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Before we kick things off…
As you’re reading this email, I’m literally in studio with LIVE with Kelly & Ryan (well, Kelly & Mark?). I’ll be showing my favorite daytime duo how to make my Korean BBQ “Meatballs”–a recipe that is super secret and absolutely freaking delicious. I came up with it for Cookbook 2, but was so excited about how good it was that when the folks at K&R(M) asked me for a recipe, it was the first one I suggested! Not sure when my segment will air yet, but keep your eyes peeled for further details and where you can get your hands on the recipe!
And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…
A couple weeks ago, one of my close friends, Eric, sent me the following text:
Believe it or not, I’d already seen this blatant knockoff of my book. In fact, since 2021, when my book came out, I’ve seen dozens of books called “Korean Vegan Cookbook” or some variation thereof that were obvious attempts to capitalize on the popularity of my brand or, worse yet, literally trick people into buying the wrong book.
The first time it happened was in the fall of 2021, just a few days before my own book was scheduled to go live. We were still in the thick of the pandemic, and instead of walking over to my local bookstore every few days and geeking out over the fact that they were going to carry my book, I would hop onto Amazon and look up “The Korean Vegan Cookbook,” which was available for pre-order, and indulge in the prickling thrill of the forthcoming publication date. But that day, instead of seeing my own book, I saw “Instant Pot Vegan Korean Cookbook,” which, in my humble opinion, looked like a term paper put together by a half-baked college freshman with an inkjet printer.
You cannot imagine the trash can of feelings that roiled through me as I clicked on the icon and flipped through the “sample” Amazon provided. I was angry, flabbergasted, confused, and a little nauseous. I created The Korean Vegan all the way back in 2016 to solve a problem: the BLACK HOLE that existed when you searched for “Korean vegan recipes.” Since then, I’d done my best to fill that hole by posting veganized versions of my favorite foods growing up on YouTube, Instagram, and my blog, but the book–my book–was going to be the culmination of nearly 5 years of research, recipe testing, photography, and storytelling. And all throughout that time, I’d searched high and low, turned every stone, even went to freaking Korea to look for other Korean vegan recipe creators and found not even a handful of them.
It wasn’t lost on me that my little “hobby” had experienced GINORMOUS growth in the year leading up to my book launch. My TikTok account had nearly 2 million followers, my Instagram had several hundred thousand, and my YouTube channel–which had been practically dormant since 2016–suddenly started getting millions and millions of views. My brand, The Korean Vegan, was splashed across the LA Times, featured on NBC News, and was going viral on all social media platforms. It seemed more than a coincidence, then, that all of a sudden, another “Vegan Korean Cookbook” appeared just a few days before mine was set to launch.
But of course, that wasn’t the end of it. Every couple days, I’d go back and discover another “Korean Vegan Cookbook” that purported to contain lots of plant-based Korean recipes. Here’s the thing, though: that first book? It wasn’t an exact replica of mine. It was an Instant Pot book (which looked very similar to my friend Nisha’s book) that happened to have the words “Vegan Korean” on it. Additionally, I’m no stranger to the fact that recipes are not copyrightable, and therefore, literally anyone can take my “Kimchi Mac ‘N Cheese” or my “Korean Vegan Red Sauce” and claim they came up with them on their own. I also don’t mind if people draw inspiration from me and create their own video, story, book, or some combination thereof based upon something they saw in my work. But, they do need to put in the work, instead of simply capitalizing off of mine.
Thus, despite my outrage, I did not immediately email my publisher or legal colleagues. It was entirely possible (unlikely, but possible) that this “Instant Pot” contained within its flimsy covers a library of plant-based Korean recipes that readers could enjoy along with my own. I downloaded a copy onto my Kindle and was a little slack-jawed at what I saw. The first recipe I scrolled to was “Banana Bread,” which called for eggs and milk. The second was “Korean Ground Beef,” which called for, uh…yeah…ground beef.
I stopped reading after that.
In sum, this “Instant Pot Vegan Korean Cookbook,” published suspiciously close to the publication date of the book I’d labored over for three years, contained recipes that were neither Korean nor vegan.
I left a stinging (but honest!) review and contacted my publisher.
Who told me there was nothing they could do about it.
And they were probably right. The book wasn’t similar enough to be TOO confusing (allegedly) and it didn’t contain any of my actual writing or photographs (or any photographs…). So, I did the mature thing. I let it go.
Every single time another “Korean Vegan Cookbook” popped up on Amazon, I let it go.
And then… I got Eric’s text.
