Up until yesterday, Cristiane Serruya’s story seemed to be a compelling one for a romance authors to get behind.
After 22 years of practicing law, the Rio de Janeiro-based Serruya decided to take up then pen. After after 6-7 years of writing, had churned out more than 30 works and had one of her short stories published in a best-selling collection.
However, in less than 24 hours, all of that was gone.
As of this writing, her site is down, her books, though online, likely won’t be for long and all of her social media presences, including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, have either been deleted of have fallen silent.
Like so many authors before her, Serruya had become the center of a rapidly evolving plagiarism scandal. It’s a scandal that’s left her reputation in complete tatters and made her a pariah among romance authors and readers alike.
However, what’s so amazing about this story isn’t just how quickly Serruya’s downfalls was, but her handling of it. It’s a rare situation where a plagiarist, once caught, managed to make the scandal worse not by denying the allegations, but by admitting to something that many see as even worse.
The Cristiane Serruya Story (So Far)
The first salvo was fired by fellow romance author Courtney Milan. Milan, herself a lawyer (specifically one that has worked in intellectual property) , posted on her blog a lengthy teardown of Serruya entitled, “Cristiane Serruya is a Copyright Infringer, a Plagiarist, and an Idiotvbydyxzyxbcddurz.”
The post highlighted over a dozen passages where she alleged that Serruya had copied from her in Serruya’s book Royal Love. The passages ranged from short sentences with moderate rewriting to whole multi-paragraph sections that were near verbatim.
Soon, other authors, including Tessa Dare, as well as fans of the genre began noticing still more similarities. They began using the Twitter hashtag #CopyPasteCris to keep track of their findings and the discussion around it.
Dare was particularly engaged in the hunt, searching through Serruya’s work and finding more and more examples.
Through most of this, Serruya herself had been quiet. According to Serruya, it’s because she’d been asleep and was surprised to learn about the controversy when she woke up.
However, her response to the controversy after she learned about it may have ended up hurting her more than it helped (Serruya has since deleted her Twitter account, thus the reason for the screenshot of the tweet).
In short, she said that she was not responsible for the plagiarism. Instead, she put the blame on an unnamed ghostwriter she hired from the site Fiverr, a site that’s best known for enabling the hiring of low-cost freelancers.
Though some had suspected a ghostwriter much of the time the scandal was unfolding, others have remained skeptical, noting that Serruya has failed to identify who the person is or provide any proof, other than to say their Fiverr account is now closed.
But, even those who do tentatively believe Serruya often struggle to see why this confession is better.
This, in turn, sparked a new and separate debate about the use of ghostwriters in the genre. One with sharp opinions on both sides of the issue.
In the meantime, Serruya was busy shutting down much of her online presence. As of this writing, her website and Twitter are both offline. Though her Instagram and Facebook pages remain active, neither have new content nor do they have statements about the story.
And that is largely where the story ends. Though the story is now getting increasing mainstream media attention, including a story in the LA Times and The Guardian, Serruya herself has largely gone into hiding. Though her books remain on Amazon, Milan and others are leading a concentrated push to get them removed.
Whether they stay up or not, it seems very unlikely that Serruya has any future in any literature field, let alone romance. Especially since others are continuing to work through her books and are finding more and more examples of plagiarism and more authors that she pulled from.
However, the story does raise a lot of interesting questions, some of which do not have simple answers.
Breaking Down the Plagiarism
Serruya’s plagiarism is about as straightforward as it gets. The many examples provided by Milan and others on Twitter showcase countless passages, some small and some large, that have been lifted from other romance authors, sometimes with rewriting and sometimes without.
As with many such plagiarism stories, the proof is in the quantity. One or two examples of similar passages could be explained as coincidence, cryptomnesia or simply taking too much influence. However, when you compile a list of this number of passages, many of great length, the evidence speaks for itself. No expertise needed.
There’s not much doubt that Serruya, or her ghostwriter(s), copied and pasted from a variety of other authors in field and provided no attribution. It’s also clear that the copying is extremely pervasive in the books and pulls from a large number of other authors. Without simply copying and pasting the whole book, it’s about as serious as such plagiarism can get.
The only real wrinkle in the case is Serruya’s explanation, that it was her ghostwriter.
