Now that I’ve gotten used to the book pirates who openly flog their wares on busy street corners, I sometimes stop to browse to keep myself informed of public taste and the current super best-sellers— self-help books, Not Without My Daughter and Harry Potter, mostly. I suppose it must be counted as some kind of a mark of arrival in the literary world to have one’s book selected for distribution on the pirates’ pushcarts.
According to reports, a typical roadside pirate may have a total stock of some 650 books at any given time, worth a paltry Rs25,000, which makes it a fairly small operation. But let’s examine this phenomenon of copyright theft a little more closely.
If one takes the romantic view, it could be seen as a cottage industry that brings low-priced books to people (after all, most neighbourhoods don’t have bookshops). One could even look at the pirate as a modern counterpart of the traditional travelling storyteller. The difference is that those rural raconteurs employ narratives which are free of copyright, and are artists in their own right; their retellings are spellbindingly dramatic.
Raiders on the storm: A romantic cottage industry, or a crime? Literary piracy by India’s street booksellers is a combination of the two. Photo: Hemant Padalkar/Hindustan Times
Pirates, on the other hand, cut corners, use cheap binding that allows pages to fall out, and sometimes the smudged print is tilted sideways and words and phrases have fallen off the page.
It has been suggested that all these small-scale book pirates taken together cause a loss to the tune of Rs100-200 crore to the Indian publishing industry (figures for the volume of piracy anywhere on the planet are of course impossible to compute accurately, since pirates don’t report sales statistics. But, for comparison, in the US, media piracy is estimated to cause an annual financial loss of somewhere between $20-60 billion, or Rs1-3.1 trillion. This sum presumably includes illegal downloading; Hollywood’s big budget Avatar seems to top the list, with some 21 million illegal downloads internationally).
As I was brooding on this, just the other day, I heard some juicy gossip on the latest, much more bizarre case of literary kleptomania. It appears that a wannabe author who calls himself Q.R. Markham, and who is the co-owner of a bookshop in Brooklyn, has over the years been copying habitually from other writers—starting in his early 20s by plagiarizing bits and pieces for his own short stories. Even the reputed The Paris Review fell for the scam and published, as early as in 2002 (issue 161), a short story of his called Bethune Street (into which the bookseller had inserted snippets from here and there, including a sentence stolen from Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana).
As no editor detected the bluff, the bookseller went on to craft an entire spy novel about a secret organization whose business model is to kidnap and exterminate spies. He pieced together bits from various thrillers, cannibalizing, for example, some five books of the post-Fleming 007 franchise (including License Renewed and For Special Services written by John Gardner), and two of Robert Ludlum (The Prometheus Deception and The Janson Directive). He even seems to have partly plagiarized his pen name, Q.R. Markham, combining his own initials with the pseudonym Kingsley Amis used to write a 007 pastiche back in the 1960s.
According to the reports, he wasn’t using Google Books and Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V. The bookseller actually sat at his kitchen table with original books by his favourite writers spread out around him, typing in the pages that seemed to fit into the story he had in mind (he has now confessed to the habit of always marking out, as he reads books, passages and lines that he wished he had written himself). He then made some minor changes, adjusting names and locations, to get the bits to fit together. Let’s look at just one example. Q.R. Markham writes, in a scene where his top spy Chase is bedding a new lady:
“An odd nickname for the elegant, tall, and very efficient and liberated young lady with a taste for cocktail dresses and thigh-high boots. After a slightly shaky start, Chase and Frankie had become close friends and what she liked to call ‘occasional lovers’.”
In For Special Services, from the James Bond franchise, one reads: “An apt nickname for the elegant, tall, and very efficient and liberated young lady. After a slightly shaky start, Bond and Q’ute had become friends and what she liked to call ‘occasional lovers’.”
The weirdest thing is that this postmodernistic pulp collage apparently reads well enough for the author to have cut a deal with a major publishing house. Markham’s audaciousness seems even more audacious if you know what literary contracts look like— any publisher of sound mind adds a page full of warranties and indemnities wherein the author has to guarantee that the work is an original, and “is in no way whatsoever an infringement of any existing copyright”.
The bogus novel, Assassin of Secrets, was published to great acclaim in November, and although reviewers smelt the scent of 007, the respected Publisher’s Weekly proclaimed that “the obvious Ian Fleming influence just adds to the appeal”. Shortly thereafter the hoax was exposed—where else but on the Internet—by hawk-eyed book watchers with stern blogs and inquisitive online forums. Assassin of Secrets was pulled off the shelves within five days of its release and the whole print run is in the process of being pulped.
But by that time, according to one of my sources, translation rights had already been sold for astronomical sums to European publishers. In Italy, where the publishing industry isn’t exactly rolling in cash right now, a publisher apparently paid so much for the fake novel that they can’t afford to translate, for example, Indian fiction into Italian for a long time to come.
Right after the scandal broke, Assassin of Secrets pushed itself up the Amazon sales list to 1,034, although now that the book has been pulled back it is down to No. 122,019 (last time I checked). On the other hand, somebody has already put a collectible copy on sale online for $250.
And what happened to Markham? Well, in one of his online confessions about being addicted to plagiarizing, the 35-year-old mentions that subsequent to being exposed, he has lost his bookshop job and his girlfriend. But he seems to have reinvented himself as a literary cause célèbre.
It wouldn’t surprise me if he soon gets another publishing offer—this time for a semi-fake autobiography, perhaps titled The Crook of Books, which will probably soon take its place on the pirates’ pushcarts alongside Between the Assassinationsand How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Zac O’ Yeah is most recently the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan.
Write to Zac at firstname.lastname@example.org