Stranger than fiction: Author Eilis O'Hanlon on being scammed
More than a decade ago Eilis O'Hanlon wrote the first of a series of popular crime novels, but a year ago she discovered that she was the victim of a criminal scam, as someone had copied her work and was earning thousands of pounds from online sales.
Thirteen years ago, I published my first novel, The Dead, a thriller about a former FBI agent called Saxon chasing a serial killer in Dublin. The book, co-written with my partner, came out under the name Ingrid Black.
It sold well; it won an award; it was translated into German, French, Italian and Dutch; the BBC bought the film rights, though sadly the project bit the dust after a few years in that infamous place known as 'development hell'. Eventually, it fell out of print, as books do.
I'd never even re-read the novel until last year, at which point I discovered that it was suddenly called 'Tear Drop', and the author's name was 'Joanne Clancy'. It was also set in Cork, and all the character's names had been changed - though not to protect the innocent.
On the contrary, it was the guilty author who was protecting herself.
I only found out by chance that this other author of whom I'd never heard before had taken our book and was passing if off as her own. I learned of what she'd done after being contacted last autumn by a woman called Donna Patel, a self-confessed avid reader of crime fiction, who had come across the book on Amazon Kindle. "As soon as I started to read it, it felt familiar," the Englishwoman later explained. But it was only when she came to a particular part of the book when the killer was unmasked, that the penny finally dropped. "I knew I had read this before."
"The Dead is a book I love, and my copy is well used," she said. "I got it off the shelf and compared it." Sure enough, she discovered that not only was 'Tear Drop' similar to The Dead, it was practically identical. "At first, I wondered if it was one of the Ingrid Black writers who had reworked it". She duly contacted the Twitter account of the writer 'Joanne Clancy' in search of an answer. Shortly after that, this 'Joanne Clancy' deleted her account. Donna then contacted us.
We'd stopped writing crime fiction by this stage, after the publication of our fourth novel about Saxon, but obviously we were intrigued. Was another author really ripping off our work?
I immediately went to Amazon's website, downloaded a copy of 'Tear Drop' for myself, and started reading.
By the end of chapter one, all my doubts were erased, but I ploughed on anyway. 'Joanne Clancy' had changed the characters' names (Saxon was now a detective called Elizabeth Ireland), as well as some of the details, and she'd jiggled about with the words; but in every significant respect - from the plot to the jokes to the dialogue to the very structure of sentences and paragraphs - it was the same book.
Chapter by chapter, she had clearly typed out her story with our book open on her desk, lifting it wholesale.
'Tear Drop' was selling well, too. On the day that I downloaded it last October, it was the 111th best selling ebook on Amazon and was the number one bestseller in Irish crime fiction. 'Joanne Clancy' was even giving interviews in which she explained how she came up with the characters and plot line of her new book. Worse still, she had another book scheduled for release in the next few weeks. It was called 'Insincere' and a look at a preview copy quickly made it obvious that this was another rip-off of our second book, The Dark Eye.
A third, 'Soon', to all intents and purposes lifted from our own third book, The Judas Heart, was also scheduled for release in January.
This was getting ridiculous.
Who was this mysterious woman who was stealing our books and passing them off as her own?
I soon discovered that she had a website, a Facebook account, a page on LinkedIn, and was signed up to Pinterest. All gave the same scant details about her - that she was from Cork; had published 26 books in various genres, including romance and crime.
There were details of her places of education and of her past and current whereabouts.
She said that she had spent some time living in a camper van in the west of Ireland, and there were a number of photographs claiming to be of her.
There was always the possibility that this was all made up too. That she didn't even exist.
But it was all we had to go on. In the meantime, we wanted to make sure that she could stop making money from selling our work as her own.
We put in a complaint to Amazon about copyright infringement. Replying promptly, the online bookseller asked for copies of our original novels to compare with those published under 'Joanne Clancy's' name. Within days, they ruled that she was indeed guilty of plagiarism, and removed all of her books from their store, as well as banning her for life.
We then asked for information on how much money she had made from copying our stories and selling them under her own name.
On the day they vanished from sale, the three books in her 'Elizabeth Ireland' series were sitting at numbers 3, 5 and 7 in the Irish crime fiction charts, outselling titles by such famous names as Tana French, Casey Hill, and Northern Irishman Stuart Neville. The first two were also both in the Top Ten sellers in the International Crime and Mystery category.
Amazon was finally able to confirm that, in the three months between August and October last year, 'Tear Drop' had earned its author $15,791, or a little short of £11,000 - and 'Insincere', which was only on sale for a couple of weeks, had earned $3,844 or just over £2,500. 'Joanne Clancy' had received just a small proportion of that money, because Amazon pays its authors every 60 days, and she'd been rumbled before she could get her hands on the bulk of the books' earnings; but it wasn't hard to see why someone would take a chance on stealing another author's work when there was this much profit to be made, at so little risk.
'Joanne Clancy' was now not welcome on Amazon, but there was nothing to stop her changing her name and starting all over again.
She wouldn't be the first. Plagiarism, we discovered as we dug deeper into this murky world, was surprisingly widespread. A number of fake authors had been uncovered thanks to the eagle eye of readers such as Donna Patel.
Many had multiple false identities; some had hundreds of books and stories to their name. Even if they only made a small amount of money from each title, the total soon added up.
Genuine authors who worked hard to write original stories were struggling to make money, whilst shysters flagrantly snaffled their work from under them. That was the hardest part of it. It wasn't the money that bothered us so much as the memory of all the work we'd put in, the sleepless nights, the sheer physical effort of it all.
We don't blame Amazon - they can't be expected to spot every fake among the hundreds of thousands of books being published - but, of course, we saw this mainly from the point of view of other wronged authors.
If their books are plagiarised, writers can sue the culprit, but legal action is expensive and there are no guarantees.
They could end up throwing good money after bad, pursuing authors who are harder to pin down than smoke in an online world where a person's true identity is hard to determine, and never getting satisfaction.
Some explanation would have helped, but we contacted 'Joanne Clancy' by email and, despite admitting what she'd done and saying that she was "ashamed", and that she'd never done it before (though could she really be believed when she had a total of 26 books to her name?), she soon broke off all contact with us.
We haven't heard a word from her since the New Year, when we wrote to tell her that we intended to go public with the truth of what had happened to us, and giving her the opportunity to put her side of the story. Her website remains inactive.
Her social media presence is minimal. If she is still publishing books, it's not under the name 'Joanne Clancy'. She might be anyone.
The only thing we could do to get protection from others like her was to take control of our work by publishing the books ourselves on Amazon Kindle.
As such, we find ourselves transformed overnight from the authors of a few out of print books to our own publishers, which is fun, if challenging.
Since starting to speak about 'Joanne Clancy' in the last few days, other people have come forward with more information. Authors who interacted with her on their websites have told me that checks on her IP address suggest she might be anywhere from Dublin to Texas.
Further feats of technological wizardry beyond my ken have, meanwhile, thrown up links to other names and places that might merit further probing. I'd still love to know who she really is. The more information that trickles in, the closer I think I might be getting to finding out. We were lucky.
Because 'Joanne Clancy' admitted to us in an email that she had plagiarised our books, Amazon agreed to pay us the royalties which her books had earned off the back of our hard work.
But how many other authors are being ripped off in the same way while never knowing? That's the real mystery.
- The Dead and The Dark Eye are now available to download on Amazon Kindle, price £1.99 each