Plagiarism in Romantic Fiction

By Caroline Kincaid

Introduction

Nora Roberts equated plagiarism with “mind rape” in the early months of 1998 (Wexler, 20). Roberts certainly has the authority to speak on the subject; in 1997, an astute reader realized that Janet Dailey’s book Notorious and Roberts’s book Sweet Revenge shared too many similarities and posted her findings on a blog (Peyser, 1). Within a year, Dailey admitted that three of her books stole details and story elements from Roberts. After a tumultuous period of denials, carefully-worded apologies, and a civil court case, Daley was forced to pay reparations to Roberts, who donated the funds to Literacy Volunteers of America (Wexler, 20). The disgraced author was also dropped from her long-time publisher HarperCollins.

This particular plagiarism scandal rocked the romantic fiction industry because both of the authors involved were highly influential: Daley was the former superstar, with more than “200 million novels in print” at the time of the incident, and Roberts was the “hottest new writer” for romance (Peyser, 1). While the incident may have only directly affected two authors, massive ramifications were felt across the industry. Janet Dailey’s plagiarism of Nora Robert’s work and subsequent apology demonstrated a lack of accountability for her actions; therefore, the seriousness of the theft appeared to be minimized. However, Nora Roberts’s strong reaction, as well as the support of the literary industry, helped to establish that romantic fiction authors value their work and are willing to fight to protect it. Even so, Dailey’s eventual return to the romantic fiction world demonstrated the industry’s divided opinions on the topic of redemption.

Vigilant Readers

Romantic fiction readers demonstrated their ferocity for protecting authors within the industry by accusing Dailey of plagiarism, and supporting their claims with evidence, before Roberts’s team or any other professionals discovered the theft. Plagiarism is defined as stealing another person’s ideas and publishing them or verbally stating them without crediting the original source (Khan, 119). In any scenario, this is unacceptable.  However, for a popular author like Dailey to plagiarize from a beloved icon like Roberts, the crime is almost nonsensical. How could an established and well-known author plagiarize from another without anyone knowing? At certain points in the novel, Dailey nearly directly lifted dialogue from Roberts.  (See Figure 1 Sweet Revenge and Figure 2 Notorious).

                         

Figure 1- Roberts, Nora. Sweet Revenge. 1988.           Figure 2- Dailey, Janet. Notorious. 1996.

Dailey managed to sneak the stolen contents of her books Notorious and Aspen Gold past her editors, publishers, and critics. Instead, it was a reader who enlightened the world to Dailey’s plagiarism through an online blog (Associated Press, 1). Roberts writes that she “might never have known that [her] work was stolen” if a reader had not noticed the discrepancy (Roberts, 1). A reader observing and bringing attention to the plagiarism that various other industry professionals were unable to point out while the book was under production showcases the extent to which romantic fiction readers feel loyal to their authors and value their work.

In a broader context, plagiarism was considered to be most prevalent in academic works and historical non-fiction, such as Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Goodwin’s plagiarism in her 1987 book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (Le Moyne College, 1). It is possible that plagiarism was thought to be more common in these genres because industry professionals were willing to fully expose and punish perpetrators, with one notable professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill stating that plagiarism “is a grievous professional transgression in the academic world” (Mclendon, 1). To that point, Goodwin was fired from her job as a newscaster and forced to resign from the Pulitzer Board (Le Moyne College, 1).

Dailey clearly published Notorious thinking that her plagiarism would escape detection. One possible reason for her confidence in plagiarizing such a famous peer while she herself was incredibly popular was the lack of respect demonstrated for romantic fiction during this time period. While in 2007 romantic fiction gathered over 1.3 billion dollars in revenue and accounted for the “highest market share of book sales,” the genre was thought of as “the poor stepchild” and “black sheep” of literature and publishing (Margolis, 3). Critics did not accept romantic fiction as true literature; therefore, it is possible that Dailey assumed she could plagiarize without being caught. After all, there would be no critics deeply analyzing her book who could link Sweet Revenge to Notorious.  The very readers that propelled Dailey to stardom are the ones who discovered her plagiarism. There may be other reasons that Dailey believed her plagiarism would not be discovered, but unfortunately, she never gave any direct interviews before her death in 2013 about her motivations for plagiarizing Roberts.

