Romance ripoff: as self-published fiction flourishes, so does plagiarism

Romance novels are in a golden era, thanks to prolific self-published authors who sell their books online and readers who can't get enough of them. But with this growth comes a growing problem: plagiarism.

Brazilian writer Cristiane Serruya is accused of stealing from dozens of authors

Romance novels by Zoe York, a pen name of Canadian writer Rebecca Young. (CBC)

By tapping into her readers' fantasies, Rebecca Young got her dream life: the one-time university administrator from London, Ont., turned writing romance fiction from a hobby into a lucrative full-time gig.

"I make a full-time living wage that supports my family and allows me to travel and meet readers and keep writing and get inspiration," she says. 

Young, who is self-published and writes under pen names Zoe York and Ainsley Booth, sells her work in e-book and printed format on online sites like Amazon. She loves being self-published for financial reasons; saying that, without a publisher's cut, she gets to keep 70 per cent of her income from book sales.   

"We have shifted the balance of publishing from it being a few people at the top to lots of people across the middle. It's a bit of democratization of publishing to meet the reader demand."

Young is part of the boom in the $1 billion industry of romance novels, a renaissance born largely out of the flourishing of digital publishing and self-publishing. There are two million romance titles on Amazon, many of them from self-published authors.

The new generation of these indie writers can churn out books as frequently as every two months and, without the longer process of traditional editors and publishers, respond quickly to their readers' changing tastes.

But with this growth comes a growing problem: plagiarism.

This year, dozens of writers accused successful Brazilian author Cristiane Serruya of lifting paragraphs from their books, with readers helping them by taking screenshots of the offending passages and posting them on social media under hashtag #copypastecris. Nora Roberts, the grand dame of romance writing, went a step further, suing Serruya. for "multi plagiarism" on a "rare and scandalous level."

But as Young learned, plagiarism does not only target famous authors, nor does it always involve copying passages word-for-word.

The tale of 2 Prime Ministers

In May 2016, Young published a book she co-wrote with Sadie Haller titled Prime Minister, centred on a young, single Canadian PM and his tryst with his brainy intern.

The book's release date, just seven months after Justin Trudeau's 2015 election, as his image as an international sex symbol was as its peak, may suggest real-life inspiration, but Young demurs with a wink. "I will point out that my prime minister is blond and blue-eyed and bears absolutely no resemblance to Justin Trudeau."

Trudeau-inspired or not, the book was a hit, especially with American women. It landed on the USA Today bestseller lists and has sold 50,000 copies, according to Young. And then those devout fans noticed another book sold on Amazon with a very similar plot and title: Yes, Prime Minister.

Young is seen in London, Ont., in July 2019. (Sharon Wu/CBC)

"I decided to read it for myself, and it was shocking in 65 pages just how many similarities there were."

The other book's lead female character was French-Canadian, just like in Young's book. The PM's security guard in Young's book was called Lachlan, in Yes, Prime Minister, his name was Locke. The two protagonists' first date ends up on Parliament Hill in both novels.

And the list goes on and on. Still, since the book did not copy her writing in significant portions or paragraphs or word-for-word, Young knew she had no legal recourse. She calls this type of copying "mosaic plagiarism." 

"I documented [the passages she alleges were copied] and I sent them to Amazon, and Amazon said that doesn't meet our threshold for taking the book down, and I didn't really expect them to."

Courtney Milan versus Cristiane Serruya

But the more typical types of plagiarism abound, too.

At the Romance Writers of America conference held in July in New York and attended by thousands, including Young, American author Courtney Milan received the RWA Service Award.

A bit of a superstar in the world of romance novels, Milan, trained as a lawyer, is also a powerful voice on the behind-the-scenes goings-on of her industry. Back in February, it was Milan who, through her blog, first sounded the bell on the alleged plagiarism by Serruya.

Author Courtney Milan is seen at the 2019 Romance Writers of America conference in New York on July 25. (Sean Conaboy/CBC)

Tipped off by a reader, Milan downloaded Serruya's book Royal Love and "found in fact quite a few passages that were not just slightly similar but just word-for-word copied from my own work."

Milan says the damage she risks suffering is reputational. If someone read Serruya's book before reading Milan's The Duchess War, they might think it was Milan who was being unoriginal.

Amid accusations of plagiarism, many of author Cristiane Serruya's self-published romance novels have been removed from Amazon. (Amazon)

Milan says she was also hurt on a personal level, stating that Serruya was particularly fond of lifting emotional scenes from other authors' work.

"For many of us, those emotional scenes came at a great cost. We had to think a long time about it and we were writing about things that were very very important to us."

Milan says this involved scenes of sexual harassment in the workplace, something she confronted very publicly in her real life. Milan was one of women who accused Washington Judge Alex Kozinski of sexual misconduct, in a Washington Post investigation.

Serruya, who responded to Milan in a since-deleted tweet, blamed the copying on a ghostwriter she'd hired, and the offending book has since been removed from Amazon. 

Milan is deliberating what to do, but she feels cultivating a devoted fan base is the best way authors can protect themselves.

"The only way we have to catch things is readers at this point reading a book and recognizing a passage. And so the more memorable your writing is, the more likely it is that someone will recognize what's happening."

Data analyst catching literary thieves

It might be getting easier to catch literary thieves or document the instances in which a work has been plagiarized. That's thanks to Canadian data analyst Claire Ryan, who helped Milan identify all passages in Serruya's book that resembled hers, and helped Roberts in preparing her court case.

Ryan, herself an author and a book lover, was alerted to the allegations against Serruya on social media. She says she was angered and wanted to help.

She says the program she developed "takes effectively two DNA sequences produced from two different books, and it's looking for the most similar match between them "

Claire Ryan is a senior web developer in Vancouver and a budding fantasy writer and avid member of an online community of authors and fans. Plagiarism means 'you're essentially claiming someone's legacy and taking away a part of themselves,' she says. (CBC)

Ryan's program is not only considerably faster than going through books page-by-page with a naked eye, it's sophisticated enough to discern that one sentence might be effectively the same as another even if punctuation or grammar is slightly different. 

After Ryan ran Milan's and Serruya's books through her algorithm and was contacted by several other authors, Roberts got in touch with her. Ryan says she ran close to 200 of Roberts's books through her program, comparing them to Serruya's books that allegedly lifted from them. 

"I just kept running all of these books through my algorithm and it just kept producing more and more results, more and more text matches."

To thank her, Roberts gave Ryan a sword, inscribed with "Claire Ryan, the plagiarism slayer."

While she was happy to help the famous writer, Ryan's ultimate goal is to have a program that is able to run a million books at the same time and generate a report in a matter of minutes.

Asked why she continues to do all this work free, the shy data analyst reverberates with emotion.

"The stories that we write are the one thing that the people can never take from us, they will always belong to us," says Ryan.

"It is the kind of theft which kind of cuts a lot deeper than just taking a physical object from someone. You're essentially claiming someone's legacy and taking away a part of themselves."


Deana Sumanac-Johnson

Senior Education Reporter

Deana Sumanac-Johnson is a senior education reporter for CBC News. Appearing on The National and CBC Radio, she has previously reported on arts and entertainment, and worked as a current affairs producer.

With files from Sharon Wu