Historical fiction writer Kim Michele Richardson was surprised when she learned in March that English author Jojo Moyes, most famous for her bestselling Me Before You romance trilogy, would be publishing The Giver of Stars, a historical novel about the real-life Pack Horse Library project in Kentucky, on Oct. 8. Why? Because Richardson’s novel The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, which focuses on imagined characters in the same real-life historical setting, was set to be published in May 2019.
“I could only hope there was more than enough room for more than one” novel on the topic, Richardson said in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
She became concerned, however, when a blogger who had received an advance review copy of Moyes’ book alerted Richardson in April to what she believed were unusually specific similarities between the two novels; at least one bookseller has also referenced the apparent overlap in a tweet.
“History is not proprietorial,” Richardson said. But “the disturbing similarities found in Moyes' book are too many and too specific and quite puzzling,” she added in an email. “None of the similarities found in Moyes' novel can be chalked up to the realities of history, nor can be found in any historical records, archives or photographs of the packhorse librarian project initiative that I meticulously studied. These fictional devices/ plot points were ones I invented.”
A spokesperson for Moyes’ publisher Pamela Dorman Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, told BuzzFeed News in an email, “The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes is a wholly original work. It is a deeply researched piece of historical fiction based on the true story of the Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky. We have absolute confidence in the integrity of Jojo Moyes and her work. Neither the author nor anyone at Pamela Dorman Books has ever read The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.” Moyes was not available for comment; the representative cited her "packed schedule."
Both books are historical fiction about the packhorse librarians, a real-life group of women who, in the 1930s, delivered library books in rural Kentucky to promote literacy.
Richardson’s novel, which she began writing in 2016 and published in May, is a first-person narrative about a woman named Cussy Mary Carter, who has a rare genetic condition that makes her skin appear blue (based on the real-life blue-skinned people of Kentucky). Cussy lives as the town outcast with her coal-mining father and works as a packhorse librarian in Appalachia, delivering books on horseback to folks in the area.
Moyes’ new book, written in third-person narration, centers primarily on Alice Wright, an Englishwoman who marries a Kentucky man and moves to the town of Baileyville. She meets Margery O’Hare, an outspoken single woman who encourages Alice and three other women to join her as packhorse librarians.
“I could only hope there was more than enough room for more than one.”
These are noteworthy distinctions, and it’s certainly not unheard of for two authors to be simultaneously, and unintentionally, working on books about the same topic. (In fact, another novel featuring a Kentucky book woman was published on Amazon in January). But 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.
Richardson found these apparent similarities alarming enough that in August 2019, she brought her concerns to her publisher, Sourcebooks — which as of May 2019, Penguin Random House, Moyes’ publisher, owns a 45% stake in.
According to Sourcebooks publicity director Kaitlyn Kennedy, Sourcebooks’ legal team reviewed Richardson’s findings and determined that no legal action was necessary. Sourcebooks did give Richardson the option of seeking her own legal counsel, which Richardson says she cannot afford. Moyes’ novel The Giver of Stars, which comes out on Tuesday, Oct. 8, in the US and was published on Oct. 3 in the UK, has already been optioned for a film adaptation.
“Determining copyright infringement is one of the more difficult questions in copyright law,” Nancy Del Pizzo, a partner at Rivkin Radler law firm who specializes in intellectual property and copyright law and has no connection to this dispute, said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. (Del Pizzo works with BuzzFeed News on litigation matters concerning copyright infringement). And in fiction writing particularly, copyright infringement is hard to prove. In February, for example, the New York Times published a story about striking similarities between the novelist Daniel Mallory’s The Woman in the Window and Sarah A. Denzil’s Saving April. Denzil said she never considered legal action.
So what happens when two books about little-known historical figures hit the market within months of each other and share some oddly specific similarities? Moyes, a brand-name author with a loyal following of readers, told an interviewer in July that “part of the reason why I wrote [The Giver Of Stars] so quickly was because I worried that someone else would write it before me.” The existence of The Book Woman Of Troublesome Creek, although Moyes denies that she was aware of it while working on her own book or that she has ever read it, would seem to be a realization of her fears. Richardson, for her part, finds the situation disconcerting, given the years she dedicated to researching and writing her novel.
“I wanted very much to delete these alarming similarities,” she said. “What if people just started attacking me and didn’t go look to see when I started this book? There was just a big fear.”
Richardson, who was born in Kentucky and lives in the northern part of the state, said she first started researching her novel in 2015 and floated the idea to her agent in July 2016. She rented a cabin near the Appalachian Mountains in South Carolina for a year in order to conduct research for the novel. In July 2017, she sent a finished manuscript to her agent, Stacy Testa.
Testa sent the manuscript to Kensington Books, the publisher of Richardson’s prior two novels, under the working title The Borrowing Branch. Kensington and Testa couldn’t agree on a deal, so the book was put up at auction and submitted to a number of publishers, including imprints at Penguin Random House, though not to Pamela Dorman, Moyes’ imprint. In October 2017, the Illinois-based independent publisher Sourcebooks bought the manuscript, changing the title to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. An announcement of the deal, which included a brief description of the novel’s plot, ran in the widely read trade publication Publisher’s Marketplace in November 2017.
