May 2, 2006

How Kaavya Viswanathan Got a Big Book Contract, Got Found Out, and Lost $500,000.

Feel free to use that as a book title. I won't cry plagiarism.


Patrick Martin said...

All of a sudden, I'm starting to wonder if there's more to this story then we've read so far. From the cited article: "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."

According to Alloy's web site:
Alloy Entertainment is a creative think tank that develops and produces original books, television series and feature films. The company originates unique, commercial entertainment properties - often with an eye toward teens, young adults and families - and partners with the leading publishers, television networks and movie studios to deliver these properties to the world.

Is it possible that this young woman is a pawn being used by Alloy as a marketing gimmick for a plagiarized book which it created? You don't share copyright on a book unless you had some fairly substantial involvement with actually writing it. Sounds like ghost writing to me. And this plagiarism was about the expression of particular themes, not so much the themes themselves, which seem fairly universal. Thus, the fault is probably with whomever actually translated the theme into specific phrases.

I smell a bigger story then we've seen so far, that might expose some dirty little publishing secrets.

Jennifer said...

Patrick, you have an interesting point. Because something seems wonky here.

I am just not grasping how a presumably intelligent Harvard-bound young woman thought she could get away with lifting whole passages from popular and widely-read books. The Princess Diaries was made into a flippin movie.

Ann Althouse said...

Maybe she got into Harvard because she got the incredibly impressive contract.

Joe Baby said...

As is the case w/ a lot of these authors nowadays, doubtful they've even read their own book, let alone written it.

*Above comment written by my assistant.

Patrick Martin said...

The Boston Globe has more details about the collaboration between Viswanathan and Alloy.

The Harvard Independent seems to have first suggested the possibility that Alloy Entertainment did the plagiarism back on April 24, following it with more analysis on the topic the next day.

Truly said...

Another web site is having a plagiarism contest--write a story, 750 words long, none of which can be your own.

Clearly, it's an idea whose time has come.

Maxine Weiss said...

Remember how in the old days, stars used to be "discovered" sitting at the soda fountain?

Now they are "packaged".

I think we need a return to the Soda Fountain. Whatever happened to "Pop Schneider's", or Pop Whoever?

Remember Pop Schneider?, the old man who ran the Fountain, and you could sit there at the tall stools with a real Malt in the tin, or a root beer float, and they also sold sundries, notions, and magazines....Photoplay and Modern Screen etc. The door had a little bell everytime someone entered.

So charming, delightful, and quaint. What happened to charming, delightful and quaint?

Peace, Maxine

Maxine Weiss said...

Well, then Harlequin and Silhouette Romances are doing the same thing. Anyone can write for Harlequin, supposedly, if you follow their instructions, story conventions and parameters. Protagonist must meet damsel-in-distress by 4th chapter. Protagonist Proposes to damsel-in-distress by 7th chapter. The break-up must occur by the 9th chapter, followed by the breathless reunion at the conclusion.

If you want to write for Harlequin, you have to follow their story convention to the letter.

Peace, Maxine

Nitin G Gokarn said...

Ironically and sadly, the amount of good publicity her original work has brought or would have brought her is nothing compared to the noise, Opal Mehta's kissing work has created for her.

In India , plagiarism often goes unnoticed.However, Kaavya should have known better (being in US ) than anyone else, that she was likey to be "caught" stealing - her apology notwithstanding. Like many others , I too dont buy the theory that she is innocent or it was a mistake or was done out of naiveity. Atleast some who has some best sellers to her record should have assiduously eschewed the copying. Nonetheless, one feels extremely sad for Kaavya for more than one reason. Firstly , she has Indian roots so we all genuinely feel for her being an Indian . Second , she has done a mistake , admitted it and paid a price by being lambasted and has become infamous over the world. She has learnt her lessons at 19 , and would definitely never ever do such an act again. Lastly , and more significantly, people have committed more horrendous crimes from murder to other acts of cruelty and barbarism and yet are walking freely in society. In this context Kavya's "crime" pales into nothing ! Spare a thought for this Indian daughter. Everybody is going for her - some had to be a devils advocate.

Jennifer said...

