John Havel of The Hustle plagiarises a romance author in the name of…something

John Havel of The Hustle plagiarises a romance author in the name of…something

John Havel at the The Hustle tried to expose how scam artists can game the Kindle bestseller list to make money…by being a scam artist himself. Literally, he plagiarised Australian author Anna Cleary, and The Hustle is sidestepping criticism without issuing a formal apology.

I was randomly looking through my Twitter feed this morning when I came across this article in The Hustle. (That link goes to an archived copy to minimise page views for the website, but if you really must see the original page, it’s here. However, it won’t be the same as the archived version. I’ll talk about that in a sec.)

According to writer John Havel, he

…ripped off a free book that I found online, made up a middle-aged author from Ohio, and then played Amazon like a fuckin’ vintage banjo to become the #1 ranked book in not one, but two separate categories.

The book happened to be Untamed Billionaire, Undressed Virgin by Aussie author Anna Cleary. I reached out to Cleary to confirm that she was unaware of the experiment prior to the article being published. Cleary first found out about the article this morning through another author, who apparently was so upset on her behalf that Cleary couldn’t work out what she was saying at first. Cleary was shocked when she learned what had happened. She hasn’t received an apology or explanation either from John Havel or The Hustle.

Before I go into my rant about The Hustle piece, I wanted to showcase Cleary’s book first, so I asked her to tell us a bit about Untamed Billionaire, Undressed Virgin:

Untamed Billionaire, Undressed Virgin

Untamed Billionaire, Undressed Virgin by Anna ClearyMills & Boon | 9781742783468 (Aus) | 9781426832437 (US) | Extract

I loved writing this book! It’s a story about a quiet, intuitive young woman, one Sophy Woodruff, whose adoptive family have moved overseas while she remains in Sydney. At work one day, she accidentally sees for the first time her biological father, a silver fox with powerful old-Sydney connections. Thrilled at the chance of a relationship with her original family, Sophy contacts the old boy. Mysteriously, soon after she makes contact, an intriguing stranger, this tall, dark, annoyingly well-built guy with brooding eyes and the devil in his grin, moves into the office next door to hers and introduces himself as Connor O’Brien, lawyer. Thing is, Sophy doesn’t believe he’s a lawyer. But he’s a helluva good kisser!

Amazon | iTunes | Kobo | Library

The title is no longer in print, but you can find the ebook edition at your favourite Harlequin backlist bookseller!

Now, onto the rant…

Havel selected Untamed Billionaire, Undressed Virgin because he was looking for some very specific characteristics in order to maximise the chances of his fake-book making it to Amazon’s bestseller lists:

Why a romance novel, you ask? Three reasons. First, romance is one of the most popular Kindle categories, so I knew the market size was big. Second, our insider told us it’s an easy category to game. Third, and most important, I thought it was funny.

Plan B was more straightforward: find a romance novel in the public domain, make sure it reads well enough, change the character names, and repackage it. In other words, shameless plagiarism for the sake of science with little to no remorse.

To hit one more popular romance theme, I changed all the characters’ names and made the male protagonist black for a little jungle fever action. As soon as Connor O’Brien became Carter Voss we were in business.

For inspiration, I took the real bio pages of five authors, took a sentence from each, and changed the wording to match [Havel’s romance author pseudonym’s] fake persona.

Yes, you read that right. Not only did Havel plagiarise a book he knew to be under copyright (and whose author and publisher he could have contacted for permission quite easily), he plagiarised five other authors’ bios, and was considerate enough to think of diversity in romance.

All this without remorse. It must feel great to write for The Hustle.

As Robin pointed out, not only did Havel plagiarise Cleary’s work, what he did seems to fall under copyright infringement (disclaimer: I’m so not a lawyer; opinions only), and she linked to some information on the possible penalties. They are not trivial.

From a reader’s perspective, while it’s interesting to read what Havel wrote, it’s about as interesting as Kathleen Hale’s article in The Guardian last year — which is to say, they are fascinating to read, but so lacking in ethics that I feel interest is insufficient justification to publish the article. In Havel’s case, there are other, more ethical approaches he could have taken to arrive at essentially the same conclusion for his story. I can only conclude, based on what I read in the article, that any other approach was just Too Much Work.

