We're Missing Something Big in this Cristiane Serruya Story
If you live in Romancelandia and also hang out on Twitter, chances are you barely made it through your morning coffee before hearing about #CopyPasteCris. Cristiane Serruya is a Brazilian “author” (notice the sarcastic air quotes) accused of plagiarizing a long, long list of very well-known actual authors such as Bella Andre, Tessa Dare and Courtney Milan.
Before Serruya deleted her Twitter account, screen shots that I’m going to trust are not hoaxes showed Serruya’s apology. In a twist proving that real people are so much weirder than fictional characters, Serruya stood by her claim that she herself did not plagiarize, but that the egregious instances that were discovered were the product of a ghostwriter who she hired on Fiverr.
In a court of law, of course, she won’t have a leg to stand on. When you publish, whether in print or digital, you attest to legalese confirming that you’re the copyright holder. Serruya is clearly not this for the works in question, and the authors she stole from will win. Maybe not actual money if Serruya doesn’t have any, and maybe not quickly if we’re dealing with international courts.
But here’s what no one’s talking about—the only thing anyone other than the authors who were plagiarized should be: how Serruya’s status as a USA Today Bestselling Author probably came to be. We don’t yet know the extent of her plagiarism, but her tweet admits a strategy that thousands of opportunists are using. Hiring ghostwriters to build book empires is an on-the-rise trend in the publishing world.
I know about this firsthand—not because I myself hire or have ever hired ghostwriters—because I do editing work through a freelancing website. My profile mentions that I’m an award-winning romance author. This platform lets those looking to have work done search contractor profiles and proactively invite people with relevant experience. Consequently, I’ve received dozens of invitations to bid for romance novel ghostwriting jobs.
Typically, the jobs I am invited to bid for offer $2k-$3k for a single, completed manuscript, though offered payments may vary. A search I just did for “romance writers” on the site I’m talking about yielded a total of 25 romance novelist ghostwriting jobs that are actively seeking authors. This one is paying only $600 (but it dangles candy saying that applicants can “double or triple their base pay” depending on how fast they write). Notice where it says that the profile-owner who listed this job has spent $40k hiring contractors on this site. Notice also that he says the number of freelancers needed for this job is 5.
Many such listings are actively seeking long-term contractors—ghostwriters to crank out a novel every 3-4 weeks and relinquish all rights. But who would need so many romance novels so frequently? And who would pay a lot more than most run-of-the-mill authors make on a single book? Someone who’s making A LOT of money selling books they didn’t write, that’s who.
Granted, there’s nothing wrong with making money. But there is something wrong with making money if you’re defrauding people who are paying for your product through misrepresentation. When readers see a single name on a series of books, they assume that the same single human has written them all. The definition of the word “author” is “a writer of a book, article, or report.” Compare this to the role of a publisher, which has historically been to curate collections of similar books from different authors to create a cohesive line.
Honesty in this distinction is important. Because flooding the market with illegitimate books makes it that much harder for legitimate authors to make good money—authors whose intention it is to write good fiction and share their art. This isn’t another #CockyGate—it’s not one dumb person acting alone. It’s thousands of people building marketing machines. And some of them have no artistic interest whatsoever in writing stories.
So, what is a lot of this really about? Capitalizing on what is known about the current Amazon algorithm: that it favors authors with new releases and steady sales. Selling from a constantly-growing library, consistently will boost you higher in the rankings than selling the same number of books from an aging library with more volatility. The incentive for opportunists, of course, is to release as many books as frequently as possible under a single author name.
With so many people in possession of this knowledge (as quite a few books have been written about how to game the Amazon rankings), Amazon now harbors everything from pure, non-writer opportunists to real authors who write some of their own books and outsource others. When well-executed, rapid releasing is a sure-fire way to activate the benefits of top rankings. Better rankings translate to real money. Once Amazon sees that your book is doing well, it starts promoting your book for free. Once that happens, guess what? You sell more books, which keeps you closer to the top. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle.
This isn’t exactly a new thing. Plenty of articles have been written about how even huge authors use ghostwriters to feed their franchises. The difference now is that you don’t have to be a big author with big dollars to access ghostwriting talent. The freelance sites offer access to this sort of labor very inexpensively compared to the money that can be made. And the scale that this is happening at, now, is unprecedented.
So, what does all of this mean? It certainly devalues the bestseller distinction. It’s easier than ever to manipulate that particular status. But if you’re a reader, how assured can you be that top-in-their-category bestselling authors might be an actual, single person? That’s just it: you cant.
The real losers here are authors writing great books at human speed—authors whose books aren’t bought as often as they might have been, because they’re less visible and don’t seem to be doing as well as some of the chart-toppers. The real losers are authors who aren’t cheating the system but who are being edged out by those who are—authors who may deserve to make the big lists, but can’t.
There are larger ecosystem implications: major publishers are losing ground to Amazon sensations that seem to come out of nowhere, and romance imprints are closing left and right. The question is: how many out-of-nowhere “authors” are even real?
So back to Cristiane Serruya: should she (or anyone) be a USA Today Bestselling Author who is defrauding readers by passing books off as her own? If it’s wrong to defraud people via plagiarism, isn’t it also wrong to do so on the flip side of false identity? Because plagiarism and ghostwriting are two sides of the same coin. Both of them lie about who’s done the writing. And if we don’t care about the ethics of the issue as a whole more than we care about Cristiane Serruya, we should. Plagiarism might end her, but ghostwriting might have made her. And we ought to be focused on that.