Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Just When You Think You've Seen It All...

...some doofus comes along and convinces you otherwise.

After a couple of VERY hectic weeks dealing with Musa's launch and subsequent releases, all the AMP horrors, working on my own manuscripts and getting ready for World Fantasy Convention in San Diego next week, my sense of humor has pretty much evaporated.  Add in the fact that I turned forty-five a couple of days ago (quel horreur!), that Aurora the Regency line turned one, Aurora the toddler turns two tomorrow and my husband's birthday is Friday and it's no wonder that the only thing I laughed at today was a very unworthy thought that flitted around my mind about someone who wasn't there to defend themselves.  (Never fear--I jotted down the notes so I can incorporate that thought into a Jack the Ripper story coming soon near you!) 

At any rate, when I'm in a non-humorous mood I usually end up reading submissions.  Somehow, I've convinced my subconscious that I am less likely to contract a mediocre book when I'm foul-tempered.  Fortunately, that philosophy has been working out fairly well so far.  

As I was going through requested fulls, I came across a story that struck a chord with me. I was actually pretty excited by it.  So I put the story on the to be contracted list and moved on to the next.

But the story wouldn't get out of my head.  Normally, this is a GREAT thing.  When a story keeps pestering me while I read other submissions usually means I've landed on something really great.  But that's not really why I was obsessing on this story.

No--I had the feeling I'd read that story before. 

I use Firefox Thunderbird to coordinate all my various email accounts.  So I ran a search on the book title and came up with nothing unusual.  That should have been the end of the matter, but it wasn't.  I pored over the correspondence the author and I'd had and couldn't find anything to explain that niggling little feeling at the back of my mind that had been pestering me all night.  I pulled the story back up and read it again.  Yep. I had read that story somewhere before.  I double-checked the query letter to make sure that wasn't a rights reverted book.  No indication of that.  I was about to give up when something made me run a search on the author's email address.

And I hit pay dirt.

I had read that story before! In fact, I'd read it at Aspen Mountain Press a few months ago.  But--strangely enough, the story had had a different title. Different character names.  The author's name was slightly different.  Now I was even more curious.  The story was good; not outstanding, but a nice, easy edit and could be turned over quickly.  So why were all those alarm bells sounding in my head?  Just to set my mind at rest, I googled the original title and author name.

Everything became clear.

The book was already published--had just BEEN published, in fact, by another company.  I went to the sales page for the book and pulled up the excerpt.  Then I entered the first five or six words of the excerpt into the *Find* box of the manuscript and--lo and behold!--the excerpt on the sales page began in the second paragraph of page five in the manuscript in my hand.

The author was a self-plagiarist.  By changing the names and the title of the book, he was trying to sell rights to a manuscript that he no longer had to sell.  On top of that, the original manuscript had been contracted by AMP.  So two publishers already owned the publication rights the authors was trying to sell to me!

I wasn't the acquisitions editor who'd read the original manuscript; I'd found the manuscript in the AMP email accounts when I took over and skimmed through the story then.  

Now, let me be frank: the author is a good writer.  The story was well-told. But just changing character names or titles does NOT make a manuscript new intellectual property.  Save for the name changes, the two manuscripts were word for word identical. 

I'd heard of self-plagiarism. I'm guilty of snatching scenes from trunked novels fifteen years ago and making them work in some new story.  But I never would have thought of retitling The Reckoning of Asphodel or Bride of Death and submitting them to a different publisher while they were still under contract.  After all, I would get busted. No one kills an Elf like me. But also, I think a bit more logically.  Why take the risk? Why publish a competing version of a book already on the market?  Why not...write something new?

There just wasn't a way to give this writer the benefit of the doubt.  One doesn't mistakenly change the names and title and submit an already and recently published book to a new company--one where the chances of discovery were slimmer.  But in the end, how could the writer ever have guessed that the editorial director at this new house had actually read the manuscript before? 

These days with the caching capabilities of computers and internet search engines, you'd have to be really...well, stupid to think that no one would catch on.  It's not like this book was near the end of the contract either--the other publisher had released the story under its original name in June of this year.  And yet three months later, the same story was submitted to Musa?  

No, I don't think this was any kind of accident. As much as I'd like to find a way for this to be accidental, I just can't.  And now there's a writer--a darn good writer too--whose work I will never be able to trust as original.  

In the end, that's just another lesson I needed to learn. I informed the author's publisher of what had happened, forwarding the manuscripts I'd been sent and filed the correspondence away in what my husband not-so-jokingly calls my jackass folder.  And man, oh man am I grateful that I listened to that niggling little voice in my head. 

Shame that little voice was silent all through my twenties.  I'd be a lot richer today if I'd listened then.