The article also treats romance readers with disdain, bordering on contempt. Havel attempts to mitigate actually receiving money for the plagiarised book by mentioning that proceeds will be given to charity. Good try, Havel, but if you really don’t want to lie to people and rip them off, then don’t lie to people and don’t rip them off. I think those readers should get their money back with an apology, and that everyone who downloaded a free copy should receive an apology, too.

It’s almost comedy when you get to Havel’s attempts to put some kind of moral framework around his actions:

On the other hand, does it really matter? The information age brushed away our internal filters and skepticism to the point where we take most things at face value. Shouldn’t we be used to this by now?

Essentially, we pay authors to do research on a topic and write about their findings and there’s always the chance they’re wrong or wacko. Whose responsibility is it to enforce fact-finding and overall legitimacy? If someone wants to buy and believe these books, let them! Plus, don’t you remember seeing cheesy paperbacks with Fabio on the cover at the grocery store check out? How’s this different?

Havel’s argument seems to be that Amazon allowed him to do it, so it’s Amazon’s fault. By the way, if readers are gullible, that’s their problem. And hey, all books with Fabio covers are the same! There are so many things wrong with these arguments I don’t even know where to begin, but essentially, if you’re behaving like an arsehole, you can point to Amazon and say, You made me do it!, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re behaving like an arsehole.

Furthermore, as I mentioned on Twitter, The Hustle redacted the book title and author that Havel copied from. It looks like they have also disabled comments. This was done without an editor’s note or an apology. Removing the details of Cleary’s book, the source material for Havel’s fake-book, removes context essential for readers to assess whether or not Havel conducted himself ethically. It also puts some distance between Havel’s admission of plagiarism and the source text. You can make your own conclusions about The Hustle’s motives, but I recognise CYA when I see it.

Thanks to @VaVeros and @SandraAntonelli for tweeting links to the article.


  1. Sarah Mayberry says:

    I cannot f-ing believe this story. This Hustle guy is an ass hat of the highest order. How f-ing DARE HE do this to Anna Cleary? To any author? In case you can’t tell, I am red-faced with outrage right now. As you said, Kat, so may layers of wrong in this story. Pretending that Anna’s book being free is the same as being “in the public domain”, the contemptuous treatment of romance readers, his contempt in general for both readers and writers… I hope Mills and Boon/Harlequin are onto this and ready to stomp all over him with their big lawyer boots. As for the bull about donating the $$ earned to charity… How about offering it to the woman whose months of hard work, skill, craft and imagination went into creating the story he so blithely ripped off? Or, as you said, refunding it to all the readers who were defrauded by his plagiarism. I hope with the white-hot fury of a thousand suns that his site gets shut down.

  2. Sheryl says:

    I hope the legal system rips this idiot for every dime he AND his “magazine” has. There’s no logic or reason behind this, just a need to put out some sort of silly article and along the way he hurt an author who has done nothing wrong, trashed a publisher’s copyright and stole money from unsuspecting readers who thought they were getting an original piece of work!

    Please follow this up – hopefully with a statement that the scum has lost his job and been sued within an inch of his life.

    What a jerk!

  3. azteclady says:

    So many levels of fucked up–that man is an utter douche, an ignorant, arrogant, racist and, I would say, misogynistic asshole.

    I do hope that Harlequin chooses to make an example out of him and his ‘magazine.’ I would just love to see him try to plead “amazon made me do it!” and “it was free, it was clearly in the public domain!” as a defense in court.

  4. SonomaLass says:

    I bought Anna’s book (thanks for the link). I hope lots of other readers do the same. It won’t make up for the violation, but maybe a little good can come out of this ugliness.

  5. Erin Burns says:

    That is appalling and I sincerely hope he gets the highest penalties possible. The fact that one can get away with something, makes it no less illegal.

  6. Becky Black says:

    The “experiment” in gaming Amazon doesn’t even make sense in the context of the story. The previous week’s article is about a guy who makes a load of money from self-help books on Amazon, which are actually written by a ghostwriter. So to try to verify that what that guy told them he does can indeed be done, they go and…do something completely different – ripping off a book instead of paying a ghostwriter to write it.

    In the previous week’s article, they have the following about the “Amazon Gold Rusher” “Notes #2: We don’t reveal the author’s identity on purpose as to not screw him over.”

