A Deep Dive Into The Plagiarism Scandal Rocking The World Of Self-Published Romance Fiction
"I'll take her house."
Chances are you do not know the name Cristiane Serruya. But in certain internet circles, the Brazil-based ex-lawyer isn’t just a celebrity — she’s a sensation.
Serruya is an author, but most of her books have never had a physical release. For just over five years, she has written romance novels designed for Amazon’s Kindle market — pulpy, sordid, sex-filled escapades that have long, attention-grabbing names like From The Baroness’s Diary: The Adventures And Misadventures Of Lady Chloe and Trust Series Book Two: Dangerous Obsession.
Serruya’s novels tend to follow one of two formulas. Sometimes they’re historical romances; stories of young, spoiled rich women who rediscover their passions via a sordid affair. From The Baroness’s Diary is one such novel. “In Salvatore de Luca’s opinion — my husband’s gardener and since yesterday my lover — a perfect garden should be … mostly a place where one finds the beauty inside oneself,” goes a line in the book’s introduction.
The rest of the time they’re Fifty Shades-type tales about beautiful innocents who stumble into the lives of rich, icy billionaires; distance sociopaths forced — for whatever reason — to find a willing bride.
In Serruya’s novel So Much More, a tycoon named Markus Blackthorn must pay a woman to be his spouse in order to regain custody of his child from an evil ex-wife. In Royal Love, Angus Augustus Braxton-Lenox, the seventeenth king of an invented nation called Lektenstaten, must find a suitable partner to continue his bloodline.
Even Serruya’s acknowledgements pages follow a formula. In them, the woman always thanks her “six-foot-six, stubborn, loving husband” Raphael, and apologises to her two children, Raphaela and Giovanna, “who do hate when I say I have a new idea for a book but are beyond patient with me when I am immersed and lost in my characters’ lives.”
And then comes the sign-off, which never changes: “I promise to pamper you all in double [sic] … until a new idea hits me.”
There’s just one problem. According to her critics, Serruya hasn’t actually written most of her own novels.
Amazon’s romance novel industry is an institution. Romance novels frequently chart on the bestseller list, and some of the heroes of the genre — writers like Courtney Milan and Tessa Dare — have huge, active Twitter followings.
Although many romance novels follow a typical formula, there’s a lot of room within the genre for genuine diversity. Some, like Stephanie Julian, write paranormal love stories — Julian describes her narrative interest areas as “hot sex and romance … and Bigfoot” — while others pen sprawling, ongoing fantasy sagas that prominently feature beautiful women and broad-chested, ripped men.
Romance readers are similarly diverse. Although many are middle-aged women, the community crosses all age ranges, with many getting into the genre while teenagers and then never growing out of it. “I have been reading romance novels since I was in high school,” a blogger who uses the online name Caffeinated Fae told Junkee.
“I basically started off with the Young Adult novels and grew into the Adult Romances as I aged.”
Online, fans like Fae rally around the #Romancelandia hashtag, where they share tips, seek suggestions and advice, and promote new titles. “98% of the authors I work with are simply amazing,” explains Suzan Tisdale, a USA Today bestselling romance author, responsible for the lauded novel Mariote.
“All are eager to share knowledge, brainstorm, and in general, are quite nice. It is that small 2% that wreaks havoc that we have to deal with.”
— Dr Deirdre (@DrFinally) February 20, 2019
That two per cent is the dark side of the fandom. Although the Amazon algorithms are as murky and unknowable as they tend to be on most multi-national modern sites, they appear to favour authors who post a lot of content, back to back. The more you publish, the more it appears in people’s feeds, thus favouring those authors willing to churn out huge amounts of content.
There are hundreds of thousands of romance novels on Amazon — with more being published every single day. Books vary in quality: some are filled with typos, barely spell-checked before being published online, and adorned with covers that depict sexy stock photograph actors in provocative positions.
According to Tisdale, any attempt to explain the intricacies of the Amazon algorithm would take “at least a 45 minute phone call” to explain.
“I’ve been fighting these scammers, stuffers, and thieves for over a year,” Tisdale says. “Amazon makes gaming their system easy. They simply do not care.”
The algorithm breeds a class of writers ready to do whatever it takes to get their books on bestseller lists. And by all accounts, Serruya is such a writer.
Serruya’s deception first caught the eye of the public following a lengthy post from author Courtney Milan. The post, titled “Cristiane Serruya is a copyright infringer, a plagiarist, and an idiot” accused Serruya of multiple instances of plagiarism.
“Earlier today, a fan sent me an email claiming that portions of my book that had been copied by another author,” Milan wrote. “After investigation, I have concluded that Christiane Serruya has copied, word-for-word, multiple passages from my book The Duchess War.”
All righty everyone, it's time to name and shame. Let's hear a big shout out to @CrisSerruya, copyright infringer, plagiarist, and all round idiot, who ruined my day and probably longer than that by plagiarizing THE DUCHESS WAR.
— Courtney!!! Milan 🦖 (@courtneymilan) February 19, 2019
From there, Milan proceeded to list the many similarities between Serruya’s Royal Love, and her own book. At first, the instances of plagiarism seemed slight enough to plausibly be an (admittedly unlikely) accident — Milan’s character is “imposing, like some faraway castle tower looming on the horizon”; Serruya’s heroine is “imposing, like some faraway forbidden castle, looming over the horizon”.
