Plagiarism is a Gut Punch

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PlagiarismSucks

Let me share a little story. It was probably 2004 or so and I was the Sports Editor for a small newspaper in Southeastern Illinois. We probably had a circulation of 2,000 or so in our county — population a little shy of 7,000. You wouldn’t think a county with a population that small could support two newspapers and ultimately you’d be right, but in the early 2000’s, another paper battled us for news and scoops in our cozy little county. Sometimes we even had employees that went from one to the other. The woman I’ll reference here as “Helen” was one such employee. She was with our paper when I first came to the area and left after about a year and went to the competition for a couple years.

Being that we were both weekly papers in the same county that covered the same news, there was always a certain amount of similarity in our content. It was unavoidable. But we never stooped to copying. That was wrong and we all knew it. Even Helen…I thought. She was never my favorite, but plagiarism (especially from newspapers just 10 miles apart) was unthinkable in my mind.

Then it happened.

I wrote up an article about a baseball camp that was going to be happening a few weeks off. A former St. Louis Cardinal pitcher was going to be coming, so it was a BIG DEAL to our little county. There were a lot of details and moving parts to the deal, so by the time I finished writing up the article, it did read a bit like a press release, but I had quotes included from the organizer, a man who is a friend of mine. It wasn’t just a PR piece like what the local hospital or bank sent us. This was actual journalism. To be fair, it wasn’t amazing work by any stretch, but I spent time and effort to get it done, so I’ll count it as such.

We printed our story in the paper. Job done.

The next week, the competition ran their story. Two things stood out — first, it was MY STORY. She moved a few words around, but the quotes were there, the content was the same, the structure was intact. It probably 98 percent of what I had done, and any changes lessened the quality of the original story. The second thing, and the thing that was the cherry on top — she put HER NAME on it.

HER NAME. On MY STORY.

I wanted to be ill. I…I didn’t know what to do. I really didn’t have a lot of options. It was two newspapers that maybe a couple hundred people read each week. I think my boss lodged a complaint, but nothing was going to happen. I wasn’t going to sue them and they weren’t going to retract anything.

But it didn’t change how I felt. I had something that I had done. A piece of my creativity — however small — was stolen from me and someone else’s name had been slapped over the top. Whatever respect I had left for Helen was gone. Instantly.

Again, being the smalltown newspaper, I understood that we often essentially shared news. Since I had written the article almost as a press release, I probably would have even accepted it had it been published anonymously. But the fact that Helen claimed it as her own. That she put her freakin’ name as the byline was what really ticked me off.

Nowadays I’m a high school teacher and I see this struggle every year. Students want to take the easy way out and claim others’ work as their own. I get it, but there isn’t any recognition of the person on the other side. What about the person who wrote the essay, the article, the randomly Googled piece in the first place? They put forth work and effort into it — work that student is now sloughing off by taking the easy way out.

So as someone who has been on that side of it — don’t plagiarize. It really sucks.

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The Impact We Have

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Recently two people who both had a tremendous impact on my life passed away. One was more unexpected than the other, but both were influential, not only on me, but on the whole community as well.

This is small town America. We don’t have a great football tradition, but what we do have is volleyball. Seemingly for a couple generations now our county has produced quality volleyball players. We’ve had some good coaches to get them far into the state playoffs, but there was really only one who shaped and produced state contenders. That was Linda Oxby, longtime Head Coach of the Edwards County High School volleyball team here in Southeastern Illinois. She was diagnosed with cancer about half a decade ago, fought it for all that time, and finally passed away a few weeks back.

And then there was Patrick Seil. Every small town needs a newspaper and Pat was the publisher of the Navigator & Journal-Register and had been at the helm of the local weekly since the mid-90’s. I’d known him since 2002 when I walked into his office looking for a job, but he was influential on more than just me. Everyone seemed to know him. He could spend all day shooting the breeze with whomever walked in the door but put his nose to the grindstone when he had a paper to put out. His health hadn’t been great lately, but complications from a fall led to his death a couple weeks ago.

As Pat’s Sports Editor for nearly seven years I had a front row seat to some of the best volleyball on this side of the state and I learned how to be a leader from Linda Oxby. After I was done at the newspaper, I was hired on as a history teacher at ECHS and I taught alongside Linda for many years.

