Thursday, November 10, 2011

The sincerest form of flattery?

by Michelle Gagnon

So news broke this week that Q.R. Markham's debut novel, ASSASSIN OF SECRETS, was being pulled from shelves after the publisher (Mulholland Books) discovered that numerous passage had allegedly been taken from other sources.

To get a sense of what they mean by "numerous," follow this handy link. Apparently the only part of the book that Q. R. Markham didn't plagiarize was the overly generic title and his bio.

My question is, why would a new author do such a thing? And more importantly, after all the plagiarizing scandals of the past decade (see: Stephen Ambrose, Kaavya Viswanathan, et al), how could he blithely expect not to get caught? In the digital era, all you have to do is type in a key phrase, and Google can usually instantly match it to a source. So why take the risk?

I have to wonder what the months leading up to his novel's release have been like for Q. R. Markham. Was he basking in the thrill of having gotten away with something? Was he w
aking up nightly in a cold sweat, shaken by nightmares of being discovered? (Something about his pose in the photo to the left leads me to suspect probably not.) Or had he actually managed to convince himself that the work was his own?

And how did Mulholland Books (an imprint of Little, Brown) get so far along in the process without discovering the malfeasance? The book was released a week ago, which means that ARCs of it made the rounds months earlier. In fact, Publisher's Weekly gave ASSASSIN OF SECRETS a glowing review, praising it as "quirky" and "entertaining." My favorite part: "the obvious Ian Fleming influence just adds to the appeal." Yes, of course, the Ian Fleming "influence." As in, passages were extracted directly from his James Bond series and dumped into Markham's narrative.

But he didn't limit himself to stealing from merely one giant of the spy genre: Robert Ludlum's books were also liberally borrowed from. Other excerpts have been attributed to John Gardner, Charles McCarry, Geoffrey O'Brien, and James Bamford. I have to admit to being a bit tickled by the inclusion of my pal Raymond Benson's HIGH TIME TO KILL. If you want a great espionage read, go to the source on that one.

Here's the thing. I've been forced to jump through numerous legal hurdles with each book, ranging from acquiring permissions for song excerpts and poems, altering university and town names, and changing one benign reference to Star Wars for fear of igniting a legal response from mighty Lucasfilm. So who feel asleep on the job here?

I have a friend who recently discovered that his novel ULTIMATE RUSH was being made into a film by Sony Pictures- yay, right? Except here's the rub: they never optioned it. They changed the title to PREMIUM RUSH, altered a few character names, but adhered to the overall plot about a bike messenger on the run. Joe has been fighting them in court, so far to no avail. Theft, pure and simple. Apparently in Hollywood, it's easier to get away with that sort of thing.

This has to be hugely embarrassing for Mulholland, especially since it's a newer imprint that just started releasing books this past April. The question now is what happens to Markham? His second book has been canceled (obviously, although I'd love to see who he robbed to write that one), and I'm guessing he'll be asked to return the advance. But will he also be sued by Mulholland? How about the people whose work he co-opted? (Here's your shot at the big bucks, Ray).

Anyway, here's the takeaway. You never rip off another writer's clever turn of phrase--ever. It's cheap and wrong and basically illustrates that you're incapable of an original thought. Shame on Q. R. Markham for thinking he could get away with it.

23 comments:

  1. I was gobsmacked that he had managed to get away with it for as long as he did and that no one picked up on it until the book was actually on sale! Lifting scenes and sentences from another writer's work in never okay, so how come some writers still try it?!

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  2. To steal a quote from Pink Floyd: "Whot's uh...the deal?"

    I understand the why: greed coupled with lack of ability

    Same reason people pretend to be war heroes or former athletes, or whatever. Their shame always catches up to them though, always.

    The movie thing though...that's even more disturbing.

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  3. Maybe he could claim it was a parody. :-) Anyway, here is my original reaction: I was gobsmacked that he had managed to get away with it for as long as he did and that no one picked up on it until the book was actually on sale! Lifting scenes and sentences from another writer's work in never okay, so how come some writers still try it?!

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  4. Note to Clare and Joe: the phrase "had managed to get away" was used in my novel Breach of Promise. You'll be hearing from my attorneys.

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  5. LOL! 8-)

    Definitely a stupid move. But with the bazillions of books out there, how easy is plagiarism to catch, really?

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  6. In the case of Q. R. Markham, my guess would be that it is either laziness or ignorance on his part that would create this situation. I’ve encountered several writers who have the idea that they can pull things they like from their favorite authors, change it a little and it isn’t plagiarism. There was one writer who was actually using the trailer from a television show to promote his book. I called him on it and he told me that it wasn’t really the same because his character was a Christian, while the one on the television show was not.

    Interestingly, that television show and his book, also was about a bicycle messenger, though it involved more than a mysterious package. I will say, however, that the plot(s) of Ultimate Rush and Premium Rush appear to fit in line with that show. Which makes me question at what point do we call it stealing and at what point do we call it influence? Reading the New York Times article, it looks like a clear cut case of Sony stealing the plot from Ultimate Rush because it only mentions the similarities. I haven’t read the book or seen the script, but I have read the book description on Amazon.com and seen the trailer. When you put those side by side, they look like very different pieces. We expect some similarities because they are both about messengers who are being chased because of what is in the package. But when you get down to it, there isn’t much else that would cause a messenger to be chased.

