Copyright vs. Plagiarism

In the comments on the last post I made about copyright, onereasonableperson asked about plagiarism and how that fits into all of this. For example, can you plagiarize an idea or is it only plagiarism when you copy someone’s exact words (which is generally where copyright comes into play).

I had my own gut feelings on the matter, which is that you really need to be copying words not just taking an idea and putting your own riff on it, but I also knew that there have been some pretty big scandals that alleged plagiarism that weren’t for exact word-by-word copying. So I went digging.

(And I’m hoping that Dave Higgins, who is an actual lawyer, will jump in on the comments here with some further insights. When in doubt, listen to the lawyer.)

Here’s what I came up with:

Plagiarism is not a legally defined term. It is an ethical and moral issue and generally defined within the context of an institutional code of ethics. For example, in academic writing using the ideas of another academic without acknowledging their contribution is a big no-no. Hence the large number of footnotes and citations in that kind of writing.

(See Wikipedia.)

Because it’s an ethical issue not a legal issue, the definitions of plagiarism do in fact include ideas. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of what it means to plagiarize:

“to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : use (another’s production) without crediting the source” or “to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source”

The problem is, this is easier alleged than dealt with, especially in trope-heavy genres like romance or LitRPG. When does it move from following a standard progression of story elements to essentially copying the creativity of another?

When this question came up on the other post, my immediate thought was that Cassandra Clare had been sued at one point by Sherrilyn Kenyon for “plagiarism” for essentially too much similarity in terms of story elements between their series. I found an article about it in Slate that you can see here.

But when you go look at the actual court filing, which is posted here, you’ll find that the actual lawsuit alleged copyright and trademark infringement that impacted the value of Kenyon’s property (goodwill).

So while the ethical allegation was one of plagiarism and that’s what showed up in headlines when the case was filed, the legal allegation had to be for copyright and trademark infringement because those are the legal standards that come into play.

And, to add to this point, you can see in this post here on Clare’s website that the copyright portion of the case was eventually dropped from the suit (likely because there was no word-for-word copying that occurred, but that’s just my personal speculation).

Also, according to that post, the trademark portion was eventually settled. In other words, it wasn’t litigated and so can’t be used in any way to show a point where common elements between novels or the marketing of those novels becomes grounds for a trademark violation.

You can see this copyright vs. plagiarism issue play out again in the recent situation involving Cristian Serruya. Here’s a post where Courtney Milan (a highly competent lawyer in addition to being a talented author) tells other authors how to address the situation.

Note that the first item recommends making a report of an ethics violation to a membership organization (RWA) where Serruya is a member. But that the second item goes back to copyright.

In the Serruya case there was word-for-word copying of other’s works, so that made it very clean.

If there hadn’t been word-for-word copying then I suspect that would’ve made the legal basis for challenging her very difficult, but she would’ve still been crucified in the court of public opinion because authors and readers don’t appreciate seeing someone take someone else’s work and try to pass it off as their own.

I remember a situation a few years back where someone had taken an erotic short story and rewritten it in their own words, but kept everything else about the story the same. (I honestly thought the rewrite was better, but that’s just me.) It wasn’t a copyright violation. It wasn’t a trademark violation. But it didn’t matter because it upset a large pool of authors who made it their mission to go after that author until the book was taken down. (And the author name probably permanently blackballed.)

There was another situation a few years back related to an author who’d done very well in urban fantasy and then someone came along and published a book that basically copied the intent and format of their blurb, named the main character after the other author, and copied elements of the other author’s book. Once again, lots and lots of uproar over that one. It didn’t destroy the second author’s career, but it certainly blackened their name. I looked just now to see if there was a lawsuit filed and am not finding anything, although I know the first author did discuss doing so and that their publisher’s legal team was involved but I can’t even find discussion of it now, so I assume that one was settled as well.