There was something telling about the fact that Eric (also a NYT bestselling cookbook author) texted me about THIS particular copycat. Apparently, all of the other ones had flown under the radar. And it was easy to see why–this book looked a LOT like mine and was called “Korean Vegan Cookbook.” The same font for the word “Korean,” a similar font for the word “Vegan,” and both in the same color as my book–gold. A black background (which, if you’ve been a long time follower, you’ll know I had to fight for because VERY FEW BOOKS had black backgrounds before mine), a picture at the center, and the author’s name at the top right corner, also in gold.
My immediate reaction when I first saw the book pop up while ordering a few extra copies of my own was the same one I’d developed for all the others: suppressed rage. Because what’s the point of getting nauseatingly angry when you can’t do anything about it? That just leads to depression and I didn’t want to be depressed. So, I replied to Eric’s friendly “WTF” with a short “It is maddening is what it is” and then changed the subject.
But… it rankled me.
Despite habitually ignoring all the other copycats, this one… this one really rubbed me the wrong way. Why? Because it was so obviously meant to confuse consumers, to truly trick them into buying this cheaply produced knock-off instead of the one I’d put my heart into for three years. Therefore, instead of assiduously avoiding it, I clicked on the icon that looked so much like mine and was horrified to discover that this book didn’t just bear my trademarked brand, but had literally copied the titles and the order of my chapters.
I know. It sounds silly, but those chapters were kind of like my children. I didn’t just come up with them on the fly one night on the back of a napkin while guzzling a glass of wine. I cared about my chapters. Their inclusion, titles, and order were a reflection of me. For instance, I started with The Basics out of love for my husband, Anthony. He’s not a cook and doesn’t really know his way around the kitchen. So, I wanted my book to introduce readers like him to the easy stuff, the tools that would carry them through some of the more challenging recipes later on. That way, they could start their journey through the book with confidence.
Similarly, who in their RIGHT MIND would have the audacity to write a “Korean” and “Vegan” cookbook with an entire chapter devoted to “Bbang,” the Korean word for Bread? Other than me, of course! If you’re Korean, then you know that a traditional Korean restaurant never serves bread!! This chapter was a direct result of my personal love of carbs and my deep frustration at the amount of dairy and eggs that go into literally every bread product in the new Korean bakeries popping up all over Seoul. I distinctly remember when I handed all my recipes into my editor, I was like, “Uh…yeah, there’s a lot of bread recipes, lol. Maybe just turn them into an entire chapter…hehehehe?” And that’s what we did.
All of this–the flagrant mimicry of my cover, the unapologetic use of my trademark, the copy-paste job on my chapters–it was all too much. Perhaps if this “Rachael Issy” had done only one of these things, I would have dismissed it with all the others. But taken together…? Maybe it wasn’t enough to sustain a full-blown lawsuit, but it was enough to push me over the edge. I did a few things: I emailed my publisher and my agent, suggesting they revisit the “there’s nothing we can do about it” stance. I also left a message with my lawyer (I know a lot of them).
And finally, I posted it on Twitter.
The feedback was instant and overwhelming. Within hours, my post had tens of thousands of views. The comments were fiercely supportive and some were surprisingly insightful. One of my followers confirmed, after purchasing, that, like the other “Korean Vegan cookbooks” that had been self-published on Amazon, this one also contained many recipes calling for dairy and eggs, and even suggested chicken as a topping for a Caesar salad recipe.
But of all the comments I found most provocative was the one that suggested that the Copycat had been produced by AI.
This soon grew to be the consensus in the comments below my post. Discerning readers noted the unusual grammar errors, the fact that so many of the recipes in the book were clearly generic non-vegan ones that merely instructed people to “modify for vegans,” and that “Rachael Issy” had zero digital footprint and basically didn’t exist.
Was it possible that a robot had written this book?
That was the question that journalists started to ask me. I was contacted by a writer for the LA Times, as well as one for EaterLA. Both were keen on pursuing the AI angle. One noted the particular vulnerability of cookbooks to AI scams since, as I mentioned earlier, recipes are not copyrightable. The other specialized in language analytics and thought the semantics in the Copycat rendered it highly suspicious. A couple days after my Tweet went viral, I saw articles written about the whole thing on my newsfeed. They, too, raised the AI question.
The funny thing is, just a few days before I decided to do something about the Copycat, I’d been in Chicago for a speaking engagement with my Firm. The topic?
There, I talked about all the virtues of AI, how it could be deployed for brand development, marketing data, and even creative or artistic inspiration. I knew that AI could also be used to exploit the work of others, that its growing utility threatened human thought and labor with their obsolescence. In fact, I talked about this very concept in an earlier newsletter on the danger of shortcuts. But it never occurred to me that ChapGPT could cut so close to my bones. And man… it hurt.
