Saturday, June 30, 2012

Paperback Rider: Beyond the Will of God, The Real Thing

Cover of the paperback, due out in July.
I'd originally planned on publishing a paperback version of Beyond the Will of God late in the fall. But within days of getting the word out to friends and family that they could download my book at the Kindle Store, it became astoundingly apparent (like a slap upside the head from my older cousin Danny) that there's a huge portion of my world who still like to buy and read bound paper books.

Plus, never thought of it, but there's certain people I want to make this book available to personally. I know even if friends are super iPad users (or whatever), they're just not going to get to reading it unless Beyond the Will of God is sitting around their bedroom making them feel like it is, in fact, a real thing. I also need to go to the local bookstore in my neighborhood and give a copy to the owner. You don't give e-books to bookstore owners.

A bound paper edition of Beyond the Will of God is therefore currently in production (under the Flat Branch Press imprint) and should be available for purchase in a week or so. You can see the draft book cover at the top of the page here. The hard copy will cost more than the digital version, but its likely at least some readers will find it a more familiar and cozy reading experience which is certainly worth the expense.

Important Indie Point and Lesson #9: The Paperback Rider
So, yeah, it may seem obvious now, but, if you're really serious about your books, it probably makes sense to plan on producing both digital and paper versions of them simultaneously. Statistics I've read show that roughly 50% of the reading market use e-readers. The other 50% is more or less leery of moving down that road. Print-on-demand costs a bit to set up, and buyers have to pay more, but if half your market is non-virtual, you need to meet their needs...that includes your cousin Danny.

That said, I realize, too, that one of the problems with digital books is that no one can really see what you're reading. The idea of a book cover is to advertise and create interest everywhere that book travels -- the beach, train, picnics, whatever. Makes sense. Never thought of it so definitively until it became an issue that was personal.

I still highly recommend purchasing this book as an e-book now. It's priced at $2.99. The paperback version will cost considerably more for obvious reasons, plus you will have to pay for shipping.

Also, check out my Amazon Author's Page for my short story collection Trying to Care. These are straight ahead urban angst stories about mid-life love and confusion. Like life, they're not about good and evil. They're about you and me and all the people we know. Another collection called Implosions of America should be out before the end of the summer. When that hits the stores online, I promise it will be in both real and virtual renditions. Trying to Care should be out in paperback as well in a few weeks.

Happy reading. Happy summer 2012.


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Burial of the Query Letter: Inside Beyond the Will of God

Somewhere in this photo is an envelope containing over 100 rejections.
You will find below an actual query sent earlier this year to a book publisher for my novel Beyond the Will of God. I sent out over 200 query letters for this novel -- mostly in the early nawts. This is the very last one. I have an envelope, conveniently lost in my office now, with over 100 rejections of Beyond the Will stuffed into it. Yes, only about half the folks I reached out to actually made the effort to get back to me. That's the way it is. (So it goes).

My manuscript was rejected outright by one agent because "I don't do religious fiction." Beyond the Will of God is not exactly a religious story (see the query below to learn where the title came from if you don't already know).

Another publisher wrote that they felt the novel had potential and was well-written (aw), but they weren't publishing mysteries. A year later their catalog contained a mystery and crime section that is now one of their top imprints. I also went back and forth with an editor of one of my favorite houses for over half a year. They liked the conspiracy theory stuff and the history of MKULTRA and even the drug angle for remote viewing, but the music theme and all its other worldly implications was just too over the top (note that I write this during Zombie Summer 2012). 

It takes a lot of effort to craft just the right query. You can't just do some stock letter. It has to be personal, intelligent, and directed at the publisher or agent in question. That's the way it used to be, anyway. It sucked. It was a time drain trying to write the perfect letter. Then you had to wait anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months...and the roulette of the situation generally meant you would never hear squat. But if you did it was usually, "Sorry. Not for us." And you had to start all over again. Very frustrating. Very weird. The system didn't work. It was set up to make writers feel grateful if they got picked. So grateful that they would accept very little money for their work. 

I offer my last query letter, below, because I think it gets across what Beyond the Will of God is about and how I thought a publisher could market it. The letter also provides those who don't know how writers have to present themselves a good idea of what goes into trying to get people in the business to pay attention to us. For what it's worth, the whole deal is a shot in the dark with nothing but a wet cap gun...unless you're famous, or really, really lucky.

Mostly, though, I'd like to think of this post as a burial of the query letter to publishers and agents. And not just for me. I'm burying this letter into the depths of this blog and into the deep blue sea of the Internet for all the other writers I know of who have struggled and strived to get "the industry" to take a chance on them. 

I have two other novels and a book of short stories to publish independently over the next year or so. All I need is for people to go to Amazon's Kindle Store and buy my stories. My fiction is not normal. It is not genre specific. But it is intended to be a good read and to entertain you. My stories are also written to pose questions and make observations about life that aren't so obvious. Stay tuned...

