Friday, May 12, 2006

Dirty Chick-Lit Secret Exposed in Harvard Plagiarism Scandal

The Truth is Wilder Than Any Fiction You Could Dream Up About the Chick-Lit Industry

This blog continues the story behind the story of the plagiarism scandal involving 19-year-old Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan and her first novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. The first blog focused on the packaging of Kaavya; this blog focuses on her book packager, Alloy Entertainment, which "pulls together writers and ideas and shops a refined 'package' to publishers and movie houses." Alloy Entertainment shares the copyright for Opal with Kaavya. You read that right. And not only does Kaavya Viswanathan share the copyright for her own book with this packager, her name comes after Alloy Entertainment in Opal's copyright line.

"The darker moral of her story seems to be that if you succeed by packaging, you can expect to fail by packaging, too —- and you alone, not your packagers, will pay the price," a writer for Slate opined when the scandal first broke. (Ann Hulbert, "How Kaavya Got Packaged and Got Into Trouble," Slate, Apr. 27.)

Only this week, however, have details about Alloy's operations started to emerge in the press. That until now Alloy's operations were virtually unknown to those in the media and escaped scrutiny for this long is astonishing in itself, given the impact this company has had on the teen chick-lit genre. It turns out that Alloy is behind the hit book and movie The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and not one but two famous series titles for girls in their teens: Gossip Girls and Sweet Valley High.

Kaavya and her agent at William Morris eventually hit a wall in terms of developing a commercial book proposal, according to the Boston Globe. At that point the agent suggested Kaavya speak with a contact at Alloy Entertainment. In a nutshell, Alloy comes up with book ideas for teen-girl audiences, fleshes them out, and sees these concepts through to a final written "package" form that can be shopped to legitimate publishing houses. Alloy shares the copyright and up to 50 percent of any book or movie deal landed by the author. This is not an unknown practice in the coffee-table or photo-book industry. With regard to fiction, however, Alloy appears to be the first practitioner of this art.

According to the Boston Globe, Alloy titles aren't so much for reading as they are product-placement vehicles. Alloy's own web site advertises its books as packages where companies "have the opportunity to get their products or services cast in these best-selling books." (The Boston Globe said it's not known publicly whether Manolo Blahnik, Habitual jeans, or La Perla bras paid for their mentions in Kaavya's Opal.)

Here it might be helpful to note that Alloy's parent company, Alloy Media + Marketing, isn't in the book business at all. It's an advertising and marketing firm founded in 1997 that specializes in helping companies package and sell all sorts of consumer items to teenage and preteen girls. (The 10-to-24-year-old female demographic is said to be 60 million strong with annual spending power of up to $250 billion; preteen girls -- those between the ages of 8 and 12 -- spend an estimated $51 billion annually.) "This total pursuit of teens and tweens was largely an Alloy innovation," according to the Boston Globe. The parent company bought a small, legitimate publishing house in 2000 and turned it into its "book packaging" machine.

The New York Observer this week included the following quote about Alloy Entertainment from an unnamed publisher: "It’s run by three guys, and 90 percent of what they do is for teenage girls." The article said that former Alloy employees and other members of the publishing world note that while three men run the outfit, "young women provide most of the grunt labor on Alloy’s book projects," including the Gossip Girl and Sweet Valley High series. The newspaper went on to say Alloy has a reputation among writers for not always sharing its successes with the underlings who contributed to them. The paper cites as a case in point one of the book packager's most lucrative hits, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

"The Traveling Pants idea originated with a woman named Jodi Anderson, who was then an editor at Alloy," the New York Observer reported. "Ms. Anderson proposed the concept (a group of girlfriends who share a pair of jeans), which was based on some of her own college experiences. She wrote a proposal sketching out the idea that was sold to a publisher, and was under the impression that she might then get to write the book(s)." In the end, however, Ann Brashares, who was then co-president of Alloy with Les Morgenstein, decided to write the book. "According to three sources," the paper said, "Ms. Anderson was unhappy with this outcome."

"They have writers who don’t exist, and they have writers who don’t really write the stuff, and they have one series supposedly by one author that are by many," one unnamed author who has worked with the company told the New York Observer. "There’s no one-to-one alignment between anything that gets produced and the producer. There’s no literary accountability." (Sheelah Kolhatkar, "Viswanathan-athon: Plagiarizing Writer Fell in Weird Alloy," New York Observer, May 8.)

Back to Kaavya

The concept for the book that would become Opal emerged from Kaavya's conversations with an editor at Alloy, according to the Boston Globe. Once an outline was ready, one of Kaavya's agents at William Morris -- not someone at Alloy -- then pitched it to the big-name publishing houses. Little, Brown signed Kaavya for a two-book deal based on the strength of that Opal outline and the sales pitch of her William Morris agent.

According to the Boston Globe, when authors are brought in to write their own books, as in Kaavya's case, Alloy takes 30 to 50 percent of any money the author makes. On top of that, Kaavya's agent at William Morris would have taken the standard 15 percent of the $500,000 two-book deal she landed for Kaavya. (David Mehegan, "'Opal' Aided by Marketing Firm That Targets Teens," Boston Globe, May 8.)

Almost two weeks earlier, Alloy Entertainment president Les Morgenstein told the Boston Globe in an email that his firm did not help Kaavya with any of the actual writing. "We helped Kaavya conceptualize and plot the book," the paper reported him as writing. "We are looking into the serious allegations before commenting further." Indeed, that appears to be the last comment from anyone at Alloy since the publication of that one quote.

"A few literary agents contacted yesterday by the Globe raised eyebrows at the packager's active role in conceptualizing the novel," the paper reported in that early article about the plagiarism scandal. "We would never recommend to an author that they share copyright for something as minor as refining a concept," Boston-area literary agent Doe Coover told the paper. (Mehegan, 'After Duplicated Words, Words of Apology," Boston Globe, Apr. 25.) That day's particular article on the scandal led with Kaavya's prepared statement of apology for her plagiarism.

The Point Was Never the Novel

Kaavya Viswanathan doesn't even aspire to be an author; she wants to be in finance/banking on Wall Street. This was never about the book. Kaavya herself -- not the book -- was the product that she, her parents, IvyWise, William Morris, and Alloy Entertainment were trying to package, sell, and strategically position in the market. And for one brief shining moment there was a Camelot for the packaged-as-a-prodigy Kaavya.

Heck, she very well might not even have written the darn book that contains plagiarized passages. It would seem if that were the case she would set the record straight -- except that not having written the novel that carries her name and briefly made her a star would be an even bigger scandal than this plagiarism scandal already has been for her.


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