Lack of Accountability

Dailey issued a public apology to Roberts that completely lacked accountability and a true understanding of the gravity of her actions; consequently, Dailey appeared to be attempting to depreciate her role in the plagiarism scandal, even though she was the sole person responsible for the theft (Appendix). Rather than clearly stating that she was responsible for plagiarizing Roberts, Dailey reported that the plagiarism was orchestrated by “[her] essentially random and non-pervasive acts of copying” (Sarah, 1). Essentially, Dailey blamed the plagiarism on her actions instead of herself and attempted to convolute the situation by not simply admitting her transgression. Dailey never acknowledged that she, Janet Dailey, was responsible for plagiarizing her friend and colleague Nora Roberts. Additionally, Dailey blamed the plagiarism on her husband’s cancer, the death of two of her brothers, and a “disorder” (Peyser, 1). Dailey’s publicist, Sanford Brokaw, cited the death of the family dog as a contributing factor (Streitfield, 1). While all of these reasons may have been valid, Dailey did not clearly admit her wrongdoing.

The ramifications of Dailey’ semi-apology were enormous for the romantic fiction industry. By not using the word “I,” Dailey was likely trying to distance herself from the scandal and avoid culpability. While Dailey initially links herself to the plagiarism by referring to the incident as “my conduct” and “my acts of copying,” she is quick to separate herself from “the disorder” and “this behavior” (Kellermann, 2). By shedding personal responsibility for the plagiarism, Dailey is insinuating that the crime was not serious enough to warrant a true apology. Further, Dailey’s apparent lack of self-awareness set a poor example, especially considering her position as possibly the “most successful female writer in the country” with ninety-three novels as of 1997 (Peyser, 1).

Media Reactions

The romantic fiction industry was, and is, often not given the same respect as other genres of literature on the basis of so-called cliched characters and repetitive plot-lines; consequently, the media largely downplayed Dailey’s plagiarism of Roberts. The scandal was heavily covered by different news outlets, but these reporters often took the opportunity to criticize the romantic fiction sphere instead of focusing on the seriousness of Dailey’s theft. Reporter Jeff Wilson of Associated Press began his report of the scandal by commenting that “there is a reason that romance novels all seem to read alike” (Wilson). The Washington Post article written by David Streitfeld starts out by saying that in order to make a romance writer “breathe heavy,” one must “try pinching her nose” (Streitfeld, 1). According to a popular blog post published in 1997 on the website All About Romance, even ABC’s Good Morning America joined in the fray by instructing their male anchors to read romance scenes aloud to the audience (Laurie, 1). While the media could have shone light on the brilliant readers who pieced together the conspiracy or emphasized the importance of preventing plagiarism, they instead chose to minimize the seriousness of Dailey’s theft by lightly mocking romance.

As a result of romance being viewed as “all the same,” there were members of both the media and the romantic fiction community who did not believe Dailey’s plagiarism was cause for outrage (Margolis, 18). In the male-dominated business world of the 1990s, the fact that romantic fiction was seen as “for women” and thereby “[relegated] to second-tier status” meant that the reporters covering the plagiarism case focused on making remarks about the industry rather than analyzing the situation and holding Dailey accountable (Szego, 25). A self-proclaimed fan of Nora Roberts, Janice Johnson stated in an article published by Associated Press that “it is hard to steal ideas for those things” because every single “storyline is the same” (Associated Press, 1). Roberts herself published on her public blog that “a lot of the press had a great time making jokes about it” (Roberts, 1).  Plagiarism is thought to be “one of the greatest disasters facing American society,” and yet, the media found it more important to make critiques of a literary genre than to report on the crisis occurring around them that could have provided education for the general public on the horrors of plagiarism (Faktoroich, 1). Therefore, the coverage of the incident “hurt every reader and every author in the genre” when in all actuality, the only one who should have been hurt was Dailey (Laurie, 1).