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  7. You know, Michelle, I look at the list of lifted passages and it strikes me that if this gentleman had even an iota of ability it would have been easier for him to write an original novel. He appears to be the Girl Talk of the literary world. The best thing that can be said about him is that he has excellent taste in literature.

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  8. I'm amazed this doesn't happen more often. As I blogged back in June, Kindle spam and pirated books are already becoming an issue at Amazon. It would be easy for someone to rip off other books, recombine, slap on a cover and new title, and upload it as a quickie e-book. This incident is surprising only because it was done through an established publisher, and was so high profile.

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  9. His cheating really devalues the rest of us authors who strive to change place names, avoid trademarks, and alter locations. What this author did took a lot of nerve, but he gambled and lost. I'm just glad he got caught.

    Didn't I hear once about a website that did sort of the same thing, swiping passages from author's books and putting them together into novels? That notion resides in a back room in my memory.

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  10. I know, it truly is shocking. I'd love to know more about how the plagiarism was finally discovered.
    And Kathryn, you're right- that is a major issue with ebooks.
    Timothy, there are actually some pretty striking similarities between the book and the film- down to character names and scenes that are clearly ripped off. Additionally, that particular screenwriter has been accused of plagiarism in the past. What I don't get is why Sony didn't just option the darn thing.

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  11. That whole thing with Sony makes me a bit nervous. I have two books that were enthusiastically received by a HW agency, but about which I have heard nothing for several months now....starting to wonder.

    Speaking of wonder - and this is totally off topic so kill the message if needs be - today is the USMC 236th Birthday and tomorrow is Veteran's Day. In honor of both, and the wonder of the sacrifice of those who make and keep us free, I am giving away ebook versions of all of my novels for the couple of days. No charge, no strings, just three free ebooks. Go to www.basilsands.com for details.

    - and I promise I didn't steal the stories from other authors....Scouts honor.

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  12. I got a Query rejection last night on my novel Careful, but get this -the agent had another author's query letter mixed up with text from MY book.

    At first, I freaked!

    I replied to the agent and pointed out said mixup - asked her to forward rejection of his book to him so he'd know she was rejecting, and to separate my content from his letter and send on to the correct agent.

    So, I'm thinking...
    A) Poor harried Agent crossed lines
    B) Author #2 has access to my work
    C) It was a premonition regarding Michelle's post

    (I still haven't heard back from said agent...Yikes!)

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  13. Another point, Kill Zoners.

    Do you guys all avoid Names and places in your fiction?
    Newbie question here, but my understanding of the rule is Names can't be copywrighted.

    OK: Evie listened to Sugarland's Baby Girl and loved the music.

    Not OK: Evie sang: "Lyrics celeb wrote" without permission or credit.

    What if a murder is committed in NYC? It's not bad to say that, is it?

    Where are the rules posted?

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  14. Paula, real names and places are fine as long as you don't use them in a negative light. For instance, your protagonist can have dinner at a famous NYC restaurant, but don't have her get food poisoning there.

    In my current WIP, my protagonist is staying at the RIO Hotel in Las Vegas. No problem. But something bad is going to happen at the Luxor. So I changed the name of that hotel to the Alexandria.

    Regarding music, you can mention a song title all you want, but never use lyrics unless you have permission.

    As far as NYC in general, anything goes. :-)

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  15. Thanks, Joe.
    I thought that's what I understood, but after what we've talked about today your reply has me breathing a sigh of relief.

    (Hint) A couple of murders took place in my book :)
    Paula

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  16. The plagiarism of so many authors in one book boggles the mind. I am very glad they caught it.

    Basil, my son is a Marine and is currently on his second tour in Afghanistan. He has access to the internet this week. Would it be okay if I post the free e-book on facebook, so he can get it out to his fellow Marines. They all have computers for reading and I know they would appreciate it.

    Thanks
    Donna

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  17. Donna, the public deal I mentioned has a time limit on it but I have a different coupon for active duty military that has no expiration. If you send me an email to basil @ basilsands . com I will send you those unlimited coupons and his whole gang can have access.

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  18. Oh, and by the way...go ahead and post the one I mentioned here at TKZ on facebook and share it all around.

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  19. I agree with Joe- negative associations with real places/people/things tend to make a publishers' legal department nervous.

    That's terrible re: agent, Paula. So sorry to hear it.

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  20. Certainly it must have been a mix-up, Michelle. I don't understand how someone blends e-mails like that, though.

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  21. I have a bootlegger harrassing my family company. I have spent 6 looooong years in federal court with another to go. I was forced to become a trademark and copyright expert and it is a bear. Best of luck to your friend!

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  22. He's a total hypocrite. He justified it by not holding himself accountable to the same requirements as the rest of us.

    I get the impression that this is how he gets along in life -- by standing on others' shoulders. I really don't think he "gets" the whole concept of doing your own work. I also think an interview with his school mates would reveal that he often copied others' homework and regularly cheated on tests.

    How he managed to get all the way through the morass that is the publishing process is beyond me.

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  23. Maybe this author, and I use the term loosely, simply planned to earn notoriety with the bad press from plagiarizing.

    Clearly, he's not trying to earn recognition as new talent. What's with these people??

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