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Online catfight goes viral over children's book

FEW children's books lead to the author suffering at the hands of cyberstalkers and being confronted by accusations of plagiarism and dark, unspecified threats.

The Tobermory Cat is joined by various feline friends in the children's book by Debi Gliori
The Tobermory Cat is joined by various feline friends in the children's book by Debi Gliori

But Glasgow-born Debi Gliori, right, one of Britain's most respected authors and illustrators, has has found herself in the digital line of fire after publishing a book, The Tobermory Cat, with one of Scotland's leading imprints.

At one stage, she found herself almost trending on Twitter, thanks to poisonous messages posted by strangers. "A whole sector of humanity that I had barely known existed swivelled their eyes in my direction, logged on, fired up their hate hoses and drenched me in their hatred," Gliori recalls in a blog.

She told the Sunday Herald she had received "implied threats of violence against my person, and malice, venom, blind hatred, slander".

"My readers don't use social media – they're just little children. I have never encountered this level of hatred before. It is baffling."

Hugh Andrew of Birlinn Books, which published The Tobermory Cat last month, said: "We have been subject, on the basis of a series of defamatory and inaccurate statements virally sent around the web, to personal abuse, vitriolic and offensive attacks, smears and innuendo."

The book was inspired by Andrew's personal discovery of a ginger tom in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, a well-known local "character" which even had its own page on Facebook, set up by local artist, Angus Stewart. Andrew then commissioned Gliori to write a children's book about the cat as a means of promoting Mull.

But Stewart objected, asked to meet them and asserted the idea was his, saying they would never have heard of the cat had it not been for the Facebook page – claims Gliori and Andrew vehemently reject.

Andrew insisted the cat had been famous on Mull long before the Facebook page and offered to advertise Stewart's paintings and gallery in the book, but the offer was not taken up. Two days after this meeting, says Gliori in her blog, the 'Artist' began a campaign on Facebook.

"He had been visited by two thieves, he posted. They came to his house to steal the Tobermory Cat. His followers were furious. Who were these people? How dare they? The Artist ignored this question. He posted again. And again. And again. He never missed an opportunity to make some snarky remark about robbers or thieves and then he'd be drawing comparisons with 'an Edinburgh illustrator' or 'an Edinburgh publisher'. And the Artist's followers lapped it up. 'Who were these awful people,' they demanded?"

Gliori, 53, was deluged with comments on her Twitter account. "They knew where I lived. They were digging around on the internet, Googling me," she wrote on her blog.

Last week she said: "People can hide behind their keyboards. I'm sure many of the people who say horrible things to or about me are actually good, decent people, but there's a disconnect when they sit behind their keyboard. They have become fired up about something of which they only know one side.

"The book is a very warm, gentle one about a cat. I've been up on Mull speaking to children about the book and their response was perfect, everything it should be. That is the most important thing for me."

Andrew said: "I've never had anything so extraordinary in all my publishing career. I essentially had an idea for a book. I was suddenly accused of the theft of an idea I'd had before I'd seen anyone else's work, which has no relation to that person's work."

Local artist Stewart wrote on a writers' forum recently: "I don't claim copyright of a real cat – that would be foolish. I claim copyright on my fictional work called Tobermory Cat and a fictional celebrity cat character entirely of my making. My star is not one cat, he is a construct. I use three cats, none of which has the given name Tobermory Cat."

Speaking to the Sunday Herald, he said of the abuse experienced by Gliori and Andrew: "It's really sad and appalling. I tried to be measured and I thought it would be read as such. I'm very saddened by the whole thing, really. I do have an issue [over the book] but [the abuse] is a very hurtful way of doing things."

Asked if he had sought to dissuade people from acting in an abusive fashion, he said: "I don't think you are able to do that. You try to set it by the tone of your [own postings]. I am new to this – maybe I have made a hellish mistake. Have I tried to dissuade people on an individual basis? Yes. I have. But I really had no idea what was going on. I found out later that things had been done. I do think there is a question about creative rights. I I created something and they have come across it."

On his post on the writers' forum, Stewart said he had a range of plans for his work: "A film, merchandise, all based around the Tobermory Cat name, the hope of being to create something to fund further work ... I continue to post on Facebook, my subject: the process of creating a celebrity cat.

"Their book is out, same ginger cat, same title, same car-surfing antics, extracted details, the story of becoming a celebrity cat – a graphic story, the prequel to my story but ending with a celebrity cat. If this is the first of a series, they have occupied the ground. They brush me off, preferring to spend thousands on lawyers rather than supporting my work – but I try to secure the future rights or they will own the lot."

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