Heck, I’ve run into this one myself where someone took a blurb on one of my books and basically switched the words around just enough to not be copying what I’d said while still saying the exact same thing. If I’d had a big, voracious following for that book it would’ve been ugly for the person who did that. Because I didn’t they just got the side-eye from me.

So bottom line for an author: Legally it’s going to come down to copyright, trademark, or, as Dave mentioned in the other post, moral rights. Ethically and in the court of public opinion it’s probably best to find your inspiration from a wide enough variety of sources that your book doesn’t look like a thinly veiled copy of another’s work.

An Unforeseen Challenge

I’m working on my third cozy at the moment, but earlier this week I found myself stuck and unable or unwilling to move forward with it. The reason behind that is what I find the most interesting…

The cozies are pure self-indulgence where the main character and her dog are very much like me and my dog if we were to live in the Colorado mountains and trip over dead bodies every time we turned around.

And it occurred to me as I was writing this most recent one that I was giving the dog in the books a better life than I was giving my own dog. The dog in the books has friends to play with and a stream to wallow in and gets far more attention from people than my poor dog who is always sleeping away in the hall while I write.

It stopped me cold. Because I was like, “Why am I giving this fictitious dog a better life than I’m giving my own dog?” So I spent a lot of the next couple of days hanging out outside with my pup and reading while she watched the world go by rather than locking myself away in my office and writing.

I can’t do that all the time, of course, or else the bills won’t get paid, but I figured sometimes you have to step back from the fake reality you’re creating and pay attention to the real world around you and the actual people (and dogs) that you love.

Launching a New Book

I published a novel yesterday. New pen name so new website, etc. And it got me thinking about launches and indie wisdom around book launches.

There’s this almost fanatical belief in indie circles that books start where you launch them and then fall from there. Lots of people are familiar with the idea of the 30 day and 90 day cliffs on Amazon. (The way that works is that basically after 30 days many authors see a sudden and significant drop in sales which gets even worse at 90 days.) A lot of people build their careers around this concept.

This is where the rapid release idea comes from. The reasoning behind it is that you always want to have a book in the 90 day window, if not the 30 day window, because your sales will just crash and burn after that.

If you follow this model you launch at 99 cents, throw as much advertising money as you can at the book early on, and try to get it as high in the rankings as possible and hold there as long as you can. You then switch over to a higher price when the book’s rank starts to drop and hope to make up for all that early ad spend while the book is plummeting back to earth. If you’re lucky, the book gets sticky somewhere up there but never near as high as your highest high.

This model is a bit like a hamster wheel. You have to stay in motion because you have to keep producing books so you’re always in that 90-day window.

It’s a model I don’t do well with. And one I don’t follow. Now, granted, I am not a six-figure author, so keep that in mind. But I am making a living wage at this at this point.

So what model do I follow?

I publish, let people know it’s out there, turn on AMS ads, and see if the book sinks or swims. And by sink or swim I mean, does it earn more from sales than I’m spending on ads? If so, I try to scale those ads. Some books can scale, some can’t.

The books that can scale are the “winners”, the ones that don’t make more than ad spend are the “losers”, and the ones in between are the “forgettable ones”.

Taking this approach means that for a lot of my books I don’t see them hit peak sales for months after release. For example, I published Excel for Beginners and Intermediate Excel last September. They didn’t peak until March of this year, so six months after release. And, actually, in September of this year they returned to that March level, so they may not have peaked yet. It’s quite possible I will see my best sales income from those titles in a year or two as word of mouth and reputation spread.

And I’m okay with that. Because I’m trying to write “evergreen” books. If I do this right, my fantasy novels should be as readable and appealing to readers five years from today as they are today. Same with my Excel guides.

(You’d think with a guide that’s related to something like Excel that continues to evolve that this wouldn’t be the case, but honestly the basics of Excel have been pretty consistent for twenty years except for the complete change in interface that came with Excel 2007. And even that didn’t change the Ctrl shortcuts or terms that were in use.)