Adieu, then, queries to agents and publishers. Adieu, adios, and goodbye gatekeepers and middle men and women. We do not bury you in anger or frustration. We simply have better things to do with our time. 


Dear Mr. Nelson:

I discovered the whole Red Wheel group through my membership with and have just finished reviewing the websites for all the imprints. Hampton Roads Publishing's orientation to visionary fiction and metaphysical issues caught my eye. I'm writing to see whether you have an interest in reviewing a manuscript for an odd speculative paranormalish novel I've written with the working title, BEYOND THE WILL OF GOD. The title comes from a line in the Jimi Hendrix song, "...1983 A Merman I Should Turn to Be," (Anyway you know good and well, it would be beyond the will of God, and the grace of a king). In a nutshell, the story is a psychedelic mystery.

BEYOND THE WILL OF GOD takes place in Mid-Missouri (the geographic center of the country) during the peak of summer when insects take on an orchestral quality, especially at night, and the wet, dense heat is both oppressive and oddly erotic. While the locale and its pulsing personality figure strongly in the story, the plot centers on investigative work by police detective Jill Simpson and reporter Frank Harris into a murder of an Amish teenager. As these two work first separately and then as a team, the storyline progresses to include many of the legendary conspiracies we all pondered during the 1970s -- secret missile silos in farm country; the faked death of entertainers like Jim Morrison and Marilyn Monroe (and many more of the fallen from those good old days); mysterious black helicopters; remote viewing; CIA psycho-pharmaceutical experiments; the powers of sensory deprivation tanks and so much more.

Threaded through this whole story is the question of the power of psychedelic music, especially loud guitar music, and whether we have missed out on identifying a secret dimension of human perception as we've passed on into the 21st century. The story plays with the meaning of music as a transcendent force for the Baby Boomer generation in a way that no one has ever done before. It is part speculative, part mystical, and part spiritual. Marketed appropriately, I see BEYOND THE WILL OF GOD as a cross between Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Carlos Castaneda's Yaqui Sorcerer series. It is serious yet playful, questioning and entertaining. 

The manuscript is roughly 110,000 words and is overtly directed at Baby Boomers (I'm waiting to see an article in Publishers Weekly on how this demographic is reacquainting itself with reading but wants stuff that is more than what the run-of-the-mill houses are producing). The story, though, is for anyone who "gets it." There's so much that we're forgetting about those days in the late Sixties and Seventies. We were onto something very big. And then we walked away into the real world. The secrets are still out there, though, and, believe it or not, a new generation of thinkers is beginning to ask the same questions about the meaning of life that were asked so long ago.

I have been a part-time freelance writer for over 30 years, publishing fiction, essays, and articles in everything from The Harvard Business Review to Kotori Magazine. My work can be either conventional or off-beat. While writing fiction on the side, I was also an environmental consultant and contributing editor to InBusiness magazine. After completing three novel manuscripts and over three dozen short stories, I have decided to turn to writing (and marketing my writing) full-time. Trying to publish in this 21st century universe requires an immense amount of time and perseverance. I'm certainly up to that challenge, and am hoping that Hampton Roads can help me develop and establish myself as a novelist and storyteller. 

I look forward to hearing from you soon. The full manuscript, or a partial, is ready to send as you require. At this time, I am only submitting this query to Hampton Roads

Thank you kindly, and most sincerely, 

David Biddle


Needless to say, with Beyond the Will of God set up for you to purchase at Amazon's Kindle Store, I will never again have to spend what basically amounts to an entire work day perfecting a query letter like this for a particular publisher or a literary agency. Now I'm just sending review requests to book bloggers, but they're incredibly committed to seeing independent writers succeed...I'm hoping that my query skills will finally come in handy with people who do give a shit.

All the best. God save agents and publishers. Please buy my books! Click here!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mind Maverick: Check out David Jay Brown

David Jay Brown covers the far edge of consciousness research. I stumbled into his work while reading a weekly report on entheogens at Reality Sandwich. Brown recently did a piece for the Santa Cruz Patch on telepathy and precognition studies performed on subjects under the influence of LSD. You can read that article HERE

There really is a lot of movement going on out there in the world of psychedelic and entheogen research. It's surprising how dramatically things are changing but how quiet this research still is. Brown probably covers this information better than anyone with his Catch the Buzz column, and has been called "the altered statesman." 

What he's best known for is his in-depth and intelligent interviews with consciousness visionaries. He is the author of at least 8 books, many of which are compendiums of his interviews with everyone from Deepak Chopra and Allen Ginsberg to Terence McKenna and Jerry Garcia. His web site, Mavericks of the Mind, is like a hall-of-edge-of-everything wisdom that you don't mind getting lost in because you can't stop learning about the meaning of life and human consciousness. 

