At the Back Fence Issue #291

January 21, 2008

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

One More Headache for Editors

Unless you broke your Internet last week, you know that one of the hottest scandals in the romance world was the alleged plagiarism detected in some of Cassie Edwards’ novels. To put it in a nutshell, Edwards was accused of inserting research into her books much in the way a sloppy teenager might paraphrase the Encyclopedia Britannica for a term paper. The blogosphere and message boards have been bursting with posts and comments about the scandal.

Throughout all the posts about topics ranging from copyright to plagiarism to posting styles, one topic kept appearing that only a few remarked on.

This is when some readers asked “Where were the editors?” Many readers thought that Edwards’ editors should have noticed the change in writing style in the suspect passages. The difference in writing voice was obvious. Assuming that the problem is real, and Edwards’ comments on the subject would indicate that it was, should editors have caught the problem before it blew up?

This kind of thing is a hot button for most editors whether they work for large publishing houses or not. AAR reviewer Kate Cuthbert edits children’s fiction, and when asked about the Edwards incidence, she replied that though Edwards’ editors might have noticed the change, they wouldn’t necessarily attribute it to plagiarism.

When editors detect plagiarism, it’s often a lucky accident, and it’s not considered an editor’s responsibility to find it. I’ve been editing nonfiction since 1987, and I’ve never been asked to detect plagiarism. In my own on the job experience, I know of only one editor who discovered plagiarism on the job. Both times, she found it by accident because she just happened to have the “new” text open next to the manual from which it had (allegedly) been taken. An editor isn’t expected to know the manuals by heart. Kate says, “Unless the plagiarist is using something universally known (like, say, Pride and Prejudice), it would be nearly impossible for an editor to keep an eye out for plagiarism. There are just too many sources from where a plagiarist might steal. As an editor, I just never think that any of my authors would steal. The idea of plagiarism is such an anathema in the industry, that it just never seems worth the risk.”

Thinking editors can detect plagiarism is a trap into which any of us can fall. In the early 1990s, I saw a new horror novel on the store shelf, The Crawling Dark by Pauline Dunn. It was hard to find new horror novels back then, so I picked it up and read the back cover – then put it down in disgust. The blurb made it sound like a total rip-off of Phantoms, one of Dean R. Koontz’s first best-sellers. Months later, I read an article that revealed my instincts had been correct. The publisher of Dunn’s book had been forced to pull The Crawling Dark. A Koontz fan who read both books found disturbing similarities between the two books and contacted Koontz.

My first reaction when I heard about this was “Why didn’t the horror editor notice? Don’t they keep up with the field?” But editors can’t read every book in their field. It was unrealistic of me to expect the editors of Dunn’s book to know Koontz’s work by heart. The editor may have been so busy doing her job that she never had time to read for pleasure. She probably would have been shocked to learn that much of the general public takes it for granted that detecting plagiarism is her job.

One reason that readers may expect editors to uncover plagiarism is that they are confused about an editor’s responsibilities. Kate observed that many people “seem to think that our job is to read all day and check for spelling errors. The bad press that comes from authors like Anne Rice hasn’t helped perceptions much either.”

Depending on title, editors hold a variety of jobs with different responsibilities. Kate’s title is Project Editor; she takes a project “from conception to completion.” Here is how it works. Her publishing house comes up with an idea for a book and selects an author to write that book. Kate will work to make sure that the author meets the schedule, and sticks to the topic. There are other editors at her publishing house, but most take their projects from start to finish, wearing different editing hats along the way. An editor’s role might involve anything from developing an idea to copyediting a final draft. Kate says, “I really like the way this works . It allows us to keep our skills up in the various different types of editing. As with any skill, if it goes unpracticed, you often lose the touch.”

Sharon, a member of a copyediting discussion list, is an editor with experience editing thousands of scientific research papers. She agrees that it’s not possible for editors to be responsible for plagiarism; it’s not as though all texts are available online. She explains that “in my field, science, there is no way that I could read any or all of the literature on my author’s particular topic.” Peer reviewers are supposed to know the field, and might even advise the author if they think there are gaps in the research. Sharon adds, “Whenever a contract says that I am liable for any lawsuits against the client resulting from plagiarism or copyright violations, I strike out the clause and explain why.”

Fiction editors are in the same boat. They love books – otherwise they wouldn’t be editors. But no matter how much you love books, you can’t read them all. Author Karen Templeton points out, “For an editor to catch plagiarized passages, she’d have to be familiar with the original material in order to know the passages were plagiarized. Editors may be widely read, but they’re not that widely read. How many romance editors are going to be familiar with some out-of-print-for-60-years treatise on Native American ritual, for instance?”

