It is the strangest feeling to be reading a book you didn’t write and suddenly realize that you’re reading words that you did write.
This happened to me while I was reading a book about mail-order foods that came out of a major publishing house. The words I recognized were ones that came from a book I’d written with my identical twin, Allison Engel, about AUTHOR’S NOTE
The book’s title is "Food Finds: America’s Best Local Foods and the People Who Produce Them."regional American food companies. Our book was published by HarperCollins in 1984; ultimately we wrote two more editions, in 1991 and 2000 [see author’s note]. We also created a television show based on the book, now in its sixth season on the Food Network.
My twin and I were both newspaper reporters, somewhat accustomed to the occasional happenstance of seeing news stories we wrote show up, rewritten, on the next-day pages of other publications. Sometimes, the stories borrowed a quote or two, but there were those other times, when Allison was Midwest editor for Pacific News Service and she saw her enterprise reporting very closely rewritten by a major East Coast newspaper. Her editor complained, but no corrections or apologies ever were forthcoming. Parade magazine once printed a cover story on small towns and dangerous industries that featured, out of the entire Midwest, the exact towns, sources and sequence of events that Allison had highlighted in a story she’d reported several months earlier. I still bear a grudge against Ms. magazine, where I sent my newspaper profile of legendary Cleveland newscaster Dorothy Fuldheim, asking for an assignment to expand it for the magazine. No answer, but several months later, a quite similar profile appeared in Ms.. Just coincidence, I’m sure.
So we didn’t come to this moment as innocents of journalists’ bad habit of rewriting stories and reusing ideas without credit. But nothing prepared us for the willful blindness of major league plagiarism in the book industry.
Reacting to Stolen Words
Our first reaction was shock about the outright theft. We underlined all of the similar sentences, not to mention product selection, and totaled up the damage. It was bad. Knowing how hard we’d worked to choose the best mom and pop maple sugar producer, for example, out of the dozens across the five states we researched, we had a right to be mad that another writer used our work as a shortcut. We knew how many late nights and early mornings we’d invested in this book, stealing time away from our husbands and kids. Both of us worked fulltime at newspapers so we’d completed the book on nights, weekends and vacations, exhausting our modest advance on travel, phone calls, and buying of products from across the nation.
So it was personal. But all we wanted from the authors—and company—who stole from us was an apology and for the offending book author to either credit us in print or have her book removed from sale. We contacted our publisher, full of righteous indignation. When the offending author was reached, her story was that she must have received the same press releases from the food companies as we did, insinuating that we’d all lifted identical sentences from canned PR materials.
Most of the food companies in our book were tiny operations, including monasteries and farms. Many had hand-written price lists. One didn’t even have a telephone. Blaming the plagiarism on press materials that didn’t even exist at many of our places was laughable. Of course, we also were insulted by the accusation that we would lift sentences from any press releases.
The stage shifted from the editorial to the legal department. We still didn’t want to clog the court system with our complaint, but we realized we wouldn’tget an apology from this prevaricator dealing editor-to-editor. At our expense, my sister and I traveled to New York to explain the situation to our publisher’s in-house lawyer. We received sympathy, but not much traction. It took four months of pestering before the lawyer agreed to send a strong letter to the other publisher.
The reason, we learned, is that there are so many instances of author borrowings that no publisher can afford to get high-handed about such theft. Too many publishers are linked by the transgressions of too many authors, so a lot of plagiarism goes unremarked or is quietly settled. We got the distinct feeling that a lot of horse-trading goes on among the small fraternity of attorneys representing publishing houses. No lawyer who represents editors who we came across seemed shocked by the plagiarism. It seemed to us that it was a given that it happened frequently. At one meeting, the lawyer for HarperCollins listed six or seven publishing houses his office was dealing with then over plagiarism cases—with transgressions on both sides.
By now we were so angry that the offending author hadn’t come clean and had accused us of lifting others’ work that we insisted that any settlement we reached be made public. As far as we could determine, we were among the few authors who’d insisted on this. For most, a cash payment ends the unpleasantness. But when this happens, readers, other authors, editors and agents never learn about this circumstance of plagiarism, and this means they never fully confront the problem.
Both my sister and I had covered regulatory boards, from the Iowa Board of Medical Examiners to the California Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers. The book publishing world’s culture of silence was sounding exactly like the hush-hush settlements that allowed bad doctors and others to move from state to state, continuing to harm the people because the public was kept in the dark. For this to happen to the work of journalists—in a publishing arena in which so many of us write—was something we wanted to bring to public attention; with such exposure, perhaps we could make some difference.
As we wrote to HarperCollins’s lawyer at the time: "[The plagiarist’s] crime was all too public. It is impossible for her apology to be private. The journalism world needs to know about this situation …. Neither Allison nor I could live with a situation where, in the interest of some false feeling of professional comradeship, we allowed plagiarism of our work to be quietly buried."
Silence Greets the News
The months dragged on. Finally, because we were angry and wouldn’t quit, the lawyers from both houses reached a settlement. In exchange for us not suing, the offending book was pulled from the shelves, we were sent a check and, most important to us, a press release would be issued containing details of what had happened.
All of this took place before the Web (and e-mail) was in use, so the release was mailed to every news outlet that had reviewed or mentioned either book. We were prevented, by the agreement, from saying much beyond the press release, but we trusted that the stark words of the statement would speak for themselves.
Our biggest surprise—and disappointment—of the journey was about to happen. Despite being sent to hundreds of news outlets and publishing trade publications, our victory over plagiarism didn’t merit a single mention anywhere. No one cared. Newspapers constantly editorialize about other professionals hiding their misdeeds, but with this they were silent. We felt ashamed of our profession for caring so little about other journalists who were trying to maintain high standards in our practice. The publishing house lawyer wondered why he’d spent so much effort demanding transparency for nothing.
In the era of the Web and blogs, I’d like to think news such as ours would have traveled far and fast and been commented on by many. Perhaps someindustrious blogger would have done a comparison of the two books and displayed how our words were misused. From there, perhaps chat rooms would have been filled with discussion of these transgressions. Then, perhaps pushed by the bloggers’ attention, perhaps some newspapers and Publishers Weekly would have grabbed onto this issue and written editorials about the silence accompanying its practice.
Of course, it’s just as possible this would not happen. Even in new media, where transparency is touted, I suspect that our news might have been greeted with a similar silence. Given bloggers’ ubiquitous practice of linking and "borrowing" content that has appeared elsewhere, our concerns about someone taking our words and making them her own would likely be brushed aside.
The offending author went on writing for other news outlets. We weren’t trying to put her out of business, but I still wonder if any of her editors ever found out that she had used others’ work without attribution. As an assigning editor, I would certainly want to know.
Since that episode, we have heard the experiences of several other writers who have seen their work appear, uncredited, in other books. Unless the borrowing is extreme, most of their publishers have shrugged it off. It’s seen as too messy and too commonplace for their overworked legal departments to invest the hours to correct. The unspoken agreement we saw firsthand appears to be alive and well, except in rare cases, usually involving bestselling authors. But for midlisters, like us, no one can be bothered to blow the whistle on theft.
The public is the loser because trust and accountability vanish. Plagiarism breaks the contract between reader and writer. Once burned, readers now must view every word with suspicion, rather than the natural skepticism that any reader would employ. Do we really want to finish each article and book with the thought, "Well, yes, if it’s true." And for writers, finding their words plagiarized just kicks up their cynicism another notch.
Margaret Engel, a 1979 Nieman Fellow, is a director of the Alicia Patterson Journalism Foundation and managing editor of the Newseum.