To give you a taste, and because it's germaine to much of what Beyond the Will of God is all about, read a snippet from Brown's interview with Garcia. This gives you an idea about how thought-provoking he is, and how disarming he seems to be in getting his subjects to really open up with their ideas. We've strayed so far from trying to legitimately understand the mind over the past 20 years or so. It's a good thing David Jay Brown is still on the case. If you don't believe me, read this.

Excerpt of Jerry Garcia Interview:

Rebecca: How do you feel about the fact that you enjoy such a divine-like status in the eyes of so many of your fans?
Jerry: These things are all illusions. Fame is an illusion. I know what I do and I know about how well I do it, and I know what I wish I could do. Those things don’t enter my life, I don’t buy into any of that stuff. I can’t imagine who would. Look at David Koresh. If you start believing any of that kind of stuff about yourself, where does it leave you?
David: What about the subjective experience a lot of people talk about that there’s a group-mind experience that occurs at your shows?
Jerry: That’s been frequently reported to me. In fact, even more specifically of direct telepathic connection of some kind.

Rebecca: Do you experience that yourself?
Jerry: I can’t say that I do, because I’m in a position of causality. So, I don’t look at the audience and think, I’m making them do what I want them to do.
Rebecca: I’m thinking of it more as a spontaneous non-causal experience which is being mediated by something greater than either yourself or the audience.
Jerry: You might think of it as a kind of channeling. At the highest level, I’m letting something happen – I’m not causing it to happen. We all understand that mechanism in theGrateful Dead and we also know that fundamentally we’re not responsible.
We’re opening a door, but we’re not responsible for what comes through it. So in that sense, I can’t take credit for it. We’re like a utility, like a conduit for life-energy, psychic energy – whatever it is. It’s not up to us to define it or to describe it or to enclose it in any way.
Rebecca: It’s rumored that the Grateful Dead can control the weather, can you shed any light on this? (laughter)
Jerry: (laughter) No. We do not control the weather.
Rebecca: You’ve heard those rumors though ?
Jerry: I’ve heard them, of course. Sometimes it seems as though we’re controlling the weather.
Rebecca: But that is synchronicity?
Jerry: It’s synchronicity, exactly.
Rebecca: So what is the relationship dynamic like between you and the audience when you’re on stage?
Jerry: When things are working right, you gain levels – it’s like bardos. The first level is simply your fundamental relationship to your instrument. When that starts to get comfortable the next level is your relationship to the other musicians. When you’re hearing what you want to and things seem to be working the way you want it to, then it includes the audience. When it gets to that level, it’s seamless. It’s no longer an effort, it flows and it’s wide open.
Sometimes however, when I feel that that’s happening, that music is really boring. It’s too perfect. What I like most is to be playing with total access, where anything that I try to play or want to happen, I can execute flawlessly – for me that’s the high-water mark. But perfection is always boring.
Rebecca: I’ve heard that musicians using computer synthesizers are complaining that the sound produced is so perfect that it’s uninteresting, and that manufacturers are now looking to program in human error.
Jerry: Right. I think the audience enjoys it more when it’s a little more of a struggle.
David: What is it that you feel is missing in that case?
Jerry: Tension.
David: Tension between what and what?
Jerry: The tension between trying to create something and creating something, between succeeding and failing. Tension is a part of what makes music work – tension and release, or if you prefer, dissonance and resonance, or suspension and completion.
David: Joseph Campbell, the renowned mythologist, attended a number of your shows. What was his take?
Jerry: He loved it. For him it was the bliss he’d been looking for. “This is the antidote to the atom bomb,” he said at one time.
David: He also described it as a modern-day shamanic ritual, and I’m wondering what your thoughts are about the association between music, consciousness and shamanism.
Jerry: If you can call drumming music, music has always been a part of it. It’s one of the things that music can do – it can transport. That’s what music should do at it’s best – it should be a transforming experience. The finest, the highest, the best music has that quality of transporting you to other levels of consciousness.
David: Do you feel sometimes at your shows that you’re guiding people or taking people on a journey through those levels?
Jerry: In a way, but I don’t feel like I’m guiding anybody. I feel like I’m sort of stumbling along and a lot of people are watching me or stumbling with me or allowing me to stumble for them. I don’t feel like, here we are, I’m the guide and come one you guys, follow me. I do that, but I don’t feel that I’m particularly better at it than anybody else.
For example, here’s something that used to happen all the time. The band would check into a hotel. We’d get our room-key and then we’d go to the elevator. Well, a lot of times we didn’t have a clue where the elevator was. So, what used to happen was that everybody would follow me, thinking that I would know. I’d be walking around thinking why the fuck is everybody following me? (laughter) So, if nobody else does it, I’ll start something – it’s a knack.
You can read the entire interview at his web site, HERE

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Almost a Dead Head: James Parker bears witness to a 14-disc archive of Grateful Dead film footage

James Parker, a contributing editor to The Atlantic magazine, is one of the best writers of cultural criticism working today. I subscribe to The Atlantic partly because I know I'll get a scatter shot of weird imagery, little known facts, untwisted spin, and, usually, surprising empathy and insight from him. In the past year he's written intelligent and entertaining criticism on everyone and everything from Glenn Beck, "Game of Thrones," the band R.E.M., and the Goosebumps books. His R.E.M. piece in particular demonstrates his sophisticated drive to get at the deep meaning always embedded in popular culture. 