It isn’t often when you can say you were truly in the presence of a legend. With both Linda and Patrick, I can honestly say I have known two taken from our midst at about the same time. From both I learned and from both I could stand back and admire their accomplishments.

It leads me to wonder how I can influence people. As a teacher I see dozens of high school students each and every day — am I having an impact on them? As an author, I try to craft stories that have a personal story to them — are my readers seeing that and am I even reaching people? As a father, am I putting forth an example worthy of my kids? As a husband, do I show the love to my wife that she deserves?

I wrestle with these questions and more every day, and I’m thankful for the impact of people like Linda Oxby and Patrick Seil on my life that I can.

Vanity Publishing — You Don’t Have To Do It!

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A little over three years ago…

It was a different time (obviously) in many ways. In the summer of 2012, I went back to work at my old stomping grounds of the smalltown newspaper in Albion, IL (The Navigator & Journal-Register). Their sports editor had left and they had a pressing need, so I stepped in for a couple months while I wasn’t teaching. I learned a lot during that span and I believe much of it helped form the writer I became. Within three months of leaving the newspaper for that stint, I had started my first novel. There is a lot that went into that that I’ve discussed in other blog posts and other areas, so I’ll leave the Hugh Howey inspiration out at this time (mostly — it seems as if the spectre of Howey looms over most indie publishing stories).

Anyway, going back to the summer of 2012, I hadn’t yet put pen to paper for my own fiction adventures, but I had long held a dream of doing so. I had started following Hugh Howey, but was still ignorant on most things when it came to writing and publishing a book. One day an assignment dropped in my lap. We’d gotten a press release that a former local resident had written and published a book. He had graduated from a local high school a few years previously, but had moved out east since his teenage years. I would mention his name, but you’ll understand in a little bit why I don’t. Let’s call him Reggie.

Now at the time I knew some about publishing (like I said, I was starting to really get into Howey’s blogs), and I was a fan of books, so I felt I knew some things. I even was aware of vanity publishing, but for some reason, that concept didn’t dawn on me with this fellow until later. The press release had an email address for him, so I zipped off a quick email to Reggie and we set up an interview. I called Reggie one night and we talked about his book — a sci-fi romp of sorts. It was an interesting interview, but something he said at the end of it tipped me off. I don’t even remember what exactly Reggie said, and it probably didn’t even matter. But something clicked in my head and I realized one important thing. This guy didn’t publish a book. Not how Isaac Asimov or John Grisham did, at least. Reggie used a vanity press.

I finished the interview and published the feature on him, leaving out that one fact.

What is a vanity press, exactly?

If you just type that question into the Google search box, it brings up the Wikipedia definition, which reads:

vanity pressvanity publisher, or subsidy publisher is a term describing a publishing house in which authors pay to have their books published. Additionally, vanity publishers have no selection criteria as opposed to other “hybrid” publishing models.

Reggie paid someone to publish his book. Ultimately I don’t know what he paid, but whatever it was, it was too much. What did Reggie get for his work? Not much.

I went back and checked out the book today on Amazon. It is still available and it has a ranking for the hardcover version of the book. If you know anything about Amazon rankings, the lower number the better. His book ranked around 7 million — meaning: at least one person bought his book, but it has been a VERY long time since that happened. A VERY LONG TIME. On a whim, I checked out the Kindle version. No ranking. Which means no one has ever purchased the ebook version.

Not only that, but the book is just…not great. The cover is literally a box and the contents. For a story where the main character interacts with aliens and has a grand adventure. Not only that, but there is little to no editing. Believe me, I’ve seen worse, but I did the “Look Inside” and found an error in the first few paragraphs. It was rough.

That was three years ago. About six months after I conducted the interview, I began writing my own novel and I fully intended to SELF-PUBLISH. I had immersed myself in the world of Hugh Howey and his blog followers and I realized self-publishing was the way to go. I never had intended to use a vanity press. I’d learned my lessons about them from an episode of The Waltons.

