Writer Beware often gets correspondence that goes something like this:
Dear Writer Beware,
I [wrote/self-published] a book about [topic/plot synopsis]. I sent [the manuscript/the book] to [name of agent/publisher]. Next thing I know, there’s a book on the market just like mine! I’m sure that someone plagiarized it. What can I do?
My answer (couched, of course, in much more tactful terms): Get over yourself.
Theft is an incredibly common writerly fear, but for book writers, it’s almost completely unjustified, especially where unpublished work is concerned. A good agent or publisher won’t risk his or her reputation by stealing; a bad agent or publisher isn’t interested in your manuscript at all, only in your money, or else is too unskilled to do anything with your manuscript even if they were stupid enough to try and steal it. Also, if your writing is marketable (the biggest “if” in the quest for publication), it’s a lot less trouble just to sign you for representation or publication than to expend the effort of filching your work and pretending it was created by someone else. In the long catalog of things that book writers need to worry about, theft truly is at the bottom of the list.
I was reminded of this by a recent news story about a self-published author who has filed suit against TV personality Elisabeth Hasselbeck, her publisher, and “John Doe” (I’m guessing this is Hasselbeck’s ghostwriter). The author, Susan Hassett, alleges that Hasselbeck plagiarized Hassett’s book, Living With Celiac Disease, in writing her own book, The G-Free Diet: A Gluten-Free Survival Guide.
These claims are detailed in a letter to Hasselbeck from Hassett’s lawyer (the letter was obtained by gossip website TMZ.com). The letter alleges that Hassett sent a copy of her book to Hasselbeck, care of ABC Studios, in April 2008. (Hasselbeck’s book came out in May 2009–which all on its own could refute Hassett’s allegations, since, given the timeframes in publishing, Hasselbeck’s book may well have been complete or mostly complete by the time Hassett’s book arrived at ABC.) “Subsequently,” the letter indignantly, and somewhat ungrammatically, notes, “Ms. Hassett never received a response or than [sic] even an acknowledgement [sic] of any kind.” (No surprise. I’m quite sure the book went into the bin along with the other unsolicited items that Hasselbeck and her co-hosts on The View probably receive every day; it doesn’t seem likely that Hasselbeck ever saw it.)
The letter goes on to quote both books, in order to identify what it calls “glaring similarities” between the two. The examples chosen are neither glaring nor, really, very similar. (Most are also, as pointed out in this post from Gluten-Free NYC, a celiac-focused blog, restatements of common advice that was widely available long before either book was published). But they do suggest, no doubt unintentionally, that Hassett’s book may be somewhat lacking in the style and grammar department (example: “A person with celiac disease should only shop in the outer isles [sic] of the supermarket. The reason being is the only thing down the other isles [sic] is things you can’t have”). Which makes it still less plausible that Hasselbeck or her ghostwriter plagiarized Hassett.
For me, Hassett’s lawsuit demonstrates both of the basic misapprehensions at work in writers’ fear of theft: first, that theft is common (i.e., it’s a more likely explanation than simple chance for why someone else’s book is similar to yours); and second, that the book is worth stealing (the hard truth is that, most likely, it isn’t–which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with quality). These unrealistic assumptions are often coupled with a lack of understanding of commercial publishing (the timeline confusion noted above) and, as in this case, with the misguided belief that celebrities actually look at the stuff that regular people send them.
Most theft-obsessed writers never get beyond stewing in their own paranoia, but Hassett has taken it a step farther, into court. For her sake, I hope her lawyer is working on contingency.