I have a different perspective on this. While she hasn't committed the crime of the century and she will likely never do it again, there are a lot of talented writers out there who have never plagiarized anything.

Why waste another chance on her when one of them deserve a shot?

Ann Althouse said...

And exactly why did she get that original break? She knew someone who referred her to someone in the publishing business. Didn't they look at her and see her as someone who could be packaged and promoted? So she was used, and she is young, so she should be forgiven. But why did she get into Harvard instead of you or your son or daughter? Why did she get a big book contract instead of the real teenage genius writers who are out there?

Jennifer said...

Ann, I think what you're driving at is that this exposes larger problems in the publishing industry. That, much like the music industry, the powers that be are latching onto filler that they can package and promote rather than looking to discover actual talent. That in the drive for profit, art is left by the wayside. Am I way off?

I do agree that she should be forgiven. We were all young once and we've all made mistakes. Most of us didn't have to do it in front of the nation. But I don't think she should be given another contract.

I guess we'll just have to wait for her tell-all. :)

CB said...

The best part of the article:

...whose novel came out in March to widespread attention.

Not acclaim, or even interest, but "attention"--classic.

Balfegor said...

As is the case w/ a lot of these authors nowadays, doubtful they've even read their own book, let alone written it.

I don't think we know the particulars of the situation in sufficient detail to make a firm judgment, but let me try anyway: I suspect she was doodling away at her novel well before packaging it and playing it up for application purposes ever came up -- some reports indicate that it was originally somewhat darker and more angsty (par for the course in teenage writing), but was pepped up in packaging. My suspicion is that in that pepping-up process, they brought in outside writers to enliven the prose here and there, and one of them may have introduced the plagiaristic elements.

So she may or may not have read the bits and pieces there, and ought have done, but considering the power relations at work here (first-time author, 18 yrs old, desperate to get into Harvard vs. slick marketing machine) my sympathies are all with her. This isn't Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin here -- powerful people with pretensions to scholarly exactitude. This is a young girl.

And I hope she gets a pseudonym and writes under her own direction in the future (preferably something other than novels about how hard it is to get into a top school, though -- it seems like every year there's another novel by an Ivy admit or recent grad about the whole application process. Who reads these things? Honestly!)

Balfegor said...

Firstly , she has Indian roots so we all genuinely feel for her being an Indian.

Really? I mean, I suppose if I were English that might be the case, what with the Black Pit of Calcutta and Amritsar and all, but I've never felt the subcontinentals to be objects of pity here in the US. They've been, on the average, immensely successful. I went to school with a bunch. And they must make up half the medical field in Southern California.

CB said...


Viswanathan, who was 17 when she signed the deal

Is the contract voidable?

Maxine Weiss said...

.....not under "promissory estoppel". (Impressive, huh?)

She put her whole life on hold for them. Everything in her life, from Harvard, to her travels, was done at the behest of the "Packagers"....She relied on them, and made life decisions based on their promises, well, they now owe her. She didn't create them, they created her.

Peace, Maxine

M. Takhallus. said...

Sorry, but you guys are oversimplifying. My wife and I have done a lot of books with the predecessor company to Alloy -- some of the same key personnel -- and trust me, they do own copyright on books they had very little to do with.

In many cases they have large contracts with publishers to produce X number of books or even X number of series. Writers are brought in, ostensibly to create books based on the packager's "ideas" but there's a reason I put "ideas" in quotes. In some cases (not all) the idea amounts to, "how about a series about a group of kids who have romances."

It's a very fluid situation. In some cases, with some writers, they have more oversight. In other cases writers go their own way.

Maxine Weiss said...

Go onto the Harlequin website: If you want to become a Harlequin must follow their "formula" ie: Breakup occurse by page 149; breathless reunion must occur by page 200 etc...

Very formulaic. Stay within the brand. Branding. Packaging.

Wake up: there is absolutely no individuality or originality anymore.

Cosmetic Surgery: Why do all the female celebrities look alike now? They are all walking out of the plastic surgeons office with the same look!

Generic, one-size-fits-all.

Of course it was just a matter of time before it hit the publishing world.

Peace, Maxine

Maxine Weiss said...