    So they don’t want to screw over someone whose practices they apparently found disgusting, but they had no qualms about screwing over the writer of the stolen book, or the people who bought it. Stay classy, dudes.

    And he obviously needs a lesson in basic principles of copyright law and what “public domain” actually means.

    What an utter knob.

  7. Great article. I think all of use were shocked – at first, the cavalier attitude of Havel and then secondly, the cowardly way he tried to cover up his plagiarism by altering his post without notification (as it common blogger courtesy and custom) – I saved the unaltered post.

    Havel fancies himself as some kind of internet and programming expert but he’s forgotten a golden rule of the web – nothing ever really disappears down the memory hole.

    If there is a silver lining for Anna and the romance community in general, it is these points:

    a) Havel’s grudging admission that romance sells really well as a literary genre.

    b) The romance writing community has each other’s back.

  8. Lisa Ireland says:

    I became aware of this early yesterday via a link in my Facebook feed. I was gobsmacked. I couldn’t believe the arrogance of this guy, his total lack of regard for Anna and his disrespect of the genre as whole. Not to mention that what he’s done is illegal.

    Great sum up, Kat. I hope articles like this will pressure The Hustle into apologising.

    And I hope Harlequin pursue this with everything they’ve got.

  9. Kat says:

    I really don’t think The Hustle realised the article would get this much reaction from readers and authors, though I feel like they ought to have anticipated something at least, given that they copied a book published by a fairly large publisher. My guess is that this probably goes back to their dismissive attitude towards romance books.

    FYI, I’ll be posting a follow-up on this, hopefully today. Just waiting for a reply to one of my emails.

  10. Dora Bramden says:

    So sick of people treating the romance genre as valueless. This is an unbelievably ignorant and disrespectful act. I hope Anna gets lots of new sales for her ebook and that Mills and Boon obtain legal compensation for her too.

  11. Juanita Kees says:

    I’m so angry at Havel’s stupidity, I can’t even articulate a response. I agree with Dora that this is an unbelievably ignorant and disrespectful act. Well said, Dora Bramden. What kind of self-seeking moron would commit a crime, attack a major publisher and attempt to destroy the hard work of a prominent author? Or any other author whatever genre they write? And then admit it so very publicly? I hope M&B/HQN take his stupid ass to the cleaners. Never mind closing down his magazine, I know where I’d like to put it!

    On the upside, I hope Anna’s sales boom as result and prove to the idiot what a real artist is capable of as opposed to what a con-artist can destroy.

  12. I hope Harlequin sues the pants off this guy. I really, really do.

    In case anyone missed the point, just because something is “free” on the Internet, it does NOT mean it’s “public domain.” He got the file from a pirate site, which is ILLEGAL CONTENT. It’s STEALING.

    I hope he enjoys the legal fees he’ll likely rack up from having done this.

  13. Sam says:

    Hey hey, this is Sam from The Hustle.

    Just wanted everyone to know that we have talked to Harlequin. We are all good. There will be no suing, no “making an example” of us, or anything of that. We’re on good terms.

    The entire post has been put back up on our site, so feel free to give it a read.

    We’re always welcome to criticism and feedback. If you wanna talk, just holler at me directly at


    And don’t forget to check out the follow post on Bookthingo…it’s a good one.

  14. Susan May says:

    Public domain? Anything in copyright is NOT public domain. Havel should be put under the jail for the next twenty years. Theft is theft, no matter the screwy reason for which it is done. Plus, he should be charged as an accessory before the fact for showing how easy plagiarism can be done. It’s about time the law – and Amazon, who may be more powerful – took the theft of intellectual property more seriously.

  15. Elizabeth Rolls says:

    “We’ve talked to Harlequin.” “We are all good.”

    Really, Sam? Well, that’s a shame. Because your “writer” and your magazine clearly have questionable ethics. And you know what? I’m perfectly happy to make my disgust at your behaviour public. No need for private emails. You can schmooze and spin it any way you like. What you did was wrong. End of story. Has there been a public apology to the real author, Anna Cleary? Is she being compensated for the theft of her work? Forgive me if I decline to visit your site to find out, but I have a new computer and I’d rather keep it in good working order.

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