Sunday 28 August 2016

The girl who stole my book: How Eilis O'Hanlon found out her crime novels were swiped by a stranger

There was something strangely familiar about the crime novel riding high on the Amazon Kindle bestseller lists last autumn. Eilis O'Hanlon ought to know. She'd co-written it almost 13 years earlier. The only problem was that someone else was now claiming to be the author.

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 28/03/2016 | 02:30

Eilish O'Hanlon felt violated when her hard graft was taken be another writer. Photo: Kip Caroll.
Eilish O'Hanlon felt violated when her hard graft was taken be another writer. Photo: Kip Caroll.
Ripped off: Eilish O'Hanlon. Photo: Kip Carroll.

Last October, I logged on to Twitter to find that I was now being followed by an account with the username @DonnaPatel. Something made me click on this particular link to see who it was. Call it intuition.

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Donna Patel described herself as an "aspie" and "Potterhead", and her most recent interaction had been with an Irish author calling herself "Joanne Clancy".

Donna had been reading Clancy's latest book, Tear Drop, a thriller about the hunt for a serial killer in Cork. At the time, it was the 111th biggest-selling e-book on Amazon's UK division, and the number-one bestseller in Irish crime fiction, and Donna Patel had a simple question for the author: "Are you Ingrid Black?"

Next day, having received no reply to her message, Donna sent another tweet to the same account, saying: "Your book Tear Drop is The Dead by Ingrid Black." Shortly afterwards, a third: "So you must be one of the authors behind Ingrid Black, or you are plagiarising." Shortly afterwards, Joanne Clancy had deleted her account.

Ripped off: Eilish O'Hanlon. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Ripped off: Eilish O'Hanlon. Photo: Kip Carroll.

I found this exchange particularly interesting, and for a very good reason.

I am Ingrid Black.

One half of Ingrid Black, to be precise. She is a pseudonym, adopted more than 10 years ago for a joint crime-writing project between myself and my co-author and partner, Ian McConnell, and The Dead was our first book.

The novel featured Saxon, an American former FBI agent turned true-crime author, now living in Dublin and hunting a murderer of young women who has adopted the persona of another serial killer who vanished five years earlier. The Dead had been published as part of a two-book deal by Headline in London in 2003, and was subsequently sold to publishers in the US, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy.

The book was encouragingly reviewed. An audio-book version was recorded by actress Tara Ward. There was an advertising campaign on The Tube in London. It sold well. Tesco in the UK bought a large consignment. The film rights were optioned by the BBC. The book also won a Shamus award in the United States for Best First PI Novel.

A year later, we published a sequel - The Dark Eye, again featuring Saxon and her female lover, Detective Chief Inspector Grace Fitzgerald, this time teaming up to investigate an apparently politically motivated killer, known as The Marxman. After a change of agent and publisher, two more novels in the series followed - The Judas Heart (2007) and Circle Of The Dead (2008), both published by Penguin Books.

By this time, however, the editor at Penguin who had championed the books had left for Australia, and, sadly, our new agent died. Feeling like we were back at square one, and not knowing how to start over, Ingrid Black slipped off the radar. In time, the books fell out of print and copyright reverted to us as the original authors.

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At various points over the next few years, we toyed with the idea of releasing the Saxon stories as e-books. It seemed silly not to. They represented many years of work. Why not give them a new lease of life?

We set up a Twitter account in the name of Ingrid Black to prepare for publication. Our first tweet: "Now all I have to do is figure out how you put a book on Kindle, and I'll be a millionaire by Christmas. That's how it works, right?" Though, of course, it wasn't done by that Christmas. Or the next one. Procrastination was our middle name.

We'd only sent six tweets and had less than 100 followers when, in October, we logged on to Twitter to see Donna Patel accuse Joanne Clancy of plagiarising The Dead.

