So, over the last few days, a prolific M/M erotic romance writer has been outed as a multiple serial plagiarist.
Since 2010, Laura Harner has self-published 75 books. That’s not unusual in itself, and not a surefire indicator of bad-quality, slammed-out-for-the-bucks writing. I know several legit writers who can keep that pace.
But what Harner has done at least a couple of times is take a published M/F romance from another author, change one character’s gender to male, flip some word choices and descriptors, and publish the ‘new’ M/M romance as her own work.
I’ve seen the comparisons. They are chronically and eerily similar, enough that I’d notice. Because plagiarists tend to run their scams until they get caught, there’s a strong chance that Harner has done this many, many times before. Now her entire catalog is suspect, and people will be doing Google text searches among potential target novels in Harner’s chosen subgenres.
Like many plagiarists, Harner has also not kept a low, discreet profile; she just attended the erotic romance community’s prestigious Gay Rom Lit convention in San Diego last week, where she was on publishing and writing panels. Her website paints a picture of a confident, creative, and happy woman living a good life in northern Arizona.
Jenny Trout has a great overview of the case here.
Why do writers plagiarize openly, when the odds of getting caught are getting better every day?
Some are delusional, and think they won’t get caught. Harriet Klausner died last week. Once lauded as Amazon’s most-prolific reviewer, her career soured as she was revealed to have 1) too many reviews where she obviously didn’t read the book at all, and 2) made a tidy amount of money in reselling for profit the same Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) that she’d been given to review. (You are not supposed to sell ARC’s, BTW.) Even in her obituary, it was clear how much Klausner’s self-image was predicated on her status as the ‘best’ Amazon reviewer…even after that reputation was revealed as largely false. She wasn’t technically a plagiarist, but her mindset was apparently similar.
Some are ignorant enough to think they’re not doing anything wrong. A recent AbsoluteWrite forum thread featured a young writer – or possibly a clever troll – who could not seem to understand that changing names and descriptions was not enough to scrub a plagiarized text. She said this was the only way she could learn to ‘write better’. As a private writing exercise, recopying another author’s work is not a bad way to learn. The danger comes when you claim it as your own…and then start believing it.
In Laura Harner’s case, the pressure was likely financial. Three to four years ago the erotic romance market (especially gay-themed M/M works) was a gold rush for self-published authors. The market is still strong, but there are so many self-publishers now that it’s hard to get market share for a single book. I’ve mentioned before that M/M romance readers are loyal but voracious: to keep their loyalty, writers have to feed their readers’ addictions often and regularly (I’ve been bad about that, but I have Reasons.) So one key to keeping sales strong is to be prolific. Every new book adds to an author’s back catalog, and more sales throughout the catalog.
Publishing over a dozen readable books a year can nearly guarantee a partway decent self-pub income, once the readership’s loyalty has been established. You might not make more than $$ a month on individual title sales, but taken together those can add up to $$$$.
If you are not a prolific author in your own right? You stumble along like me and do what you can.
Or you steal other people’s writing.
I know this dance from art. I worked for a just-on-the-edge-of-respectable company which taught me how to analyze trendy contemporary artists and learn their ‘style’. To the point that I can actually do convincing ‘new’ works in another artist’s style. I don’t.
But I also know how to apply those same tricks to taking hours off my own art production, by using digital art filters to give me brushwork roadmaps of existing photographs (my own, when I’m doing this for money.)
This kind of ‘guided’ plagiarism should involve similar effort, I thought.
I did a quick and dirty estimate last night of what it would take me to write vs. plagiarize a contemporary erotic romance novel from someone else. I’d stick, as Harner has, to contemporary subgenres because they often don’t require the same kind of worldbuilding as science fiction and fantasy. Those latter genres can show ‘author fingerprints’ of style and voice much more clearly, and they’re harder to scrub for plagiarists.
I’m working on a legitimate 12K to 24K M/M/M contemporary romance novella right now, so I have a reasonable time comparison. It started as a M/F 4K short story for an anthology call two years ago. I flipped the romance to M/M (which required serious changes to characters, sex acts, and psychology), and brought it to 4.6K for two romance anthology calls last year. No go, but I got personalized rejections. So I was already on the path toward expanding it into a novella, when a pro publishing opportunity came along, with a new market I’m willing to chance. I estimate that I already have at least 110 working hours into this story. I’m still lacking around 60 – 80 hours to final mms stage.That’s at least two weeks of solid working time.
I looked at a similar novella, commercially published, from a M/F romance author I like (no, I’m not telling you who.) I’m a capable speed-reader, so my first read of the book took only 45 minutes. The chapters ranged around 1000 to 2100 words, and there were a couple dozen chapters. I set up a quick story bible, in which I changed the female character to male, but kept most of her/his physical attributes and mannerisms. Same for the male lead, who kept his gender but became gay and had a different physical description and job. I changed a few other staging/setting details of the plot, but kept the flow of the other author’s writing.
I was able to hammer out three semi-convincing M/M romance chapters in less than two hours. The problem was the difference in my writing ‘voice’ and the original author’s: areas where I used more of my own input jarred against spots where I mostly copied hers. Anyone could see there was a discontinuity of style. I figured another hour per chapter, and I could have ironed out most of the style alert markers.
I touch-typed my entries and read from another screen. I could have cut that time down further by copying digital text or scanning the text directly from print books, then editing that copy.
Say, twenty-four chapters. Less than an hour to skim the original book to see if I could ‘stripmine’ it for a plagiarized text. Twenty-four to forty-eight hours of working time to take out all M/F references and put in M/M ones. Another day to do edits (I don’t know if Harner hired freelance editors; I sure as hell would if I were self-publishing!)
There are rumors now that Harner hired ghostwriters and ‘scraping services’ to create and collect texts…and ‘they’ were the ones who plagiarized. Bullshit. Judging by the scale of the theft, Harner had to know what was going on. (And I’m not even getting into my complicated feelings about ghostwriters and text mills.)
Let’s say that in a week I could have a ‘new’ M/M manuscript ready to self-publish. Depending on the publishing services I used, it could be posted and earning within a day or two. It would be returning money in one to three months.
I can manage to legitimately write about 6,000 to 8,000 words a day at my best, but there’s a lot of rewriting and editing at the end stages. I wrote most of Moro’s Price in around 4 months in 2011, and that seems to be my best rate of production: around 25,000 words a month. Of course, I don’t have residual income or write fulltime, so that figure is just my potential word count. It’s taken me all of October to add 8K to this ‘real’ novella I need to deliver.
I could easily steal three books a month myself, not counting what I can pay a scraper to collect. I’d research targets and spread them around (I wouldn’t steal all books from one author.) Fifteen published in a year? Easy.
Why do authors feel that pressure to perform, right over the cliff of unethical behavior? Money and reputation. By staggering those ‘new’ releases over the year, the plagiarist ensures that at all times she has exciting new debuts and steady royalty earners.
Her readers want a fix, which is a Good Thing, really. But they often don’t seem to care about quality, originality, or underlying little things like ethics in writing. So as a reader of M/M romance, I’m at fault for greasing that machine, too.