The new Atlantic just arrived at my house yesterday and once again Parker's talent is presented as he gives us his essay, "A Long, Strange Trip: How a new 14-DVD box set turned me on to the Dead." It's my favorite James Parker yet. He admits from the outset that he could care less for The Dead. "I had an aural impression of the Dead sound, of course -- a thin, rootsy flutter, rather anemic vocals and strangely at odds (it seemed to me) with the band's reputation for freak-out and mind-blow."

But Parker's assignment was to do a piece on the new 14-DVD set called All the Years Combine. He is game. Working his way from the 1974 footage that became The Grateful Dead Movie, he dives in and comes up with a lot of interesting observations about the band and their legion of followers. Most profound, I think, is his new understanding of the sadness and pain that guitarist Jerry Garcia exhibits beginning around 1980. Parker dissects the lyrics (and how Garcia sings them) of one of the group's most beloved jam songs, "Fire on the Mountain," pointing to "not just a study in but an enactment of complete artistic burnout." Almost ablaze still you don't feel the heat/It takes all you got just to stay on the beat.

"I knew there had to be a low in there somewhere. Drug-tingles and swoopy dancing will only get you so far," he writes. 

I have to say, personally, "Far out, man. That's a new one. I never, ever thought of anything the bozos did as sad." 

Parker's writing is astounding in this article. I highly recommend the read just to watch a master at work turning words into a kind of pop poetry that makes you feel like he's slapping your back and writing slogans on your sternum at the same time. 

One last thing before I give you the link: Near the end of the article Parker seems to get it. He talks about The Dead's sound as "availability to the thing, whatever the thing might be." I like the wording. Using the word availability is a subtle but sophisticated acknowledgement of the magic of being part of Grateful Dead culture. What he doesn't know, though, is that actually participating in a Grateful Dead concert always meant becoming available to the thing -- and getting it. Dead Heads know what I'm talking about. Parker probably does, too, even if he doesn't know it. 

You can read James Parker's essay, "A Long, Strange Trip," HERE. Find a list of his Atlantic articles HERE.

The box set "All the Years Combine," costs $99.99 and can be found at the store HERE.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Genre Rules In Indie Fiction: What Does A Mystery-Thriller-Paranormal-SciFi-Magical Realism Novel Look Like?

What would Janis say?
There's a simple question at the end here for folks who have read Beyond the Will of God.

When I started to seriously write Beyond the Will of God back in 1993, I knew where the book was going to take the reader. I knew that there were questions I've always had about altered states of consciousness and the power of music. I had some weird adventures late at night back in the 1970s. Adventures in my mind. Adventures that needed to be turned into an intriguing story.

But I didn't know how to get the story to where I knew it had to go. [I promise there is no spoiler in this brief essay]. The first scene I wrote is part of the first third of the book. It came out of nowhere for me. I woke up one New Year's Day and sat down in front of my new Mac II. I wrote one sentence: "His vision has that vibrating feel to it, like his eyes are being massaged with electricity." 

And then another: "In the distance, through the humidity, ribbons of watery light look like Technicolor shower curtains strung one after the other into 120-degrees of rippling physical distance, overlapping ever so slightly in rainbow flashes, glistening in a sun made for teenagers and movie directors – neon orange, fluorescent lime, metallic blue, purple, aquamarine, magenta and yellow."  

I had no idea why I wrote this. It was an extremely intense moment, to be honest. I knew the guy was weird and had secrets and that he might be connected to all the conspiracies that had ever been. That was it. 

So Beyond the Will of God got its inception as a mystery. But I knew it was going to go way out there as a story. I wanted it to. I wanted it to be a kind of funhouse fictional ride for Boomers and Boomers' kids who "get it." I knew that it had elements of being a thriller as well and that it would also deserve to be called a science fiction story or at least speculative fiction. Once I completed the novel and had sent it off to agents and publishers (2000 - 2002), I learned that some folks thought the thing had signs of paranormal activity. Recently, my good friend and colleague, Paula Silici, has pointed out that you gotta throw in magical realism as a category, too. I like this last description. However, most e-book consolidators -- certainly Amazon -- don't give you "magical realism" as a category. 

Here's the problem, though. Genre classifications are in many ways considered the first and fundamental rule of marketing a piece of fiction. Writers like me who offer up stories that are hybrids or that move from one genre to the next are told we have to lock into something. Check out this article on that issue.

