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Eilis O'Hanlon: My tale of a book thief sparked an online frenzy. But what happened next?


Eilis O'Hanlon. Photo: Kip Carroll

Eilis O'Hanlon. Photo: Kip Carroll

Eilis O'Hanlon. Photo: Kip Carroll

What happened to the money? That was the question which people kept asking after reading how a fellow author clocked up sales worth almost $20,000 in a little over two months last autumn by plagiarising two crime novels that I'd co-written some years earlier.

The story was told in detail in last week's Life magazine in the Sunday Independent. It explained how I happened to discover, thanks to an eagle-eyed reader called Donna Patel in England, that the first two books my writing partner and I had published as "Ingrid Black" a decade earlier had been lifted and republished on the online bookstore Amazon under new titles, with all names and locations changed to hide the original source.

The plagiarist's name was "Joanne Clancy", and she'd received just under $2,000 in royalties by the time her deception was uncovered. (Amazon, being American, calculates everything in dollars). Because Amazon pays the authors of Kindle books every 60 days, that meant there was just over $18,000 still waiting to be paid. So where would it go?

My co-writer and I had been wondering that, too, since discovering just how many copies of our books "Joanne Clancy" had sold.

It wouldn't go to her, obviously, as she had been exposed as a fraud, but it didn't seem likely that it would go to us either. Then we discovered, accidentally during the course of a conversation with a representative from Amazon, that the company does actually pay out to the original author of a book if it could be proven that their work has been plagiarised.

Wasn't it proof enough that Amazon had removed "Joanne Clancy's" books from sale for having breached the company's policy on copyright? Apparently not. It was still up to us, as the authors, to pursue the matter to get justice. Luckily, we'd contacted "Joanne Clancy" last November by email - the only way we had to track her down - and she'd replied immediately, admitting she had stolen our work. That was sufficient for Amazon to pay us the royalties which she was due.

We were fortunate. We caught "Joanne Clancy" at a vulnerable time. She'd only just discovered that her books were being removed from Amazon and that she was banned for life from publishing her books in the online store, at least under that name. She was also worried about the prospect of legal action, and seemed keen to mollify us.

Had she taken a day or two to think it over, she might well have decided that silence was the best strategy. She certainly vanished off the radar shortly afterwards and ignored all email requests for further information.

What happens to the money made by fake authors when the real authors cannot establish an admission of plagiarism in the same way that we did? That's still unclear. It seems unsatisfactory that authors themselves should have to prove they have been the victims of copyright infringement before getting justice. Does Amazon not have software which can detect plagiarism more scientifically?

After last weekend's article appeared, other people got in touch to describe the programmes used by universities to ensure that students don't copy their essays from online sources. Was the software beatable? Not easily, was the answer.

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Unless a fake author is highly adept at hiding their source material, it will return a match, or a "fuzzy resemblance" at least.

Surely Amazon could do likewise, making it easier for wronged authors to claim back ill-gotten gains that should be theirs by right?

Others just got in touch to complain that we had been too "soft" on "Joanne Clancy", that we should have demanded more personal details from Amazon, before tracking her down and confronting her. One comment underneath my piece on independent.ie went so far as to say that we were "chicken" for not pursuing legal action! Some even said we had a moral duty to make sure she was punished, either by the police in a criminal case, or by solicitors in a civil case.

I'm still not convinced by that course of action. Legal action is time consuming, expensive, and mentally draining, with no guarantee of success, especially against a shadowy opponent who seemed to exist mainly in cyberspace. Because that was another problem.

The internet is a big place. Many people got into contact to explain how to trace people through their online fingerprints. "Joanne Clancy" had a website, which yielded some further clues, but nothing conclusive. Other authors were able to provide IP addresses from comments left by this "Joanne Clancy" on their pages and blogs.

One showed her location at various points over the course of a few days, ranging from Dublin to Florida to San Antonio in Texas. Had she actually been on the move in that period, or just hiding her location with computer trickery? If the latter, it would suggest that she wasn't an innocent who had strayed off the straight and narrow path into plagiarism, but a career faker who'd been preparing the ground for a quick getaway from the start.

Putting together all these pieces, along with what I already knew about her from biographical snippets picked up along the way, I thought I had a fairly good picture of "Joanne Clancy", even if I didn't know exactly who she was; but I also knew I couldn't make further progress without making the information public, and that was not possible legally, in case the fake author "Joanne Clancy" had stolen details from the identities and CVs of real people called "Joanne Clancy". Hence the quotation marks. I also didn't want any of the real people who happened to share the same name coming under suspicion or being targeted for online abuse.

Just one thing kept bothering me. The story in Life magazine was shared online almost 90,000 times, including by bestselling authors such as Joanne Harris, Val McDermid and US thriller writer Tess Gerritsen, as well as by many people both in the book community and around Ireland; I was contacted by hundreds of authors, bloggers, readers, reviewers and publishers, many understandably furious that they too had been deceived by a writer whose work they'd supported since she came on the scene in 2012 - one blogger who'd championed "Joanne Clancy", and even interviewed her by email, admitted she couldn't sleep the night she read the piece as she was so upset; this betrayal of trust was a common theme.

But out of all these thousands of readers, not a single person has contacted me to say that they know this woman, or have ever come across her, in real life. Some are closely involved in the literary community in Cork, which "Clancy" claimed as her home town. They can find no trace of her existence either. She seems to exist only online.

I was convinced all along that "Joanne Clancy" was a real woman, who had fallen, for whatever reason, into plagiarism, either because she never had the self-discipline or enough original ideas to write a book of her own, or because she started out with the best intentions and then began taking short cuts when she realised how hard it was. Others were of the opinion that she didn't exist, except as a pseudonym to conceal a professional gang of cheats, copying books to make easy money. The longer the week went on, the more I suspected they were right.

It has certainly been a surreal few days. To coincide with publication of the article in Life magazine, we'd been working round the clock to upload new editions of our original novels on to Amazon, discovering in the process that releasing your own books means being author, editor, designer, publisher, publicist and general dogsbody all rolled into one. Plus the children still seemed to expect that their dinner would be on the table at the usual time and that I'd have the freedom afterwards to watch another episode of Gossip Girl on Netflix. Unreasonable of them, but there you are.

Slowly we began to sell a few copies. During the course of the week, the book was featured on Amazon's "hot new releases" chart and even made it to number two on the Irish crime fiction bestseller lists. But selling books, it turns out, is just as hard as writing them.

It took "Joanne Clancy" five years to build up her own audience; but if she can do it, then so can we.

'The Dead' and 'The Dark Eye' are both available to download on Amazon Kindle for £1.99 each

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