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Month: April 2019

Second Chance Book Club: The Mister, Prologue/Chapter One or “To my overwhelming surprise…this is actually kind of good.”

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Once again, I stare down the cold, unfeeling face of spring with an E.L. James book in my hands. This time, however, my trepidation is born not of whispered contempt and one-star reviews, but the knowledge of what the author’s past literary efforts have wrought. I have not heard the dread tales told by sailors; I have lain mine own eyes upon the yawning maw and vast, slithery tentacles writhing in the horrors of the deep.

In other words, I’m about to read The Mister.

My mind recoils from the task. Every ridge of my brain, every nerve and memory bears the scars of my past encounters with James’s work. The story that started off amusingly naive before descending into a Lifetime Original nightmare, a fever dream from which the zeitgeist could not, would not, utterly refused to wake. The popularity of James’s celebration of a sociopathic man and the woman who embraced his manipulations until she learned to tolerate all the abuse he expected her to take for his convenience dismayed me so much that by the time we reached his side of the story, I just couldn’t take it anymore. The beast slew me.

But as I said in my post yesterday, I’m ready to give James a second chance. The Mister is, as far as I can tell, an original piece of fiction. In her own sandbox, playing with her own toys, what will James be able to create? Without the fawning adoration of thousands of users begging for more violence, more abuse, more control, manipulation, and fear, what is she capable of?

As it turns out…it’s actually not too bad. So far.

Prologue: Okay, full disclosure? The prologue didn’t inspire a lot of hope. It opens with an explanation of what the word “daily” means as it applies to newspapers and cleaning staff. And by “explanation” I mean, literally, a single page with the two definitions written dictionary style in case we’re too stupid to pick up the meaning from context. I assume there will be some kind of daily/daily joke in the book that made this necessary, and when I get to it, I’ll be like, “Oh. I see now that the ‘daily’ page was a response to an editorial note.”

Obviously, I’m joking. E.L. James is a guaranteed money maker. There is no way anyone made editorial suggestions beyond typos.

Now, I didn’t want to come right out of the gate with a comparison to Fifty Shades, I really didn’t. But The Mister opens so similarly to Fifty Shades Darker that I had some kind of flashback.

No. No. No. Not the black. Not the choking dark. Not the plastic bag. Panic overwhelms her, forcing the air from her lungs.

It’s written in the same third-person, present-tense as Baby-Christian’s inner monologue was and I developed an immediate rash.

E.L. James has never met a word that didn’t sound better three times in a row. The “No. No. No.” I can see. It’s the following:

It will be over, and then I will be free. Free. Free.


Go. Now. Run. Run. Run. Go.

that really stick out when they’re stacked together. Our heroine is in a flight so desperate, she runs into some woods and makes a nest out of leaves to hide and sleep in. Tossing in words in groups of three makes it seem less like an escape and more like bad slam poetry.

Go. Go. Go. Don’t stop.

I mean.

Cold. Cold. Too cold.

This was probably not written with the intention of making the reader sing, “Vanilla Ice, ice, baby too cold, too cold,” out loud in their bedroom at one in the morning, but it happened and there’s no way to undo it now.

The prologue is basically made up of several micro-scenes as the heroine flees from a shopping center to the woods, to an urban setting. She has an address she’s headed to–

This is where she needs to go. Now. Now. Now.

Could you please. Just for one god damn minute.

I get the effect James is going for here. The thought process was that if she wrote short, choppy, stream-of-consciousness sentences, the passages would feel more urgent. But they don’t. They just feel childish. It was way too childish when she wrote this way in the POV of a four-year-old, so it sure isn’t going to work for an adult. But we get things like:

One foot in front of the other. Walk. It’s all she can do. Walk. Walk. Walk. Wake and walk on. Walk.

And it just becomes monotonous. We see her go into a McDonald’s bathroom to drink water and the food “smells enticing” which is like the only time anyone has ever used that word to describe McDonald’s. Then we jump to the next section and she’s, surprise, still cold and still walking.

