Monday, January 18, 2016

Chicklit Shitstorm

There is an interesting plagiarism case currently developing in Germany about plagiarism in the genre of self-publisher romance novels, also known as "ChickLit". A similar plagiarism discussion in the area of ChickLit arose in 2013 around the novels of Martina Gercke (I published commentary on this wild theory of the forgotten "placeholders" in German together with S. Schroder). It seems that the successful German romance and fantasy author Cathey Peel / Katja Piel has admitted to publishing two novels that she plagiarized, although she has now depublished that statement.

The first book, Alles begann mit dir, was published both in Kindle Direct Publishing and as a print-on-demand book just before Christmas). One of the readers noted anonymously on the review page at Amazon that the book sounded a lot like it was published as one of the Denise series of books. The Denise series comprised over 500 romance novels published bi-weekly in magazine format by the German Cora Verlag in the 80s and 90s.

Interestingly, there was nothing more than this vague, unsubstantiated claim that started a landslide. No specific source was given, no example other than to say that some aspects were inserted, such as the use of mobile phones.

Amazingly, Piel quickly removed the book from sale and deleted the page at Amazon. Piel posted an article on her Facebook marketing page (now deleted, but I have a copy) explaining that she had recently found the manuscript and thought she had written it many years ago, but it turns out that it was just an exercise in typing that she did when she got her first computer. She had just typed up a novel, that was all.

Well, the bullshit detectors started pinging—30 years ago people were using WordStar or Word 2.0 (doesn't that bring back painful memories?). And storing things on 5 1/4" floppies. Imagine recopying a typing exercise to all the new editors and formats and storage media! Comments started appearing below the Facebook entry, but most of them were of the "shit-happens-we-still-love-you" variety. It was a hard story to believe, but many fans did.

Some, however, began looking for a source. There are a number of potential novels that could be the basis for the book, but since the novel itself is no longer available, even if one could obtain a copy of the potential source, there is nothing to compare it to. And of course, these "romance novels" are all somehow the same with a girl falling in love, getting into trouble, and then there being a happy end.

Piel also quietly and quickly withdrew a second book, Das Amulett in mir. When fans discovered this and questioned her, she stated that it had not been selling well. Now the swarm began asking harder questions and commenting that copyright infringement is a crime. Some were looking at the rest of her books, speculating about potential sources. Piel deleted the Facebook entry, saying that the insults had gotten out of hand.

A few hours later she admitted in another Facebook posting that she had indeed plagiarized:
She offered to return the money earned to the publisher or the authors or to donate the money.  Now a shitstorm broke loose in earnest. Many authors were downright mad that Piel was bringing discredit down on self-publishers. Many readers felt cheated. A few loving fans tried to stand up for Piel, berating the critics for not having anything better to do with their lives than commenting negatively about the plagiarism. Some were pointing to copyright law and calling for the law to step in, although only the plagiarized author could actually bring suit. Other self-publishing authors were angry that Piel was making a living out of self-publishing, but had now admitted to having plagiarized (at least) two of her books. A few hours (and many comments) later, this posting, too, was deleted.  The self-publisher blogs indie publishing and Self-Publisher-Bibel have now weighed-in on the matter (in German). 

I find it interesting to compare this reaction to the reaction many people have about the work that VroniPlag Wiki does in documenting plagiarism in dissertations. One often hears the "anyone can make a mistake" melody when a documentation is first published, and fingers are pointed at the persons documenting the plagiarism, although the dissertations and the sources are all publicly available works. These "plagiarism hunters" are poking around in people's private lives, putting non-prominent people in the stocks, and should be making better use of their time. Until someone actually reads the documentations, it seems. Although they are publicly available on the web site, I often see that people have never actually studied what is found there, although they have a strong opinion about the case. Having a good look at the documentation makes it clear that this is a serious matter and not just a trifle.

It will be interesting to see if the sources do eventually show up. Although the Denise series is not available at the German National Library or the State Library, there are a number of women selling their collections online. Perhaps it will be possible to determine how extensively Piel's two books did plagiarize previously published material.

[Note: an earlier version of this post has been extensively rewritten]