John (djonn) wrote,
  • Mood: cynical
  • Music: the Alfred Hitchcock theme

Kaavya Viswanathan and the Novel of Doom

Several different online discussion groups I follow have recently glommed onto KaavyaGate, the scandal wherein Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan's first novel has been yanked by publisher Little, Brown in the wake of growing accusations that the novel borrows passages from a number of other books of varying degrees of similarity.

It's a juicy story, to be sure, but my own sense is that the plagiarism charges have distracted the media from the aspect of the case that should be of more interest to authors. Much of the coverage mentions the involvement of 17th Street Productions, a book packaging firm, with the gestation of Ms. Viswanathan's novel -- but a careful look at the apparent sequence of events suggests that "packaging" isn't an accurate description of the role 17th Street (now part of Alloy Entertainment) had in the book's creation.


What actually seems to have happened -- some of the details are a trifle vague -- is this:

Ms. Viswanathan (henceforth Ms. V) showed a novel proposal to the agent she'd snagged at William Morris, but the agent (one Jennifer Walsh) didn't think the proposed book was "commercially viable". She pointed Ms. V at 17th Street, and the teenager followed up the reference; after much discussion and brainstorming, she produced four chapters and an outline of what would become Opal Mehta. (Call this Editorial Round One.)

The partial then went back to Ms. Walsh at William Morris, who worked with Ms. V to further refine the chapters and outline (call this Editorial Round Two), then began shopping the partial around. After an auction, Ms.Walsh sold rights to Opal Mehta plus a second book to Little, Brown for a reported $500,000 (nobody's actually admitted to that number, but it's been widely circulated in the reportage), based on the partial manuscript.

Ms. V, by this time a freshman at Harvard, spent most of the academic year completing Opal Mehta, thereupon turning it in to her editor at Little, Brown, where the full book went through another round of revisions -- Editorial Round Three. (Note that 17th Street is, by now, long out of the editorial loop -- although the published book bore a joint copyright, in which Ms. V and 17th Street shared ownership.)

There are, to say the least, several things wrong with this picture.

Returning for a moment to the plagiarism issues, it seems remarkable that nobody involved with any of the three rounds of editing noted above spotted the numerous cited instances of over-similarity. (We will, for the moment, gloss over the novelty of a first-time author's book getting all this detailed editorial scrutiny when all too many veteran authors' works seem to get little more than a cursory copy-edit, if that.)

But let's consider 17th Street for a moment. Their role in the development of Opal Mehta isn't remotely what we'd normally think of as "packaging". They didn't discover/recruit the writer. They didn't, if the reportage is to be believed, vet the complete manuscript themselves. They apparently didn't broker the publishing contract (despite claiming joint copyright); Ms. Walsh at William Morris is reported as doing that. OTOH, they clearly did help Ms. V conceive and develop the novel -- a project for which they certainly must have been paid. The $500,000 question is: who cut their check, especially considering that at the time they were working with Ms. V., there wasn't a publisher in the picture?

I can't see it being Ms. V's agent. It doesn't seem to have been Little, Brown; the joint copyright presumably would have given 17th Street a share of both the advance and any royalties, but packagers (like novelists) dislike working on spec. [An aside here: given that 17th Street holds half the copyright, one might argue that the company is on the hook for half of any plagiarism that may have occurred, at least for legal purposes. Which could be highly entertaining and fiendishly complicated depending on who, if anyone, eventually files lawsuits.]

That more or less leaves Ms. V. Or, more probably, Ms. V's parents, who'd already paid serious money for the consultant who got Ms. V into Harvard and hooked her up with William Morris.

Only that raises all kinds of red flags -- because if that's how the deal went down, the phrase that describes 17th Street's role in the project is "book doctor", not "packager". And there are supposed to be very strict ethical constraints in publishing circles that preclude reputable agents from referring writers to book doctors, especially when the players are as high up in the publishing food chain as those in the present case.

I have a feeling there's a whole closetful of shoes left to drop before this one's over....
Tags: musings, publishing
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