That added an odd but important layer to this case and one that has to be explored separately.
The Battle Over Ghostwriters
Ghostwriters are, almost automatically, a divisive subject among readers and authors alike. Many authors shudder at the idea of ever using a ghostwriter. The thought of publishing someone else’s words under their name simply feels too dishonest.
However, the practice is common in publishing. In non-fiction writing, many, if not most, celebrity autobiographies are ghostwritten. This is also true for other kinds of books written by celebrities not known for their writing, including lifestyle books, cookbooks and so forth. This behavior is not just accepted, but expected much of the time.
But when dealing with fictional works, things get more complicated. Fiction is a wholly creative expression and people generally want to know who created the work much the same way they want to know who directed a film or made a painting.
But even in fiction ghostwriting is fairly common, especially in children and young adult books. V.C. Andrews, despite being dead since 1986, has managed to churn out dozens of books, most of them posthumously, through the use of ghostwriters.
Similarly, most of the works of Edward Stratemeyer (Hardy Boys) were produced as part of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which employed ghostwriters to crank out the stories, including the Nancy Drew stories. The same is also true for the Baby-Sitters Club series of books, which had Ann M. Martin as the author for the first 35 but were then ghostwritten after that.
So when is it acceptable to employ a ghostwriter? It’s difficult, if not impossible, to say.
The reason is that it comes down to audience expectation. It can be difficult to know what the audience at large, let alone any single person, is expecting. Though hopefully not, it is theoretically possible someone could read this post and be completely unaware about V.C. Andrews, Edward Stratemeyer or Ann M. Martin even though they’ve all been open secrets for decades.
In short, I may be disappointing someone here.
One thing that is pretty consistent is that, when it is more accepted, it’s the publisher hiring the ghostwriter, not the author. Though Stratemeyer hired his own ghostwriters, he was considered a book packager, which put himself more on the publishing than the writing side of book creation. The ghostwriters that took up for Andrews and Martin were both hired by the publisher as are, in general, the ghostwriters for celebrities and their books.
That, in turn, is one of the key differences with Serruya. Serruya not only hired her own ghostwriter, but did so on Fiverr, a site dedicated to hiring low-cost freelancers for a wide variety of jobs. In short, it’s probably the least personal and least artistic way to hire a ghostwriter. It also shows the least amount of care.
Also, since Serruya hired the ghostwriter, it means she is completely and fully responsible for the plagiarism, just as if it were her own hand. She chose to become a romance “author”, she hired ghostwriters and published work under her name. She is responsible for what she puts out there, including plagiarism.
However, that’s perhaps the most bizarre thing about Serruya. No one forced her to become a romance author. She was an attorney for 22 years and began writing supposedly out of her love for the genre. Why would anyone become a romance author if they were just going to hire ghostwriters?
To that end, Jason Chu at Turnitin once said, “Plagiarism is about putting outcomes ahead of processes.” Simply put, Serruya valued the idea of being a romance author more than the process of writing romance books. That, in turn, is a big part of why so many find her admitted use of ghostwriters so offensive.
In short, it feels as if Serruya loves the idea of being a romance author but does not love or respect the genre itself. At least, not enough to write her own books.
In the end, it’s unlikely that Serruya will have any kind of literary career in the future. The plagiarism plus the admitted heavy use of ghostwriters means that there isn’t likely much hope for her future.
Likewise though, there likely isn’t much hope for litigation against her. With her being based in Brazil, any lawsuit against her will likely prove difficult, expensive and not worthwhile. The nature of this kind of plagiarism simply makes litigation impractical.
When it’s all said and done, the legacy of this story may not have anything to do with Serruya at all. This story shines a particularly ugly light on the world of modern self-publishing. While it’s enabled many authors to find an audience it’s also made it possible for people like Serruya to feign a career through plagiarism and/or ghostwriters.
In short, for authors like Serruya, publishing has become a quantity game rather than a quality one and they are going to great lengths to make it happen. It’s highly unlikely that Serruya is the only author, likely not even the only romance author, doing exactly this or even doing worse.
As such, this likely won’t be the last such revelation we see. It may simply be the first of many to come.
However, until the publishing industry changes, it’s unlikely that this particular bad behavior will go away.