The first step was to find out if there was any truth to that allegation. Amazon's summary of the book in question, which had been released in August 2015, certainly sounded familiar: "The serial killer known as Tear Drop vanished almost a decade ago, and nothing has been heard from him . . . until now. As death stalks the dark streets of Cork City, Detective Elizabeth Ireland must embark upon a frightening psychological journey to uncover the killer's identity."

Still, a blurb wasn't conclusive proof; there are only a limited number of plots. So Ian and I downloaded a free sample and started reading Chapter One. The truth soon became apparent. Donna Patel was right.

Tear Drop wasn't simply similar to The Dead.

It was The Dead. Everything about it was the same, from the plot to the protagonist's sarcastic manner of speaking, to the jokes, to the very structure of the sentences and paragraphs.

Saxon had been turned into Elizabeth Ireland, and the reporter she meets at the start, Nick Elliott, was now Brendan Mahon; the story, too, was told in the third person rather than the first; but these were mere details - window dressing to conceal what was little more than a straight-up theft.

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Here is the original: "I glanced up as the door chimed and saw him coming in, looking round, shaking off the rain violently like a dog, as if offended by the very business of being wet. I quickly turned my gaze back to the coffee, a moment before his eyes would have found mine. I knew he was looking for me, because Nick Elliott wasn't the sort of person who could feign an accidental meeting even if he wanted to - he didn't have the subtlety or intelligence to carry it off - but I ignored him in the hope that he'd take a hint and leave me alone."

This was Tear Drop's version of the same scene: "She glanced up as the door chimed and watched the man violently shake off the rain. A moment before their eyes met, she averted her gaze, knowing he was looking for her; Brendan Mahon didn't have the intelligence or subtlety to feign an accidental meeting. She ignored him, hoping that he'd take the hint and leave her in peace."

It's hard to describe how surreal it was to read sentences that we had written suddenly echoed back to us, ever-so-slightly altered.

If asked, I'd have said that I remembered little of The Dead - it was over 10 years since it had been written, and I'd never reread it - and yet, as I went through that first chapter of Tear Drop, I recalled again all those little details we'd honed to get them right. First chapters matter very much.

With a sinking feeling, I continued to Chapter Two.

The Dead: "I jumped when the phone rang and checked the number before picking it up. 'Fitzgerald,' I said. 'You read it?'"

Tear Drop: "The shrill ringing of her mobile phone made Elizabeth jump. Reluctantly, she pulled it from her pocket, checking the number before answering. 'Frank,' she said. 'Did you read it?'"

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Once more, detail by detail, our book was being raided and filleted in front of my eyes. Tear Drop had been put together by someone who had The Dead open at the side of the keyboard as they typed.

I knew I had to read to the end. Gritting my teeth, I paid to download Tear Drop on to my Kindle. I didn't have much doubt what I would find, but it was still a shock to find all my worst suspicions confirmed.

Joanne Clancy had transposed the Dublin setting for equivalent locations in Cork. She'd changed names. The pathologist in our book, Ambrose Lynch, was, instead, called Charles Kennedy; the criminal psychologist Lawrence Fisher now shared his name, bizarrely, with Carry On regular Kenneth Williams ("Ooh, stop messing about," we were tempted to say). Most gallingly of all, Grace Fitzgerald had unexpectedly turned into a man, Frank Murphy.

Other details had been tweaked for the sake of appearance - a Russian prostitute murdered in our book was Serbian in hers, for example - and Clancy had cut some of our more flowery descriptions. The point remained: The Dead had been stolen in its entirety by another author, and was being passed off on Amazon as her own work.

Not only that, but it was doing well enough to be among the most downloaded books on Kindle at the time, and to be top of the charts in Ireland. It was also being widely, and enthusiastically, reviewed by fellow authors and crime-fiction fans, both on Amazon and elsewhere across the internet, many of whom were hailing it as Joanne Clancy's best book to date.

"Personally, I really do not know how she came up with the superb storyline," said one.

We did.

