How to write a bestseller — like an ad

Only the author’s name may appear on the book cover. But the book itself may be the product of team work much like a commercial advertisement. Writing a novel need not longer be a solitary exercise of a writer pegging away alone, putting down thoughts on paper.

Indian-born Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan apparently received expert assistance in writing her bestseller, Opal Mehta Gets Kissed, Gets Wild and Gets A Life from 17th Street Productions, a “book packaging firm”. It’s part of Alloy Entertainment, which claims to be developing several film projects and TV pilots, whose president Leslie Morgenstein, told the Harvard Crimson newspaper: “We helped Kaavya conceptualise and plot the book.”

The Harvard Independent Online quotes a former editor at a 17th Street unit who says: “A packager basically serves as both the writer and editor of a book.”

Wow, and I thought a writer worked alone!

No doubt Viswanathan is extremely bright or she wouldn’t have got into Harvard. But money does make a difference. Her parents hired Katherine Cohen, founder of IvyWise, a private counselling service, which charged $10,000 to $20,000 for two years of college preparation services, reported the New York Times. After reading her writing, Cohen put her in touch with the famous William Morris talent agency. Somewhere along the way she got help from a “book packaging firm”. 

It makes you wonder how much talent you need and how much money and “connections” to succeed in the world today. The preparation Viswanathan needed to get into Harvard may not be all that unusual. Plenty of students pay just as much to get into that charmed circle which can make all the difference in later life.

Opal Mehta eats crow

Time to eat crow. Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan has apologised to Megan McCafferty for borrowing words and phrases from her books, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings.

I should apologise too to Harvard Crimson for questioning its coverage of the story.

In my post yesterday, I noted the Harvard newspaper in one of its early reports mentioned plot differences between Viswanathan’s bestseller, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, and McCafferty’s novels, but did not mention that difference in its later reports. I wondered why.

Now I know. The New York Times says there are similarities in the stories too. And while the Crimson mentioned 13 similar passages, the Times claims there are “at least 29”.

Viswanathan has apologised but even her apology is weird.

“Harvard novelist says copying was unintentional,” says the New York Times headline.

” I wasn’t aware of how much I may have internalised Ms. McCafferty’s words,” said Viswanthan.

I love that verb,”internalise”. She is — in her own words — such a “huge fan” of McCafferty that she unconsciously ended up using the older writer’s words and phrases.

Thank goodness, there are no copyrights on words and phrases, as I said yesterday. “Even if Viswanathan is found to have plagiarised passages, McCafferty may not be able to bring a copyright lawsuit against her,” the Crimson reports. “In fact, Viswanathan may be more likely to face a suit from her own publisher over a contract violation.”

Plagiarism and copyright infringement are different concepts, it adds, quoting Lawrence Lessig, the blogger and intellectual property scholar at Stanford Law School.

“If I use a sentence from another work and pass it off as my own without citing it or quoting it, that might not be copyright infringement because I wouldn’t necessarily need permission to use it,” Lessig said. “But since I’m asserting that I am, in fact, the author of that sentence, that would be plagiarism.”

A teen prodigy & Harvard reporters who can’t count

Indian-born Kaavya Viswanathan, a Harvard sophomore, is being accused of plagiarism after news got out that her bestseller about student life will be made into a Steven Spielberg movie.

But it has also revealed that Harvard Crimson newspaper reporters and editors can’t count.

Count the words in this passage from Viswanathan’s book,  How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got A Life: “Moneypenny was the brainy female character. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: smart or pretty.” Twenty-three words.

Now count the number of words in this passage from Megan McCafferty’s 2001 novel, Sloppy Firsts: “Sabrina was the brainy Angel. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart.” Twenty-two words, right?

Not according to Harvard. The Crimson says: “At one point, Opal Mehta contains a 14-word passage that appears verbatim in McCafferty’s book Sloppy Firsts.”

And then it quotes those two passages.

The Crimson quotes 13 passages in all where Opal Mehta has “some similarities” with Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, another McCafferty novel. But only two are almost identical.

What’s more is interesting is how the Harvard newspaper covered the story about one of its own students.

An early report said: “While the two novels (Opal Mehta and Sloppy Firsts) differ in plot, the similarities in language begin in the opening pages and continue throughout the works.”

Later reports by the same reporter, David Zhou — who can’t count — don’t mention the difference in plots. One wonders why.

Not mentioning the difference gives the impression that Viswanathan plagiarised the whole novel.

I can understand McCafferty, a former editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, complaining about the similarities. Her publisher, Random House, has sent lawyer’s letters to Viswanathan’s publisher, Little, Brown.

There are no copyrights on words and phrases yet. But who knows what the outcome will be if it ever comes to court? This is certainly different from The Da Vinci Code.

Viswanathan had better be careful in her next book. It looks like the 19-year-old with a $500,000 two-book-deal can’t expect much sympathy even from her own college newspaper.