VIRTUALLY HERS came out Oct. 2009. Get it at SAMHAIN Publishing. VIRTUALLY ONE coming soon.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Something Stinks In Authorland or, It's A Meat Market Out There

I'm leaving for Colorado in the morning, my sweeties, and I might not be able to post till the weekend. But don't worry, the title isn't about me stinking up the plane ;-P.

I'm reporting a serious authorly piece today because it's juicy, it's meaty, and it's oh-so-blogged about. It's the case of the $500,000 advance to a new author.

$500,000 is what we call a mighty super sweet deal, especially if you are a novice spy and have never killed anybody before ;-). AND if you're SEVENTEEN years old. Yup, you read right. A seventeen year-old's first novel was sold for $500,000. The book was "How Opal Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life." You might have heard of it. It's been on the NYT list, and it's now under fire for plagiarism.

The author is Kaavya Vishwanathan and she's from India. Her
backstory (CLICK on link to read LONG LONG article) is pretty interesting. Her parents, wanting her to get into Harvard, spent buku-bucks (tens of thousands of $$$) to a college-prep packager, Ivywise, a service that helps people prepare college applications to Important Colleges. Somehow or other, young Kaavya's mentioning the fact that she writes novels caught the owner's eye.

"I was so charmed by what I read," Ms. Cohen said. "I immediately sensed that here was a star in the making. So I called my own agent at William Morris, Suzanne Gluck, and told her about Kaavya."

And so the wheels of fate (and connections) started turning and before you can say Srinisvas-Mahabharata , young Kaavya had a top-notch agent. William Morris, if you aren't familiar, handles really, really Big Clients.

Here is when the fairy tale started to become a fairystale to me. Quoting from the article above, "the Morris agency referred her to 17th Street Productions, a so-called book packager that specializes in developing projects in young-adult and middle-grade fiction. The editors there proposed that Viswanathan put her mind to something lighter, something closer to her own background."

What exactly is 17th Street Productions? It's basically a packaging service that serves as concept/author/editor, sort of an assembly line for publishing houses. In other words, there are ghost writers behind these concept books that are marketed out. Miss Vishwanathan was sent there and they helped her "developed" her concept of a Opal Mehta, Harvard Asian Gone Wild, so to speak.

Which, I suppose, was still okay. It was not the first time there's a concept series, except of course, when a big publishing house offered $500,000, this became the big buzz on the Spy-$$$-Network ;-). We authors are a jealous, jealous bunch and we tend to scream and rage and vent at silly things like someone young and smart and pretty getting $500,000 for her first book. ;-)

The book was conceived, was "written," and was published. TADA? End of Story? Not. So. Fast.

Have you heard of Megan McCafferty's books, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings? They are pretty popular, although I doubt Ms McCafferty received $500,000 advance for them.

You know how readers are. We tend to reread books we love and we also remember favorite passages. It turns out that How Opal Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got A Life has many sentences in it that sounded awfully familiar. Right now, they have found 42 similar passages and here are a few examples, taken from
this LINK:

From page 217 of McCafferty’s first novel: “But then he tapped me on the shoulder, and said something so random that I was afraid he was back on the junk.”
From page 142 of Viswanathan’s novel: “…he tapped me on the shoulder and said something so random I worried that he needed more expert counseling than I could provide.”

From page 209 of McCafferty’s first novel:
“‘Uhhhh…I live less than half a mile from here. Twelve Forest Drive.’ “Pause. “‘So I don’t need a ride…’ “Another pause. “‘But do you want one?’ he asked. “God, did I want one. “He knew it, too. He leaned over the front seat and popped open the passenger-side door. ‘Come on, I want to talk to you,’ he said.”
From page 172 of Viswanathan’s novel:
“‘Sit down.’ “‘Uh, actually…I was just dropping off some books. I’m supposed to be home by nine. And it’s already eight-forty.’ “Pause. “‘So I can’t really stay…’ “Another pause. “‘But you want to?’ he asked. “Did I? Yes… “He knew it, too. He patted the chair again. ‘Come on, I want to talk to you,’ he said.”

From page 237 of McCafferty’s first novel: “Finally, four major department stores and 170 specialty shops later, we were done.”
From page 51 of Viswanathan’s novel: “Five department stores, and 170 specialty shops later, I was sick of listening to her hum along to Alicia Keys….”