I felt violated, remembering the nights we didn't get to bed until four in the morning as we struggled to complete the 120,000-word novel. There was the day, with the deadline for the book looming, when we planted the two eldest children in front of the TV with a mountain of sweets while Ian went upstairs to complete one section and I stood at the worktop in the kitchen, a newborn baby in a sling around my neck, finishing another on my laptop. Writing a novel takes graft.

Ian was more sanguine, almost amused at the audacity of what Joanne Clancy had done, but he wasn't happy to leave the matter there, either. Together, we began considering how best to respond.

Online research suggested that it is up to the wronged author to seek legal restitution from anyone who plagiarises their work; but if Amazon discovers that there has been copyright infringement on any title, the company will take down the offending author's entire catalogue before shutting them out from Amazon in perpetuity - at least, not under the same name.

But we didn't want to move too fast. We wanted to gather facts. Most of all, I wanted to know whether she would do it again.

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Insincere, the second in her series about Elizabeth Ireland, was scheduled for publication near the end of October, only a few weeks away. Looking up a summary of the plot, it was clear that this, too, had been lifted from our second novel, The Dark Eye.

Tear Drop, it seemed, was not a one-off.

Was Joanne Clancy planning to plagiarise our entire series? More immediately, was she really going to risk continuing this deception after being rumbled online?

There was one burning question: Who was Joanne Clancy? All we knew about her is that she claimed to be from Cork, and had published 26 works in various genres from erotica to romance to crime, many featuring a recurring character who went by the name of Detective George Ellis.

Traceless . . . Killing Time . . . If You Tell Anyone . . . Open Your Eyes . . . Before I'm Gone - her production rate was almost industrial.

She was also a former Kindle All-Star, an accolade given to authors whose titles are among the 100 most downloaded in any month, and a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, set up to secure contracts for unknown authors.

Google searches discovered a few more facts about Joanne Clancy. There were a number of photographs purporting to be of her, which could be found online. She was listed on the professional networking site LinkedIn, where she was described as an "Amazon bestselling author and creative entrepreneur". She had a Facebook page, which I bookmarked for later reference, but within 24 hours that, too, had been taken down.

I kicked myself, as I could have used the Friends list in order to narrow down the search further. The LinkedIn page soon followed into oblivion, but not before I'd taken a record of all the information it contained.

She also had a website, joanneclancy.com, which, at the time, was strongly pushing the new Elizabeth Ireland series.

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I still wasn't sure what I wanted to do next. I genuinely wanted to know why she'd done it. Had she started out writing her own books and become addicted to the attention, forcing her to take short cuts? Was she simply doing it for the money?

Some of the details led us to believe that she was taking delight in her deception. In Tear Drop, the heroine is called Elizabeth, the anglicised form of my own name. Was that a coded reference, a knowing nod?

Elizabeth Ireland's initials were EI - E for Eilis, I for Ian, perhaps? Tear Drop even had the same initials as The Dead.

Turning to Insincere, the cover was equally noteworthy. It showed a woman's face, half in shadow, her right eye streaked with black lines, strongly suggesting the title of the book from which it was stolen, The Dark Eye. This didn't seem like the work of a woman who was sorry for what she'd done, but one who was secretly laughing at us.

The suspicion deepened when I read a number of interviews in which she described Elizabeth Ireland as her favourite character and spoke of the similarities between them. Ian and I had both put elements of ourselves into Saxon, and now a stranger was claiming those same characteristics as her own.

I only told one person what had happened, and his reaction was that it must be akin to having a stalker.

Of course, it was nowhere near as traumatic, but this was the closest I came to regarding the experience in that light. It was like having a shadow tracking our every move. Watching us. Copying us. Being us.

Doubting that Joanne Clancy would speak directly to either of the people behind Ingrid Black, we set up a fake email account using the name Iseult O'Malley. This had actually been on a shortlist of possible pseudonyms we'd originally drawn up, before choosing Ingrid Black. Using it as a contact was like a small in-joke.

I sent a message to Joanne Clancy through her website, pretending to be an Irish student studying for a master's degree in digital publishing at Bath Spa University.