The full title for this story is Beyond the Will of God: A Jill Simpson Mystery. So, obviously, I've decided to categorize my interesting tale of intrigue and secrecy as a mystery. But here's the question: Is it really a good thing to classify this crazy story as a mystery? I think most people like mysteries, and they love kind of following along and puzzling things out. But at the same time this story deals with quite a lot of other stuff on a whole bunch of somewhat odd levels. A book in the mystery section of Borders (poor Borders) isn't going to appeal to my crazy zombie loving friends; nor is it going to appeal to folks I know who love music and are still hooked on understanding the spiritual dimension of life. 

I'm asking this because I am in the process of designing a print-on-demand paperback edition of Beyond the Will of God. When you design a book, when you invest in a book, the end product is not as plastic or flexible as an e-book. I need the paperbound version of Beyond the Will of God to fit into the right framework and to look like what it is -- the typeface, chapter structure, cover design, back cover, etc.

So the question is, what is Beyond the Will of God
  • Mystery
  • Thriller
  • Science Fiction
  • Paranormal
  • Magical Realism
  • Speculative Fiction
  • Visionary Fiction
  • Twisted Literary Fiction

Thoughts from anyone are most appreciated. 

To buy Beyond the Will of God: A Jill Simpson Mystery, go here on

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Beyond the Will of God Is Now Available

My first novel, Beyond the Will of God, is available for purchase at Amazon's Kindle Store.

If you're looking for something different to read this summer, this book is for you. It's part thriller, part mystery, part paranormal speculation, and part science fiction. There's romance and sex, of course -- just enough. But the book also deals with big questions about life and the human mind.

Click here to go to the Kindle Store page for Beyond the Will of God.

As always, Amazon's sample pages are available for you to read. Check it out.

If you don't have a Kindle or an iPad with the Kindle, you can download an App for your computer or smartphone right here.

Buy the book now to take advantage of introductory pricing. It's a pretty good deal at $2.99.

And I'd truly be grateful if you let your friends know about this offer. Send them the link to this web page or to the Amazon listing. Or share this with your social network. 

Happy reading!


Monday, June 11, 2012

Stumbling Into a Beautifully Lit Room: The Convergence of Mind with Sustainability

Definitely a sunrise in August
There's a quiet revolution going on worldwide. Some of you may know about it. I'm not sure how much of this revolution is a function of the Occupy movement and how much Occupy is a function of that revolution. 

I've been doing last minute research into the world of transformative consciousness as I prepare to publish Beyond the Will of God. I've found some interesting places on the Internet. They all give me the impression that the "revolution" I speak of is one in which Consciousness Expansion and Sustainable Development are in the process of merging...again. I feel a bit as if I've stumbled into a very beautifully lit room full of quiet people reading various books and looking at screens, waiting for something to happen.

In the 1960s, trailing into the 1970s, questions of enhanced awareness and transcendental consciousness led to the birth of the appropriate technology movement and re-fueled the environmental movement. Somehow The New Age movement of the 1980s through 2001 kind of got us off track (too busy figuring out how to use transcendental ideas to help people justify getting rich quick, I'm afraid). But now we have, in some ways, a move again towards concern for raised consciousness and more open awareness of the meaning of life. In some ways it seems like this time it's spinning out of the sustainability movement. There is also mixed into this what some are calling the New Entheogen Revolution or the Psychedelic Renaissance. 

Whatever you think about these convergences, I find it all quite interesting. My little mystery novel that isn't really a mystery novel is somehow part of some of this. You will have to read it to see what I'm talking about. 

In the mean time, I want to direct you to a more "out there" blog that I've started up recently on I'm kind of working through core issues for defining my interests as a writer there. Hopefully I'm also contributing in a small way to the revolution, such as it is. See my Evolver Profile by clicking here and note the current blog entries. The most important one so far is called "In Praise of Mystery and the Powers of Mind." 

Evolver is definitely something to check out more generally. Also take a look at Reality Sandwich. People are thinking about big issues again. They should be. It's kind of important. 

I'll close with this little tidbit of information, a lot this stuff seems to be getting a serious jolting boost from the growing DMT movement. If you don't know what I'm talking about, there's a very gentle introduction to this world in Beyond the Will of God. You can also Google DMT to your heart's content. 

More soon on this issue if anyone's interested. Just let me know at my FaceBook Page here:

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Word Thieves: Navigating the New Landscape of Plagiarism

This essay appeared in Talking Writing in April. Talking Writing is rapidly becoming a high-quality online source of information for writers and content-providers of all sorts.  

By David Biddle for Talking Writing

Imagine that a rigidly controlled country you’ve always longed to visit suddenly undergoes a revolution and opens its borders. Its currency value is ridiculously low, making travel a bargain. Do you snap up airline tickets and book a hotel right away?  Or does the prospect of traveling in a land where laws and concepts of ownership are in flux give you pause?