I felt like someone had broken into my home, riffled through my underwear drawer, and walked out the front door with my favorite pair of La Perlas. Because that’s how personal my book was, and thus, that’s how intimate this violation felt–even at the metallic hands of a robot. But worse than that was the fear–a very reasonable fear–that people would be genuinely confused by the Copycat. “Rachael Issy” paid to have her listing “sponsored,” which meant that it was the first book people saw if they searched for “The Korean Vegan Cookbook” on Amazon.
Many people-some of whom are my friends–don’t know my actual name. They know me by “The Korean Vegan,” because like most of you, they didn’t meet me on orientation day in law school, at the summer retreat at my law firm, or at the Lifetime Fitness I frequented when I lived in the burbs. No, they “met” me through TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube, where I am known as “The Korean Vegan.” How easy would it be for someone who’d heard “Oh yeah, there’s a great book called The Korean Vegan Cookbook, you should pick up a copy–it’s got a black background and gold font” to fall for the Copycat, especially if it’s the first option that Amazon dangles in front of their face?
And then what would happen? They would crack open the book, find a whole bunch of crap writing, crap stock photos, followed by crap recipes that weren’t even vegan and they would think, understandably, “Man, that Korean Vegan is full of crap. I’m going to tell everyone I know not to buy that book or follow her account on Instagram.”
Speaking of Instagram, I posted there, too. Call me a terrible content creator, an ineffectual leader, whatever, but to me, community is a two way street. And I needed my community. Instagram is, in many ways, my first community, the one into which I’ve invested the most of myself. Back when I started The Korean Vegan, after realizing just how hard it was to make videos, I quickly transitioned away from YouTube to Instagram, where static photos, even those taken with an iPhone, were totally acceptable. It was on Instagram that I first started sharing my stories. It was on Instagram that I met the friend who introduced me to my lit agent. It was on Instagram that my future publisher became acquainted with my photos and my words and my recipes. And it was on Instagram that I allowed my community to pick the cover design that would not only grace my own book, but apparently would be copied onto others.
I was heartbroken and a little shell-shocked by the whole ordeal, so yes, like I said, I sent out an SOS to my community.
And boy-oh-boy, did YOU ARRIVE. Within an hour, I had hundreds of comments expressing outrage, disbelief, disgust, and support. “How can we help you?” was repeated so often, I was nearly brought to tears. Every word of fury on my behalf was a balm. The avalanche of loyalty that threatened to overwhelm me was breathtaking in both its power and compassion.
The following day, I heard from my publisher. Amazon agreed with my assessment and delisted the Copycat.
So, where does this leave us? Because the truth is, not all authors will have 5 million followers and the largest publishing house in the country willing to throw it down hard for them. The overwhelming majority of them will not. And that’s not to mention the graphic designers, the painters, the musicians, the poets, or even the scientists, health experts, journalists, the guy who knows how to get you the best fish tanks. What will they do when AI comes for them? Because make no mistake–AI will thrive in a playground where productivity and fat margins are valued above creativity and equity. A quick buck is only possible in a world that incentivizes the “quick” and the “buck.”
So, I ask again, where does this leave us?
One of the journalists I spoke with asked me, “What do you think writers can do to guard against this sort of thing?”
I thought about a discussion I’d had recently with fellow cookbook writers. They were nervous that ChapGPT would render them, well, useless. And, to be honest, they should be nervous. I typed in “Write a chapter on Korean Vegan main recipes” into OpenAI and this is what I got:
It’s entirely possible that when “Instant Pot Vegan Korean” was published in 2021, ChapGPT wasn’t smart enough to avoid using “ground beef” in its recipes. It’s also possible that at the time Rachael Issy was putting together its–uh, her–book, ChatGPT still couldn’t help throwing in some chicken and eggs into a “vegan cookbook.” But now…? ChatGPT is ready to burst from its own “Plateau of Latent Potential” with albeit generic, but totally vegan, and even Korean, recipes.
So, during that chat with other authors, I posited that those who continue to churn out nothing but recipes would eventually fall by the wayside, digitally buried by a mountain of AI-produced content. I said as much to the journalist who posed the question. We’ve seen an analogous phenomenon already, with the proliferation of free recipes on food blogs. Why buy a cookbook when you can find the recipes on so-and-so’s website? Without any copyright protection, recipes are a dime a dozen, a penny a dozen, no, literally FREE a dozen. What value, then, do people find in a cookbook?
In all that we author, we must lean into the things that make us human.
In the same way cops flash a badge to prove their credentials, we must reveal our hearts to verify our humanity. The stakes are getting higher and higher. The world continues to sacrifice connection upon the altar of efficiency and the almighty dollar, and as such, we must be willing to risk more and more, with an eye towards protecting what is precious.
I told my story and because I did, it hurt when someone poached its cover.
