The Curse of Plagiarism

The world of novels was recently rocked by a plagiarism scandal. Let’s dig in.

If you haven’t seen the #CopyPasteCris hashtag going around lately, you can get a good summary of the whole scandal here. But in brief: bestselling author Cristiane Serruya has been accused of lifting passages from dozens of other books into her own books. Some have been heavily modified while remaining recognizable, while others are quoted basically verbatim.

A wrinkle in this story is that Serruya tried to shift blame by saying her ghostwriter is the one who plagiarized. This is a twofold problem: her books are not, as far as I am aware, labeled as having been ghostwritten. Even if she was open about them being ghostwritten (which she had not been), it’s still her job to make sure the books aren’t full of plagiarism.

That brings me to what I really want to talk about: ghostwriting. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with it in my opinion, so long as it is labeled as such. It’s certainly unfair for someone to take credit (and money) for another person’s words. That said, if someone is willing to be contracted to write a certain number of words and they accept the payment for it, who is anyone else to argue?

On freelance sites like Fiverr, a common rate for ghostwriting is about a penny a word. You can get an 80,000 word novel, then, for about $800. If you have ever written anything long-form, you know that writing 80,000 words is no small undertaking. My own pace, which is pretty quick (in my opinion), is about 1800 words an hour. That’s if I’m really on a roll! If I’m having a bad day, it might be as low as 1200 or even 1000 words an hour.

But let’s be generous and say someone is capable of legitimately turning out 2000 words an hour. At a rate of a penny a word, that’s about $20 an hour. That’s not that bad of a rate, really–well above minimum wage, at least. But an 80,000 word novel would then take 40 hours, at least. And that’s just to write the first draft. It’s unlikely someone who is paying you would accept a horribly unpolished draft, so you probably have to go back and spend at least as much time cleaning it up and making it presentable. Now your hourly rate is more like $10 an hour. If the customer demands revisions, watch your return dwindle toward $5 an hour. This is just getting worse and worse, isn’t it?

If we take Serruya’s explanation at face value–that it’s her ghostwriter who did the plagiarizing–well, why is that surprising? It’s much easier to lift passages from other people’s books. Why spend a few minutes writing 300 words when you know a perfect passage in another book you could copy and paste and replace some names in within 10 or 15 seconds? Someone willing to pay a ghostwriter for something like this is probably under a tight deadline, themselves, and isn’t going to spend time reviewing it. Whoever ultimately publishes the book likely already trusts the author, and will likewise not double-check the contents for plagiarism. Voila! You now have bestselling books loaded with stolen passages.

How can this be stopped? It’s very unlikely we can stem the tide of dirt cheap ghostwriters. Frankly, these are often people just trying to get by, using what skills they have to make a modest living. It’s hard to imagine anyone is getting rich at a penny a word. Unscrupulous “writers” willing to pay cheap freelancers and take credit for their words should be stigmatized.

It’s possible some high-profile lawsuits may be necessary in order to publicly punish individuals who do this. Musicians who rip off others’ work without permission face fines in the millions of dollars. It shouldn’t be any different for writers who feel they are unaccountable and can simply plagiarize as they see fit.

Short of large fines, people who do this need to be called out and ostracized. It shouldn’t be easily forgiven or forgotten. Writing is work–sometimes very difficult work, and lots of rework–and it deserves more respect than to be blithely ripped off by someone else to make a buck. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love cultures of sharing and cooperation and mutualism. The ideals of open source software, for instance, are admirable even if they often fall short in practice. But plagiarism is something else: it is the wanton duplication of someone else’s thoughts as your own original work. I thought everyone was taught in grade school that this was wrong, but it seems that for some, the message didn’t stick.