is going to be more problematic. Lifting numerous passages verbatim or even slightly altered is going to be very dangerous, and stealing an entire plot line is beyond question.
That last sentence describes what Sylvie F. Sommerfield did to Jan Westcott's The Hepburn in 1990. I'm briefly recapping that history to have everything in one thread.
Sommerfield's book Fires of Surrender was published by Zebra, with no one in the editorial department recognizing that the primary plot line and a huge number of individual lines were taken from Jan Westcott's The Hepburn. Westcott's novel was among those many book club editions my dad had bought in the 1950s; I had read it right about the same time I read Lord Johnnie and The Highland Hawk and Lord Vanity and The Saracen Blade, among so many others. I had read it numerous times, and it only took a quick flip through the opening pages of Sommerfield's book for me to recognize the extent of the theft.
Sommerfield at first claimed her research assistant had done it. The research assistant brought interesting details to Sommerfield, who then worked them into her own plot. The tale then morphed to the research assistant helped with the writing of the book. The next version was that Sommerfield was under extreme deadline and personal financial pressure and hired an assistant, someone she may or may not have known but who expressed a desire to be a romance novelist. Sommerfield ended up letting this person effectively "ghost" the novel, which then turned out to be plagiarized. Maybe Sommerfield did it herself, maybe not. I don't know. I suspect she was surprised that anyone recognized a book that had been published almost 40 years before, and even more surprised that Jan Westcott was still alive.
All I ever knew was that some settlement was reached between Zebra and Westcott; there was never any question that Fires of Surrender infringed. The amount of copying was just too extensive.
Whether Serruya's copyings are sufficient for a claim of infringement, I don't know. I managed to get samples of most of her Kindle books before they were taken down, as well as a couple titles that were free. I'm not well enough read in historical romance over the past, say, 15 years to be able to recognize what passages had been stolen. It also appears that Serruya took passages from historical romances and tried to drop them into contemporary stories. I don't read a lot of contemporary romance, and not the type that Serruya published -- billionaires, kings, etc.
Other readers and writers did recognize the passages, and lots of them. But that has to raise the question again: Why didn't anyone see them before now? Serruya's books have been out there since 2012!! They have hundreds of reviews on Goodreads, and did have hundreds on Amazon until the books were removed.
How can romance novels with hundreds of reviews not be discovered to be infringing on extremely well-known authors?
Someone on Twitter -- I should have grabbed a screenshot but didn't and now I don't know who tweeted it, but if I find it again I'll plug it in here -- suggested that plagiarism and infringement are rife in the indie publishing community, and someone then replied that while that may be at least partly true, it's the readers who are getting ripped off.
Well, hello, if romance readers are so loyal and so knowledgeable, why did Serruya continue to do this for six years or more?
I think the only reason she got away with it is because she wasn't in fact being read by real romance readers. Was she buying all those reviews from fiverr? Well, that's the first thing that popped into my mind.
I was in a hurry to acquire as much information Tuesday morning as I could, so I didn't check the Amazon stats on her books. I did get one, but only because the categories were inappropriate, in my opinion.
This was for one of her From the Baroness's Diary installments.
She apparently got lifetime bestselling author status by buying her way into an anthology that landed on the USA Today list. Was her contribution also filled with passages copied from other books, other real writers? I don't know. Maybe no one read her story, even though they bought it.
I tried to read a couple of the samples I downloaded this morning, but they just weren't my thing. Was the writing bad? No, not really, or at least I don't think so. Some were first person, present tense, which I really can't stand at all. One seemed to be a middle installment of a series, so I felt lost on the history of the scene set in front of me. Overall, however, I wasn't grabbed by anything, and that may in part be because I already knew about the accusations and couldn't set that aside while I read.
But two things came to mind as the Twitter discussion progressed.
One was that negative reviews are so strongly discouraged in Romancelandia in general but especially in indie- and self-publishing Romancelandia. Amazon, as a commercial site, has Federal Trade Commission guidelines they have to enforce regarding producers of competing products, so authors of similar books can't post negative reviews. And no one can issue a DMCA takedown notice except the actual holder of the copyright. So many of the reviewers and bloggers only post positive reviews, either because they don't read books they don't like or because they want the free ARCs to keep coming. There's a very strong bias in favor of good reviews, to the exclusion of more honest, more critical reviews.
