May 2, 2006

Entrepreneurial Freak of the Week

Hatched by Dafydd

Yesterday in our post $500,000 Retread, we introduced you to teenaged "author," Kaavya Viswanathan. Ms. Vis somehow wangled herself a two-book contract for $500,000 while still in high school; the then-seventeen year old published the first book... which was found to be riddled with plagiarized passages from several other books -- mostly from a couple of books written by Megan McCafferty, but Meg Cabot and Sophie Kinsella also found their prose making a cameo appearance in Viswanathan's book.

Today, Little, Brown not only dropped this book (which has already been pulled from the shelves), they have also canceled the entire contract. And then AP dropped an absolute bombshell, though even they didn't realize it... and suddenly everything falls into place for me. They wrote:

Viswanathan, who was 17 when she signed the deal, did not immediately return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

A spokeswoman for Alloy Entertainment, a book packager that helped Viswanathan shape her narrative and shared the book's copyright, said the company would have no comment. Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, a literary agent who represented both Viswanathan and Alloy, also said she would not comment.

Let me translate this into normal English: evidently, Viswanathan was offered the contract by Little, Brown on the basis of a few articles she wrote while interning on the Bergen County Record, a local newspaper. She signed... but evidently, she had little confidence in her ability actually to write two novels.

So either without telling the publisher, or more likely, with the publisher's connivance, it appears as though "Viswanathan's" novel was subcontracted out to a book packager, Alloy Entertainment. Having worked for similar packagers myself (though I've never heard of Alloy, and I always wrote under my own name), I can guess what probably happened next: Alloy picked one of its stable of freelance writers to actually write the books; this writer was likely paid a flat fee on a work-made-for-hire contract, and was probably given a deadline of three or four weeks to produce a clean, finished novel.

(If Viswanathan set this all up herself -- if she got the contract then simply hired someone to write the books for her -- I would happily expel her from Harvard and recruit her into Harvard Business School. What an entrepreneur!)

Perhaps the ghostwriter, whoever he or she was, had too much on his, her, its plate... so ghostwriter copies passages more or less verbatim from other novels, thinking no one will notice. Certainly nobody in the editing or publishing chain of custody noticed, and the book was published.

Maybe Viswanathan helped somewhat in writing the book; or maybe it was entirely ghostwritten, and all she supplied was a Cover-Girl head shot, a bubbly book-signing personality, and a cool name. In either case, she probably did not even read the whole book all the way through, let alone write it... which may well explain why she was so dumbfounded at the revelations of plagiarism: she literally had no idea, because she really wasn't familiar with her novel.

Whenever a packager says it's "shaping" a project, it means either they're editing so heavily they may as well be an uncredited co-author, or else they're just writing it themselves in-house and skipping the middleman. Particularly when they actually share copyright: I wonder if Viswanathan was supposed to receive royalties, or if she, too, was on a work-made-for-hire contract....

In any event, we should soon find out whether this was a one-shot for Viswanathan, or if she made a habit of "writing" her earlier newspaper pieces the way she "wrote" this novel:

Editor Frank Scandale said The Record, which has written several of its own articles about the plagiarism allegations, will hire a service to vet the dozen or so light features she wrote while one of about 18 interns at the paper.

Scandale recalled Viswanathan as having strong writing skills for a high schooler, and as an upbeat, affable young woman.

"To us she was a bright young kid that seemed to have the makings of a good writer. There were no alarms; nobody had ever questioned any of her stories," he said. "We have no reason to believe there's anything wrong with her copy. But in light of what's going on, we thought we should check her stuff out."

I hope for her sake that she's clean, and the copycatting was a product of the ghostwriter, not her. If I may plagiarize a bit of doggeral here from the Scribe of Scotland, the Wizard of the North:

Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!

'Nuff said.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, May 2, 2006, at the time of 10:01 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this hissing:


The following hissed in response by: hunter

And isn't the little manipulator on a nice ride at Harvard?
The Ivy League ahs fallen far from tossing Ted Kennedy out over cheating. From those days of ethical strength, they now have a plagiarist, an islamofascist thug and openly antisemitic professors.
I am sorry I urged my kids to go to that level of school, frankly.

The above hissed in response by: hunter [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 3, 2006 2:51 AM

The following hissed in response by: Nuclear Siafu

It certainly would be interesting if it turns out she was set up by the company. The money trail seems to give AE the incentive they'd need to pull a ghostwriting stunt like that.

I'd feel sorry for Kaavya, if that was the case. If someone were to offer me a chunk of 500K right out of High School just for fixing my name to some small-time novel, I'd be hard pressed to say no.

Then again, if she set the whole thing up, I'd have to shake her hand and encourage Harvard to extract her into their business school like you said. It may not have been ethical entrepreneurship, but it came close to being technically legitimate entrepreneurship. That's close enough for the business world.

The above hissed in response by: Nuclear Siafu [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 3, 2006 3:36 AM

The following hissed in response by: Wave Maker

Interesting scenario, Daf, but I am skeptical of it -- principally because right out of the box, she was so adamant in defending her work and repeatedly saying she had read McCafferty's novel saeveral times and "internalized" the words (heh). I think she cribbed those pieces herself.

Also, if she were just a stooge in all of this, I think she'd have showed up in public with a lawyer beside her as soon as the s**t hit the fan. At this point, everthing and everyone is pointing to her, and she's hiding under a rock somewhere (she has left Harvard for the time being)...

...unless she's hiding out at the Plaza on Alloy's dime, negotiating her fee for silence...

This story ain't ovah.

[Please be careful about the language, Wave Maker. Thanks. -- the Mgt.]

The above hissed in response by: Wave Maker [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 3, 2006 9:29 AM

The following hissed in response by: Steven Den Beste

None of the news reports about this that I've seen say whether Little Brown is asking her to return her advance.

If she gets to keep it, then she comes out of this pretty damned well, don't you think?

The above hissed in response by: Steven Den Beste [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 3, 2006 6:59 PM

The following hissed in response by: Robert Schwartz

I always feel better when I find out that Steven Den Beste is reading a blog that I am reading.

At this point, we do not really have a lot of facts under our control. We know that there is a work of genre fiction that appears to have been at least partially plagiarized, we have a cast of characters and all of the fog and spin they have emitted.

$500,000 advance? Has anybody seen a contract, a check, or a bank statement?

Book written by a 18 year old? Maybe, maybe ghosted too.

Plagiarism, you can't plagiarize yourself. Who owns the copyrights on the relevant works? Who wrote them?

Who are the players in this little game and who are the marks?

Just based on the 18 year olds I have raised (got one down stairs right now), I doubt that Ms. Viswanathan is a player. She is most likely on her cellphone with her Mom 24/7 right now. Any statements that were made were probably dictated by Mom.

Alloy Entertainment may not be a player, but I doubt that they are innocent. How many of the relevant copyrights do they own?

The college counselor's role needs to be looked at very carefully. She appears to be quite a character.

And Harvard's admission staff. Are they innocent? Were they the marks? They are passing out a good with a very high perceived value. Are they all really $25K/yr clerks. Is this the only absolutely honest business in the world?

The above hissed in response by: Robert Schwartz [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 3, 2006 8:55 PM

Post a comment

Thanks for hissing in, . Now you can slither in with a comment, o wise. (sign out)

(If you haven't hissed a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Hang loose; don't shed your skin!)

Remember me unto the end of days?

© 2005-2009 by Dafydd ab Hugh - All Rights Reserved