And she walks and walks, following the map. A stolen map. Stolen from a store. A store with twinkling lights and Christmas music.

A gif of Kronk from The Emperor's New Groove saying, "Oh right. The Poison. The poison for Kuzco. The poison chosen specifically for Kuzco. Kuzco's poison."

Our heroine arrives at the address she’s been looking for, where a woman named Magda has been expecting her for over a week and has no idea what happened to her.

The word “cold” is used eight times in the prologue. Eight times on one page, going by Kindle’s classification of pages. So is “walk.”

You know, not to spoiler anything, but the less said about the heroine’s POV and how it’s written, the better. At least, at this point. We’ll have time to get into the rest later.

Chapter one:

Mindless sex–there’s a lot to be said for it.

Whoa now, that’s a real change in pace, ain’t it? This is our introduction to Maxim Trevelyan, the hero of the book. And while a passage like:

Who was it last time? Jojo? Jeanne? Jody? Whatever. She was some nameless fuck who moaned a great deal both in and out of bed.

might make the casual or non-reader of the genre go, “Ugh, gross, no, get him away,” I assure you, he falls in line with the bad boys of romance here. If someone didn’t read romance, this might have been a throw-the-book moment, but I’m familiar with the tropes, so while I rolled my eyes, I kept on going.

We learn that tonight, he’s not with any ordinary one-night stand. He’s slept with his best friend, Caroline, for what is not the first time. He’s all about thinking how wrong the situation is, how he loathes himself, and it’s like, you know, calm down, dude. So, you slept with your best friend. That’s another entire romance novel trope right there.

This is Caroline, for heaven’s sake, my best friend and my brother’s wife.

Oh. No, that’s a lot different than I was thinking. You’re right, that’s really bad.


Oh…kay. All right, yeah. Still bad. Probably shouldn’t be doing that, but at least we’ve taken a step down, right?

No. Not ex-wife.


His widow.

Yike. But okay, I can see it. It’s a highly emotional time and it makes sense that something like this could happen, as ill-advised as it may be. And it’s a great set-up, really. Our hero isn’t just grieving, he’s destructively grieving? Let me hop right on the James train because this is the angst I live for. Choo choo, motherfuckers!

Caroline wakes and begs Maxim to have sex with her again, so she can forget her grief and pain.

And because I’m hurting, too–because I miss him, too–and Caroline is my connection to him, my lips find hers and I ease her onto her back.

Hello. My name is Jenny Trout. And I am extremely present and accounted for, specifically for this type of thing.

There’s a section break and Maxim wakes to an empty bed and a note from Caroline about having dinner with “Daddy and the Stepsow.” If you thought this was going to be an E.L. James book sans-internalized misogyny, oh ho, dear readers. The “Stepsow” is referred to that way at least through the second chapter and I assume further into the book.

We also learn that it’s only been two days since his brother’s funeral. So. He and Caroline didn’t wait for the marriage bed to cool much, right?

Well, I have some news that will shock readers of the original Fifty Shades recaps to their very marrow.

Caroline is a blonde.

Just a nightcap, she’d said, and I’d gazed into her big blue eyes, brimming with sorrow, and known what she wanted. It was the same look she’d given me the night we learned of Kit’s accident and untimely death. A look I couldn’t resist then.

Oh. So you guys banged like…immediately after hearing that your brother, her husband, died? I guess that could be a natural… Um. You know, I’m not going to police anyone’s grief here.

We’d almost danced the dance so many times, but that night I resigned myself to fate, and with an unerring inevitability I fucked my brother’s wife.

Wow. So. You guys had already flirted with the idea of doing this…and then hours after his death, you acted on it. I mean, again, I’m not policing anyone’s grief but I’m just saying, this is the kind of thing I want to see the hero doing with the heroine. In a historical. And the husband was an evil duke who was mean to her.

Maxim’s brother’s name, by the way, is Kit.

You know. How you name one kid something clunky and Russian that literally means, “the greatest” and you name the other one three letters after a baby fox?

