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DWP Guest Op-Ed: How Kaavya Viswanathan Got Rich, Got Set Up, and Got a Bloody Nose

(Today’s post is the result of a friend’s phone call, a friend who doesn’t have a blog but one who wants the full context of her opinions laid out in cyberspace. She had been contacted by the media for her take on the most recent controversy of plagerism rumbling through Publisher’s Row. The commentary below, How Kaavya Viswanathan Got Rich, Got Set Up, and Got a Bloody Nose, is written and copyrighted by Kimberly Morris, 2006.)

I have written many series novels for publishers and for book packagers. Because of the controversy over Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (published by Little Brown and packaged by Alloy), I have been asked for my views on this topic and about my experiences working with book packagers.

Many people are confused about what a book packager does. A book packager could be described as a subcontracted publishing house. Packagers are able to concentrate principally on the creative and editorial tasks relating to book production. Unlike publishers, they are not encumbered with marketing departments, sales departments, advertising departments, art departments, and distribution, warehousing, and fulfillment responsibilities. This makes them pretty nimble – able to reinvent themselves quickly in response to market trends. In short, book packagers are very efficient in their ability to produce large quantities of books that readers like, and get them on the shelves fast.

Personally, I’ve had good luck and good relationships with packagers. I like being employed. I like to write for different genres. And I work well under pressure. Working with packagers is a bit like being an actor in the old studio system. On Monday, you’re a pirate. On Tuesday, you’re a cowboy. On Wednesday, they tell you to bring your tap shoes. The old studio system made a lot of movies and produced an enormous pool of well-trained actors who learned their craft by doing it.

Some writers dislike working with book packagers. It is, admittedly, a tough business. But it’s an area of publishing that attracts talented and ambitious creative people. For writers and editors willing to work hard and pay dues, it’s an arena of opportunity

So knowing this, I was astounded to learn that a publisher and/or packager would give a $500,000 advance to a 17-year-old high school student with no track record, no training, and no book.

The general public, unfortunately, has a tendency to regard writing as the idiot savant branch of the arts. The general attitude seems to be that any dolt can write a book if they can just find the time.

I can understand why a layperson would think this. People who are good at what they do make it look easy. When you read well-written popular fiction, the writing seems effortless. In reality it’s damned hard work. Anybody who’s done it knows that. So what I cannot understand, is how so many people inside the publishing and packaging industry could have convinced themselves that it was a good idea to commission an inexperienced teenager – who was now a full-time college student under tremendous academic pressure – to write a novel that would be worth half a million dollars! What were they thinking? And why are they now surprised that the work is derivative and in many instances, outright plagiarized?

James Frey’s book – (Are they still calling it a “memoir?”) – wasn’t properly vetted and one of the reasons the publisher offered was that Frey’s book was just a mid-list memoir. A dark horse title that might or might not earn back its advance of $50,000. From their perspective, the earning potential of the book didn’t justify the time, trouble, and expense of checking out Fray’s story.

But if you’re spending half a million dollars on a manuscript going in, why wouldn’t you make sure it passed the sniff test? All I can figure is that they were so dazzled by the prospect of discovering a prodigy that it short-circuited their common sense.

So what do we learn from this?

Well, I, personally, learned why publishing margins are so thin. (Because they’re giving $500,000 advances to teenagers who can’t write.)

But what are the major media companies learning?

I hope they are learning that they need to do some serious thinking about their role in the content industry. The world is glutted with entertainment, news, and information “product.” Historically, readers and viewers have relied upon established and recognized media “brands” to vet content for merit, accuracy, and quality. If professionals abdicate that responsibility, or do not perform that value added service, they will cease to be relevant. There are too many of these incidents now to ignore. The industry needs to start taking this problem seriously and understand that consumers aren’t paying them for raw content. They are paying for an imprimatur that connotes legitimacy and credibility.

I feel sorry for Kaavya Viswanathan. She is a kid. She is an amateur. The people making the important decisions in this situation were adults. They were experienced professionals who should have known better.

Yes. Yes. I know Kaavya Viswanathan should have known better, too. Yes. Yes. I know she goes to Harvard. So what? Good grades are not the same thing as good judgment. And good judgment isn’t the inevitable by-product of an Ivy League education.

Bill Clinton went to Yale. Jeff Skilling went to Harvard. George Bush went to Yale. Donald Rumsfeld went to Princeton. None of them will be remembered by history for their good judgment.

–Kimberly Morris (
Feel free to comment here or contact Kimberly directly. (Of course, I hope you’ll comment here.) –vikk

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  • Jill Terry

    Thank you for this informative and enlightening commentary. It’s truly the best I’ve read regarding the incident.

  • Jill Terry

    Thank you for this informative and enlightening commentary. It’s truly the best I’ve read regarding the incident.