Yes, over forty of these passages were brought to McCafferty's attention, and so now the fairytale has moved into attorneysjargon between Miss McCafferty and Miss Vishwanathan's publishing house. Young Kaavya's explanation? "Unconscious copying." There is this phenomenon in which sometimes a writer can absorb the voice and style, even sentences, from another book she has read, and then unconsciously use these same sentences. It has happened before.

First, let me clarify. Copying ideas and themes isn't plagiarism. You can't copyright ideas. Or you will have no story to tell because every writer will be guilty of stealing from the Bible and Shakespeare. But you can't lift passages or sentences word-for-word from someone else's published works. That's plagiarism. Sometimes, there is a sentence here or a sentence there, and as a writer, I believe unconscious use of a phrase once or twice is possible. But 42 times? Of just a word or two change of sentences and paragraphs? I know we all suspend our disbelief pretty easily when it comes to werewolves and vampires, but can you in this fairystale?

This whole thing is still stinking up the spy network. If you're interested in continuing, here is a link that details more about Miss Vishwanathan's comments, what 17th Street Productions is all about, as well as provide you even more links into the ever deepening layers of this stinking tale:

Harvard Article on Vishwanathan

There is no ending yet because these things go on and on between legal departments, but I can tell you it won't be that special Happily Ever After that we romance readers love. Oh, by the way, Miss Vishwanathan also called our books "trashy romance books," which she also admitted to reading. Ha, a diss!

To me, this fairystale reminded me of a news event, in which a whale washed up on the beach in the seventies and died. There was one BIG stinking problem lying on the sand and the people who lived there didn't quite know what to do you dispose of a rotting dead whale, after all? it up

Of course, there are consequences! If you were patient enough to watch this whole newspiece, you will see it raining dead meat pieces all over everyone. In other words, what Miss K did, what her agency and publishing house did, what with the publicity of assembly-line concept making ghostwriting places brought into the public eye, is tarring and feathering every one of us genre writers who works hard and plays fair because now the media and the snotty literature crowd have even more ammunition to say, "Oh, genre fiction...all the same...."

Bitter, you say? Ah well. Not really. But the business can make a cynic out of any spy. And uber-spies are no exception.

But hey, if you're in the meat market, you might as well look at Better Pieces of Meat:

Talk to y'all soon. And yes, please do let me know if you have bought and read K. Vishwanathan's book so we can add to our fairystale.

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Anonymous said...


I've been keeping up with this at work. Today KV says that she has a photographic memory and that is supposed to help explain what happened.

I find it distressing that her publisher continues to sell the book (it's on the NYT list) and offering the paltry "rewrite" for the next printing. Granted, nothing has been "proven" yet, no legal decision has been handed down but you'd think there'd be some kind of Code of Courtesy. between this incident and Frey's Million Little Pieces the Big Publishers would realize that they're going to have to be a bit less willing to take a submitted work at face value.

You'd think that a book worthy of a $500K advance from a 17 year-old first-time author would put up a few red flags, wouldn't you.

I'll disagree with you on the point you made about genre fiction taking a hit. I think that this book was considered YA so it's somewhat separated from adult genre fiction. Frey's book was considered a Memoir and somewhat on the literary side so as not to be confused with the "less-than-worthy" genre fiction. So I think for now genre fiction is safe. :o)


laur said...

42 times?! No way to believe it's photographic memory.

The exploding whale is absolutely disgusting, and who can be stupid enough to stay and watch? Of course you'd get meat all over..ahh, people always amaze me.

Hope you're having a good week-end Jenn

Gennita Low said...

It's not that it's hurting genre fiction in any kind of quantifiable way. But some people tend to group chicklit and young adult as part of the romance genre and they do think that it's just romance--"they are all the same" kind of attitude,

I found that video funny and incredible too, that the final solution of so many supposedly smart individuals was to blow up a dead whale. And then people showing up to watch it not thinking that it would be raining, stupid is as stupid does ;-).

kathleen dante said...

Doesn't seem to be that much of a stink. Last I read, her publisher's recalling the books and will allow KV to revise. No legal action pending.

But I have to admit that the $500K advance should have raised red flags everywhere. You have a no-name student who's a first-time author and you offer her that much? Even with bigtime representation, it sounds her publisher had a hand in the packaging. Or maybe it was all deliberate, so they could build a story around her and instant name recognition? Yep, conspiracy theories.


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