Anyway, Maxim gives Caroline a pass on fucking him so soon and so often, but he’s super hard on himself about it. He thinks about how his brother was always so well-liked, how great he was, and how he deserved better in life. Maxim also describes himself as a “wastrel,” so I’m starting to wonder why this isn’t just a Regency romance in the first place.

Then he tries to steer away from his grief, straight into gross town:

She likes it. I like it, and it’s what I do best, fucking some eager, attractive woman into the small hours of the morning. It’s my favorite recreational activity and gives me something to do–someone to do. Fucking keeps me fit, and in the throes of passion I learn all I need to know about a woman–how to make her sweat and if she screams or cries when she comes.

Caroline is a crier.

Caroline has just lost her husband.


And I’ve lost my big brother, my only guiding light for the last few years.

Here,  James is able to do with Maxim Trevelyan what she failed to do with Christian Grey. Both of them are womanizing pieces of trash. But Maxim has a conscience. Christian had a rationalization. Christian Grey would absolutely argue that fucking keeps him in shape, that all he needs to know about a woman is what she’s like during sex, and then he would turn it around to, “because my mom died twenty-three years ago, this is all acceptable behavior.” Maxim is a dude who is two days out from the funeral of a brother he loves. There is actual human feeling and emotional response to Maxim. And he hasn’t used his emotional response to dupe or pressure Caroline into anything; he’s weaponizing his grief against himself, not an outside target.

Maxim continues to beat himself up about how much better and more responsible his brother is, then decides he needs to hit the gym. He runs on the treadmill and we learn that his inner-monologue has a thing for threes, as well:

Run. Breathe. Run. Breathe.

Don’t think about Kit. Don’t think about Caroline.

Run. Run. Run.

Oh my god, you and your heroine are going to be perfect for each other!

As I cool down, the treadmill slows, and I jog through the final stretch of my five-mile sprint.

So, you know how much word repetition irks me, both as a writer trying to avoid it and as a reader having to see it, right? This is one of the things I don’t understand about James’s writing. She will hammer one word, like, oh, I don’t know, cold, for example, over and over again eight times on one page, and not just for emphasis; some of the “cold” in the prologue was used in random description where it could have easily been swapped with another adjective without ruining the effect she was going for and already ruining. Here, we have a case where she’s clearly not wanting to repeat “run” so she swaps it out for “sprint.” But that’s the wrong word. Five miles isn’t a sprint. And you don’t jog a sprint. Not even the last part of a sprint. A sprint is where you go all out, full capacity, for a very short distance.

Writing Tip: Word rep is obnoxious to read and write, but sometimes, it’s unavoidable. Don’t replace one word with a different, incorrect word to avoid it. If you can’t find an equivalent synonym, just bite down on a leather strap and battlefield medicine your way through typing out that repetitive word.

Maxim backs up his “wastrel” remark by explaining that he’s never done a day of work in his life. He’s been the party guy, living off his trust-fund, while Kit worked hard for everything he got. Except for heirs. He doesn’t have any of those, so Kit made Maxim the executor of his will and you know, I’m not 100% sure this isn’t just a regency romance brought into the future.

Upstairs in his shower, Maxim thinks about Caroline and what’s going to happen next. We learn that they’re best friends since boarding school, where they met at thirteen. She was his first love and the woman he lost his virginity to and…she married his brother. I’m dying to know the backstory there. No sarcasm at all, guys. I’m actually really into the book at this point.

He makes it clear that he and Caroline are not going to be together, and that they never got together while his brother was alive, which really goes a long way for me in the “liking Maxim” department. I don’t know if I would be cool with a hero who fucked his dead brother’s wife while the dead brother was alive.

So, Maxim gets dressed, thinks about how his “daily,” an old Polish woman name Krystyna, will be there because it’s Monday. I’m going to be honest, if I find out there is a word for cleaning lady called “daily” and it’s used when people don’t come clean, you know, daily, I’m going to be a very unhappy person for the rest of my life. He goes outside and walks along Chelsea Embankment, which is important to note here because it is on the cover of the book. Also, I haven’t included it here yet, but the fact that he can see the Thames from his apartment is brought up…


He goes to see his lawyer, Mr. Rajah, and comments on the receptionist’s “olive skin” and how hot she is and how easy it would be to get her phone number. So, this is going to be another book where every side character is a woman who might or might not be a race other than white but who in any case is very attracted to and easily obtainable by the hero.

