Elizabeth: The Ghost in the Machine

I may not Tweet or follow anyone on Twitter but, thanks to my Facebook feed, I often see odds and ends from the Twitter-sphere that catch my attention and provide fodder for blog posts.

Back in June there was #CockyGate, where an author registered and received a trademark on the word “cocky” and then went after other authors for using the word in their titles.  Months of outrage and lawsuits ensued before she eventually surrendered her trademark registrations and withdrew her lawsuit(s).  On the positive side, many people now know a lot more about copyright and trademark law than they used to, including the fun fact that a book’s title cannot be copyrighted.

Early this year the #CopyPasteCris plagiarism scandal reared its ugly head (as I posted about here).  In that case astute readers identified what appeared to be the blatant “recycling” of bits and pieces of other authors’ published stories.  The list of authors whose work was thought to have been plagiarized read like a Who’s Who of Romance – Courtney Milan Tessa Dare, Bella Andre, Loretta Chase, Victoria Alexander, Sarah MacLean, and Nora Roberts – just to name a few.  The author in question initially claimed innocence and then later blamed her ghost-writers.  She has since virtually disappeared, but the fallout and legal wrangling continues.  On the positive side, Nora Roberts is now on the warpath.

I started reading Nora’s blog after the plagiarism scandal broke and it has been eye-opening to say the least.  She has, as one might expect, a way with words and is clearly (and understandably) furious with, as she calls it, “the culture that fosters this ugly behavior.”

“Here’s a warning for anyone who’s stolen any of my work and claimed it as his/her own. I’m coming for you.”  ~ Nora Roberts

Her posts and the broader discussions on the internet have been a crash-course in Amazon algorithms, click-farms, and the dark underbelly of self-publishing.   As if self-publishing wasn’t scary enough.

“And to readers, those of you who keep pushing for more and cheaper books, just stop it. Writing, real writing, is work, it takes time and talent and effort.” ~ Nora Roberts

The topic of ghost-writers has come up a number of times in the discussion.  Not the folks who write celebrity auto-biographies and the such, and not the Carolyn Keene (Nancy Drew) type work-for-hire writers either, but rather those who are helping generate the content that scammers are then using to game the system, to the detriment of all of the legitimate authors out there.

I know a number of people who are prolific ghost-writers.  They do it for many reasons – frequently to supplement their day jobs and to make ends meet.  Some are writers themselves but choose to ghost-write and get immediate payment for their work, rather than self-publish their own stories which may or may not generate timely, measurable income.

I get it.

But who are the people are who are hiring these ghost-writers and what they are doing with the books once they’re written?  Are they using them to game the system somehow or do they just want to be “published” so much that they’re willing to pay to put their name on something someone else wrote or is there some other reason?  Again, there is legitimate ghost-writing and not everyone who hires a ghost-writer is doing it for nefarious reasons, but how can you tell which is which?

“To those publishing ‘books’ using these tactics, whether it’s hiring ghosts then slapping your name on a book, whether it’s stealing work someone else sweated over, you’re thieves and liars. Every one of you. And none of you will ever be a writer.” ~ Nora Roberts

The bottom line, and a rather discouraging one at that, is that there are people out there that are opportunists, out to make a buck however they can regardless of who they negatively impact in the process.

One can only hope that, now that some of these issues are coming to light, there will be some changes for the better.

One can hope.

In the meantime, next time I’m tempted by a “free” or $0.99 book, I’m going to take the time to check out the author (website, social media, etc.) and make sure they’re a real person who has written a real book before clicking “buy”.  I may not have a solution to the scamming issue(s), but I can certainly try to avoid compounding the problem.

9 thoughts on “Elizabeth: The Ghost in the Machine

  1. I saw on Twitter yesterday that there’s a group of authors who write Motorcycle Club stories that swap books. That is, they take a book one of them has written (or commissioned from a ghost writer or whatever) and publish under one title and author. After a few months, when sales die away, she takes it down and passes it on to another author in the group, who republishes it under her name (or pseudonym) and another title. They repeat this ring-around-the-Rosie process, selling fans of Motorcycle Club stories the same book over and over. The only title I remember is Rafe and it’s not currently up on Amazon.