I asked for an interview, adding that I'd be in Ireland in a few weeks' time if she would agree to meet up for coffee somewhere.

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Then I waited. No reply. I started to wonder if any such person as Joanne Clancy existed. Perhaps it was only one of a multiplicity of identities which were used to commit an elaborate deception?

We also began to wonder if we were Joanne Clancy's first or only victims. Twenty-six books in a few years is quite an output. What if some of them had been stolen from other authors too? It was difficult to know how to go about proving it, however. In our case, it was the merest chance that Clancy's skulduggery had been spotted by Donna Patel's eagle eye. The Dead was out of print, and Ingrid Black had seemingly given up writing crime fiction.

Plagiarising a more famous author would have been much riskier. True, there was the danger that both books being set in Ireland might increase the chance of discovery, but again, the circle of potential readers who had not only read both books, but might then notice the similarity between them, was so tiny, that the risk must have seemed worth it.

We did know that if she had done the same thing to other authors, then they were probably going to be at the same modest level of fame as ourselves. We started trying to pair up her books with those by other lesser-known Irish crime writers, but soon hit a brick wall. Those authors might recognise their own work if they chanced to read her books, but no combination of words and phrases threw up a match on Google.

I did spot intriguing resemblances between some of her books based on real-life crimes and their non-fiction sources, and began to see Clancy as an authorial magpie, taking what she needed from various sources, cutting and pasting, changing the material just enough so that it could be called her own, before succumbing finally to full-scale, unapologetic plagiarism.

Copyright theft is a big problem on Amazon, we soon discovered in our investigation. A number of practitioners have been publicly exposed. Some self-published writers have released hundreds of titles.

There is no software sophisticated enough to detect any but the crudest book thieves, and Amazon cannot reasonably be expected to have armies of readers checking every title for possible plagiarism. The self-publishing model has to operate on a certain degree of trust, or it wouldn't work at all.

But do readers never ask themselves where all these books are coming from, when, for most professional writers, producing one new title a year is hard enough?

A few days after emailing the mysterious Joanne Clancy, I checked the email account we had set up for Iseult O'Malley and found that Clancy had replied to our fictional student: "Thanks a million for contacting me. My apologies for not replying sooner, but my website's been having a few glitches, which have just been fixed."

She agreed to an interview, but only by email, adding: "I look forward to hearing from you. Best wishes, Joanne."

We began to feel almost bad for tricking her. This was one of the strangest aspects of the whole affair. What Joanne Clancy had done was devious, and yet, without knowing why she'd done it, it was hard to know how we felt about her. We kept changing our minds. What if she genuinely had no idea that she was doing anything wrong?

Our books were out of print, she might have felt, so what was the harm?

On the other hand, we still wanted answers. We had every right to protect our intellectual property. We sent her a series of questions to try and tease out more information. Clancy didn't reply for a few days and then said she would get back as soon as she could, but that she'd just found out that a family member was sick. That floored us, rather - natural sympathy kicked in - but was she even telling the truth?

Had she rumbled Iseult O'Malley's true identity? Either way, we couldn't continue the exchange on these terms, and told her not to worry about replying.

Though none of that, needless to say, stopped her from publishing the sequel to Tear Drop a few days later.

Insincere came out on October 21, and we must have been among the first to download it. Once again we started reading, quickly confirming that it was a facsimile of The Dark Eye. There hadn't been much doubt in our minds that it would be, but it was still something of a shock.

Again, there were some cosmetic changes. Instead of Saxon having a sister called Sydney who committed suicide, Elizabeth had a brother, Shane. The first victim is a photographer in our book, a painter in hers.

Getting through the book was difficult. The Dark Eye had been a demanding book to write. Second volumes often are. To see another author exploiting it without any of the same effort was disturbing. Even Ian was beginning to see red. He suggested that I should write about it, but I still wasn't sure. Joanne Clancy had made me feel strangely wary. I had no idea who she even was.