The second thing that came to mind was another bias, this one in favor of better known, more financially successful, traditionally published authors. Yet one of the most blatant infringements, the Sommerfield book, was done by a bestselling, traditionally published author whose editors never caught it!
Plagiarism is plagiarism. Copyright infringement is copyright infringement. I don't care how big a name the infringer or the infringed is; it's wrong. And it needs to be treated equally regardless how big are the names involved. Sadly, if an author only sells 1,000 copies of her digital book, the chances that someone will recognize passages from that book when they're copied into another are mathematically slim.
Writers also need to educate themselves on what is and what isn't infringement. One of my writing buddies from the early 1990s had to respond to a charge of infringement because a reader complained to her publisher that there seemed to be too much resemblance between her book . . . and the recently published Outlander. About the only similarity was that both books were set in Scotland, but my friend still had to provide a statement to that effect.
Verbatim copying is verbatim copying. Is it also copyright infringement? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes maybe, sometimes it depends. If you think your work has been infringed, you need to speak with a competent intellectual property lawyer. Don't rely on friends or strangers on the internet. Also, don't be surprised if the lawyer tells you there's nothing you can do about it. Maybe the passage copied was too short to matter. Maybe the best you can hope for is that the infringer rewrites it. Maybe bad publicity will force them to take it down.
We brag about the power of Romancelandia and the millions of voracious readers, but there's a downside most people don't take into consideration. Not all readers are active on social media. Not all readers recognize the difference between traditionally published books that have gone through a commercial editing process and author-published books that are uploaded to a digital platform as first drafts.
If you read some of the reviews on Amazon, you'll still see readers wondering how a book with numerous typographical errors ever got published. These readers probably - almost certainly - don't understand that someone can write a book and immediately upload it to Kindle Direct Publishing.
The poor quality of so many author-published books has turned many romance readers away from "indie" books. You really can't blame them. And when you throw in the scandals of the Kindle Unlimited click farms and stuffed books, the problem becomes worse.
Is there then a resulting romance readership that doesn't understand what plagiarism and copyright infringement are? Are they economically restricted to reading more of the free and lower-priced Kindle books and therefore unfamiliar with the writings of authors whose traditionally-published digital editions cost $7.99 (US) and up? Does that mean one group of readers is reading the less-expensive author-published material that contains infringed material, while another group is reading the higher-priced books that are being infringed? Is the intersection of those groups too small to catch the thieves?
Is that what happened with Cristiane Serruya? Did she get away with her infringing because the people who read her books had never read Courtney Milan or Loretta Chase? (I should note here that some of Serruya's books were priced well above the usual $2.99 for author-published Kindle books.)
Are readers led to believe the five-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and various blogs because that's all there is? If we look at some of the average, ordinary not-by-Nora-Roberts romance novels, the ratings still skew high. There are generally far fewer 2- and 1-star ratings than 4- and 5-star. Is that because authors are still buying reviews? Is that because reviewers are still afraid to post critical reviews due to threats of author retaliation? Is that because bloggers are more concerned with keeping the flow of free ARCs coming and less concerned with giving readers an honest assessment?
Is it because readers no longer know what good writing looks like?
Is that the real reason someone like Cristiane Serruya got away with her scam for so long?
The list of books and authors from whom she and her alleged ghostwriters stole continues to grow, but we may never know the full extent of the thievery. How many less-well-known authors did she/they steal from? Does anyone care? Her books are gone from Amazon, so we can't check them. And who has the money and time to invest in reading them all anyway?
What Romancelandia needs is more critical reviewers who aren't afraid to call out the bad writing, so more readers learn the difference and so more authors learn they can't get away with publishing crap. Maybe then more readers will be able to read across the full spectrum of the romance genre and make it more difficult for the scam artists to copy and paste undetected.
Sylvie Sommerfield's literary theft was caught quickly; Cassie Edwards' wasn't. Cristiane Serruya's went on for years. Nora Roberts didn't hesitate to take action against Janet Dailey; Rachel Ann Nunes had to sue her plagiarist and it took four years to reach a settlement.
Infringing and plagiarizing hurt authors both emotionally and professionally, regardless how big a name they are. It's often much harder to detect the theft if the author isn't well known but that doesn't mean it's any less harmful.
Infringing and plagiarizing hurt readers, too. Readers deserve an honest read, deserve to know that the author did the work herself.
Infringing and plagiarizing hurt the industry as well. Romance fiction is still under attack after almost half a century dominating the publishing scene.
