Let's Talk: The P-Word by Susan Tepper

Let’s Talk: The P-Word by Susan Tepper

"Plagiarism" by Durova - Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Plagiarism” by Durova – Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Plagiarism. Brrrr! It’s only August, yet just thinking about it raises icicles across my neck and shoulders.

Professors talk about students who plagiarize papers, and the computer programs designed to flesh out stolen work. And what about our industry? Is plagiarism going on in publishing today?

Oh, yes. Bestselling author Aubrey Rose, for instance, recently blogged about her experience with a plagiarist who published a ripoff of her book City Girl, Country Wolf, which was an exact scene-for-scene copy.

Quite creepy to contemplate.

Cinematically, you can picture the plagiarist: darkened room, a flashlight beamed across words not of their own design, words being copied and signed off on. Words that perhaps you wrote, labored over, sweated over – treasured words. And there in the darkness (real or in the plagiarist’s sick brain) your words become part of their story or book, their poem or essay. Sometimes quite a large part. Extremely unpleasant, if not downright hideous behavior.

Should plagiarism be tried in a court of law?

Stealing, after all, is stealing. Salman Rushdie, a major literary figure, had large amounts of his published work (!) stolen, word for word, by a woman who got a two book deal and a huge advance from a commercial publishing house. This incident occurred about a decade ago. At the time Rushdie made a public announcement of condemnation. He didn’t mince words – that I can recall. Others she had stolen from also came out in furious protest.

Though, believe it or not, some in the industry actually came out on behalf of the woman who plagiarized, claiming she was just a kid. Just a kid gets a two book deal and a huge advance??? Don’t quote me here, but I think it was considerably more than 100k. Might have been 500k. Advance money was flung around quite liberally a decade ago. Even so, that was an awful lot of money for “just a kid.”

When I was a kid, I got dimes dropped in my piggy bank.

And it’s not only in commercial publishing, where the big money changes hands, that we encounter the plagiarism problem. When I was an editor at a small press, reading many submissions, I came across one that I ultimately rejected due to its length. Too long for the magazine’s guidelines. Then one day, some time after, I came across a shorter version of the same story. Hmm… I immediately recognized it, as I’d been very impressed by the longer, fleshed out original version.

Turns out the shorter version had been lifted from the middle of the longer story. With a new title attached. And a new author’s name tacked on. Unfortunately, a name I recognized.

Now a situation such as the one I describe here poses a huge dilemma to the editor making the discovery. You see, the writer was well known. Popular. Well published, too. Does the editor drop the veil of silence and reveal the person who stole the work?

Because the plagiarizer, finding him or herself in a tough spot, will undoubtedly deny vehemently, fighting to maintain their integrity – as if they had any. The plagiarizer will probably back-channel vile hatred toward the editor who exposed their crime. Because it is a crime to steal. And it’s also incredibly stupid to plagiarize the words of another author – particularly in this age of instant online searches.

Most writers wouldn’t even dream of doing it, like most trainers don’t drug their horse before a race. But in certain instances some will, and do. Their pathology is to win. Which for certain sociopaths is the be all end all. The only thing that matters. That old saying about stealing from your own mother isn’t really so far off.

Within our large (yet small) writing community, word spreads quickly. Editors and writers hear things from other editors and writers. We are a chatty bunch. If an editor is aware that someone has been accused – even privately – of plagiarizing work, does that editor have a moral obligation to back off from publishing the writer in question? If the evidence is pretty clear cut, I say definitely, yes. If the writer is exposed, the press who publishes the stolen material will look like crap, too.

An editor who knowingly publishes a writer that is stealing the work and mind and heart and soul – all of which goes into a piece of writing – well, that editor is in collusion with the plagiarizer. Some writers I know would go after them with weaponry. I’m not advocating anything that radical. But these people need to be stopped. They need to know that we know what they’re up to, and that it will not be tolerated.

Another scheme is the multiple submissions requested from you by some editor/writer types. They want you to send lots of stories for the same issue. I had one who asked me for about ten stories until I finally said no more. These are stockpiled for their own use at a later date. Be mindful of this practice of editors who cherry-pick through other writers’ work, looking for phrasings, etc, that later show up in their work! They will play you along: “Not quite, not quite, send more, you’re almost there.” Almost where?

Fortunately, those ten or so stories of mine were all subsequently published elsewhere, within a six month period, which gave me a certain sense of relief.

Do keep in mind that titles cannot be copyrighted and are up for grabs. So if you have a title you love, and plan on using, don’t put it into your bio. It may show up on someone else’s book cover before you’ve had a chance to land your own book deal. This is not considered plagiarism, but it is crap behavior, plain and simple.

The bottom line: where is the gain in stealing the words of another writer? It will never make you write better. It will just make you a jerk. In this large-yet-small writing world, sooner or later it will come out. The label attached to you like The Scarlet Letter, following you across all social media platforms and internet searches, trotted out as part of your online biography by all those who drop your name. If you thought Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story of small-town adultery was bad, just ponder the stigma associated with a flaming red P.

susan (2)Susan Tepper is the author of four published books of fiction and a chapbook of poetry. Her current title, The Merrill Diaries, (Pure Slush Books, 2013) is a novel in stories. Tepper has been nominated 9 times for the Pushcart, and one time for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. She is also a named-finalist in story/South Million Writers Award for 2014. FIZZ, her reading series at KGB Bar in NYC, has been sporadically ongoing for six or seven years now. Tepper writes the author/books Interview series UNCOV/rd at Flash Fiction Chronicles. You can find her online at susantepper.com.