I needed more time to think.

Certain decisions were easy. There were now only three months to go until the next book in the series, Soon, was scheduled for release. It was time to act. Within hours of the publication of Insincere, we finally submitted a complaint to Amazon on the grounds of copyright infringement. We got an immediate reply saying that they were looking into the matter, and would get back to us. Again, we waited. And waited.

That was the hardest part. Every author will understand the need to constantly check where a book is sitting on Amazon's lists. We'd done the same ourselves when The Dead was published. It becomes a regular ritual. Now we found ourselves doing it on Joanne Clancy's behalf.

At one point, the Elizabeth Ireland titles were at numbers three, five and seven in the list of most-purchased Irish crime e-books, outselling works by such well-known names as Tana French, Casey Hill, and Stuart Neville.

Doubts began to set in. What if Amazon didn't take our complaint seriously? What if our claim took months, or years, to process? Then, there was the nightmare scenario. What if they sided with Joanne Clancy and decided that she hadn't plagiarised our work? That was impossible, we kept telling ourselves; the copying was too blatant to deny. But that didn't stop us from considering every possibility, however mad.

After waiting in a state of frustration for a week, I asked Amazon for an update, eventually getting through to someone who said that I had actually sent my complaint to the wrong department, but that they were now looking into it. Amazon requested PDF copies of our original published novels - which Headline had provided to us, on being informed of the issue - and said they'd be back in touch.

This time, it was only days before a reply informed us that Joanne Clancy's work was being removed in its entirety from sale.

The feeling of validation was immense. To know that you have been the victim of a fraudster is one thing, but to have it officially confirmed is a huge relief. Over the next hours and days, her books started to disappear, one by one, from Amazon.

Clicking on any link brought up the message: "We're sorry. The web address you entered is not a functioning page on our site." It didn't say why, but at least she wasn't benefitting any longer from the deception. On the day her books were removed, the two published Elizabeth Ireland books were both in the Top 10 sellers in the International Crime and Mystery category.

While waiting for answers from Amazon as to how many books Joanne Clancy had sold, we got in touch with her directly.

There was no longer any reason to pretend. I told her plainly that we needed to talk, pointing out that I was seeking legal advice, but would listen if she was prepared to talk, and that, in the circumstances, I felt that I was being more than fair.

I asked for a swift response, and I got one. Joanne Clancy replied within hours to tell me that she was "ashamed" of what she'd done, thanking me for giving her the chance to explain. She said she hadn't been able to think straight for months. She said she'd read our book and been inspired. That she felt like writing again for the first time in months, but her own story and words wouldn't come. She didn't know what came over her, was how she put it. She'd never done anything like it before.

Amazon, she told us, had removed all her books from sale, as well as shutting down her account and banning her for life. She would no longer receive any money, effective immediately. This was her only source of income. She didn't own a house or car, she said. Now she didn't have a job. "I don't know what I'm going to do," she concluded.

Naturally, we both felt terrible, but we still didn't know what to make of this answer. I'd spoken to a lawyer to see where we stood, but legal action is expensive and slow and uncertain, and we didn't want her money. It was never about that. All we wanted to know was if she was telling the truth.

There was no evidence in her back catalogue to support any alleged gap in writing. She's steadily produced a book every few months for years. Then there was that question of money. She claimed to have only received "a few hundred euros" to date, but Amazon eventually confirmed that Tear Drop had, in fact, earned $15,791.60, or a little short of €15,000 - not bad for a book which was only on sale for a few months.

Of this, €1,761.80 had been paid to Joanne Clancy before the book was withdrawn from sale. It wasn't much of a return for a gamble which backfired so spectacularly, but it was hardly "a few hundred euros".

As for Insincere, that earned $3,844.40 in the even briefer period on sale, though none of that sum was paid to her, as the deception was discovered within Amazon's 60-day window before payment. Joanne Clancy's website also remains operational, though it's not been updated since October.