On Sept. 23, 2018, electronic galleys of Book Woman were made available on the websites Netgalley and Edelweiss, and advance review copies of the book were circulated to librarians, book bloggers, and members of the public, the latter through galley giveaways on Goodreads.
In March 2019, Publishers Marketplace announced a forthcoming novel by Jojo Moyes, to be titled The Giver of Stars, “based on The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky, featuring five women and their journey through the mountains of Kentucky and beyond.”
Richardson said that while she was slightly unnerved that two novels about the packhorse librarians would be released within five months of each other, she assumed she and Moyes had come up with similar ideas organically and hoped readers would be interested in both books.
But in April, when galleys of The Giver of Stars were first made available, a book blogger reached out to Richardson and called her attention to some similarities between the two novels. Richardson started reading the new galley herself — and taking notes. BuzzFeed News has verified that the passages referenced are included in finished copies of both books.
The following descriptions of passages are paraphrases of each book’s plot, written by Richardson, not quotations from the text. Page numbers for The Giver of Stars were changed to match the finished copy of the book. In the finished copy of The Giver of Stars, the character referred to as Sophie is actually named Sophia. Where Richardson referenced direct quotations, they’re marked as such.
1. BOOKWOMAN, Richardson 5/7/19 Sourcebooks
Chpt 5 Pg 36
Hillman Vester Frazier lies in wait in the woods for female librarian Cussy, accosts her, and accuses her of “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.” Then there is a scuffle and the librarian’s mule lurches towards Frazier and tramples him.
THE GIVER OF STARS, Moyes, 10/8/19 Penguin
Prologue Pg 4
Hillman Clem McCullough lies in wait in the woods for female librarian Margery, accosts her, and 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, Margery O’Hare, and there’s only one way to get the devil out of a girl like you.” Then there is a scuffle and the librarian’s mule lurches, stumbling. The hillman is knocked to the ground and trampled by the mule.
2. BOOK WOMAN
Chpt 13 Pg 109-111
Hillman Frazier goes missing after he attacks librarian. He is dead.
THE GIVER OF STARS
Prologue, Pg 2; Chpt 18, Pg 282
Hillman McCullough goes missing after he attacks librarian—later he is found dead.
3. BOOK WOMAN
Chpt 8, Pg 66, Chpt 36, Pg 233
Introduction of Queenie, who is a smart, strong, black librarian who works for the packhorse library project. She later goes to work at a library in a city where she will be more accepted and sends letters back home to Cussy. Chp 36, pg 233 Queenie’s handwriting is described as ‘elegant’.(In the history of the packhorse librarian a black librarian was never hired)
THE GIVER OF STARS
Chpt 5 Pg 86, Chpt 28, Pg 384
Introduction of Sophie, who is a smart, strong, blackwho becomes part of the packhorse project. She has previously worked at a colored city library and we learn at the end of the book that she return to work at the city library and sends letters to the girls back home. Chpt 7 pg 113 Sophie’s handwriting described as 'elegant’.
4. BOOK WOMAN
Chpt 20, Pg 143
Mention of the book THE GOOD EARTH by Pearl S. Buck.
THE GIVER OF STARS
Chpt 3, Pg 45
With thousands of books to choose from there is mention of the book THE GOOD EARTH by Pearl S. Buck.
5. BOOK WOMAN
Chpt 46, Pg 270
Librarian Cussy is gifted a book of poetry by her love interest, Jackson, with an inscription marking a favorite poem for her to read.
THE GIVER OF STARS
Chpt 9, Pg 153
LibrarianAlice is gifted a book of poetry by her love interest, Fred, with a paper marking a favorite poem for her to read.
6. BOOK WOMAN
Chpt 46 Pg 274
Librarian Cussy and her love interest Jackson are married on a glorious October day, in town, with patrons and librarian co-workers attending. Cussy is taken aback by the many well-wishers. Cussy and Jackson have already adopted a child together before their marriage. She is 3 months old when they marry. (This is where I ended my manuscript when it was on submission. Later after it was bought, I added to and changed the denouement)
THE GIVER OF STARS
Chpt 28 Pg 381
Librarian Margery and her love interest Sven are married on a clear, crisp October day, in town, with patrons and librarian co-workers attending. Margery is taken aback at the many well-wishers. Margery and Sven already have a child together out of wedlock before their marriage. She is about 3 months old when they marry.
7. BOOK WOMAN
Chpt 46 Pg 275
Cussy and Jackson are given a wedding gift of a home-made quilt.
THE GIVER OF STARS
Chpt 28 Pg 382
Margery and Sven are given a wedding gift of a home-made quilt.
8. BOOK WOMAN
Chpt 10, pg 82
Patron Martha Hannah asks Librarian Cussy, “Would you have any Women’s Home Companion?” “Be obliged to git one. Nester Rylie’s been reading it, and she told me in passing last year, she ain’t rubbed groundhog brains on her babies’ sore teeth or needed to use the hen innards on the gums of her teething ones since.”
