A round-up of reactions to John Havel’s article, including responses from author Anna Cleary, publisher Harlequin, and John Havel.
Yesterday, I posted my thoughts on John Havel’s article in The Hustle where he essentially demonstrates how easy it is to exploit Amazon’s processes and circumvent its controls to make money without too much effort. Unfortunately, he did this by plagiarising an author’s work, which was still under copyright and, it seems, without permission from the author or publisher. The book he used was Untamed Billionaire, Undressed Virgin by Anna Cleary. (You can buy a copy at Amazon, iTunes and Kobo, or borrow a copy from your library.)
There has been a strong response to this article in the reader communities I hang out in. Not surprisingly, authors have been some of the most vocal. I don’t think Havel really appreciated the effect his actions would have had on authors, and the reception it would receive from people who take plagiarism seriously. I’ve read the article a few times now, and while I appreciate its sense of Hey, it’s a bit of a lark! that tone really just hits a raw nerve in the romance community.
Casey Lucas’s response, By any other name, takes a closer look at why Havel’s piece was infuriating for romance readers. (Though as Vassiliki rightly pointed out, plagiarism affects all authors, not just romance authors.) Casey also addresses the racial insensitivity in Havel’s piece.
Meanwhile, Sandra Schwab and Rachel Bailey pointed out that in addition to plagiarising Cleary, Havel’s experiment might also have infringed on other people’s work when he copied reviews and used a fake photo for his fake author persona.
Over at The Digital Reader, Nate argues that not only was Havel’s plagiarism unnecessary, it didn’t even support his premise: ‘The Hustle put a week into promoting their pirated ebook, and the best they could do was hit #897 on the free best seller list.’
It’s unfortunate, because after reading through Havel’s piece without a rage lens (that took a while for me!), I recognise that he does raise important concerns about weaknesses in Amazon’s processes that fail to properly weed out blatantly plagiarised material. But there are many avenues Havel could have taken to get to the same findings, not the least of which is to obtain permission to use someone else’s work for his experiment, and I don’t believe that, in this case, the end justified the means.
Responses from Cleary, Harlequin and Havel
I contacted Anna Cleary, Harlequin and The Hustle for a response to the article, and although I summarised Cleary’s response yesterday (purely so it would fit the post I had already written), I wanted to post the Q&As here, with minimal editing. Bear in mind that Cleary and Harlequin responded to me yesterday, and John Havel responded to me today, and there were several hours between each of the responses. I’m posting them in the order I received them, which is also the order that I sent out the questions. I received Havel’s response after I wrote the body of this post, and in general I have tried not to editorialise the answers I got from Cleary, Harlequin and Havel, so as to avoid any misinterpretation on my part. I will say that in terms of issuing a sincere apology, I think Havel does pretty well, and I appreciate his forthright answers.
Response from Anna Cleary
Q. Were you aware that John Havel was using your book, Untamed Billionaire, Undressed Virgin, to write an article for The Hustle?
I had no idea, Kat. It came as a complete shock.
Q. If not, how did you find out about the article, and what is your reaction to the story?
The first I knew of it was when my friend Amy Andrews phoned me early this morning from the airport. (She’s on her way to RW15 in New York.) She was so upset, at first I couldn’t work out what she was saying!
Q. Has John Havel or The Hustle contacted you since the article came out to apologise or explain their reasoning?
No. There’s been no attempt.
Q. And hopefully to try and turn this around for good instead of evil… Can you tell us a little bit about Untamed Billionaire, Undressed Virgin?
Oh Kat, 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 this 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!
Q. Do have any other comments you’d like to make about Havel’s piece?
There are no words. The man knows what he must do.
Response from Harlequin
Q. Was Harlequin aware that Untamed Billionaire, Undressed Virgin by Anna Cleary was being used by John Havel to write an article for The Hustle?
No, we were not aware and we are dismayed that John Havel has made such a use of our author’s work.
Q. Given that the article is pitched as an experiment to expose how an unethical person can game the Amazon system, do you have any comments on the approach that Havel took to write this story?
Q. Do you have any other comments regarding the article?
It was plagiarism to use a copyrighted work. We will be contacting Mr. Havel to ensure the rights of our author, Anna Cleary, are protected. We take piracy very seriously and will also be contacting the piracy site that initially posted our author’s work illegally.
Response from John Havel
Q. What has the reaction been at The Hustle to readers’ and authors’ responses to John Havel’s article, Part 2: Confessions from the Scammy, Underground World of Kindle eBooks?