What about within the romance field? For that, the editor would need to read every romance ever written (and we all know it’s hard enough to just read our own TBR pile!) and know the words by heart on top of that. Templeton argues that this is why contracts include clauses where the author must attest that they are the author of the material. The onus is on the author rather than on the editor.

Shân, also a member of that copyediting list, is a freelance editor who primarily edits nonfiction but has edited fiction as well. When asked if editors are responsible for detecting plagiarism, Shân responded, “Yipes! I’d never thought of being responsible for detecting plagiarism!” Asking an editor to be responsible for detecting plagiarism is “like being hired to ‘lightly clean’ someone’s ten-room apartment, with a four-hour limit on your time, and then being castigated because you didn’t clean beneath the 1,000-pound antique safe in the library.”

Kate was stunned that many people laid the blame for the alleged plagiarism on Edwards’ editor. “Every time someone started sharpening their pitchforks, blaming everything on the editors, I cringed, ” she said. She was also upset that some posters said that editors clearly aren’t well read because a well-read editor would have noticed that Cassie Edwards was allegedly plagiarizing the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Laughing Boy. Show of hands now…who here has read Laughing Boy, or know someone who has? Me neither.

Let’s say you were an editor who noticed that an author’s voiced changed during some of the dialogue? Could you change it? Kate answers with a “a big categorical no!” She points out that the role of editors is not to rewrite books. “We can point out where the dialogue is clunky, or the style has changed, but when it comes to fiction, the author has to decide to make those changes or not. If they don’t, there’s really not a whole lot that an editor can do. This is why trust in the author-editor relationship is so important. The author must believe that the editor is suggesting/making the changes for the good of the book, and the editor must never, never betray that trust.” What about changing the voice of the author? That’s another big no. Kate argues, “Fiction editing is such a minefield, especially when dealing with an author’s personal voice and writing style – and doubly so when the author has such a history and following as Cassie Edwards. I’d be surprised if her editors were allowed to do much more than correct spelling mistakes.” She added, “I find you really have to keep in mind that as long as the sense is there, consistent style is the most important. It may not be your consistent style, but that doesn’t make it wrong. And yes, sometimes it’s very, very hard. “

Karen Templeton agrees that changing the author’s voice would be a mistake. “I do not want someone who changes my voice, or – even worse – my characters’ voices/syntax.” She adds that she doesn’t like having to “stet” a copyeditor’s corrections – not because she’s anal, but because those changes are wrong. I agree with Templeton that sometimes a correction that looks “right” is wrong for a character. Let’s say you’re writing a Regency where the upper class gentlemen often use “ain’t” to sound cool. Wouldn’t you be furious if the copyeditor changed it to “aren’t” because “ain’t” was technically wrong?

But the role of editors varies more than you would think and some editors do ask for changes in voice and vocabulary. Ask a dozen authors what her editor does to a manuscript and you will get a dozen answers. Often the answers are contradictory. Some attest that genre fiction doesn’t get edited, though that runs contrary to much that was said by authors and other attendees at last year’s RWA National Conference.

Kate works closely with authors using phone, e-mail, and face-to-face meetings. Her experience isn’t the norm when it comes to romance novels; while many romance editors shepherd a book from sale through publication, most do not project edit as Kate does. Even so, her experience provides valuable insight into the editing process. Although her publisher often commissions an author to write a book created conceptually by the publisher, and over which the publisher maintains creative control, she adds that “out of respect for the author’s work and abilities, I tend to discuss at the very least the major changes I want to make with the book, and often give those suggested changes to the author to make her/himself, which has the added benefit of keeping the writing voice consistent.

Author Templeton’s experience is similar – yet different. While Harlequin continuity series are essentially work for hire, the majority of its releases are not. “Harlequin books are both line edited (by our own editor, usually, sometimes another editor if our own is overbooked) and copy-edited by, well, a copy-editor.” The author relates that the quality of editing varies, but “another set of eyes never hurts.” Her impression is that the amount of editing an author receives varies from author to author. At Harlequin, some authors, even established ones, receive detailed revision letters from their editors. Her editor “has a very light touch with authors she trusts to turn in near-to-publication-worthy material, noting consistency problems in the margins but not touching the material itself.” When she first started working with this editor (“12 years and 25 books ago, not counting the few she rejected for one reason or another”), she got detailed notes, and even had to rewrite one of her books. Now that they have established a relationship, and the editor knows her writing process, things have changed. Templeton concludes, “She also knows that I’m probably my own harshest critic: By the time she gets the book, I’ve already taken it through at least three editing passes on my own and have thus already worked out the vast majority of the kinks. In other words, I turn in every book as though it’s my first submission and my only chance to impress the editor.”

