By Rachel Attar (2020)
On January 7, 2008, Cassie Edwards, a romance writer from the 1980s, was accused of plagiarism. The romance novel review blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books published a post exposing that Edwards’ books contained stolen excerpts from other pieces of media. Readers began finding similarities in her other novels, and a scandal ensued. Major news outlets picked up the story, and Nora Roberts, a famously plagiarized author, commented on the situation. Edwards refused to acknowledge the accusations: she never issued a formal statement on the controversy. When she did privately discuss it, she repudiated the situation. Two of her publishing houses similarly refused to address the allegations. Conversely, other members of the community were less complacent. Organizations such as the Romance Writers of America revoked her awards. Edwards’ third publisher, Signet, divorced her after examining the content in her novels. The Cassie Edwards scandal demonstrated the duality of reaction, dismissal versus acknowledgement, toward plagiarism in the romance community.
Personal & Professional Background
Cassie Edwards is a romance novelist who published over a hundred novels from 1982 to 2009. She sold more than ten million copies worldwide by the end of her career and was most famous for her “Savage” series (Kensington Publishing Corporation). Published from 1993 to 2009, it consisted of thirty-five books that dramatized historical romantic relationships between Native American men and white women (Fantastic Fiction). Edwards’ niche stemmed from her heritage. She sought to honor her great grandmother, “who was a full blood Cheyenne.” Her ambition was to write “about the Indians who have been so maligned for so long” in hopes to increase their representation in the media. She even had a goal to write about every Native American tribe (Litte).
In addition to success with sales, Edwards was critically acclaimed by the romance industry. She was on the Honor Roll for the Romance Writers of America, an organization that aids and awards romance authors. She also won a Lifetime Achievement award from the Romantic Times and the Romantic Times Readers’ Choice for her Savage series twice (CBC). Clips from the Romantic Times demonstrate her prominence and positive reputation in the industry (See Appendices A and B). In short, Cassie Edwards was an accredited and popular author in the romance industry.
A Scandal Emerges
A blog piece titled “Cassie Edwards Investigatory Extravaganza: The First Post” outed Cassie Edwards for plagiarism on January 7, 2008. Blogger Candy Tan from the site Smart Bitches, Trashy Books found evidence that Edwards had copied sections of her 2007 book, Shadow Bear. Tan explains how she introduced her friend Kate to Cassie Edwards novels. Kate noticed that certain passages sounded “didactic” and “written in a distinctly different voice.” She googled them and found that chunks of the text had been copied, which prompted the women to search for similarities throughout this (and other) novels. In the first of seven posts about Edwards, Tan compares sixteen excerpts from Edwards’ novel with other books, informational articles, and in one case, a comically specific article about ferrets (See Appendix C) (Tan).
After the first post was released, concerned readers investigated the breadth of Edwards’ plagiarism. The most recent count on January 21, 2008 shows that twenty of Edwards’ novels contained plagiarized content. Each book typically had over five passages that were “borrowed.” There is little-to-no modification from the original literature in any of these excerpts. They were lifted from short stories, nature articles, novels, and blog posts. The most notable stolen content is in Edwards’ Savage Dream from Oliver La Farge’s 1930 Pulitzer winner, Laughing Boy: A Navajo Love Story (See Appendix D). This discovery was the turning point for Edwards’ situation. As Candy Tan explains, this plagiarism is different because Laughing Boy is “not an ethnography, academic book [sic] or memoir.” It is a prize-winning novel still under copyright. She understands how someone could be “confused about the protocols” for acknowledging a reference book when writing fiction. However, “using descriptive passages from another work of fiction” is a clear breach of plagiarism rules (Tan). After the Laughing Boy news broke, Edwards’ website was taken down. The redirect, which went to her Myspace account, was also removed (Litte).