So, the lawyer comes out and says:

“Lord Trevethick, may I offer you my sincered condolences for your loss,”

And it took me a second to realize that the guy didn’t have a bizarrely-placed lisp or something. Note I would have made, as an editor? “Trevethick and Trevelyan are too close.”

Kit was Earl of Trevethick, see, and with no heirs, that means the title goes to Maxim, who coveted the position as a child. Because Kit was the heir, he was treated better by their mother. Styled Viscount Porthtowan until their father’s death when Kit was twenty, he became the twelfth Earl of Trevethick–

Hang on. What in the Jane Austen is going on here? This is a Regency romance! He’s even sitting alone by the fire, at his club, drinking and contemplating his vast inheritance. Oh, and Caroline? She has been left nothing in the will.

No wonder I’m liking this so much. It could have been written by someone writing Elizabeth Gaskell fanfic and then publishing it to the delight and rapture of the Ton.

Maxim is pretty sure Caroline is going to challenge the will, but at the moment she’s texting him, wondering where he is, and he’s so upset about everything he’s going to talk his feelings out to Tinder and some cocaine. There’s a paragraph break, and he’s brought a woman back to his apartment, where she looks out over the Thames because, again, it comes up a lot. So much, I went back and checked and so far, by page eleven, there have been four mentions of the fact that he can see the river from his house.

Anyway, Maxim has brought this chick, Heather, back to his place, where she does not do the totally free cocaine he subtly offers her, which to me means that Heather can afford her own cocaine, thank you very much. Now, here is another place, guys. Here is another place I have to refer back to Fifty Shades of Grey for comparison:

I step closer so that she has to angle her head to look at me. I’m careful not to touch her.

Wait, there’s more, further down the page:

“What do you want?” I watch as her gaze moves to my mouth. It’s an invitation. I pause for a moment, just to make sure I’m reading her correctly, then lean down and kiss her.

A hero worrying about consent? In an E.L. James book? In this economy?!

It’s actually kind of sexy, with him asking her what she wants, and all the kissing and thinking about how hot her body is, how sober she is, and he asks her again what she wants and then…

She’s turned on. Big time.

Well, I don’t know about you, but there goes my boner.

Not his, though. They go to the bedroom, where there’s more kissing and he undresses her and–

Heather tosses her hair over her shoulder as she turns and gives me a searing look from beneath her lashes.

Damnit, Erika, we talked about this! How many times have we talked about this? So many, Erika! A thousand many!

But at least she’s listened to one of the loudest criticisms of Fifty Shades in that she’s putting a huge emphasis on consent for both parties.

They fall into bed together, and then we cut to Maxim awake at five in the morning, wondering when he can kick her out. And he’s not mean about it, he just wishes he was alone. He remembers a lot of details about Heather that we don’t really need or care to know about, like where she lives and what her job is. Then he remembers Caroline exists.

Three whining texts and several missed calls from Caroline have pissed me off.

Hey, so. She’s your best friend and dead brother’s wife and you fucked her like, within hours of her husband, your brother, dying. Let’s cut it with the “whining” angle. I want to keep thinking you’re a better guy than your predecessor.

On the other hand, the texts from Caroline read:




And like. Again, not to police anyone’s grief here. But…”*pouting*”? That’s the text a twenty-year-old sends her boyfriend playfully when he doesn’t want to come over. Not the text a thirty-something adult woman (I mean, I don’t know her age, but I assume they’re in their thirties) sends her dead husband’s brother when she’s DTF.

So, here is where the characterization and conflict get a little murky:

She knows the deal; she’s known me long enough. A quick tumble between the sheets isn’t going to change how I feel about her. I love her…in my own way, but as a friend, a good friend.