Unfortunately, infringing and plagiarizing are risks all writers take when they publish. Whether it's a pirating site that sells our books without giving us a dime or a book stuffer who crams our book into their "anthology" to get more Kindle Unlimited page reads or a Fiverr "ghost" who lifts a scene here and a scene there and pastes it all together with new names and a different POV, it's all theft. And we're all vulnerable. There's no foolproof protection against it. Registering a copyright entitles the infringed author to additional damages, but it doesn't prevent the theft in the first place.
The writing business, and perhaps especially the romance writing business, is fraught with perils. Most of us are women and there's still a social pressure on women to be more helpful, more supportive. Romance Writers of America -- perhaps the largest professional "participation trophy" organization in the world -- encourages this attitude without very much acknowledgement of the backstabbing and abuse it engenders.
Several months ago, I wrote about just a small portion of the back stabbing I experienced through RWA. I realized through today's rereading of that post just how often I'd essentially set myself up to be abused. And the same thing had happened with my artists' group. Why? Because I wanted to help others, and because I trusted them to appreciate both me and whatever little bit of help I was able to give them. Oh, sure, I'm always painted as the mean one, the jealous one, the destroying angel who kills precious snowflake writers' careers. But that's not true. As bitterly as I've raged against the very real flesh and blood demons, I'm still going to be out there looking for good writing, looking to help writers and artists. And I'm probably going to end up being hurt. A hurt nobody.
It comes with the territory. There are no guarantees of success. There are no guarantees of good reviews or good sales of either my books or my art. There is only the opportunity to try.
Stealing isn't trying. Stealing is stealing. Whether the victim is A Big Name Author or a newby who just uploaded her first KDP romance novel, stealing is stealing. Copyright infringement is a crime of willful, knowing deception. There should be no forgiveness.
(This post may be updated. Please check back for new items.)
I know there are writers out there who can bang out a book in a couple of months or even a couple of weeks. Am I envious? You bet! Sometimes their work isn't all that great, but I'm still envious, in a good kind of way. I also know it's absolutely possible, because I wrote Firefly in maybe seven or eight weeks. The story was there, just there, complete from beginning to end.
But being able to write quickly, to sustain the output the way, say, Nora Roberts does, isn't even close to what Cristiane Serruya did. I'm not even a big fan of Nora Roberts's writing, but plagiarism/copyright infringement is the theft of someone's mind. Their imagination. Their soul.
I lost my writing soul in 1996, thanks to an editor I will never forget or forgive. Twenty years later, my soul returned, and in 2016 I wrote The Looking-Glass Portrait with so much ease and fun and joy that I astonished even myself. (Now I'm stuck in another block but has a different source, so never mind.) I know what it's like to lose the muse. I know how precious the act of writing truly is.
There is not one ounce of forgiveness within me for anyone who steals another writer's words like that. No mercy, no pity, no understanding, no forgiveness. Cristiane Serruya is the worst kind of thief. If she truly is a lawyer in Brazil, I hope she is disbarred.
Person behaving very, very badly also categorizes her books to gain placement.
This is for From the Baroness's Diary III:
The description suggests it's more of a reverse harem fantasy (erotica?) novel, not a drama or play at all. But she's already total trash in my estimation.
By the way a couple of her books are Kindle freebies.
I won't even dignify this book with a single star.
After the 1990 RWA National Conference in San Francisco, I was riding to the airport in a taxi with fellow authors Connie Flynn and Patricia Potter. Ms. Potter mentioned that there had been some gossip going around the final hours of the conference regarding an accusation of plagiarism leveled at popular Zebra Books author Sylvie Sommerfield. Her latest book, Ms. Potter said, was rumored to contain verbatim passages from something called The Hepburn. I literally gasped and said, "Oh my God, The Hepburn by Jan Westcott is one of my favorite books of all time!"
Upon arriving at my destination, I headed for the nearest newstand and found a copy of Fires of Surrender for sale. Long before I'd reached the baggage claim area, I found passages -- they begin on page 15 -- that echoed with painful familiarity. Once home, I retrieved my copy of The Hepburn and began making notes. The next morning I called Romantic Times and gave them the details over the phone, then mailed photocopies of numerous pages for comparison. And by numerous, I mean 20+ from various sections throughout the books.
Eventually Ms. Sommerfield made a variety of confessions, including that under deadline pressure and personal issues, she had hired an assistant who did the actual copying. I'm not sure now, 20+ years later, whether there really was an assistant or if Sommerfield, who has now gone to her ultimate reward, did the work herself and created a ghost of a ghost.