But because I told my story, because I shared my hurt, when the flare erupted and split open a bonfire in the sky…
“The Beacons are Lit.”
And you showed up.
The Korean Vegan Spice Line!
Need a Last Minute Father’s Day Gift?
I got you! In case you missed it, my spice line dropped last week and I am OVERWHELMED with the response! My own Dad is OBSESSED with these salt blends–especially the Spicy Ramen Salt! These are PERFECT for the man who helms the grill every summer!
Order by 6 pm EST tonight (June 13) for delivery in time for Father’s Day!
This Week’s Recipe Inspo – Budae Chigae.
Speaking of Father’s Day, I am my father’s daughter. We both love donuts AND… we both love Budae Chigae. I made this for him the last time he was over, and he turned to me and said, “Joanne! Your cooking has greatly improved!” Coming from an Asian Dad… that’s better than a Michelin Star! The ingredient list looks long, but that’s only because this stew is FULL of vegetables. Make sure to pick up the TKV Spicy Ramen Salt–it’s the SECRET WEAPON to this Army Stew and believe it or not, this recipe is what inspired me to create it in the first place!
Here’s the Recipe:
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 sheet nori, divided in half
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 1 tbsp TKV Spicy Ramen Salt
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 onion, sliced
- 2 scallions, cut into 2-inch length pieces
- 1/2 zucchini, sliced
- 1/2 cup julienned cabbage
- 1/2 carrot, sliced
- 1 vegan sausage, sliced
- 1/2 cup rice cakes (tubes)
- 3 to 4 frozen dumplings
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 1/2 cup kimchi
- 2 tbsp kimchi juice
- 2 tbsp gochujang
- 2 cups water
- 1 packet ramen noodles
- 1 16 oz box tofu
- Make the Gyerranmari: Add 1 tablespoon of EVOO to a small pan over medium-high heat. Pour in 1/2 cup of liquid egg replacer. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Add 1/2 sheet of nori. When egg is halfway cooked, roll the egg up like a crepe. Add 1/4 cup of liquid egg replacer and repeat.
- Add olive oil and sesame oil to a very large and deep pan, over medium heat. Add TKV Spicy Ramen Salt and begin stirring immediately for 1 minute (but do not burn!).
- Arrange the garlic, all of the vegetables, rice cakes, and dumplings around the pan. Add kimchi, kimchi juice, gochujang. Deglaze with soy sauce and add water.
- Add tofu and ramen noodles. Stir the contents of the pan, so that the noodles are submerged.
- Add sliced Gyerranmari to the top of the chigae and cook until the noodles are fully cooked.
Updates & Random Things.
- What I’m Watching. Well, per the above, I’ll be watching LIVE with Kelly & Ryan every morning, lolol, and hopefully, you’ll be watching right along with me! But otherwise, we’ve wrapped up Season 1 of The Diplomat (which we found pretty enjoyable towards the end) and started watching The Americans, at the recommendation of some friends. So far, we agree that it’s a “slow burn,” as many describe it. We are just about to finish Season 1 and, quite honestly, we don’t yet see what all the hype is about… It’s good enough, I suppose, but it’s not nearly as fun as The Blacklist and not even in the same neighborhood as some of the all-time TV greats like The Sopranos, Better Call Saul, or Breaking Bad…
- What You’re Watching. Speaking of which, we had a fun discussion with the same friends prompted by the following question: What is your Mount Rushmore of TV shows? Here is mine: The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and Suburra. What are your four favorites? Let me know!
- We Are Headed Back To Europe. Where are all my French peeps?? I’m headed to France (Nice, to be specific, and Cannes, to be more specific) for the first time in my life. I know there are a bunch of TKV-ers in France, because my book was translated into French and sold in bookstores across the country! If you’re in the Cannes area, let me know! Maybe I can sign your books!! We are also headed back to Rome for our cousin’s wedding. More on that jaw dropping whirlwind romance story soon…. But if you’re in Rome, I’ll be bopping around town if you want to say Buon Giorno!
- What I’m Cooking. As you all know, I’ve been working my little butt off on TKV Cookbook 2 (still not sure what to call it…). This past week, we worked on one of my favorite things to eat: kimbap! Here are a couple shots from the photo shoot, including a BTS candid!
What You’re Saying.
“I worked for the federal govt over the past decade and saw many fellow analysts returning to school for advanced degrees in data science. Being a data scientist was the hot, sexy job that paid well and offered a sure path forward. Surprise! Times have changed. My advice to Vihba is to decide if she truly loves the field – and if so, she needs to get a PhD in it to be competitive. If not, it’s time to pivot to something new. That’s not failure – that’s assessing what’s changed in society and moving on.“
And that’s a wrap, folks!! Until next week, I hope you all have a wonderful and lovely day!