Earlier in the chapter, it seems like Maxim really loved her and she chose his brother instead. Then he was like, Caroline knows we’re incompatible. Now, it’s like she’s the one who’s chasing him and he doesn’t have romantic feelings for her. This is something that is going to need to get cleared up before we go any further.

Sadly, that’s not going to happen in chapter one. Heather wakes up and they have a little conversation where he says he’ll call her and she’s like, no, you won’t, and oh, before that, there’s another reference to being able to see the Thames from his apartment.

Most of these are mentions of the way the light reflects off the water and onto his ceiling. Sometimes, it’s tied to his emotions. Other times, it’s purely decoration.

Anyway, while they wait for Heather’s car to arrive, we learn that Maxim has a piano, a guitar, and DJ equipment because he’s into music. Also, photography. And modeling. So, he really does just kind of do whatever he feels like, and we’re meeting him at the moment where suddenly, he has responsibilities. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to play with in a character who goes from alpha man-child to responsible dude real quick like. And Maxim has to be responsible; he now owns three estates and a bunch of London property, including the people who work it and depend on him for their livelihood.

Shit got real Downton Abbey, real, real fast for Lord Trevethick.

Anyway, before Heather goes, she tells him she hopes he finds what he’s looking for, and he gets all in his head over what she could have possibly meant by that. Then he goes back to bed and the chapter is over.

My impression so far: Guys…it’s actually not that bad. Like, no, seriously. I’ve read past this point. I’ll probably spend all day reading this unless things take a drastic turn because it has hooked the fuck out of me. The writing is, eh…it’s still not good. Has it improved? Eh…no. Will it probably ever improve? Doubtful in the extreme, given the fact that writers usually stop receiving true editorial guidance once they reach James’s status. But it’s not like I haven’t read worse on AO3 or Literotica and enjoyed it. And I’m interested in this whole concept of a Regency romance plot brought forward into modern times. Maybe this is what people felt when they first started reading Fifty Shades of Grey and went on to like it. Maybe there is charm and charisma to her work that I missed the first time around.

I guess we’ll have to tune in tomorrow to see.

Second Chance Book Club: THE MISTER starts Tuesday

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Everything old is new again. After is in the news and E.L. James has a book coming out.

You asked.

I humbly answer your call.

The Mister, James’s first non-Fifty Shades of Grey novel, is out tomorrow. When it hits my Kindle tonight at midnight, I’ll be reading it and, yes, recapping it here. But rather than make it a selection of the Jealous Haters Book Club (which already has a current resident), I’m giving it a second chance. It’s going to be the Second Chance Book Club, for a few reasons.

Though it seems like only yesterday, Fifty Shades of Grey was published eight years ago. That’s eight years for James to have grown and evolved as a writer, and as a person. Maybe she doesn’t find intimate partner abuse as spine-tingling and sexy as she used to. Sure, she wrote Grey and Darker in that time frame and they somehow turned out more disturbing than their source material, but those actually give me some hope for The Mister; instead of writing how romantic and wonderful Christian Grey was from his own POV, she made him the abusive monster critical readers actually saw the first time around.

In any case, when James was writing Grey and Darker, she was yolked to the Fifty Shades of Grey storyline. She couldn’t change anything about the plot, characterization, or dynamics. On top of that, Fifty Shades of Grey wasn’t even really hers. Everyone and their mother will argue these days that plagiarism isn’t really plagiarism until it happens to [redacted cattiness], but the fact remains that while Fifty Shades of Grey might belong to James materially, the story and characters are not hers. In The Mister, she’s going to have to show readers what she can come up with on her own, without taking from another author. Considering my own fanfic background and the fanfic backgrounds of other authors, I’m actually really excited to see what happens to James when the training wheels come off. Fanfic communities tend to breed good authors. Maybe a book with characters and events that weren’t stolen from someone else for profit will turn out better than Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels did.