Anyone can become a Harlequin romance author. It's not just housewives with a keyboard, looking for a little cash. Harlequin will hire absolutely anyone who can simply follow a formula.

And, actually, many of the "authors" you see on Harlequin romances don't even exist.

The stories are computer generated, with just he names changed.

They can create a fake author, by using a computer-generated name.

Nancy Drew wasn't written by Carolyn Keene. No such person ever existed. But at least the Nancy Drew mysteries were good....even though Nancy and her knuckle-headed boyfriend "Ned" were complete airheads. There was a little individuality/originality to it: "Secret of the Forgotten City" "Double Jinx Mystery" ---my favorite Nancy Drews.

Now there's nothing distinctive in the stories at all---pure formula---computer generated author, or not.

Peace, Maxine

M. Takhallus. said...


Of course it's formulaic. That's what readers want. And it's not just Harlequin, or packaged YA series, it's genre novels, and literary novels, too, and TV and movies.

I'm curious: ever read a Nancy Drew? 100% ghostwritten, 100% packaged.

M. Takhallus. said...


You and I seem to be simu-posting!

By the way, Harlequins are not written by computer. No book is written by computer.

Maxine Weiss said...

Go here and read this:,0,4766706.story?coll=cl-books

(sorry, don't know how to insert links properly)

"What this unfortunately driven young woman's rather sad little story suggests is that one of the major reasons other young people don't read books is that most of the stuff published for children and adolescents is abysmal, self-regarding trash. Part of the fault rests with the packagers such as Alloy and in the way they do business. A larger part of the problem stems from publishers' misguided belief that kids want to read about people just like themselves, living lives just like their lives."----LA Times, April 29

(That wasn't the case with Nancy Drew!)

Peace, Maxine

Maxine Weiss said...

"If these publishers looked to their own childhood memories rather than a spreadsheet, they'd recall that young readers, more than any others, want to be transported and shown not just other lives but whole worlds utterly different from their own. Witness the wild popularity of fantasy and science fiction among the very same kids who display the very same sensibility in their choice of video games. What could be more dispiriting than going into your room in search of escape, solace or pleasure, opening a book and reading a story about someone just like you hemmed in by the same four walls?"---LA Times, April 29

(Because everything is derivative, formulaic, and computer generated)

Peace, Maxine

M. Takhallus. said...


My wife and I are former Harlequin authors - real people though we did use a peudonym. We're also former ghostwriters, and former packager hacks, and very successful science fiction/fantasy writers. So I actually do know what I'm talking about here.

We tried not once, not twice, but three times to generate a hit YA series that was reasonably well-written, and about smart, sensitive characters, not about cheap sex and idiot school cliques and guess what? We failed three times.

Don't get me wrong, each series survived, each was extended, and we're talking probably thirty books between what we wrote in launching the series and what ghosts did later, and we even got pretty good reviews, but none of them was a hit. Why? Because a whole lot of YA girl readers like crap. Crap sells. That's not Alloy's fault -- go talk to the readers.

Ann Althouse said...

Michael: Thanks for the inside look!

Jimmy said...

Why is Kaavya Viswanathan's ethnicity a big deal in the news reporting? She was raised in Scotland and the USA. Her formative years are in Western countires.

alikarimbey said...

I expect that Harvard journalism students will get the Pulitzer for Investigative Journalism. They created a story and everyone else - gasp, including NYT - followed. This is a victory for Harvard. This is what Ivy League is known for - hard work!

Wade_Garrett said...

If you ask me, the reason this became a national scandal is because of the New York Times' obsession with Ivy League gossip. As a Yale graduate I love a good Harvard scandal as much as the next person, but, really, is this national news? In my opinion, it shouldn't be.

As for why her ethnicity is a big deal, I would guess that these type of heavily packaged/branded teenage/chicklit books always have white faces attached to them, and this was an opportunity to reach expand the market for books of this sort. It doesn't really matter that she grew up in the U.S., as opposed to in India.

If you ask me, publishers need to be extra careful when they're dealing with authors this young. Very few writers of that age have their own voices. Did you at age 17? Did any of your friends? I sure didn't. The students who won the creative writing awards at my high school and at Yale were often just more successful at mimicing their favorite authors' styles.