Ecstasy of Influence book cover
For me, that tantalizing country is The Land of Getting Published, now dominated by a digital publishing frontier. I no longer need an agent or even an editor to get me there (though some copyediting help is always useful). With my self-polished text and a decent cover layout in hand, I can publish my own work in just a few clicks through Amazon, Smashwords, Apple, Lulu, or any of several dozen other online resources. With Amazon’s Kindle Select system, I set my own price for my stories (at or above the minimum of $2.99 per download), and I collect 70% of the royalties.
There’s just one catch: word thieves. The digital frontier is a wide-open vista for both publishing and plagiarism. Sure, the good online conglomerates provide some control through rights management options and encrypted filing, but, really, in this age of electronic access, anyone can copy and paste my words—or yours—and call them their own. And, as notions of “open source” content gain more traction in the literary world, who’s to say that such a copy-and-paste action constitutes theft and not just artistic “borrowing”?
As I’ve ventured into the digital publishing frontier, I’ve realized that plagiarism is an issue every electronically published writer has to examine. We all need to understand the various forms it can take and make our individual decisions about what we’re comfortable with—and what we’re not. And your decisions, like your travel choices, may end up being very different from mine.

Plagiarism Type 1: Piracy, Pure and Simple

Literary or journalistic plagiarism is usually thought of as a rogue writer copying someone else’s words, maybe making a few grammatical or stylistic adjustments, and then slapping his or her own name on the “new” work, giving no credit to the original writer. This is considered theft of intellectual property. Along with the legal ramifications, there are far deeper moral and ethical issues.
Theoretically, current Internet technology should make ferreting out plagiarizers, media pirates, and content counterfeiters astoundingly easy. Ten years ago, plagiarism experts predicted that Google and new apps on the horizon would reduce pirating problems dramatically. This prediction has yet to come true, maybe because the ease of piracy has risen even more quickly—or because there are more pirates in the world than plagiarism investigators.
The Bulletin book cover
One amazing case among the many plagiarism stories to pop up in recent years is that of the Montgomery County Bulletin, a now-defunct weekly alternative paper in a Houston suburb. In 2008, Slate writer Jody Rosen received an email from a reader saying, “I believe your…profile of musician Jimmy Buffett was reproduced wholesale without attribution [by the Bulletin].”
Rosen investigated, uncovering a bizarre saga that he reported under the title “Dude, You Stole My Article.” He discovered that the Bulletin essentially cobbled together feature pieces from other people’s work, publishing them under the byline of the paper’s primary writer, Mark Williams. The Bulletin made its money through paid ads, using stolen content that cost nothing. Rosen’s story brought down this newspaper, but it also showed how far those looking to make a fast buck will go if they can get away with it.
In January 2012, as I prepared to write this essay, an account of what may be the mother of all plagiarism cases appeared in the magazine Fast Company. In “Amazon’s Plagiarism Problem,” NYU journalism professor Adam Penenberg tells the story of a writer who self-published erotica using Amazon’s Kindle System, then discovered that stories showing up higher on the “best seller” list were published by someone who had plagiarized her work. Further digging showed dozens of fictitious authors self-publishing scores of books that were primarily copies of free stories from the online adult fiction site Literotica (along with, oddly enough, blatantly plagiarized copies of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Lewis Carroll’sAlice in Wonderland).
Penenberg’s piece and a subsequent NPR episode titled “On Amazon, an Uneasy Mix of Plagiarism and Erotica” focus mostly on how Amazon and other online stores deal with these radical cases of “content farming”—which is, not very effectively. As Penenberg notes, “the sheer volume of self-published books mak[es] it difficult, if not impossible, for e-stores like Amazon to vet works before they go on sale.” Amazon will remove content based on plagiarism complaints, but the process is slow—and plagiarists are quick to repost under new pseudonyms.
If your comfort level with this type of plagiarism is zero, you’re surely not alone. These are pretty clear-cut cases of out-and-out piracy. But let’s look at the opposite end of the plagiarism spectrum.