That’s why this isn’t going to be a Jealous Haters Book Club event. I plan on busting through this one with shorter, more frequent recaps, the way I did the first Fifty Shades of Grey recaps before I hit the wall of, “What am I reading? Is this real life?” and the whole thing spun off into 3,000-5,000 word installments of me gnashing my teeth and wanting to slap women in public. Expect to see the pace pick up here at the blog in wall-to-wall The Mister posts for a while. Everything else is going on hold. We are entering a Trout Nation state of emergency.

Everybody limber up.


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GOOD NEWS EVERYONE! Well, at least, good news for me. After a horrible six or so months of constant stress and a serious mental health crisis, I finally managed to finish a book! I did it! Let me show you the cover!

The cover of Where We Land is yellow, with "Abigail Barnette" above the title and a little cartoon of a ginger dude in a hoodie and stocking cap playing guitar to a brown-haired white girl in a ringer tee and jeans. Pink hearts float between them.

I started writing this…oh, god knows when I started. I had such high hopes for it. I planned to release it in March, but since then, various circumstances have made writing difficult to painful to impossible. And my heart hurt, because I love, love, love this book. But between a severe breakdown, legal trouble stress, and people constantly talking about New Adult in the past-tense, I started to think I should abandon it and move on to something else.

But I didn’t. Because I love this little love story. I really do. I love that it’s not about two people in college with their whole futures ahead of them, but two non-students stranded in a college town, feeling like their lives are passing them by. I love that it’s friends-to-lovers, “oh my god, they were roommates,” and features the most beta, cinnamon roll hero I’ve ever written. I love that they’re just two people trying to get by, who worry about money, who work multiple thankless jobs (he’s a CNA at a nursing home, she works in a head shop and a cafe), who don’t get much time off and who are both terrible at dating. I love that there’s nothing glamorous about them. I. Just. Love. Daniel and Lauren.

I’ll have an excerpt and release date soon. In the meantime, here’s a Spotify playlist of songs that inspired me while I wrote Where We Land (and whose artists, labels, mothers, dog walkers, etc. are in no way affiliated with the book in any official capacity or endorsement).

Thanks, everyone for being patient with me so far this year as content on the blog has been spotty and my release schedule has been slow. I appreciate and love you guys and I can’t wait to be able to share Where We Land with all of you!

EDITED TO ADD: I totally forgot one of my other favorite parts about this book: it’s set in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I spent my post-high school/non-college/what am I doing with my life? days. I also shamelessly resurrected Boogie’s, a coffee shop that sadly closed years ago but which was the scene of so many of my own pivotal moments in early adulthood. That’s what you get to do when you’re a writer; you get to bring stuff back from the dead!

The Copyright Lawsuit. What was THAT about?!

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Hey there, Trout Nation friends! Remember a few weeks ago when I was like, surprise, I’m getting sued? Well, now that the suit is settled, case closed, glad that’s over, I can tell you what happened and more importantly, how to protect yourself from some common mistakes, because “oh shit, I didn’t know it worked like that,” is not a valid legal defense.

Like four years ago I had a series on this blog called “Double Steve Bonus Monday.” Born out of an off-handed comment a friend made after her young daughter’s surgery (anesthesia left the poor kid seeing Blue’s Clues in stereo), I posted an image of someone either named Steve or with a name from that same Steve-centric group, like Stephanie or Stefan. I would repeat this image one on top of the other with no explanation whatsoever as to why they were there or what “Double Steve Bonus Monday” meant. It was just garden variety Jenny weirdness that amused no one but myself. One of the Steves was Steve Forbes. And that’s the photo I got sued over.

You have no idea how much I laughed over middle-class me getting sued about a picture of a billionaire.

About a year ago, I got an email from a law office. I get a lot of vaguely threatening emails from law offices and they’re always very obvious scams claiming that you owe money to whatever random company you don’t know and you better settle up or they’ll send someone to your work to get the money and you’ll be embarrassed and I’m like, jokes on you, I embarrass myself at my work all the time. But this one looked pretty legit. They were contacting me on behalf of their client, whose photo I had used on my website without a license. And they wanted nearly $7,000.00 to make things right.