It was not merely that text passages were copied; the main plot was lifted virtually in toto.
Supposedly, some kind of financial agreement was reached between Zebra/Kensington and Ms. Westcott, who outlived her infringer by more than a decade, but as far as I know, no details were made public.
I have copies of both books within arm's reach as I write this. If anyone wants to challenge this, I can scan and post representative pages.
Details here --
Serruya claims on her Twitter profile to be a lawyer, claims to live in Brazil. She has a lot of books on Amazon. Any given author would have to spend a lot of money to buy all of them and check against her/his own work.
This is a re-read, though it's been a long time since I first read it. So I'm just starting with the Kindle edition, to be read a bit here and there usually at night before turning the lights out.
More observations as I go along.
I still have the VHS of Tom Jones. I shall watch it tomorrow.
Books from late 1980s to early 1990s, about the same era when my mother was making the beanbag frogs.
Insomnia and an ISP with intermittent service for five hours due to scheduled routine maintenance.
Any and all comments welcome! I need all the help I can get!
The clip art is something I used 12 years ago for a holiday show, so yes, I know the cactus has lights on it. I'm in the process of looking for different clip art.
This would be printed in black & white, four to an 8 1/2 x 11 inch page, I'm not sure what kind of paper yet. My street address and email are blacked out for now but would of course be printed.
Dates are for the Friday and Saturday before the spring studio tour.
I've gone beyond hurt to furious.
Another update, because BF asked how the numbers stacked up to last year's spring studio tour. That was the group's first spring tour; they've done a total of 12 in the fall.
2018 First Spring Fling Studio Tour -- 18 studios, 61 artists
2018 12th Annual (Fall) Artists' Studio Tour -- 24 studios, 75 artists
After many artists complained of poor performance at the 2018 Fall Studio Tour, new policies were instituted to boost participation and grow the studio tours: All host studios must have at least one guest artist; host studio artists not willing/able to provide space for guest artists will not be able to host and will be assigned as guests to another studio. This is roughly equivalent in my opinion to being a vendor at a yard sale at someone else's house.
This new requirement resulted in an unknown number of artists who applied to act as hosts of their own studios being rejected as hosts. I don't know how many; I may have been the only one.
However, the new regulations did result in a boost to participation.
2019 Second Annual Spring Fling Studio Tour -- 16 studios, 57 artists
Draw your own conclusions. I've already drawn (pun intended) mine.
Part of my ongoing decluttering project is to gather up all my craft books and magazines into one central location. Right now they're scattered all over between house, studio, and workshop, to the point that I don't remember what I have any more. Not everything will show up on BL, but I have a few I want a coordinated record of in one place.
Because of a question that came up in a discussion elsewhere about this subject, I went outside and took some pictures to try to give an idea of what my property looks like and why it is the way it is in terms of the Studio Tour.
This is the entrance to the property from the road. There is ample parking along the side of the road for five or six cars (at least) at a time. During the Tour, I swing both sides of the double (outer) gate all the way open, and I usually have my car parked in front of the (inner) rolling gate so people don't think the place is locked up. Then I have ribbons or signs or something to indicate that the route to the display area is down the path to the left.
To give you an idea, there is enough space between the double gate when closed and the actual edge of the road (where I was standing to take the photo) for BF to park his van straight in perpendicular to the road with room to spare.
This is inside the double gate and looking to the left down the path to the exhibit area. I have another sign that covers up the Beware of Dog warning during the Tour.
This is further down the path approaching the exhibit area.
Further down the path are some specific rocks on display, a large piece of rainbow obsidian, a big chunk of chalcedony with fire agate from Saddle Mountain, Arizona, and a piece of peach jasper from Jerome, AZ. The weird cactus in the left foreground is called a spruce cone because the new growth looks just like an unopened green pine cone. In the upper right is a very large golden barrel cactus.
Now coming closer to the exhibit area are more interesting cactus and plants, as well as a big chunk of blue chrysocolla on an upturned ironwood log. The big stalk on the right was from an octopus agave that bloomed - and then died - last year. At the far right edge of the photo is a large blue agave that has sent up a flower spike. It would be in full bloom by the time of the spring tour; right now it's about 10 feet tall.
And this is the area under my ancient -- and possibly slowly dying -- mesquite tree where I set up my display and chat with my customers and so on.