Plagiarism Type 2: Transformative Artistry

Novelist Jonathan Lethem launched the definitive argument for a more lenient approach to copyright issues and artistic plagiarism in his infamous 2007 essay, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” in Harpers Magazine (the essay also appears in his recently published book, The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc.).
Lethem presents case after case of artists using the works of others to create substantially new works of their own, from Nabokov’s lifting of the plot for Lolita to Bob Dylan’s liberal lyric thefts and William Burroughs’ “cut-up method” of appropriating other writers’ text fragments. In sections with subheads such as “UseMonopoly” and “You Can’t Steal a Gift,” Lethem argues persuasively for viewing works of art as gifts to the public domain, rather than as property to be zealously protected and litigated over. The punch line comes at the end: an extended key referencing the copied sources for almost every line of the essay.
Reality Hunger book cover
In all fairness to Lethem as an artist, he writes: “Nearly every sentence I culled I also revised, at least slightly—for necessities of space, in order to produce a more consistent tone, or simply because I felt like it.” But the full-frontal content of this essay is still in other people’s words. If you are ignorant of this conceit when you read it, the ending is quite a lesson.
Reading it, you might find yourself warming to this type of creative plagiarism (if it qualifies as plagiarism, given Lethem’s scrupulous attribution of sources at the end). You might even find it an inspiration—as, arguably, did David Shields, whose similarly constructed book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, came out in February 2010 and prominently featured a quote from Lethem on its front cover.
Reality Hunger is a declaration that literary fiction is no longer useful, and that reality—essay, memoir, reporting, and anything else we might call “nonfiction”—is taking over. Shields’s method for making this argument is to borrow text liberally from others in the vein of Lethem’s Ecstasy essay, demonstrating his stated intent “to write the ars poeticafor a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists…who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work.” He did not originally intend to reference the quotes he excised, but at the last minute he relented to the dictates of his publisher and their attorneys and provided a key in very small print.
Are Lethem and Shields word thieves? Or simply innovative borrowers? If someone “borrowed” your words in this way, would you feel unfairly used? Or honored?
In fact, there is a legal principle of “fair use” that might be applicable in such cases. In a 2011 article for the New York Times called “Apropos Appropriation,” Randy Kennedy points out that fair use “gives artists…the ability to use someone else’s material for certain purposes, especially if the result transforms the thing used.” He goes on to quote a law review article making the case that this is especially important “if the new thing ‘adds value to the original’ so that society as a whole is culturally enriched by it.”
If all plagiarism could easily be sorted into either Type 1 piracy or Type 2 transformative artistry, taking a stance on it might not be so difficult. But of course, you knew it wouldn’t be that simple, right?

Plagiarism Type 1.5: Somewhere in the Muddle

The year 2010 was notable not only for the release of Shields’s book but also for several less transparent cases of literary plagiarism.
In February of that year, I read in passing about Gerald Posner, a writer for the Daily Beast, who had copped to using other people’s copy in his own news pieces. Posner was suitably (to some) chagrined and was later quoted by Henry Blodgett of Business Insider as having written in his blog: “In the compressed deadlines of the Beast, it now seems certain that those master file[s] were a recipe for disaster for me. It allowed already published sources to get through to a number of my final [sic] and in the quick turnaround I then obviously lost sight of the fact that it belonged to a published source instead of being something I wrote.”
Axolotl Roadkill book cover
This is an example of the “accidental plagiarism” excuse—a standard operating statement of respected writers.
A few days after the Posner affair died down, Helene Hegemann, a then-17-year-old German literary sensation, was called out for copying from another source for sections of her book Axolotl Roadkill. As described in a New York Times article, “Author, 17, Says It’s Mixing, Not Plagiarism,” her defense was, essentially, an unabashed, Yeah? So!—which apparently, even two years later, no one knows what to do with.
Hegemann is not some dumb kid who just lucked out. Prior to Axolotl Roadkill, her play Ariel 15 premiered in Berlin and was then adapted for radio. In addition, a screenplay she wrote when she was 14 has been made into a movie, and word is that Axolotl Roadkill is destined for theaters as well. Even with evidence of plagiarism, her novel has been translated into 15 languages.
While Hegemann was being vilified in Germany, Michel Houellebecq, France’s major global literary export, was on the hot seat for copying sections of his newest (and least pornographic) novel, The Map and the Territory, from Wikipedia.
As reported in a September 2010 article in the Independent, “I Stole from Wikipedia but It’s Not Plagiarism, Says Houellebecq,” he eventually explained: “This approach, muddling real documents and fiction, has been used by many authors. I have been influenced especially by [Georges] Perec and [Jorge Luis] Borges…I hope that this contributes to the beauty of my books, using this kind of material.” And then he won the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary prize.
Here in the United States, the translation for The Map and the Territory has recently hit the shelves. None of the major reviews I’ve read mention anything about Wikipedia plagiarism.
So…piracy or transformative artistry? Compared to the hack thievery perpetrated by the Amazon erotic-content farmers and the bogus “newspaper” described in “Dude, You Stole My Article,” the artistic larceny performed by these three critically acclaimed writers may seem less severe.
And yet, appropriating someone else’s words the way Gerald Posner, Michel Houellebecq, and Helene Hegemann have done—without acknowledging sources prior to being exposed—can’t really be seen as borrowing for the sake of “fair use.” They have certainly concocted their stories like found-object writers, but, at least on an ethical level, it’s not clear they have added value or transformed the words of others by incorporating them and calling them their own. Whether they’re willing to admit it or not, they simply copied prose to make the writing process easier for themselves.
Was this stealing? I’d say so. But the consequences, at least for Houellebecq and Hegemann, seem to have been minimal.
And that brings us to what is really going on right now: Theft is just a different beast on today’s digital frontier.