With evergreen books that can still be read years later, you can slowly have word of mouth spread throughout a reading community and bring in sales for you for months or years. Or, like with the Excel guides, if you’re hitting a need you can continue to hit that need for years to come as long as you’re taking steps to make sure new readers know those books exist, like AMS ads.

Now, I will say that one way my approach makes me vulnerable is that, because I don’t seek out reviews early on, if a book does start to do well and doesn’t have a lot of reviews there are people out there who will hit it with a bad review to stop that momentum. I had that happen with one of my romances a few years back. (It was obvious because the review said something that romance readers hate that wasn’t part of the book and it came at a time when that book was climbing the charts.)

So maybe a hybrid launch version is best. Get some early reviews to protect against that sort of thing but then let the book ride on its own momentum.

All I know is that for me doing big launches, which I have tried once or twice, never comes out well. So I far prefer the slow build approach. This is why all of my novels have made more in later years than the year they were launched.

But as with everything, YMMV. Just wanted to share that there can be a different approach and a different sales trajectory.

 

 

Why You Wait

In a blog post earlier this year I mentioned that some advice had been given at a conference to not even advertise until you have at least three books out. And I objected to that advice. Because in this climate just publishing a book and not advertising it means selling that book to your friends and family only (which will mess with your also-boughts, assuming those continue to exist) and then not seeing any sales until you do finally advertise. And with the Amazon cliffs at 30/60/90 days, that means an uphill battle to get sales and movement when you do start to advertise.

(If you’re going to do that, might as well hold back the books and publish all three within a very short period of time. Either all at once or a few weeks apart with clear pre-orders up.)

My argument was that putting out a book that doesn’t sell is soul-crushing and will lead to feelings of failure that make it that much harder to keep going. And I do still stand by that.

I have also said more than once that I think I am a good enough writer that people will keep reading the rest of my books if they’re there and available, but not such a good writer that people will wait for me for years and come back when my next book is out.

Which means that the more sales I get early on, the worse that is for my long-term success. Because if I get 1,000 sales on Book 1 before Book 2 is out that’s at least 500 and maybe more readers that never buy Book 2. And if I get 1,000 sales on Book 2 before Book 3 is out that’s 750 or more readers that never read Book 3.

So it’s a fine tension you have to live with. Do I get sales now to feel good about myself and stay motivated to keep writing? Or do I wait and get sales later when I have a better chance of sell-through and converting a casual reader to a fan? Not an easy choice to make.

I did this chart yesterday of Book 2 and Book 3 sales on my fantasy series to illustrate this point. It’s just Amazon US and nothing from KU, but representative of my book sales.

Riders Rescue to Riders Resolve Sales

If you look at September onward you can see that things fall into a pretty consistent pattern where if people buy book 2 they also buy book 3. But that I never make up for all those people who bought book 2 before book 3 was out.

Something to think about…

(I’ll still advertise before a series is complete because I need that validation as I go along, but it’s worth reminding myself that it’s best to save the biggest push for when the whole series is ready to go.)

Let’s Talk Categories

I was having a conversation in a private group yesterday that touched on categories. In this particular case the question was about what constitutes YA and what you do with a book that doesn’t fit neatly into a category. This comes up a bit in Achieve Writing Success, too, because a lot of early novels aren’t targeted to existing categories. And if you self-publish you will soon find yourself asking, “Well, where the heck do I put this?”

So let’s break this down. Categories are a kind of short-hand that indicates to readers that they’ll get a certain emotional experience or a certain type of story.

So romance, which is one of the ones where these discussions happen often, tells the reader you’re going to read about the journey two people take to find their happily ever after together. If you put a book in romance and it isn’t about that journey, you will have disappointed readers.

Mystery says there’s going to be something that is solved, most often a murder.

Science fiction says it’s going to involve things in the future.

Fantasy says it’s going to involve things that aren’t real or possible. So magic.