Implausible Deniability & Plausible Dismissal
Edwards evaded the accusations of borrowing content. Because her blog and website have been removed, the only evidence of her reactions to the controversy are excerpts from a New York Times interview and a letter written to one of her readers. In her interview, Edwards says she “takes” ideas “from reference books” (Associated Press). She claims not to know that you must credit your sources because “you’re not asked to do that” when writing historical romance (Lee). Author and blogger Stacia Kane scrutinized Edwards’ response. She implies that Edwards, who had been an author for over twenty years when the scandal took place, knew that she was plagiarizing. Kane writes that it is common knowledge that authors are not “supposed to lift passages verbatim,” which Kane claims makes Edwards’ denial implausible (Kane).
Edwards also dismissed the scandal. In the letter to her reader, Edwards insists that she had “done nothing wrong” and that she is “innocent and will be vindicated” (Litte). Throughout the letter, her words echo this denial. Edwards refuses to take responsibility for her actions. In addition, she writes that she believed she was honoring her Native American heritage. She claims that as soon as she began improving Native representation, she felt “picked on” the way Native American people have been “picked on” through history (Litte). The word choice and tone suggest that the accusers had racist motivation. They were claiming someone sympathetic to Native Americans was in the wrong, and this implication conjures more sympathy for Edwards. She also asserts that the bloggers from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books were trying to “bring attention to themselves” (Litte). Edwards insinuates that the attention-hungry bloggers should not be trusted while she, the more famous, accredited writer, was trustworthy. Her letter neither explains nor mentions how full passages were lifted from alternate sources in several of her novels. Edwards does not apologize or claim to have made a mistake. She makes the thought of her plagiarizing seem ridiculous by undermining those who accused her. By evading the allegations, Edwards minimizes the weight of the scandal.
Finally, it is notable that Edwards never released an official statement (beyond colloquial interviews and letters). She had several fans who maintained that she had done nothing wrong and continued reading her novels. There were also readers who were unconcerned with the drama of the romance world. They continued buying her books because she was famous. By not formally, publicly acknowledging the controversy, she was able to wait for it to diffuse and continue publishing (Fantastic Fiction).
Professional Author Reactions
Edwards was met with resistance from professional romance writers. Three days after the scandal broke, iconically plagiarized writer Nora Roberts called her out for stealing content. Roberts is an outspoken critic of plagiarism in the romance community. In 1997, a blogger posted about the similarities between Roberts’ book and another author’s novel. Further research showed that the author had lifted dialogue and story elements from three of Roberts’ novels (Kincaid). This controversy, and its ensuing court case, propelled Roberts to become the spokeswoman against plagiarism. When asked to comment on the Edwards controversy, she told the Associated Press “it seems clear” that Edwards was acting improperly (Itale). Later in an email, she writes that this controversy should reinforce the importance of protecting intellectual property in writing, especially in the romance genre. Roberts wanted to bring the plagiarism “into public perception” so people can understand more about “intellectual theft” (Lee). Roberts, in short, met Edwards with contention in order to both chastise her and to support plagiarism awareness in the romance community.
Edwards also faced hostility from the Romance Writers of America (RWA). In a statement, RWA asserts that it takes plagiarism “very seriously.” The organization planned to “act accordingly” after “due process.” Cassie Edwards, at the time of her scandal, was listed on RWA’s Honor Roll (Wendell). While there is no formal statement to corroborate her removal, Edwards is no longer on the Honor Roll (Kane). Professional members of the romance community did not approve of her literary theft.
Contrasting Publishing Ramifications
While some members of the romance community were shocked by the plagiarism scandal, others were unconcerned. In response to Tan’s accusations, Signet, one of Edwards’ main three publishers, put out a statement on January 9. An imprint of the publishing house Penguin, Signet claimed that “Edwards has done nothing wrong.” The similarities between her passages and other works, they said, were valid because of the copyright fair use doctrine (Litte). This law permits writers to use ideas from copyright-protected works without a license. Copyright, however, is meant to promote and protect educational and not commercial use (Copyright.gov). Signet circumvented this fair use tenant by calling Edwards’ books “researched historical novels…original, creative works” that are protected by the copyright policy (Andriani). By dismissing the plagiarism accusations, Signet escaped damaging accusations to its reputation and was allowed to continue publishing Edwards’ books.