Historical Precedent

Roberts was not the first famed author enraged by the plagiarism of her work. Georgette Heyer, a historical romance writer who lived from 1902 to 1974, was allegedly plagiarized by Barbara Cartland. Heyer, praised for her accuracy, believed that Cartland’s Knave of Hearts, as well as the previous two books in the trilogy, stole details and plotlines from her own book These Old Shades (Alberge, 1). Privately showcasing her fury, Heyer penned letters to her literary agent detailing her refusal to let Cartland “cash in on either [Heyer’s] ideas, or [Heyer’s] research” (Heyer, 1). In the letters, Heyer specifically details a list of sixteen character names that Cartland copied directly from These Old Shades (See Figure 3 from Heyer, 2). Further, the letters describe the language Cartland plagiarized from Heyer, including using the phrases “utter indifference” and “languid boredom” to characterize a handsome Duke who just happens to “flick an imaginary piece of dust” off of his coat in both books (Heyer, 3).

                                          

Figure 3- Heyer, Georgette. “Letters, 1950-1952.” 1950. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Section A. Box 65. Items 1-26.

Heyer goes as far as to say that “Miss Cartland knows nothing whatsoever about the period” and calls Cartland’s novels “quite awful” (Heyer). Heyer was understandably furious about the clear plagiarism of her books, but she made the decision to not go public with the scandal. Instead, she ensured that the “horrible copies of [Cartland’s] books” were no longer distributed (Flood, 1). The 1950s were a different era for women, and it is possible that Heyer was unable to go public for fear of backlash. However, she managed to stand up for her ideas privately.

Roberts’s Reaction

Alternatively to Heyer, Nora Roberts chose to fight the plagiarism case quite publicly; therefore, Roberts conveyed that romantic fiction authors treasured their work and would not tolerate plagiarism. Roberts first time contacting Dailey, the latter swore it was an isolated incident and must have been a misunderstanding; Roberts chose to believe her and agreed to quietly remove her ideas and details from Dailey’s book so it could still be published. However, Roberts concluded that the plagiarism was too massive, and Dailey’s agent was pressing for Roberts to hurry with the editing so that they could return to press for the plagiarized book (Roberts, 1). Roberts was unable to simply give away her property to a thief, and she was upset by Dailey’s lack of remorse. Subsequently, both Roberts and Dailey hired lawyers, more of Dailey’s plagiarism was discovered throughout Roberts’s books, and eventually Dailey went public with what Roberts called a “sad story of emotional trauma” (Roberts, 1). Roberts continued with her case, won, and donated all of the proceeds to charity.

Roberts’s determination to defend her creations led to other movements throughout the industry. Dailey’s publisher, HarperCollins, gave a statement indicating that the entire plagiarism scandal “hurts romance writers” (Laurie, 1). Soon after, Dailey was dropped from the publishing house. As for the media’s coverage of the case, Roberts thinks that their minimization of the crime and mocking of the industry was because “it’s romance, let’s take a shot” (Quinn, 1). Overall, Roberts firmly defended her work and validated romantic fiction’s status as genre with authors who value their creations.

Dailey’s Redemption

Dailey’s apparent exile from the romance fiction world was short-lived. Clearly, not all of the publishers, agents, and other industry professionals in the literary sphere thought of plagiarism as a career-ending transgression- especially if you happened to be a famous and highly profitable author. This brings about the question of how huge the ramifications for proven plagiarism should be. In 2001, the Potpourri Message Board was buzzing with news that Dailey had been offered a four-book deal with Kensington Publishing House (Marble, 1). Posters debated back and forth until Nora Roberts logged on to inform the group that plagiarism is “not a victimless crime” and that writers and readers must act seriously about such violations of honor (Marble, 1). Clearly, opinions varied about the degree to which plagiarists should be punished.

Present-Day Plagiarism Scandal

Since Roberts’s struggle in 1997, the Romance Writers of America association has made an effort to better educate the romantic fiction industry about plagiarism. For example, the RWA hosted a panel on preventing plagiarism with Nora Roberts as a keynote speaker in 2008 at their annual conference (Litte, 1). Additionally, there is an entire section of the RWA website dedicated to the “RWA Member Code of Ethics” (Romance Writers of America, 1). The first bullet point in the official code of ethics states that members should “support the preservation of authorial and intellectual property rights” (Romance Writers of America, 1). The code also states multiple times that “intentional copying of the written works of others” is subject to strict disciplinary action (Romance Writers of America, 1). The RWA is ensuring that members of their organization understand what actions constitute plagiarism and the potential consequences for plagiarists. By including a prominent link to the “Procedure for filing a Member Code of Ethics Complaint,” the RWA is creating a clear pathway for victims of plagiarism who may be unsure of how to bring their plagiarist to justice (Romance Writers of America, 1). However, plagiarism remains an issue to this day. In 2019, self-published Brazilian author Cristiane Serruya was found to have plagiarized Courtney Milan; the plagiarized book was originally nominated for the RITA award granted by the Romance Writers of America, and Serruya was set to participate in the judging process (Ciucci, 1). Many readers began to comb through Serruya’s novels, and she was found to have plagiarized at least 62 books and 34 authors (Caffeinated Fae, 1).