YA is about a coming of age journey focused on a teen protagonist who is generally around 16 years of age.

Those are all general guidelines, but there are rarely hard and fast rules. Categories exist so that I can walk into Barnes & Noble and find the three shelves worth of books I’m interested in without having to dig through all the rest. That’s all they are. A selling tool.

And so if you can write books that fit into existing categories it will be easier to sell those books. One, people who are looking for the type of book you’ve written will be able to find it easily. And, two, people who buy books in that category will get the emotional reading experience they’re looking for.

But not all of us do that. My YA fantasy series is YA (although I prefer to think of it as coming of age fantasy which is a separate category) but it doesn’t fit into any of the provided subcategories on Amazon. It’s not sword & sorcery. It’s not really epic. It’s just a little lost.

Which is why I love AMS so much. Because I can say, “I don’t what category you want to call it, but people who like Mercedes Lacky, Kate Elliott, and Anne McCaffrey are going to like this.” And then I can target them with my ads, put that cover in front of them, with a blurb about what the story covers and let that sell the book. Do I get the people browsing categories? No. But I do get the people who like those authors and might like me, too.

In an ideal world,¬† you write to an existing category. But if you’re life isn’t ideal, like most aren’t, then you find other ways of getting your book to the right readers. CPC ads (Bookbub CPC, Facebook, AMS) are probably the best way to do that.

Achieve Writing Success Now Live

Remember that book I wasn’t planning on writing but realized how to write while walking my dog? I published it today. It has the oh-so-pretentious title of Achieve Writing Success. (Somehow Thoughts on Self-Publishing or Thoughts on Writing seemed a little too…eh.)

Interestingly, this is a book I have been trying to write in some form or another for a couple of years now. Originally it was going to be Self-Publishing 101. Except I didn’t really want to write a self-publishing 101 book. I know how I do things and I really didn’t want to cover the nitty gritty of all the different options. For example, I formatted my ebooks in Word for the first four years and then switched to Vellum. I had no interest in discussing Cailbre or Sigil or hand-coded HTML. But I felt I would have to if I did a how-to on self-publishing.

So every time I tried to write that book I stopped at about the 10K word mark. Because what I really wanted to share was some thoughts on self-publishing and, as it turns out, publishing in general.

Some of the things I’ve shared here already. Like why self-publishing shouldn’t be considered your Plan B when you fail at trade publishing. Or about how you shouldn’t let someone else control your dreams if it means that much to you to see your book out in the world.

And some I’ve discussed with folks along the way. Like the fact that it’s an error to focus solely on print books if you self-publish or to think in terms of print runs instead of POD.

I originally thought it was going to be for self-publishers but ended up gearing it towards any writer who has at least a novel under their belt, because I think some of the lessons are ones that those still on the trade publishing path really need to consider, too.

Anyway. It’s done now. Phew. No more stopping every six months to try to write a book that isn’t what I really wanted to write but that I feel needs to exist. (The bane of my existence that bad habit of mine of writing books I don’t think will sell but do think should exist.)

The Different Levels of Writing Ability

In a post the other day I mentioned that there are different levels of writing ability.

I honestly haven’t worked this one out entirely myself and I suspect there are levels I can’t see right now. As a reader I just know I like a book or I don’t. But as a writer I’ve been trying to understand why that happens. So here goes my poorly-developed theory on different levels of writing ability.

Level 1: Writing Comprehensible Sentences

The most basic level of writing ability is the ability to write well enough that someone else can understand you. Even though it’s the first level of writing ability it is also a tremendous area of knowledge that probably none of us will ever master.

At its core being a writer requires being able to convey your story (or for non-fiction, your knowledge) to another person, the reader.

That’s where things like punctuation come in. (Although it seems that punctuation and even capitalization can be optional, but let’s ignore those outliers, shall we?)

I’d put in this category sentence-level, paragraph-level, and even chapter-level skills.

I’d also argue that this is where most people focus their efforts when they think about learning how to write.