Prepare Yourself

When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad on live Internet feeds worldwide in 2010, it was clear that the digital media world was never going to be the same again. With Publishers Weekly reporting in January of this year that “nearly 1 in 3 Americans now owns a [tablet or digital reading] device,” we are well on our way to a digital business model for all text-based media.
The Map and the Territory book cover
In the wake of this revolution, people are fond of saying that the rules of the publishing industry are changing. The fact is, there are no rules to speak of anymore. Certainly, we still have the traditional model—and a few people continue to benefit from it—but the borders of The Land of Getting Published are now wide open for anyone who wants to put their work out digitally for others to read. And the hard reality is that ownership of text online just isn’t the same as with the hard copy model.
What we send into the liquid electron world is extremely public and profoundly interconnected. Imagine someone in Pakistan taking your blog entries, translating them into Urdu, tinkering a bit with the context, then calling them their own. How can you ever really know what happens to your words once they’re on the Internet?
You can’t. But knowing what could happen—and giving some thought in advance to what you’re comfortable with—can help you be prepared.
If you’re worried about becoming the victim of Type 1 Plagiarism, you can try to foil would-be pirates by choosing a unique sentence from each of your published works and Googling it on a regular basis. If Type 2 Plagiarism, despite its artistry, doesn’t sit well with you, you might brainstorm some ideas for mutually satisfactory arrangements between borrowers and those from whom they borrow. And if you suspect you might have a propensity for committing “accidental” Type 1.5 plagiarism, learn from Gerald Posner and make sure you’re keeping track of quotes from others in your writing files—or else work on your “who cares?” shrug à la Hegemann and Houllebecq.
Be aware, though, that not all exposed literary plagiarists emerge as unscathed as these folks. Lizzie Widdicombe’s February 2012 New Yorker essay, “The Plagiarist’s Tale,” about Quentin Rowan’s initially acclaimed novel Assassin of Secrets, is a powerful cautionary tale. The novel was recalled after it was found to contain many cribbed passages from other spy novels.
“The peculiar thing about Rowan’s case,” Widdicombe notes, “is that he could have obtained a degree of social permission simply by being honest about borrowing from other writers—by doing what Jonathan Lethem did, or by claiming that he was producing a ‘meta’ work.” But Rowan would not have felt comfortable admitting his method because, he told Widdicombe, “I honestly wanted people to think I’d written it.”

Leggo Your Legos

In the end, how comfortable each of us feels about plagiarism seems strongly connected to our sense of ownership toward our work, which is a personal issue for each writer.
Frozen book cover
In “Something Borrowed,” a 2004 New Yorker essay about learning he had been heavily plagiarized, Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, wrote: “So is it true that words belong to the person who wrote them, just as other kinds of property belong to their owners?”
Gladwell struggled at first when he learned that big chunks of his journalism had been cribbed into dialogue for a Broadway play called Frozen. However, as he thought through the idea that his words had now been used for something completely different, he realized that “instead of feeling that my words had been taken from me, I felt that they had become part of some grander cause.”
The process of writing this piece has forced me to examine my own feelings about owning my words, and I’ve made a discovery that shocked my copyright-conscious editors (who compel me to point out that my view does not reflect that of Talking Writing): For me, as soon as something is out there in the digital realm, whether a story or a piece of nonfiction journalism, I no longer feel tied to it personally.
I can’t think of what I’ve written as a gift exactly—it’s more a thing I’ve left for people to find in the woods. It’s like when I go out walking with my kids, and we leave a little Lego person standing on a rock or an action figure sitting in a tree. My stories especially feel like that now. I make them available on Amazon for a modest price, and people find them.
Similarly, I now pass on my accumulated knowledge about plagiarists to you, fellow traveler in the digital frontier. Pirates and borrowers, content farmers and transformative artists: They’re all out there, and you may find that awareness useful in your travels. You may decide to take precautions—the digital equivalent of wearing your cash in a money belt tied under your shirt—or you may decide, like me, that you’d rather not be looking over your shoulder all the time.
What matters is that you’re there, in The Land of Getting Published, with readers stretching out as far as your words can reach.

Publishing Information
Image Information
  • The cover image of the June 2008 Montgomery County Bulletin is used to illustrate the alternative newspaper involved in the case described by Slate writer Jody Rosen in “Dude, You Stole My Article.” The low-resolution scan of this image therefore qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. The image was scanned by Slate and reposted on Wikipedia.

Check out the May/June edition of Talking Writing now. The theme is "Creating Worlds." 

"Beauty and ugliness. Creation and destruction. Freedom and fate.
All artists grapple with these opposing forces when they evoke the world."