Most significantly, there was the silence which followed.

I replied to Clancy's email, reassuring her that we were not inclined to take the matter further legally, but that I still had questions that were puzzling me.

I assured her that I held no hostility towards her, but pointed out that, if she was a real person - a single writer, rather than part of a collective churning out books online - then she had a story of her own to tell. What happened to me was only one side of the experience and it would always be incomplete without knowing her version, too.

"I may be barking up a wrong tree," I concluded, "but I feel as if this is a story still half told and I'd love to hear the end of it."

I don't know what I expected - that we'd end up having coffee, even becoming friends, as far as that was possible, possibly even telling this story together; all sorts of crazy ideas went through my head - but in the event, she never replied.

Nor did she answer when, in the New Year, I made another effort to contact her, offering the opportunity to put her side of the story. I was forced to conclude that, once any threat of legal action had been removed, she was no longer interested in staying in touch.

I tried one final time to make contact while I was writing this piece. To date, there has been no reply.

"It really bothered me that this woman had ripped off your book," Donna Patel had said when we made contact to thank her for alerting us to Joanne Clancy's existence. "I would love to know how it all turns out."

If this was a work of fiction, there would be such an ending. A satisfactory conclusion that tied up all the remaining loose ends.

Real life is less neat and tidy. There is no ending, happy or otherwise.

I doubt I'll ever know who Joanne Clancy really was, or what was going on in her head.

Our lives intersected for a while in the strangest way, but now she's vanished from it as clandestinely as she came.

Our ultimate thoughts about her are not as might be expected. In a way we feel sorry for her. Just because she plagiarised our work, doesn't mean that she's a bad person. It doesn't even mean that she's a bad writer. She had put more effort into this project than many lazier plagiarists, and she clearly had a degree of creative ingenuity.

The third book in our series is The Judas Heart. In it, Saxon encounters a troubled former FBI agent with whom she had worked in the United States, who disappeared after the brutal murder of his wife, and is now seemingly on the run in Dublin, a possible suspect in the murder of a young actress. Saxon thinks he's innocent, but how can she set about proving it to the police?

Joanne Clancy had taken this story and recast it as Soon.

In it, from what we could gather from the blurb, Elizabeth Ireland is similarly trying to find her old friend, missing since the death of his ex-wife, and of whose innocence she, too, is convinced; but in her version, the man is Detective George Ellis, hero of her other popular crime series.

That was such an intriguing premise that we were almost tempted to hold fire until the planned publication date earlier this year to see what she did with it. In the end, we decided to put an end to the saga. Having read Soon, we'd only have been equally curious to see if she intended continuing the series into new stories, perhaps even of Elizabeth Ireland and George Ellis teaming up for future investigations.

Somewhere, a line had to be drawn.

I still find myself wondering what, if anything, she'll write in future. I'd love to know, but she'll probably have a different name by then, a different identity.

At the same time, we took it as a warning. Use what you have, or someone else will. We'd hesitated long enough. If anyone ought to have been deriving the benefits from all the hard work which went into the Ingrid Black books, it was the two of us.

The people at Amazon couldn't have been more helpful as they guided us through the process of preparing revised editions of our books for publication. New readers may take some pleasure from them, or it's possible the titles may sink without trace.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter. They were dead, and now they have a second chance at life. That is satisfaction enough. If Joanne Clancy really is an author, then she should understand that.

All I know for sure is that she'd make a great character in a novel.

Now there's a tempting thought.

'The Dead' and 'The Dark Eye' by Ingrid Black are now available to download on Amazon Kindle for £1.99 each

Photography by Kip Carroll

Styling by Liadan Hynes

Hair by Jamie Browne; make-up by Cara Macken, both Brown Sugar, 36 Main St, Blackrock, Co Dublin, tel: (01) 210-8630, or see brownsugar.ie

Photographed at Malahide Castle and Gardens, Malahide, Co Dublin, tel: (01) 816-9538, or see malahidecastleandgardens.ie

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