THE GIVER OF STARS
Chpt 4, Pg 73
Patron Kathleen Bligh asks Librarian Alice, “Have you got any of those Women’s Home Companions? This baby is just the devil to settle right now and I was wondering if they had anything would help? Miss O’Hare brought me some a while back and they had advice on all sorts."
The question of whether areas of overlap between the two novels might rise to the level of copyright infringement is not necessarily clear-cut.
“The courts would have a substantial similarity test,” said Del Pizzo. “In order to do this test the court would look at a hypothetical ordinary observer of the two works and ask, ‘Would that hypothetical ordinary observer find that the two works are substantially similar?’ If they would say that’s a complete copy of the other book, that would be one thing, but it gets grayer when it’s not so clear whether it is. If we’re talking about books, there are certain themes or concepts that are not protectable; for instance, there can be more than one book out there that is about a love story. That’s not protectable, the idea of two people falling in love. But certain characters might be.”
Del Pizzo also explained that the timeline of publication would likely be an important factor. “Some of the evidence that would likely be in one of these cases is when the book was published, when it became available on the market, how likely was it for the other person to have access to it? Are there facts that show the other person actually read it? So there’s a lot of factors that go into it that could be different case by case. That’s why it’s so hard to just take one example and say ‘yes, this is copyright infringement’ and ‘this is not.’”
Richardson alerted Testa to the similarities she’d noticed between her book and Moyes’, and Testa, who declined to comment on the record, reached out to Sourcebooks in August 2019. “We were made aware of the similarities and upon review by our legal team, it was determined that Sourcebooks would not be taking any further course of action,” Kennedy told BuzzFeed News in an email.
Moyes lives in Essex, England, and her books, a mix of historical and contemporary fiction, have sold more than 38 million copies globally. Her 2012 novel Me Before You was adapted into a 2016 movie starring Emilia Clarke, directed by Mamma Mia director Ol Parker, who is also slated to direct The Giver of Stars film adaptation.
In a video interview on her official Facebook page posted on Sept. 3, Moyes says that The Giver of Stars “was a bit of a departure” for her. In an interview with Goodreads, she mentioned getting the idea for the story after reading a 2017 Smithsonian article about the Pack Horse Library project. A Pamela Dorman spokesperson confirmed that Moyes began writing her draft in July and August of 2017.
On Sept. 11, 2017, Moyes wrote on her personal Facebook page, which is public:
Had an idea for a book/film a couple of months ago, based on a thing from history which few people seemed to have heard of. Started sending off for materials, got excited, began planning a research trip (the historical thing was in the US).
A week ago I found someone had posted an article on this exact subject on here, tagging a bunch of other writers and saying they should write about it.
Today I discover a new Wikipedia page for it. Question: do I accept that someone else is going to write about the thing - and give up? (it's quite a specific thing). Or do I just go ahead and write my thing? And hope that it comes out earlier/better?
This was posted two months before the Publishers Marketplace announcement of Richardson’s book and around the same time that Richardson’s manuscript was first submitted to various editors at Penguin Random House and other publishers.
According to the Pamela Dorman spokesperson, Moyes turned in a first draft to her editor on Oct. 23, 2018, a month after electronic galleys of Book Woman were first made available. The spokesperson noted that seven out of the eight passages Richardson highlighted in her comparison were included in that first draft. The only exception was the mention of the book The Good Earth, which was added in April 2018, but as Buck’s novel was the winner of the 1932 Pulitzer Prize, it would be a logical historical reference. “Neither the author nor anyone at Pamela Dorman Books was aware of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek at this time,” according to the spokesperson.
Moyes traveled to Kentucky on three separate occasions between 2017 and 2018, staying at Snug Hollow Inn for a week at a time, which the inn confirmed. In another Facebook interview, Moyes said, “I rode the same trails the librarians would have ridden, I did lots of research, I drove around to look at the places where they’d set up camp.”
A July article in the British trade publication the Book Seller notes that Moyes wrote the book in “a feverish nine-month period.” Moyes told the interviewer, “I had that visceral feeling where you immediately feel proprietorial about a story — ‘I have to write this, this is mine’ — and I had a three-month panic that someone else was going to write it.”
According to a Pamela Dorman spokesperson, Moyes was unaware that someone already had. The spokesperson said that her comment was in reference to the same general concerns mentioned in Moyes’ 2017 Facebook post and reiterated that Moyes had no knowledge of Richardson’s book, which had been published in May, three months before her interview with the Book Seller.
As for the similarities, the spokesperson said they are “100 percent coincidental.”
To Richardson, this explanation still isn’t satisfying. “If she had been so obsessed that she was researching everything in a mad frenzy, surely she would have seen that she wasn’t the first?” Richardson wrote in a follow-up email.
Richardson said that if given the opportunity to talk to Moyes, she would want to discuss what she calls the “bizarre” similarities in their books. But ultimately, she said, “It was always my belief that there’s room for more than one story about the Pack Horse Librarians in this world. And these fierce and little-known women deserved to be celebrated globally after 80 years of being nothing more than a blip in history.”●
Moyes' September 2017 Facebook status was written while Richardson's manuscript was being considered for submission at Penguin Random House among other publishers. An earlier version of this post misstated that timeline.