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Publisher Pulls Harvard Student’s Novel Over Alleged Plagiarism

May 2, 2006 at 3:45 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Among the hard-charging and overachieving student body at Harvard University, 19-year-old sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan boasted one credential none of her peers could match: a reported half-million-dollar book and movie deal for the first-time author.

But now, the book that led to her big payday, “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,” has been pulled from shelves by its publisher, Little, Brown, amid a plagiarism scandal.

Viswanathan has been accused of lifting passages from two works of another author, Megan McCafferty. Among the passages that caused concern, in McCafferty’s first novel, “Sloppy Firsts,” she wrote, “He smelled sweet and woodsy, like cedar shavings.”

Viswanathan would later write, “I had even begun to recognize his clone, sweet and woodsy and spicy.”

The accusation was first reported by The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper. Viswanathan has now apologized for the transgression; she appeared last week on NBC’s “Today” show.

KAAVYA VISWANATHAN, Author: I completely see the similarities. I’m not denying that those are there, but I can honestly say that any of those similarities were completely unconscious and unintentional, that while I was reading Megan McCafferty’s books, I must have just internalized her words. I never, ever intended to deliberately take any of her words.

The scandal grows

JEFFREY BROWN: That explanation has done little to quiet the controversy. And today came new allegations that Viswanathan may have copied from two additional authors.

The incident has also opened a window into the publishing industry practices of so-called book packagers. Viswanathan worked with one such company, Alloy Entertainment, which crafts ideas and proposals that it then shops to publishing houses.

And late today, publisher Little, Brown announced it was withdrawing the novel permanently and canceling its two-book deal with author Kaavya Viswanathan.

For more on all this, we turn to Karen Holt, deputy editor of Publishers Weekly, a magazine that covers books and the book publishing industry.

Karen, how did it happen that a young woman with no previous writing got such a publishing deal?

KAREN HOLT, Publishers Weekly: Well, she was only 17, when, through some personal connections, she ended up in discussions with this book packager. They heard her story. They thought there might be an interesting book in it. They helped her develop the initial chapters. And, based on those chapters, Little, Brown offered her this rather lucrative deal.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this book is aimed at what is often called the chick-lit market, correct?

KAREN HOLT: Well, yes. I mean, it was never labeled as chick-lit, but it certainly has many of those characteristics.

Slipping through the cracks?

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, she seems to have taken passages from some well-known books out there in the same genre. So how does that happen? How did nobody see it until outsiders, in this case the Harvard Crimson?

KAREN HOLT: Well, I don't think it's that surprising that no one saw it. I mean, I think in order to have recognized the similarities, one would have obviously have had to have read these other books. And, in this case, there just didn't happen to be anyone involved with these books who either had read those books or remembered those similarities.

JEFFREY BROWN: But one would think, naturally, of an editor. So are you saying there's not that much oversight in a case like this or they just rely on the author?

KAREN HOLT: Absolutely. There really is no process for checking, for vetting any book to see if there is plagiarism. I mean, clearly, they rely on the honesty of their author; you know, clearly they have the expectation that this is original work.

But there's very, very little, if anything, done in the way of checking or vetting a manuscript to make sure that they haven't plagiarized anything.

The 'packager' phenomena

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what exactly is a book packager? I should say that no one is accusing Alloy Entertainment of plagiarism in this case, but what exactly is their role?

KAREN HOLT: Well, these are sort of -- I wouldn't say they're hidden, but they're certainly a part of the book industry that isn't talked about very much publicly.

They're used quite often. What they do is they come up with book ideas. They work very closely with authors to shape manuscripts; they edit manuscripts; they come up with concepts; and they find authors to write the books.

In a sense, in a lot of cases it's kind of a form of outsourcing for the publisher, where a lot of the editorial functions that you would assume that a publisher is doing actually the book packager is doing.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you're saying they often seek out the author?

KAREN HOLT: Exactly. Exactly. They come up with a concept. And they say, "Well, who would be good to write this book or this series of books?" And sometimes there actually are more than one author writing the series.

It's really more about the concept, the property, if you will, than an individual author, or certainly more about the product than an individual author's voice.

JEFFREY BROWN: But then is there a model for how the actual writing is done? Because it sounds as though, in some cases, it's writing by committee.

KAREN HOLT: Right. Well, I mean, that's maybe a little bit of a harsh way of saying it, but actually true. There is a model. And, obviously, if it's a series, there has to be consistency, in terms of writing style. But, yes, I mean, there's definitely a tone and a style that these authors are asked to do with the series.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I gather that packagers have been around a long time. I was reading today, of course -- we all think of the Nancy Drew series and the Hardy Boy books that I used to read as a kid. That's the way those were done?

KAREN HOLT: Absolutely. I mean, this is not a new practice. I think it's more prominent now, and in some ways it reflects the greater commercialization and the emphasis on the bottom line, but this is something that's been done for decades.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what markets -- how successful is it now? How prevalent? And what markets in particular is it used for?

KAREN HOLT: Well, this particular book packager, which has been very successful in recent years, tends to really concentrate on what's known as the Y.A. or young adult market, which is, you know, young people or early teens, maybe a little bit older.

And in a lot of ways, this book, "Opal Mehta," has a lot of the characteristics of a Y.A. novel, even though it wasn't published as a Y.A. Novel

'...but for the grace of God'

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as I just said in our introduction, the publisher today declared that they were going to cancel the rest of the contract here and not publish -- not bring back the book at all, so they're clearly distancing themselves. What are you hearing in the publishing world about this? What's the reaction?

KAREN HOLT: Well, I think that, whenever one of these scandals breaks, the reaction is a combination of people saying publicly, "Wow, this is very embarrassing for Little-Brown. How could this have happened?" But also thinking, "You know, it could have happened to any one of us," and there's this sort of "there but for the grace of God" thought. Whether people would publicly acknowledge it or not, it's certainly something that could happen to a lot of publishers.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, is there any word today from Ms. Viswanathan herself? I guess she must be finishing up her sophomore year at this point, but anything else?

KAREN HOLT: As far as I know, she has not spoken to anyone about this since she spoke to the "Today" show.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Karen Holt of Publishers Weekly, thank you very much.

KAREN HOLT: Thank you.