That’s right. The Waltons. John Boy and his family living on Walton’s Mountain, Virginia in the heart of the Great Depression. One episode John Boy gets a letter from someone offering to publish his novel. As a writer, you dream of this day. That a publisher will think your novel is special. That it is worth publishing. That it can be the next great thing. John Boy falls for it as well and accepts the contract. Soon John Boy is losing money, getting frustrated with the “publisher” and is on the hook to sell the copies of his own novel. All the same things people are still falling for today.

Earlier today I saw an article linked on The Passive Voice originally from The Hartford Courant. (I’m not linking the original due to a paywall.). In the opening few lines of the article, it talks about a woman who became a “self-published” author. In fact, she became a vanity press author.  From the article:

She has self-published her book. “Travels with My Son: Journeys of the Heart” debuted on Amazon in June for $15, and in mid-August she sold more than 30 copies at a book-launch party in her hometown of Branford.

She hopes to sell upward of 500 copies, which would cover the costs of “on-demand” printing and the $5,000 she paid a firm that helps writers like her.

Now, I hate to put a damper on her published book dreams, but selling 500 copies of a book is TOUGH. Even from your so-called friends, very few actually read books and even fewer will want to read Your book. But that $5,000? At this point, we’ll call that a publishing fee that she will probably never recoup. It’s sad to say, but it’s the lesson John Boy learned decades ago on TV and its a lesson people are still learning today. Vanity presses still exist and the costs are high — in monetary and emotional terms.

So…what can be done? Research for one. Get to know the self-published greats. Obviously I learned to publish thanks to Hugh Howey, but there are tons of great resources and tidbits of advice for the prospective author. Here are just a few. If you want to be a traditionally published author, go for it. Submit to traditional publishers all you want — more power to you. But, if you are like me and are thrilled to just get your work out there, self-publishing is a wonderful avenue for that. (And I’ve never spent anywhere close to $5,000 even with two novels and about a dozen short stories and novellas under my belt.)

So this lady…or Reggie…you can still self-publish and for a lot cheaper than doing it through vanity publishing. To all those out there who need advice, the following is for you —

LINKS (I will add more as they are suggested):

Hugh Howey’s Advice to Aspiring Authors

JA Konrath’s Resolutions for Writers

Susan Kaye Quinn: Author of The Indie Author Survival Guide

 

 

Writing is Writing, Right?

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At age 34, I’ve had three definite careers in my life. Not jobs — had a ton of those, but careers. At the time I was in each one, I thought I would do them for the rest of my life. Obviously, I changed my mind, whether my choice or force.

I started off with the plan of working radio at Olivet Nazarene University in Kankakee, IL, just south of Chicago. The radio station on campus actually has a 35,000 Watt tower, so we reached well into Chicago. I worked there throughout college and a year afterwards. 

Then came newspaper. My wife and I moved to Southern Illinois, the land of few radio stations. I got a job quickly at the local newspaper as the sports editor and toiled there for over six years. Good job, but the pay wasn’t what the family needed and I always wanted to teach, so….

Then I got a degree to teach. Since 2007, I’ve been teaching high school social studies and have loved it. 

All three — definite careers. And now I’ve got a fourth. Writing books. 

But, as I’ve learned, I’ve been writing all along. In some careers, more than others, but the writing has never really stopped. 

When I was in college, learning the broadcasting trade, one of my professors told us that being a broadcaster was “writing in your mind.” He said all good broadcasters are good writers. The writing simply takes place in your mind and then out through your mouth for the audience to hear. 

Obviously, when I worked in newspaper, I wrote. I wrote a lot. Between baseball, football and volleyball stories for the sports pages, feature stories on 93-year-old harness racers and guys that make shelves out of wrought iron and even the occasional news story about taxes and school boards, I was constantly writing.

Even teaching takes writing. A lot like broadcasting, when you are lecturing or preparing lesson plans, there is a lot that takes place “in your mind,” but there is certainly tests and worksheets to write and other parts of the job that take a writer’s touch.

Now that I’m also writing books, it kind of brings it all together. The experience of writing in my mind, so I can prepare the story before I put it on paper — the varied stories I had at the newspaper that have given me a broader perspective on life, and the organization it took in teaching to form it all together.

In each job, writing was essential, but each piece alone wasn’t enough to get my writing career as an author kickstarted. I am thankful for each step along the way and know that without each piece, the stories I tell today would be just a little more empty.