There Is No Such Thing as 'Too Similar' When Publishers All Want the Same Book

Screenshot: Buzzfeed Twitter

A few years ago, when I was shopping my now-shelved first novel, an industry insider told me to put the word “girls” in the title. “Girl” novels were big at the moment: Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, The Girls. But a few months later, I was told I had to change the title. There were too many novels about girls.

That is pretty much the way the publishing industry works. Once a title becomes wildly popular, rival imprints rush to get their hands on books that are slight variants on the same conceit until they have too many books on the same topic—say, a woman with a substance abuse problem who witnesses a crime—and once that topic is oversaturated, they move on to something else. In a recent Buzzfeed article, historical fiction novelist Kim Michele Richardson said that details in bestselling author of MeBeforeYou Jojo Moyes’s new novel are too close for comfort to those included in her own work. However, in an industry that frequently gets stuck on the same idea, the similarities in their work look more like byproducts of how well both women know which details are required of their genre, and the fact that many books are becoming difficult to distinguish from one another.

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Both authors’ works focus on the women riders of the Pack Horse Library initiative, a New Deal program that sent librarians on horseback to deliver books to rural dwellings in Appalachia. Richardson’s book is called The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, released in May 2019, while Moyes’s book is called The Giver of Stars and will be released on October 8. An Amazon search found that in addition to those written by Richardson and Moyes, at least two other books have been published about the Pack Horse riders since the start of 2019. Richardson, however, claims that there are similarities between her book and Moyes’s that cannot be explained by the shared subject matter:

“There also appear to be noticeable similarities in Moyes and Richardson’s novels. For example, both feature an attack on a packhorse librarian by a town vagrant, though according to a Kentucky state librarian Richardson consulted, there is no historical evidence of such attacks occurring. Both books feature a black packhorse librarian; there is no readily available historical record confirming the existence of black packhorse librarians. There are also descriptive details that seem uncannily similar in both books, including an October wedding between two characters with a 3-month-old baby and a request for a copy of Woman Home’s Companion because of a baby with a teething issue.”

A comparison compiled by Richardson and obtained by Buzzfeed points out that the vagrant in Richardson’s book says the main character is “Doing the devil’s work by carrying sinful books to good and Godly folks. You’re unclean, born of sin…. You’re a devil, girl.” In Moyes’s novel, the vagrant says “You think we don’t know what you’ve been doing? You think we don’t know that you’ve been spreading among decent, God-fearing women. You got the devil in you.” But woods full of vagrants menacing lone women is a plot device used in novels from Emma to Gone with the Wind, and overly devout rural communities are an obstacle that has spawned dozens of horror movies.

Both novels also feature the introduction of black librarians late in the first act, and later on, both black characters are described as having “elegant” handwriting. Again, this detail is significant for how predictable it is; introducing a friendship with a black character is another literary shortcut, giving the main character depth and the novel a diversity stamp without taking any risks. “Elegant handwriting” is an easy, generally positive character trait that doesn’t have the racist connotations of a descriptor such as “well-spoken.” As Mic pointed out in an essay about the function of Mike Hanlon in Stephen King’s It, these characters serve as “tokens to signal a storyteller’s superficial commitment to racial diversity or stepladders to facilitate a white protagonist’s growth.”

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Even the titles of the novels in question are evidence of an industry that banks on piggybacking off previously successful ideas. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek was originally titled The Borrowing Branch. Publishers instead suggested a title that included the word “woman,” which reminds me of my experiences with the word “girls,” the hottest buzzword in book titles until it wasn’t. On the heels of the bestselling The Woman in the Window, 2019 has seen the release of The Woman in the White Kimono, The Women of Copper County, The Island of Sea Women, Women Talking, and Pretty Guilty Women just to name a few, though the list goes on. The Giver of Stars also reads like an SEO-friendly mashup of bestsellers The Giver and The Fault in Our Stars.

It’s worth noting that Richardson and Moyes share a publisher. Moyes’s publisher, Penguin Random House, owns a 45 percent stake in Sourcebooks, which published Richardson’s novel. Sourcebooks has determined that the books are not similar enough for legal action, perhaps also determining that such similarities are simply hazards of an industry that is driven by printing books that pop up in “related to items you’ve viewed” section of Amazon. After my research for this blog, both Richardson’s and Moyes’s books are in that recommendations section of my Amazon account, along with both Radio Girls and Radium Girls, which were not there before.

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In an essay last year for The New Yorker called “The Domestic Thriller Is Having a Moment,” Joyce Carol Oates wrote that the “challenge” of writing a successful piece of genre fiction “is to invest the generic formula with just enough distinction—what dust-jacket blurbs might praise as “originality”—without leaving formula behind.” Both Richardson and Moyes are very good at predicting which historical tidbits will most resonate with readers at a given time and filling those historical backdrops with conventional plot points. The biggest similarity between the books is that they both fit the formula that publishers predicted would sell.

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