    I am outraged.

    • Found it on the PAN loop (so maybe it wasn’t Twitter):

      Savage Vow by April Lust
      Published as Rafe by Ellen Harper
      Published as Monster by Heather West

      Hellfire by April Lust
      Published as Wed to the Devil by Ada Stone

      Mortar by April Lust
      Published as A Wicked Vow by Zoey Parker

      And these are actually both up on Amazon simultaneously, a violation of the Zon’s terms of service, about which they appear to be prepared to do exactly nothing:
      Lawless by Heather West
      Devil’s Blaze Zoey Parker

      Grrrr.

      • That is horrible! And a horrible disservice to real fans. I remember when Baen Publishing did something not nearly as bad: they’d collect two or three books and sell them as an omnibus under a different name. It was useful when I came late to a series because I could get three-for-the-price-of-one. But when it came time to buy the rest of the books in the series, I had to be very, very careful to make sure I wasn’t buying something I already had. At that time, I bought in bookstores during my very short trips home to the US, so I didn’t always have time to check carefully. “A new Lackey?? HOORAY! Into the basket it goes!” And then I’d get home to Japan and discover that no, it wasn’t a new Lackey, but two old ones.

        When something is republished (and that goes for new covers, as well as new titles), I hope you all make it very clear what it first appeared as.

    • Jeanne, I saw that as well and was outraged too. A twitter post about that is what eventually turned into this post.

      The author Shiloh Walker has a lot of information about it on her web page.
      https://www.shilohwalker.com/website/2019/02/hot-takes-part-who-knows-so-you-want-to-know-how-to-spot-the-scammers/

      It is disappointing that Amazon is not more pro-active about that kind of thing. You’d think with all of modern technology that they could do an auto-compare of newly added eBooks to make sure they don’t have a content match of – say almost 100% – with an already posted book under a different author name.

      • I suppose that these recycled books are mostly “read” by click farms, as real readers would surely get annoyed by being repeatedly fed the same content. Click farms “read” fast, and they don’t care about quality or originality. If I’m right, then only the Zon can fix this problem. With their technical capabilities they could easily tackle it, were they so minded.

        The current, broken system inconveniences human readers as well as hurting real authors. One suspects Amazon takes more notice of readers (customers) than individual authors (suppliers), so it’s good that some readers are starting to get vocal about the problem. Though one last (depressing) thought is that I believe Amazon’s biggest profit-generators are to be found elsewhere in its vast ecosystem. So while I’d love to think they’d regard this problem as a priority, I’m not holding my breath.

        • I think you’re right on that last bit, Jilly. Until it’s a financial pain-point for them, I don’t think Amazon will be in a big rush to make changes. Although, realistically, they are probably paying out a lot of money to the click-farm-scammers that they could reduce if they just made some basic changes.

        • That’s also part of the problem. They are paying money to the scammers out of the pool of KU reader subscription money that’s divided among KU authors according to “pages read” (at least, that’s general idea). So if Amazon didn’t pay the scammers, they’d pay the same money to legit authors instead. Gain to legit authors. No gain to Amazon. However, the scammers recycle a good chunk of their ill-gotten gains back into Amazon ads. So the Zon gets a lump of the pool money back again as ad revenue, probably much more than they would if they split the loot among a bunch of regular indies. I think. Maybe. It’s hypothetical, and noobody knows except Amazon, but it’s possible that to close down the scammers might be a net loss to Amazon rather than a zero sum game or a gain. It’s all very depressing.

        • True. It highlights the fact that there are a lot of services out there – Amazon, Facebook, etc. – that work great as long as everyone is trying to be fair and decent and play by the rules. But when those boundaries are broken, implementing changes is a real problem.

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