Shortcuts to Success

J. K.

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When I heard that author J.K. Rowling was being sued for plagiarism (again), I did what I think most people did, which is to say: rolled my eyes and went on with my life. Such are the perils of being rich and famous and an author (and, please note, these three elements rarely mix). I am warned, by other authors, that there are crazy people out there, and if your book catches the eye of some of them, and if the ideas you write about are somewhat similar to what they’ve written (or, more likely, thought about writing), they will accuse you of stealing their ideas.

This is, of course, lunacy.

But reading this post by Teresa Neilsen-Hayden, I’m beginning to think that I should pay more attention to this case. The entertainment value could be considerable, especially when the judge comes down on the plaintiffs like a ton of bricks for their frivolous lawsuit.

Teresa goes through the case of Jacobs estate piece by piece, and it seems obvious to me from the things she deconstructs that the book Adrian Jacobs tried to put together, that Jacobs didn’t go the usual route that most authors take in order to get published. Indeed, he took a number of short cuts, such that the book can not really be taken seriously.

The only publishing detail the relatives seem to know is exactly how many copies were printed. Most or all of the copies wound up in the hands of the author. He sent many of them to his agent, which is an odd thing to do if you already have a legitimate publisher. Maybe I’m wrong, but to me this sounds like vanity publishing.

I can tell you one thing that definitely didn’t happen: the book didn’t get edited, copy edited, or proofread, which is sad considering that it’s only 36 pages long. Check out the prose. (If you’re feeling brave, here’s the complete list of excerpts.) The punctuation is full of errors, and never rises above “haphazard.” Obvious words are left out, and essential connections and descriptions are missing. Some passages make no sense at all. The text contains errors no editor would let stand, like “bathroom-come-study,” “carpenterised” for “remodeled” or “subdivided,” and “fawcett” for “faucet.” Some interesting passages:

Willy sat in Ali Baba’s chair and was frequenctized into vision acute, now receiving clarity waves from the Ruby Tower.

Kentucky set the scene for the polo feast. A green green carpet appeared like a field in the sky, and the audience was enthralled as the mini polo ponies careered back and forth with their Jockies at breakneck velocity around the entire carpet lawn. … Duke plied them with the local coconut juice which spiced and blended with Bay pineapple juice, caressed their lovely day.

Oy! The word ‘frequenctized’ makes my eyeballs hurt, and the phrase ‘frequenctized into vision acute’ probably would have made me spray coffee all over my keyboard had I been drinking some.

The biggest strike against the Jacobs’ estate lawsuit is that you can’t copyright ideas — at least, not ideas that are as vague in their similarities to J.K. Rowling’s The Goblet of Fire that they’ve argued. The lawsuit comes down to the fact that both Jacobs and Rowling wrote a book about a child who discovered he had magical powers and entered into a world connected with our own where wizards operated, and where there was a wizardly competition. Bzzt! There are dozens, if not hundreds of books out there where children discover they have magical powers and a magical heritage, where kids go to wizardly schools and wizardly competitions take place. Many of them, as Teresa notes, predate Jacobs book. Should he be sued for plagiarism in turn?

But what gets me most of all is the tale of Willy the Wizard’s trek to publication:

Adrian Jacobs’ work “The Adventures of Willy The Wizard” was well received when it was sent around in manuscript form by his literary agent to potential publishers in 1987.

No. While the publishers may have found kind things to say about it, they rejected it.

Publishers were enthusiastic about his ideas, including …

(List of ideas, carefully selected and phrased to maximize the resemblance to Rowling’s work.)

However his literary agent advised him that the work needed some re-writing and was densely packed with themes and ideas that needed expansion and development.

I’ll bet. After all, we’re comparing a 36 page book with a 640 page tome. That tells me that something got short shrift.

Adrian Jacobs was impatient to publish and not wishing to re-write, Adrian commissioned an illustrator- Nick Tidnam RBA and retained him to illustrate the manuscript. Cecil Turner of Bachman Turner published the book in October 1987.


Some 5000 copies were printed. Adrian sent a large number of copies of the highly colourful finished book to his literary agent. Adrian Jacobs visited several schools and read extracts from AWTW. The book was reviewed in papers including the Daily Express.

And, as Teresa notes: the article makes no mention of book sales or distribution, nor does it explain why Jacobs had to send so many books to his literary agent in the first place (My literary agent only needs a couple of copies to try and market my books to foreign publishers). It isn’t confirmed, but it sounds very much like Jacobs paid for the costs of publishing himself (as in vanity publishing). He certainly paid for the services of an illustrator, which just doesn’t happen in the world of serious publishing.

And being impatient to publish and not wanting to rewrite? Great, honking, big rookie mistake made by wannabe authors who, by and large, don’t get to be professional authors. Erin, whose novel Plain Kate is due to be published by Arthur A. Levine (who actually did edit Harry Potter) this coming September, has visited schools with a stack of manuscripts about two feet high which she shows off to the students. They are about six, or so, complete manuscripts of the story, each one a separate revision. Are these all of the revisions you did to the novel? the students ask. No, she tells them. I did several versions on my own. These are all of the revisions I made to my novel, after the editors got a hold of it.

Back in my early days of trying to write professionally, primarily by trying to break into the Virgin Books line of Doctor Who novels, Paul Cornell quoted the television series Fame at me. “You got big dreams. You want fame. Well fame costs. And right here is where you start paying.”

He’s right, you know. Most of the time, you can’t take shortcuts to success. And it’s unseemly to take swipes at those who have been more successful than you. I strongly suspect that this case will be dismissed very quickly.

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