Inviting The Adults To The Plagiarism Party

April 28th, 2006 · 2 Comments
by Booksquare

Let us all agree that Kaavya Viswanathan has had a lousy week. The kind of week you shouldn’t have to have during your sophomore year at Harvard. And we don’t know if she’s truly at fault or if it’s a fine mix of circumstances. But it does appear that plagiarism happened.

We all know that authors frequently borrow ideas and sometimes even phrases from other works of art. Art builds upon art. The key is to make your own art, not to slavishly copy someone else’s work. And when it’s done repeatedly, even the most forgiving of us begin to wonder if, perhaps, there was intent. And then we wonder whose intent was overruling logic.

A lot of attention has focused on Viswanathan, but recall that she’s not the sole copyright owner. 17th Street Productions/Alloy Entertainment shares that role, and, thus, shares the blame. It is the job of the Alloy staff to put together the entire package, down to editorial services. Since it’s unlikely that Viswanathan wrote without the helping hand of an experience publishing professional, it makes one wonder how much input the other copyright owner had.

It also makes one wonder why in the world a business like Little, Brown would spend a reported $500,000 on an unwritten book by a first-time author who was starting her academic career at a famously tough university. Given what they saw and given the fickleness of the market, we can only hope they didn’t cut the full check on the spot.

Heck, the way this has played out, we can only hope they didn’t cut a check at all — all those copies that can’t be sold? Little, Brown still has to pay the printing and distribution bills. Paper companies and truck drivers don’t care from plagiarism allegations. It’s also a bit bothersome that 17th Street Productions/Alloy is no stranger to accusations of plagiarism. The Harvard Independent uncovered a 2005 court case with striking similarities to this one:

…the alleged pattern of plagiarism — including the repetition of minor details, but with trivial alterations — is suggestively reminiscent of the kind of copying discovered in Viswanathan’s novel.

This case settled out of court, and highlights the unusual role of book packagers like Alloy in today’s publishing business. Are publishers really abdicating their responsibilities to third parties, as Sara Nelson of Publisher’s Weekly wonders:

We’ve known for years that publishers, probably including Little, Brown, have long employed freelance editors and “book doctors,” of which packagers are just an institutional version. But Little, Brown has to resort to this? Realizing that a major house is willing to pay major money for a book that executives knew was going to require major work smacks of something majorly disturbing. It suggests that even the most well-bred publishing houses are not as desperate to find promising writers and great novels as they are to find attractive authors (preferably with interesting backstories) with whom they can match up test-marketed, packaged stories. And then they can take all the credit.

Many parties had their fingers in this pie, and while Viswanathan is the public scapegoat, behind her are publishing professionals who are either complicit or ignorant — neither prospect appealing, we’re sure.

[tags]Kaavya Viswanathan, plagiarism, publishing[/tags]

File Under: Square Pegs

2 responses so far ↓

  • Kirsten // Apr 28, 2006 at 3:46 pm

    Excellent post.

  • Brenda Coulter // Apr 29, 2006 at 9:56 am

    It also makes one wonder why in the world a business like Little, Brown would spend a reported $500,000 on an unwritten book by a first-time author who was starting her academic career at a famously tough university.

    No, it doesn’t. I believe they paid half a mil to a 17-year-old Harvard student because they thought the buzz over her age coupled with that staggering advance would guarantee the success of any book she might end up writing. The book’s content was never anyone’s priority. All they needed was to be able to market the book as the amazing accomplishment of a 17-year-old writer.

    I just blogged about this and linked to you:

    Little, Brown and the little girl