Instead of battling this incident alone, the affected authors, including Roberts, have banded together through social media to raise awareness about the issue and demonstrate their willingness to fight for their work. The hashtag #CopyPasteCris was created in order to share information on Facebook and Twitter. Roberts is publicly commented on Courtney Milan’s blog post about the plagiarism scandal that she is recommending all of the affected authors hire lawyers and “stand up for [their] work” because they “are not alone” (Beatty, 1).  Milan stated she would not “back down without a fight” from the plagiarism case, and it is likely the other authors will follow suit (Milan, 1). Roberts has also recently written on her website that if the evidence of Serruya’s plagiarism is strong enough, she will sue because “she can afford to while many of [Serruya’s] victims can’t” (Walker, 1). The affected authors’ pride in their books and Roberts’s staunch refusal to ignore or minimize plagiarism are jointly resulting in a movement of the genre’s authors declaring that their work is valuable, personal, and most importantly, original.

The media coverage of this incident was originally more subdued than the coverage around Roberts and Dailey in the late nineties. However, as the number of affected authors taking to social media to share their frustrations and experiences about #CopyPasteCris increased, the media began picking up on the story (Ciucci, 1). An article published on Plagiarism Today details Serruya’s planned defense: blaming her numerous ghostwriters (Bailey, 1). Another example is a piece written by Brianna Bennett that delves into the debate of whether Amazon’s self-publishing platform enables plagiarism (Bennett, 1). Within hours of Roberts announcing that she would be suing Serruya for copyright infringement, multiple high-profile news publications published stories about the scandal. Time Magazine states that “best-selling novelist Nora Roberts is suing a Brazilian writer” and that “she would donate any damages from the lawsuit to a literacy program in Brazil” (Italie, 1). In The New York Times, Roberts is quoted as saying that “[she swears she’ll] do everything [she] can” to stop Serruya (León, 1). Forbes, Vulture Magazine, and The Guardian have all released coverage of the incident as well. Roberts is likely the focus of these publications due to her name recognition and previous experience with plagiarism scandals. Each of the news outlets is careful to include information about the other affected authors as well. Notably, the media coverage does not include any mockery of romantic fiction or any snide remarks about Roberts suing Serruya. Roberts was portrayed as overdramatic and unsympathetic for suing Dailey in 1997; however, Roberts has been framed as a warrior for her genre for suing Serruya in 2019. Clearly, the relationship between the romantic fiction industry and news outlets has improved in the past two decades.

Conclusion

In summation, Janet Dailey’s plagiarism of Nora Roberts’s book Sweet Revenge in 1996 resulted in an ongoing debate about the varying degrees of punishment for those “convicted” of plagiarism. Dailey attempted to minimize her mistake, but Roberts was unwilling to let such a massive violation be ignored by the media and the industry. Roberts has been outspoken about the effects of plagiarism, and with Roberts’s support, the authors currently embroiled in the #CopyPasteCris plagiarism scandal have been responding with strength and dignity. As a result of their active response to Serruya, the authors are able to create their own narrative about her plagiarism and its effects on the romantic fiction world while also spreading awareness of the incident to the general public. In the future of the industry, it will be interesting to note which direction the readers decide to swing on the issue of the redemption of plagiarists. Does everyone deserve a second chance? Or does stealing a colleague’s work bar you from the romantic fiction world permanently?

Appendix

Janet Dailey’s Apology to Nora Roberts

“I recently learned that my essentially random and nonpervasive acts of copying are attributable to a psychological problem that I never even suspected I had.  The plagiarism took place while I was under professional and personal stress. I have already begun treatment for the disorder and have been assured that, with treatment, this behavior can be prevented in the future.I can only apologize to Nora, whom I’ve considered a friend, and to my readers for any pain or embarrassment my conduct has caused” (Kellermann, 2-4).

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