The reaction you’re most likely looking for is that people were pissed. In reality, it was a mixed bag. Most of our audience understood the spirit of the post and looked past the copyright infringement to the larger issue — exploring the mysterious world of Kindle authorship. The vocal backlash, sparked primarily by the plagiarism, has largely been back and forth between those disgusted by the misconduct in this specific case and others who feel like we were disparaging towards legitimate authors. Neither of those points were our intention and I can’t apologize enough to anyone who was offended by our actions or writing. Most of the people who contacted us have been authors themselves so it seems like that’s where we hit the biggest nerve. In no way were we trying to talk badly about the romance novel industry or authors. The purpose was to illuminate the largely unknown practice of self-publishing and bring it to the forefront of discussion. If you think about it that way, I guess it was a success. Just threw in a little bit too much bro-speak…
Q. How did you mitigate the harm to authors and readers that might have been caused by Havel’s experiment?
To be honest, I’m not sure what harm we caused to authors or readers other than potentially writing something they didn’t like. The only people who are legitimately affected are Anna Cleary and, by proxy, her publisher. We’re now on good terms with Harlequin and are working with them and Ms. Cleary to publish a correction and apology on the post. We also removed the book from Amazon.
Have we disparaged the Amazon Kindle authors and readers? Possibly, but not any more than throwing out similar doubt to other articles discussing the prevalence of fake reviews, ghostwriting, and “bestselling” experts. That stuff, at least in our minds, is the real core issue here.
On a personal level, I’ve been responding to people who contact us with their thoughts but that’s about the extent of any harm mitigation apart from publishing a statement on the post (coming soon once we get approval from Harlequin).
Q. Have you contacted Anna Cleary, Harlequin, or the readers who downloaded the book by ‘Amber Ward’ to address some of the concerns raised since the article was published?
Yup, we’re in contact with a Harlequin representative who is working with both Ms. Cleary and the editor. The plan is to publish a correction/apology and remove any links to the website with the pirated full text. Unfortunately, there’s no way for us to contact the readers who downloaded the book as that’s controlled by Amazon. Hopefully they enjoy the story and, if they’re reading this, should direct compliments to Ms. Cleary.
Q. The original article has been significantly altered to remove references to Anna Cleary and ‘Untamed Billionaire, Undressed Virgin’, and comments for the article have been disabled. Would you explain the reasoning behind these editorial decisions?
This one’s easy. Removing the references and the comments on the article was a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that we were aware of but didn’t want to escalate. We weren’t expecting the type of response and immaturely ran upstairs to hide under our beds, hoping it would go away. Looking back it probably made it worse but since those decisions were made, we talked to our lawyers and Harlequin on the best course of action and refrained from making any additional changes. The current plan is to revert back to the original post (without links to the offending website) and add in the aforementioned apology pending its approval. As for the comments functionality, I think we can go without the name calling and personal threats so those will most likely stay disabled. There’s always Twitter for that stuff anyways.
Q. Would you have done the piece differently? (If so, what would you have changed?)
Would we have done the piece differently? Yes and no. The obvious change would be to use a different body of work that wasn’t under copyright. That should go without saying. I’d also probably change the tone of the piece itself. The editor and I decided on an irreverent voice to go along with the cavalier nature of this “underworld” we portrayed. In retrospect it mainly comes off as douchey (can I say that?) and overly sarcastic rather than our hope which was to add some tongue and cheek. Should’ve used a pen name too…
The part we wouldn’t change is pushing the issue. Talking to our insider was an eye-opening moment and everyone we mentioned it to had no clue this was happening. How often do you question the legitimacy of what you read? Before, when there were a relatively small number of publishers, people put faith in their brand integrity. Now that the rules have changed it’s more about taking things on face value and the temptation for manipulation made us nervous.
Q. Do you have any other comments regarding the article or the reactions to it?
I sincerely apologize to Ms. Cleary and Harlequin for the copyright infringement. There’s no excuse for that beyond extreme oversight and we’ll do everything we can to make sure a similar mistake doesn’t happen again.
Beyond that, I’m honestly torn on the intense reactions. Maybe people just hate me, my name, or the writing style we used. That’s at least straightforward and easily understandable. From where I’m sitting, however, it seems like people felt we began to question the integrity of amateur authors who follow their passion of writing. This was not our intention and, if any of your readers fall in this camp, I apologize.
I have nothing but respect for passionate writers who open themselves up for criticism. More people should follow their dreams and we can all benefit from added perspective. Our issue was not with the sport or the players but rather the rules of the game. Amazon’s surface-level goal is to give all authors the opportunity to publish their work to a fair marketplace. A noble goal, no doubt, but in reality they’re trying to undercut traditional publishing houses and increase readership so they make more money (a point illustrated here and in Brad Stone’s book The Everything Store). Would you get into an Uber with a totally random person driving? No, we trust them because they’ve been vetted before given permission to drive. The wild-west mentality of Kindle eBooks opens up a market for swindlers and illegitimate authors (like me, I guess) to take advantage of unsuspecting consumers. Maybe it’s not a problem but for some reason it rubbed me the wrong way.
This was probably a bit more long winded than you expected when you requested our comments but I hope this makes sense. There was never any sort of malicious intent and, while mistakes were made, we want to be as transparent and cooperative as possible. I apologize to those who have been offended or wronged but stand by the initial curiosity inspired by the first part of the series.