The romance community was displeased with the Signet’s irresponsibility and minimization of the situation’s validity. Readers criticized Signet’s decision to the point where, two days after its initial “fair use” claim, a Signet spokesman revised the original position and said that “the situation deserves further review” (Lee). The organization asserted that it was examining Edwards’ books and act accordingly (Italie). On April 19, 2008, after an “extensive review” of Signet’s published Edwards novels, the company announced it was divorcing Edwards because of “irreconcilable editorial differences” (CBC). Jane Litte, the writer of the website Dear Author, applauded Signet’s moral standards. She acknowledged that Signet faced monetary repercussions for refusing to publish Edwards’ books and reputational repercussions from fans who still supported Edwards. In an elegant twist, Litte shows her approval of Signet’s actions by offering her readers five free gift cards eligible for only Signet books (Litte). This action demonstrates the benefits of a publishing house upholding its integrity. Readers are prioritizing ethical companies, and Signet showed its readership that it does not stand with unethical content appropriation.
In contrast, Edwards’ other main publishing houses, Kensington and Dorchester, made no response to the allegations. Undisturbed, they continued publishing Edwards’ new novels (Savage Flames, Savage Abandon, Savage Sun, and Savage Dawn) from 2008 until her stroke in 2009 (Litte). By failing to acknowledge the plagiarism claims, they were able to continue profiting from Edwards’ work. Readers, either not knowing about the news in the romance community or staunchly supporting Edwards, continued to buy books.
Impacts on the Romance Community
Edwards’ scandal resulted in long-term benefits for the romance community. Organizations like the Romantic Times and the Romance Writers of America worked to bring intellectual theft into the public perception. Just twenty-five days after the initial blog post, the Romantic Times amended their conference schedule to add a panel on writing historical romance. They discussed when it is or is not acceptable to embellish “your fiction with historical facts” (Wendell). Later that year, The Romance Writers of America also incorporated a panel at their annual convention on intellectual theft. Their meeting discussed the difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism, and famous speakers, such as Nora Roberts, spoke (Litte).
The controversy also increased public discussion of literary theft. Blogger Jane Litte explains how there were increased mentions of plagiarism in newspapers and in blogs by several authors. “Even the absence of discussion was noticeable,” Litte notes in a post. Members of the romance community were hopeful for plagiarism awareness in the future. Overall, these steps toward plagiarism awareness helped prioritize its importance in the romance community.
The Cassie Edwards scandal demonstrated the spectrum of reactions that can occur when plagiarism is exposed. Edwards was called out for plagiarism in twenty novels by the romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books in 2008. Edwards dismissed and minimized the situation by undermining the validity of her accusers and refused to publicly address the concerns. Two of her publishers, Dorchester and Kensington, followed her lead and continued to publish her novels. Conversely, Edwards faced huge criticism from fellow authors, such as Nora Roberts. The RWA also revoked her spot on the Honor Roll, and her publisher Signet dropped her after the controversy. In short, while some members of the romance community dismissed the scandal, others addressed it to try and prevent similar issues in the future.