But I’d also argue that most really successful writers are not successful because of their skills in this area. Once you get to the level where others understand the story you’re trying to tell, you’re good enough in this area.

(Yes, I hear all those howls of outrage. I’m going to ignore them.)

Level 2: Telling a Cohesive and Satisfying Story

The next level involves taking all those sentences and paragraphs that work on their own and weaving them together to tell a cohesive story.

This is a huge area as well. And one where I’d say most writers that are one to two years into this fall down. They learn how to put together “well-written” sentences, but those sentences when strung together don’t lead the reader anywhere.

This is the romance novel that doesn’t end with the love interests getting together. (Guilty.) Or the adventure novel that ends with a council meeting. (Also guilty.)

(I’ll note that I fixed those issues in both of those books before I hit publish on them, though.)

It’s also the novel that wanders too far from the central theme so that the reader gets lost and finds themselves asking what story the writer was trying to tell them.

And it’s the novel that leaves five plot threads dangling at the end.

I’d argue that most authors who are trade published and most self-published authors who have a dedicated audience have mastered these skills. They tell a good story that meets reader expectations. But that when you branch out in a new direction you can fall down in this area. So a romance writer who moves into non-romantic post-apocalyptic fiction, for example, can find themselves no longer writing a satisfying, cohesive story.

It’s the one I think is most likely to require constant monitoring.

Level 3: Emotional Resonance

This is where things get murky and I can’t articulate them well. I know this one when I see it. Or more the case, when I don’t see it.

When I read a book I am trusting the author to deliver a story that is, for lack of a better term, emotionally resonant for me. It doesn’t mean people have to all be good or that everything has to turn out perfectly, but it means that the story has to be emotionally true.

This one is hard to explain without calling out specific authors who have caused reader-me rage, but I’ll try to give a few anonymized examples.

The first was a book I picked up at the airport a year or so ago. It had all the elements I should have liked. Magic, coming of age, etc. But about 3/4 of the way through that book I had literally come to hate the author for subjecting me to that book. Because underlying the entire book was an oily view of the world. A pessimistic, nihilistic worldview. And I resented that this person had shared that view of the world with me and that I’d spent two hundred pages with them and their characters before I realized it.

The sentences worked. It was well-written. Things happened like they were supposed to for that type of book. But underlying it all was this nasty take on the world that I absolutely hated. (Someone who I spoke to about the book and who also did not like it suggested that maybe this was because the writer was a literary writer writing fantasy and that there was a sneer behind all of it because the writer felt above the genre.)

Whatever the reason, the book was not emotionally resonant for me. I actively fought against the view of the world that this writer had and will never read another book by them because of that.

The second book is still so raw for me I can barely talk about it without getting angry that I had to read it. It was the second book in a series so came at a time when I felt that I knew the characters. But the characters as I knew them would not have reacted to the story situation they reacted to in the way the author had them react.

The author had one character kill another. And did it off-page so you could spend a scene wondering if that was really what had happened or not. It was flat-out manipulation of the reader, which I did not appreciate. It also deprived the reader (and the character) of the emotionally-charged scene we needed to understand why that action had to occur.

The fact that the author handled that scene that way tells me that the author did not understand the emotional side of their story or their characters.

Once more, well-written. All the sentences worked. I could argue the author had failed in some respects with the story elements as well, but it was the emotional resonance aspect  that lost me.

I think this third level is where the long-term great authors are made. Both of the examples I just gave are currently very successful authors. But I suspect as time goes on and they continue to miss at that level that less and less readers will come back to them.

I still am not articulating this as well as I would like, but I know that the authors I buy more of and go back to over and over again are the ones that can deliver on all three levels.

This is why there can be millions of books available and yet readers can feel like there’s nothing for them to read. Because it’s about more than stringing well-written sentences together.

(And I suspect there’s another level that involves themes, but I haven’t worked that one out just yet…)