One thing editors learn quickly is that they shouldn’t change too much. By changing the author’s words, an editor can inadvertently change the meaning. She can also change the author’s voice, which a very bad thing to do when editing fiction.

Even in my own job as a technical editor, changing words can be a disaster. A single “the” can change the meaning of a sentence. Move that decimal point, and a doctor might give someone an overdose when following your instructions. You have to worry about the science. Meaning comes first, and sometimes the awkward sentence is better. While none of those papers will be up for a Pulitzer, some of the authors could one day win a Nobel.

Should programs designed to detect copying in term papers be used by fiction editors? The idea makes Templeton nervous. “The idea of some sort of software that would compare new work to every book ever written in order to weed out plagiarism frankly gives me the willies. Not because I’d ever condone obvious plagiarism, but because when a hundred authors visit the same subject – a conversation in which the hero discovers he has a child he never knew about, for example, or even a description of a sunset – similarities are bound to occur.” As an example, she just turned in a book where the heroine, who gave up her child for adoption years before, decides she wants to see her son again. The days she turned it in, she turned on the TV and saw an episode of The Gilmore Girls she’d never seen before, with a similar plot. “Parts of the conversation between Luke and Jesse’s father were so eerily similar to the dialogue I’d written between my hero and heroine, the hair on the back of my neck raised.” As the author points out, “that’s not plagiarism, it’s synchronicity, and it happens all the time.” She’s afraid that if fiction editors start running manuscripts through software, many more plagiarism scandals, some of them dubious, will be created.

But Maggie B believes the opposite will be true because the software will help head off the type of scandal we see with Cassie Edwards (and earlier, with three cases AAR reported on, involving Janet Dailey, Gail McFarland, and Cindi Louis). She argues: “Imagine if software could have alerted the publisher to the similarity of the work of Sloppy Firsts [and Second Helpings] and Kaavya Viswanathan’s Opal Mehta. They could have asked Kaavya to redo the passages in question and there would have been no need for the huge public outcry against her work. Embarrassment all around could have been spared and we could all be holding copies of this work right now. The same would be true for Edwards – her editor could say ‘That resembles your source material too much. Write it in your own words or cut the scene.'” She also points out that could have avoided the ongoing scandal and the brouhaha on blogs and message boards. “Rather than gleeful bloggers using the Internet to find intentional (and probably some unintentional) similarities in a work, an editor could spot the problem before it occurs and fix it.”

But Kate points out that forcing editors to “search through every line of every book to see if it was stolen from somewhere is such a monster task, it’s simply impossible to do. Especially as editors have many other responsibilities. It would simply swamp us. Nothing would ever get published! I think, at the end of the day, the author should take full blame. They stole. They plagiarized. Looking to blame elsewhere is simply unnecessary.”

The larger question may be not what editors do, but what if any actions, publishers decide to take in the wake of embarrassing, and expensive revelations. Of all of the pieces of bad news a publisher can be awakened to on a Monday morning, few probably compare with discovering that a recently released book is under suspicion. Can editors prevent their pain? Probably not, but given the ease at which questionable books can be revealed, this discussion is far from over.

Time to Post to the ATBF Forum:

What has been your understanding of an editor’s role? Were you surprised at any of the editors’ comments in the column? Has your understanding of the role of an editor changed as a result of reading the column?

Compare the Cassie Edwards incident to those explored in earlier years at AAR involving Janet Dailey, Gail McFarland, and Cindi Louis. At the time those incidents occurred, there was far less hoopla about them – other than at AAR. Is the increase in notoriety simply a function of the growth of the Internet, or has something else happened in recent years to make this story so widely reported?

Have you ever read a book that you believed was too similar to another book that you questioned its authorship? What was it about the book that led you to question its authorship? What, if anything, did you do as a result?

Essentially authors are held to an honor system regarding the ownership of their work. Is that appropriate, or should editors also be held responsible? If your answer is “yes,” how would that work in the real world?

In two of the plagiarism incidents covered by AAR in the past, the victims were hindered in what they could publicly reveal about the incidents. And while the publishers who published the stolen material ceased publication of the offending authors’ work – and dropped those authors from their contracts – neither would admit any liability in the matter. In perhaps an even odder turn, Laurie recalls that in her investigation of one of these incidents, getting any details from the publisher of the original work was “like pulling teeth,” even though that publisher, and its victimized author, were on the right side of things. What’s your response to that?

What, if anything, do you know about existing anti-plagiarism software? Two popular programs are currently in use at many universities, and newspapers and publishers have begun to study its efficacy. One of the major criticisms about such software is the presumption of guilt. Given the trust needed between author and editor, do you support the widespread use of such software, or, because of changes in technology that put so much information at our fingertips, is it simply a necessity?

Anne Marble

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