But before long, sections and sections of Serruya’s fiction were revealed to appear, almost verbatim, in the books of Milan.
“There was a reason they’d kept their conversations to inane niceties up until this point. There was no way to talk about anything else without bitterness. They had no common past to draw on, almost no shared acquaintances,” reads a passage from Milan’s Duchess War reproduced in its entirety in Royal Love.
And it’s not the only one. Whole swathes of dialogue, descriptions, and even key plot points had been ripped off from Milan and repurposed by Serruya.
Milan’s blog entry detailing the similarities ends with a little paragraph that has proved prophetic. “We’re almost certainly going to find out that I’m not the only one she’s plagiarized,” the author wrote.
“If it turns out that you’re similarly situated, please let me know.”
Folks on the #Romancelandia hashtag love a scandal, and the Milan blog post provided exactly that. Before long, readers and authors were barraging Serruya with tweets, asking her to explain the multitude of similarities between the two works.
But then, just as Milan had predicted, more writers bubbled to the surface. Tessa Dare, a beloved romance novelist, did her own digging, and found that many of her passages had been reproduced in the work of Serruya too. Then, readers started tweeting at Kresley Cole, known for her Game of Thrones–style romances, letting her know that she had been ripped off too.
Before long, someone came up with a hashtag: #CopyPasteCris. Very soon it was trending.
— Tessa Dare (@TessaDare) February 19, 2019
Caffeinated Fae had first discovered the alleged plagiarism via Milan’s blog entry. Soon after, they began to follow the hashtag closely. “I was absolutely shocked that someone would plagiarise so many prominent romance authors,” Caffeinated Fae told Junkee.
“The list includes some of the biggest names in Romancelandia, so the fact that she thought she could get away with it was flabbergasting.”
To try and make some sense of the allegations, Fae started compiling a list of all those ripped off. Before long, it ran to 27 names. Not long after that, it hit 29.
— CaffeinatedFae (@CaffeinatedFae) February 20, 2019
At this stage, the multitude of Serruya’s books have been found to have multiple double-ups with other works of fiction.
Fae isn’t sure how many more authors might have been ripped off. They’ve been trying to use Grammarly to discover more plagiarism, but it’s proving difficult: “it really just looks at websites, so it didn’t find much,” Fae said. The extent of Serruya’s plagiarism might not be known for some time.
Serruya’s Twitter profile is deleted now, but when the scandal was just breaking, she quickly tweeted an apology of sorts, which The Guardian has published in its account of the story.
“Wow, wow, wow,” Serruya wrote. “I just wake up to this. How could I have been plagiarizing 5 authors? I love your books, @TessaDare and I am a lawyer. I’d never do such a thing.”
“I just woke up to distressing news that my work has plagiarism from other authors. I am taking down all the works I did with a ghostwriter on Fiverr – who btw has closed the account – until I have made certain this is solved.”
It was the first anyone knew about Serruya using a ghostwriter, a relatively under-discussed practice in the world of written-for-Amazon romance. But the real shock was that she had used Fiverr, a website that’s generally utilised for cheap unskilled labour — the site’s name is a reference to the usual amount of money that changes hands.
— Lisa Lin 🇹🇼🇺🇸 (@Laforesta1) February 19, 2019
A little while later, a ghostwriter who had allegedly worked with Serruya took to Milan’s blog to anonymously offer their version of the story.
“I am a ghostwriter who worked with the person in question in 2017 and early 2018 on two books,” they wrote.
“Her work, when given to me, was a number of mishmashed scenes that needed ‘expanding’, as she said. I took for granted that these were her own words, and embellished as she requested, as this is how I work — I often help authors who are ‘too close’ to their own book to get it in shape for publication.
“Now I can see that it’s very possible those were plagiarised scenes that she was hoping a ghostwriter would change enough to make unrecognisable.”
Since the scandal, Serruya has scrubbed most of her presence from the internet. Her website is a dead end, and her social pages no longer exist. Quite a few of her books are still online, but given Milan and her fellow authors are mobilising to sue — Milan’s original Twitter thread about the scandal included the claim that she was petty enough to “take [Serruya’s] house” — that will probably no longer remain the case. Tisdale, for her part, guesses the fallout for Serruya will see the author “sued by some pretty heavy hitters.”
What effect the scandal will have on the romance novel industry will have to be seen. Some, like Tisdale, hope that it will see old, outdated structures change — that it will prompt authors to be more open about using ghostwriters, and about their own creative habits.
“With [fellow best-selling author] Nora Roberts on our side, I do believe we will finally get Amazon to do something [about the] … scammers and thieves that pervade and infect Amazon’s KU program,” Tisdale explains.
“But it will have to be a huge overhaul of their current system.”
In the meantime, some are just happy that the scandal has brought them together. For all that Serruya has allegedly done to hurt her fellow authors, she’s also united the voices of a warm, massive online community, one operating just out of the mainstream’s eye.
“It always amuses me when we drag people to hell how shocked people are outside our community,” writer Beverly Jenkins tweeted. “I guess they equate romance writers with being mild mannered and meek, not the fierce, sword wielding bitches we can be.”
Lead image: the cover of Damaged Love, a novel by Cris Serruya