Communion Of Dreams

A different kind of luck.
February 14, 2012, 1:57 pm
Filed under: Connections, Promotion, Publishing, Science Fiction, Writing stuff

There’s a fascinating article in the current New Yorker on the story of Quentin Rowan, who last fall was revealed to have largely plagiarized the much-vaunted spy novel Assassin of Secrets. What is curious about the plagiarism is that Rowan had used passages from a very large number of other works, blending them together to create his novel. From the article:

Like a spy hiding in plain sight, “Assassin of Secrets” appeared to be a bizarre aberration: an homage to Bond that plagiarized Bond. Jeremy Duns, alerted by the Bond forum, began checking the text, plugging phrases into Google Books. He found a sentence from the American spy writer Charles McCarry, and another from Robert Ludlum, the author of the “Bourne” books. “I quickly realized that the whole novel was ‘written’ this way,” Duns wrote on his blog. He informed the book’s British publisher, and on November 8th, five days after the book’s publication, Little, Brown recalled all sixty-five hundred copies and issued a press release: “It is with deep regret that we have published a book that we can no longer stand behind.”

By then, Edward Champion, the editor of the culture Web site Reluctant Habits, had joined the hunt. Champion had exposed plagiarism before, and he told me that “generally people stick with one source, or two or three.” In “Assassin of Secrets,” he found thirty-four instances of plagiarism in the first thirty-five pages, taken from sources ranging from multiple Bond continuation novels to James Bamford’s 2001 nonfiction book about the National Security Agency to Geoffrey O’Brien’s 1988 account of the nineteen-sixties, “Dream Time.”

How did this come to happen? Well, the article goes into considerable depth exploring that question and Rowan’s answers. It’s an excellent and insightful psychological profile, and well worth the time to read it.

But what interests me is how Rowan managed to get the book published in the first place. Again, from the article:

At first, Rowan described “Spy Safari” to me as “pretty much my own,” but after a minute he admitted that he “must have” lifted some passages from pulp novels, “just because it was such a deeply ingrained thing.” He sent the manuscript to an agent named David Vigliano—a former student of Rowan’s father, at Friends—who was known for representing memoirs by celebrities such as Jessica Simpson. Vigliano passed the book along to one of his employees, a twenty-six-year-old agent named David Peak.

He knew someone. He had a connection to an agent. That agent handed the manuscript off to an employee. That employee placed the book a few months later with a publishing house. The rest of the story spun out from there.

One of the things I have written about here over the years is my belief that conventional publishing is essentially broken. Almost five years ago I wrote about the experience of David Lassman, then the director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath in the UK, who ran an experiment to see what would happen if he submitted the work of Jane Austen under his own name to a bunch of established publishers and agents. All the submissions were rejected, and only one even recognized the work. Mr. Lassman, you see, didn’t have an old student of his father’s handy.

Now that Communion of Dreams is self-published, and slowly selling as word of it spreads, you might think that this is a moot point, or should be. Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps I should just ignore things like this, focus on concentrating on doing my own promotional stuff and selling copies of my novel here and there.

But the truth is that while I can at least point to the book getting some distribution, some positive reviews and word-of-mouth, I do not have the kinds of resources that even a minor publishing house has for advertising and promotion. Luck still plays a huge part. And that is either blind luck, or the kind that comes from having connections.

I don’t have that kind of luck. But perhaps you do, and will put in a good word for me with the right person. I promise that Communion of Dreams is all my own work. Really.

Jim Downey

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