I thought, well, that’s weird. Why would I need a license? I didn’t use it on a book cover or a t-shirt. I didn’t put it on an album cover or run it behind a paywall. I didn’t sell the image and I didn’t make any money from it. It wasn’t like these were the days of the wild, wild internet west and I simply didn’t realize there were laws governing the use of other people’s photos. In fact, I thought I had a pretty good handle on what did and did not constitute fair use (I did not) and that since my site wasn’t monetized at the time of the post and the photo was used in part as a parody, I was in the clear.

An industry professional I spoke with felt the same way. “This seems like it would fall under fair use,” they said. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Just take it down and they’ll back off.” On top of that, this person said the email felt “scammy” because of the upfront demand for money. Several people I spoke to about it, all of them professionals in creative fields, felt that coming out of the gate asking for cash was a red flag. Besides, anyone who’s ever written fanfic knows that a C&D is the first step! Nobody takes your money unless you disregard the C&D!

All of that is wrong. You might be sitting at home right now thinking of the time you used a photo of a celebrity in your IG book promo or you tossed a few song lyrics into your fanfic and maybe you’re sweating a little bit, but you’re thinking that of course, you’d take that down if you received a C&D. But despite the conventional wisdom spouted on the internet, the first step in an infringement lawsuit is not a C&D. The client and their attorneys are under no obligation to give you that chance to remove the material before they attempt to recover financial damages.

Also, the way I used the image did not fall under fair use. Though Steve Forbes was being made the target of a joke (or parody, to get all fair use-y), it wasn’t Steve Forbes suing me. It was the photographer, suing because I had used his work without permission. If I had altered the image or copied the image in a parody of that particular photographer’s style, that would have been a parody, but being a photo of the subject of a parody wasn’t enough to make it fall under fair use. A lot of you are probably going, “duh, Jenny, anybody could have figured that out,” but based on the conversations I had with people who work with this stuff all the time for a living, it’s apparently not that obvious.

My response to the first email was to remove the images from the site and simply say, hey, I don’t have that kind of cheddar lying around, this is all I can do for you. I figured that taking it down was the end of things, but I was once again contacted with the demand for money. I responded that I had removed the photo, no malicious infringement was intended, and they should consider the matter closed because I still didn’t have that amount of money available. When they contacted me yet again, I lost my patience. I had done some research on this law office and learned that they make their money with software that crawls the internet doing reverse image searches of all their clients’ registered copyrights. They then issue the offer of a settlement and threat of a lawsuit.

After responding in good faith to a few of their attempts to threaten me with judgments and court costs in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars, I snapped. I told them that I had removed the photo and that while I respected their hustle, I wasn’t going to pay them because I simply did not have the money.

I didn’t hear from them for months. When they contacted me again, it was via first class mail, with one last attempt to collect, and the prepared brief they would be filing. At that point, I sought legal counsel. Here, I began to understand just how dire my position was. The work was not transformative in itself. And though I hadn’t sold the image or put it on anything else I sold, I did monetize my website in 2017 with an affiliate link, while the post from 2015 was still visible on the site.

To date, I’ve made $37.00 from the affiliate link, but the law wasn’t on my side; they were suing for statutory, not real, damages, meaning the judge could have awarded them anywhere from $700.00 to $150,000.00 dollars plus court fees and the legal fees paid by the client. Since it was a Double Steve Bonus Monday, I’d posted the photo twice. If I lost, I was warned, I could potentially wind up with nearly half a million dollar judgment against me. Obviously, I decided to settle.

Now, I want to reiterate that this was not malicious infringement. I did not post this photo thinking, “Aha! I will use this photographer’s work and become rich! Fuck that guy!” I just didn’t understand fair use the way I thought I did (this will not be the last time that my supreme confidence in my own understanding of a topic will be my downfall). And I also want to reiterate that I appreciate copyright lawyers and the work they do to keep creatives safe. I’m not saying I didn’t fuck up and do something that infringed on someone else’s copyright; I did and I’m horrified that my ignorance resulted in me doing something I find repugnant. But I don’t think I’m the only person who carelessly commits infringement without realizing it, so here are some tips to avoid lawsuits:

  • Always use the usage rights filter tool when Googling. I could have saved myself a lot of hassle by knowing this trick prior to 2015. You can do a Google image search for pictures that are labeled for reuse for your needs.
  • Know what constitutes commercial use. One tiny affiliate link is all it takes to bump your site from noncommercial into commercial use. Noncommercial use is also subject to copyright laws, but it’s a lot more difficult to argue against statutory damages if you’ve even attempted to monetize the content. And it doesn’t matter if you used the photo on your blog long before you monetized it.
  • Don’t use photos with watermarks on them, for god’s sake. That’s what the watermark is for. There’s currently an author on Twitter using a watermarked photo as her profile header while she’s out there screaming about how she’s going to sue everyone for everything under the sun and I just stare at it every time I see it. The watermark is clearly visible. If all your images bear the ghostly mark of “SHUTTERSTOCK” across them, it’s hard to believe the person using it had no idea it was copyrighted. (For a while, there was something of a meme to use blatantly watermarked photos in jokes. This was a bad idea).
  • Don’t use photos of celebrities in your book promo! Authors post fantasy casts on their blogs all the time and we don’t think anything of it. It’s just our blog, right? We’re just excited to share the vision in our head with our readers. That’s great! But when we use photos to do it, we not only tend to use copyrighted images in our posts, but we might be breaking laws against using the image of the person in the photograph, depending on what text or links accompany it. You could not only be infringing on the photographer’s copyright, but also the likeness rights of the person in the photo.
  • Save proof of your licenses. This is another bad habit I know that a lot of people have: thinking, “Well, if anything ever comes up regarding this stock image, there’s a record of my purchases on the site.” But what if the stock site where you bought your book cover images shuts down, taking your account info with it? You can’t prove you purchased that license if you haven’t downloaded it or taken a screenshot of your receipt.
  • Make sure the photo you used is actually the one you’re being sued over. Let’s say you did everything right. You used the Google image search tool and you found a photo labeled for reuse or covered under a creative commons license. You’re using it in a way that is covered by its usage rights. And you suddenly find yourself on the receiving end of a “pay up” letter. While I researched my situation, I found cases where people had been sued by law firms using various types of software to search for their clients’ photos online. Only, the photos they sued over didn’t belong to their clients; they just happened to be very similar shots by virtue of a group of photographers standing in the same place, shooting from similar angles. This is most common when people use images taken at large events, like press conferences and political rallies, but it has happened (in at least one case, a photographer was sued for using his own photo because it looked so much like a photo taken by the photographer who’d been standing behind him). Before you pay up, make absolutely sure it’s the same photo.
  • Be sure that you actually understand what “fair use” is. Again, a lot of us don’t. Fair use doesn’t mean just not monetizing something or simply using it for internet fun. Do your research and if you’re in doubt…don’t use it. Or, buy a license. Take it from someone who had to endure almost a year of stress over this and who is now slowly crawling through old posts to remove any copyrighted images I had assumed I was using properly.

What about all those gifs, Jenny? You may be asking. That one is trickier, as there has never been a ruling in a case of gifs and copyright infringement, but let me tell you: if a ruling came down tomorrow? I would remove every single one from my site.

Since I went public about all this, Trout Nation has helped me out considerably. So far, you guys have donated $5,800.00 to my legal defense GoFundMe (the full $7,000.00 will cover the settlement and some of my legal fees) and I am beyond grateful. A fantastically good Samaritan financed the full settlement, so the GoFundMe money is going to them. Anything I can’t pay off via GoFundMe I’ll pay off as their credit card bill comes in. This was so kind of them, as I was able to avoid taking out a high interest loan. Not everyone has that kind of support; I’m super lucky to have so many people out there who have my back and again, I am profoundly grateful for that support. But knowing that not everyone has the kind of support makes me super nervous for other members of the writing community who may be unwittingly making the same mistakes. “Ignorance of law excuses no one,” as the saying goes, and we all need to be more vigilant about the ways we’re using images on our blogs and social media.