Appendix A: Romantic Times Cassie Edwards Author Biography Issue 83, 1991
Appendix B: Romantic Times Cassie Edwards Cover Photo Issue 83, 1991
Appendix C: Smart Bitches, Trashy Novels Blog Post Detailing Similarities between Cassie Edwards’ Shadow Bear and Land of the Spotted Eagle
Appendix D: Smart Bitches, Trashy Novels Blog Post Detailing Similarities between Cassie Edwards’ Savage Dream and Oscar La Farge’s Laughing Boy: A Navajo Love Story
Andriani, Lynn. “Romance Blog Suggests Romance Writer’s Plagiarism; Signet Says It’s Fair Use.” Publishers Weekly, Jan. 9, 2008. https://web.archive.org/web/20080113224710/http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6518522.html
Associated Press. “Nora Roberts Says Peer Plagiarized.” Today, Jan. 10, 2008. https://www.today.com/news/nora-roberts-says-peer-plagiarized-wbna22590686
“Cassie Edwards.” Kensington Publishing Corp. https://www.kensingtonbooks.com/author.aspx/23543
“Cassie Edwards.” Fantastic Fiction. https://www.fantasticfiction.com/e/cassie-edwards/
“It’s over: publisher breaks with romance writer Cassie Edwards.” CBC, Apr. 19, 2008. https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/it-s-over-publisher-breaks-with-romance-writer-cassie-edwards-1.735746
Italie, Hillel. “Plagiarism in Romance Novel Biz?” CBS News, Jan. 10, 2008. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/plagarism-in-romance-novel-biz/
Italie, Hillel. “Publisher Reviewing Plagiarism Claims.” Fox News, Jan. 11, 2008. https://www.foxnews.com/wires/2008Jan11/0,4670,RomanceWriter,00.html
Kane, Stacia. “Oops, I Forgot to Title It.” staciakane.net, Jan. 15, 2009. https://www.staciakane.net/2009/01/15/oops-i-forgot-to-title-it/
Kincaid, Caroline. “Plagiarism in Romantic Fiction.” Unsuitable Blog. https://sites.duke.edu/unsuitable/plagiarism-in-romantic-fiction/
Lee, Felicia R. “A Romance Novelist is Accused of Copying.” New York Times, Jan. 12, 2008. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/12/books/12roma.html
Litte, Jane. “Cassie Edwards Copies from Pulitzer Prize Winning Novelist.” Dear Author, Jan. 13, 2008. https://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/cassie-edwards-copies-words-from-pulitzer-prize-winning-novelist/
Litte, Jane. “Cross Blog Post: State of Plagiarism Today.” Dear Author, Jan. 13, 2009. https://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/cross-blog-post-state-of-plagiarism-today/
Litte, Jane. “Possible Cassie Edwards Response to Plagiarism Charges.” Dear Author, Jan. 13, 2008. https://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/possible-cassie-edwards-bulletin-to-myspace-readers/
Litte, Jane. “Regarding the Cassie Edwards Situation.” Dear Author, Jan. 9, 2008. https://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/regarding-the-cassie-edwards-situation/
Litte, Jane. “RWA Panel on Plagiarism.” Dear Author, Aug. 12, 2008. https://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/rwa-panel-on-plagiarism/
Litte, Jane. “Signet/NAL Deserves a Round of Applause.” Dear Author, April 20, 2008. https://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/signetnal-deserves-a-round-of-applause/
Litte, Jane. “Win One for the Reader: Signet and Edwards Parting Ways Over Plagiarism.” Dear Author, Apr. 19, 2008. https://dearauthor.com/features/industry-news/win-one-for-the-reader-signet-and-edwards-parting-ways-over-plagiarism/
“More Information on Fair Use.” Copyright.gov. Library of Congress. https://www.copyright.gov/fair-use/more-info.html
Tan, Candy. “Cassie Edwards Investigatory Extravaganza: The First Post.” Smart Bitches Trashy Books, Jan. 7, 2008. https://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/2008/01/cassie_edwards_extravaganza/
Tan, Candy. “Cassie Edwards: Remarkable Similarities to Pulitzer-Winning Novel Laughing Boy.” Smart Bitches Trashy Books, Jan. 13, 2008. https://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/2008/01/cassie_edwards_remarkable_similarities_to_pulitzer_winning_novel_laughing_b/
Tan, Candy and Sarah Wendell. “Cassie Edwards Novels: Tracking their Similarities to Passages Found in Other Books.” Smart Bitches Trashy Books. Jan. 11, 2008. https://smartbitchestrashybooks.files.wordpress.com/2008/01/cassieedwardsrevd.pdf
Wendell, Sarah. “Associated Press Article has Response from Cassie Edwards.” Smart Bitches Trashy Books, Jan. 10, 2008. https://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/2008/01/associated_press_article_has_response_from_cassie_edwards/comment-page-2/
Wendell, Sarah. “Romantic Times Amends Conference Schedule to Include Session on Plagiarism.” Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Jan. 31, 2008. https://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/2008/01/romantic_times_amends_conference_schedule_to_include_session_on_plagiarism/
Wendell, Sarah. “RWA Responds to Plagiarism Accusations.” Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Jan. 11, 2008. https://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/2008/01/rwa_reponds_to_plagiarism_accusations/