Cristiane Serruya has turned out to be an archetypal 21st-Century plagiarist. She exemplifies genre-fiction plagiarism at its "best": minimum cost and effort, maximum profit and social success. She had high standards for whose work she plagiarized—only rip off the best—and she "serruyaed" together scenes and passages from more than seventy different sources for each of her books, if the one that got her in trouble is any indicator of her modus operandi.
Classic 20th-Century plagiarism would have simply copied an entire work, or the most important parts of a single work, and republished it under their own name. Or stolen an unpublished work, polished it up a bit (if the plagiarist was a stickler for detail, and either had the skill or hired someone), and then published it under their own name.
But plagiarists learned a thing or two in the previous century. The whole "identity theft" idea was a good one, a practice that stretched back long before the internet made it a household word: rather than publish a plagiarized work under your own name, why not use a cool-sounding fake name so it can't be traced so easily back to you? Maybe attribute it to a formerly-famous or slightly-famous (or entirely faked-famous) person, to improve its popularity but still dodge the close scrutiny that will spoil the scam before you've cashed in. Plagiarists started getting sophisticated, adapting techniques honed by art forgers and literary forgers, and using those for new works rather than faked "old" works.
The emergence and continuing growth and usefulness of the internet made it possible to play the game of "plagiarism for fun and profit" on a whole different level of sophistication, though, and Cristiane Serruya made full use of them.
First, she was able to read very widely in her target genre, effortlessly, for free. Between Kindle Unlimited and Google Books, and pirated .pdf copies too, it's possible to get your hands on the text of hundreds of thousands of romance novels, just for the price of maintaining your internet connection. The abundance of cheap ebooks and online used booksellers (Amazon, yes, but many others too) means almost any important gaps in your plagiarist research can be filled for pennies on the dollar, and delivered to your doorstep instantly or within a couple of days, maybe a couple of weeks at most.
Second, rather than choosing a single source work, she used the magic of copy-and-paste to pick out favorite passages from dozens of different works, cobbling them together into a pastiche that follows the general story-arc formula of a good romance novel, and which is already filled with great scenes and snatches of dialogue— well, good enough to have already been published as part of a different book, anyway. Steal from the greats and you'll sound great... and steal from many different greats and no one can say you stole from any one of them, seemed to be the hope.
Third, hire a ghostwriter—or several of them, making sure they don't know about one another—and have them stitch together your "inspired bits and pieces" for you. Hire the cheapest possible ghostwriters, apparently believing that quality in the interstices doesn't matter when you've stolen gold from master authors. It also maximizes your profit margin, of course, by keeping costs down.
If you have several ghostwriters working simultaneously to finish several different sections of your novel, then you can "finish" a new novel very quickly... quickly enough to publish a new novel every month in 2017, and almost every month in 2018.
Releasing one book per month keeps your name (and one of your books) constantly in the Amazon New Releases list, and in the voracious world of romance fiction, it draws flocks of new readers to you, with the hope of following familiar themes and plot threads through book after book before any of them have had the chance to grow stale in the mind. It's a good strategy, and legitimate authors follow it too... by completing their own books ahead of time and releasing them month by month over the course of a single year, or legitimately hiring ghostwriters to follow prepared outlines so as to quickly expand a single hit into a series of books that are finished faster than one author can write. But those are examples of legitimate original work, whether done by the author alone or by a ghostwriting team led by the author.
But when a plagiarist makes clever use of the internet, a word-processing app, low-paid ghostwriters (whom she sometimes didn't even pay), high-quality cover design, and Amazon's author promotion algorithms, a plagiarist can make a lot of money very quickly.
As Cristiane discovered, 21st-Century plagiarists can become famous and feted authors too, in the running for the RITA award, asked to speak at writers' conferences, offered posh launch parties and book signings, not to mention big advances for publishing contracts with traditional publishers... it's quite the glamorous life, really.
But if it is all built on a lie, it will not last long.
And those flocks of romance-readers on Twitter turn into dark clouds of angry armored laser-eyed pterodactyls keening for your blood...
Now that you are properly terrified, here are a couple of best-practices that you and I can implement right now. In the interest of full disclosure and proper attribution (!), I have adapted these from the amazingly helpful Jami Gold, paranormal author.
- register for copyright protection—Yes, I've always told you that all original writing is automatically copyrighted, at least in the Western world, but I have since learned that you can’t sue for damages unless your work is registered.
- set up Google Alerts for key passages or distinctive phrases from your work, so that you'll get an email from Google notifying you when those passages or phrases show up anywhere on the internet. (Don't choose too short "distinctive" phrases or your inbox will fill pretty quickly!)
…and what I will be doing for you:
- Keeping an eye out for suspicious clients, especially those who aren't concerned with the quality of their content and insist on unreasonably quick turnaround times. (Here’s a note from one of Cristiane’s editors for insight.)
- Checking for plagiarism with every piece of work submitted to me that is being prepared for publication. (If you want to know what I'll see when I check your work, run it through Grammarly yourself for free.)