It's not fancy or particularly elegant. I don't have a million-dollar house, just an ordinary manufactured home that shelters me and the dogs and the BF, but I guess it's not good enough for the snobs in the art group.
Past the exhibit area under the mesquite, there is additional room if I wanted to have another artist.
Here's the same space from a different angle behind the tree. It doesn't look like much right now because the spring grass has come up, and there are some weeds that need to be cut down from last year. But there is more space available, more than enough for another artist to set up a canopy, tables, grids to hang pictures, whatever.
Unfortunately, there's no shade there. And it's awkward to get to because there isn't a nice, neat path. Any customers would have to watch for the rocks, which is risky for me as the property owner, but it would also be a royal pain for the artist to have to lug all their stuff in from the driveway 100 feet or so away. There's no way even to roll a cart to that corner of the yard.
Inside the rolling gate is the front yard. There are no shade trees at all, but the total area is just about an acre, so there's plenty of room for six, eight, ten artists to set up canopies and tables and grids and whatever else, if I wanted to do it that way.
(That's Moby sniffing around under the ironwood tree. It's not big enough to provide shade.)
The property goes all the way back to the "little house" - a single-wide mobile home that the original owner's mother lived in and I now use as my actual studio -- and the workshop behind it where I have all the big equipment. That's my Blazer parked on the little house patio.
Though it's a longer walk from the front garden to the little house than to the main house, the studio does have a fully functional bathroom that could be made available to guest artists. Unfortunately, the studio is also where I have my most valuable lapidary supplies, should any of my guests choose to be dishonest. I would have to move the supplies either into the house or into the workshop, which is an annoyance and an inconvenience to me.
The point of all this, of course, is simply that forcing me to accept a guest artist would put a burden on my studio, on me, and be unfair to the guest artist. I'm perfectly happy to be here by myself. The "new rules" requiring at least two artists at every studio don't benefit me at all, not in any way. And forcing me to be someone else's guest means I'm not having a studio tour at all.
Those of you who have followed me for a while know about my trials and tribulations with my local artists group. Tonight it all came crashing down around me.
Trying to keep this as short as I can, esp. for those in other time zones ===>
The group, Artists of the Superstitions or AOTS, had scheduled a spring studio tour for the weekend of 23-24 March. Because the fall tour was not well attended, some changes were instituted by the board without discussion with or approval of the membership. One of those changes was that they wanted at least two artists at each studio -- the host artist and at least one "guest."
I have never had guest artists at my home studio because a.) I don't really have room; b.) my dogs make bathroom facility access awkward; and c.) I like being by myself.
Being by myself I have the room to put on demonstrations of how I make my jewelry, how I process the rocks, what some of the more exotic rocks look like because I have them in the yard. It's convenient for me to set up here at my house so I don't have to lug canopy and tables and so forth to another venue.
The studio tour isn't my most profitable event but it's still my favorite. I've done every single one of our twelve fall studio tours, and this would be our second spring tour.
I'm always one of the very first to sign up and pay for the events.
Yesterday I received an email from the president of AOTS that I was being assigned a "guest" artist. She is someone I have never met. I know nothing about her except her name and that she paints in acrylics. Landscapes? Flowers? Abstract? I don't know. Is she young? Old? I don't know. But she was being assigned to my studio.
I wrote back that I don't have room for another artist and I don't have bathroom facilities. because of the dogs. (The bathroom thing can be worked out, but there are issues.)
Tonight I was informed that I can no longer be a studio on the studio tour. I can be a guest at another studio ten miles away, where I do not know the other artists, where I will not be able to do demonstrations, where I will have to pack up and unload and set up on Saturday, then pack up and drive home and do it all again on Sunday.
I have done the studio tour here at my house for twelve years. I'm the single person responsible for AOTS even hosting a studio tour, because another sponsoring group dropped it in 2007 and I wanted our fledgling group to pick it up. We were only about ten members at the time, and they said we couldn't do it.
We could, and we did, me and two others.
But none of that matters.
I love the studio tour. I feel as if I've just lost my reason for doing my jewelry, playing with my stones.
BF is not very understanding. He sees it only as a business, not as something that means something more than a sale.
I'm alone here, except for him. He's not inclined to be sympathetic. The dogs love me, but they don't talk back.
I don't know what to do. None of the options -- go to the other studio, stage my own event here outside the group's sanctions (which would effectively get me kicked out of the group) -- are attractive.