Writing By Committee: The Latest In the Corporate Undermining of Authenticity

If you haven’t already heard about the plagiarism scandle swirling around Kaavya Viswanathan, you probably aren’t much into reading, or just have young children. To sum up, 17-year-old Harvard student Viswanathan was given a half million dollar book deal (reportedly the largest advance ever given to an unpublished writer) last year, only to have to admit in the first month of her novel’s release that she inadvertantly plagiarised-word for word- passages out of two novels by chick-lit writer Meghan McCafferty. Now, of course, the initial reaction would be to condemn this Harvard alum, I know I did. But then I started looking into it deeper. I discovered that Viswanathan’s parents were both loaded and, in order to insure their daughter’s long-term success, they hired a $35,000 a year “college counseling firm” that would use their highly-placed connections to increase their daughter’s chances of going Ivy League. The name of the firm? IVYWISE. Despite my disdain for people that have the kind of money to basically buy their way into success, I understand that we live in a supply-demand capitalist society, and so if there is a demand for that sort of thing, so be it. But then I discovered that IVYWISE used it’s connections to get Ms. V in with a book packaging company called, at that time, 17th Street Productions. I’d never heard of any such thing as book packaging before. My interest was piqued. What I found was so fucking shocking that I couldn’t fall asleep last night and have been fuming about this shit for going on….14 hours. So–sorry if this comes across a little frayed around the edges. It’s frayed because I am frayed and at my wits end with this shit.

See, book packagers, according to an article by Jenna Glatzer, “act as liaisons between publishing houses and everyone who works to put together a book–authors, artists, editors, photographers, researchers, indexers, and sometimes even printers. Publishing houses often dont have enough in-house resources to handle all of the books they want to publish, so they out-source certain projects to third parties. In addition to assembling the other components necessary for a finished book, these packagers are responsible for hiring authors to write manuscripts.

Sometimes, packagers pitch their own ideas to publishers, and other times, the publishers hire packagers to develop projects theyve originated. Packagers function as an interesting conglomerate of agent, editor, and publisher. They are an integral part of the publishing industry, yet even major book distributors arent aware that the books they carry were created by companies other than the publishing houses.”

Pretty scandalous, right? Well, not really. Turns out that there are so many books out there that are products of book packaging, that it is almost a foregone conclusion that much of the shit on your shelves was written by committee. And Kaavya Viswanathan is only the latest writer to have employed them. So who are you going to blame when you find out that a book packager plagiarised your beloved book? See, the thing about corporations is that since the Supreme Court ruled in the 1880’s that corporations have the same rights as individuals, a funny thing has happened: the corporations have enjoyed all those individual freedoms, with none of the baggage that comes with being a responsible citizen. They do whatever the fuck they want with impunity. Because you can’t put a corporation in jail. It takes on an unprosecutable life. It is many-faced and many armed and like the mythological hydra, you can’t keep the heads from coming back.

Point is, I’m fucking sick with disgust over this stuff. There are so many actual artists out there struggling to get their work noticed and the idiots in charge of finding and promoting these talents are farming out the work to bottom-line-minded companies. It is ridiculous and immoral and I am more determined than EVER to see this thing through now. I will NEVER stop what I am doing with futureproof, what I am doing with other writers, trying to get some strength behind us. And if you, the reader aren’t interested enough in the stakes here, and all of these efforts are for nothing, and in the end all you can find on your bookstores’ shelves are co-written James Patterson pap, then you deserve all the blandness and banality you have coming to you. And if I die an unsuccessful writer who never got a book deal, never found the success I know futureproof deserves, then sofucking be it. At least I know that I fucking tried to kick against the pricks, tried to re-make the path long since over-grown by corporate interests.

These are desperate times for the art of writing. It’s no longer about pushing boundries or anything more than the bottom line. While chick-lit pap like Viswanathan’s is given tons of publicity and has a shitload of money thrown at it, books like futureproof and even James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces are left to die in the cut-out bin. Yeah,you read that right. James Frey is a direct product of this same bullshit. Because the truth is, James tried to publish his book first as fiction and was turned down by 17 different publishers. That has to be seen as complete idiocy by anybody who has read and loved his books. His book was the biggest-selling Oprah pick of all time BEFORE all the controversy because readers thought it was fucking GOOD. And yet none of the supposed professionals at the houses could see that. So what does that tell you? I don’t know what it says to you, but to me it says that James, desperate to make it in this industry, made the decision to call his book a memoir because his book was for the most part based on his actual life experiences. Memoir was hot. The rest is history. I chose not to go that route, despite the fact that many of my fellow writers as well as many agents I’d approached seeking representation told me I should sell futureproof as a memoir. So I keep pushing forward with this shit, watching oil corporations reap record profits while gas prices are higher than they’ve ever been. Doesn’t add up, does it? Nope. Not in the slightest bit does it make even the tiniest bit of sense. We’ve been over-run. How far will you go to make change happen?


KaavyaGate by the Harvard Independent

Book Packaging

Alloy Media and Marketing (formerly 17th Street)

Kaavya Viswanathan Wikipedia entry



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17 responses to “Writing By Committee: The Latest In the Corporate Undermining of Authenticity

  1. pilgrim

    no wonder i cant bare to read most of the crap written in the last 30 years. Word up to FP and Frank for keeping it real.

  2. ~Sunny D~

    Thank You Frank…for letting us know about this “CRAP” going on….’FRUSTERATED’ is an understatement that I feel right now. I know you well and know your “awesome book” well. I also know that you as an ‘Author’ and us as an ‘FAN’ of your book, and many other books(Frey books) that have been or are being written now “WILL FIGHT to MAKE A CHANGE HAPPEN”…
    I’m on board……..Come on everyone…let’s fight for what is RIGHT!

    Deena Neville, MD

  3. savejf

    Well, well, well. What a bloody crock of shit. I’m not surprised tho, nor and I surprised that you’ll do whatever it takes to squelch this. You know I’m right here with you buddy. Give me a call and we’ll brainstorm. Hi and love to Ali and the kids.

    Joy K.

  4. laureldriver

    Even though I’m out of the country, I heard about the Frey/Oprah controversy and remember thinking, “Who gives a shit. If this guy wrote a brilliant book, he wrote a brilliant book, and nothing can change that.” Aristotle thought he ended the debate over the distinction between history and fiction long ago by assigning them separate domains, but they’re the same damn thing. All writing reflects our perceptions of history, whether true to the spirit or the letter.

  5. strawberry

    WOW…I am discusted Frank and am behind you 100%…that is total BS and I don’t even know what to say…just discusted..whatever you need..I am here. Strawberry

  6. davebupp

    Hey that doesn’t really shock me i know how fucked up corperations are, but i’ll talk to friends and see what ideas we can up with to fuck this before it fucks us ya know, but… love the book, love what your doing– F.P. kicks ass// Fuck it– Peace- Dave Bupp

  7. girlgrey

    SO MY QUESTION TO EVERY ONE OF YOU IS: WHAT THE FUCK ARE WE GONNA DO ABOUT THIS? if corporations are spoon feeding us books “written” by a conglomerate rather than an individual, what can we do about it?

    we can boycott.

    i’m serious. i am going to make it my life’s work for the next few weeks to put together a list of so-called authors and so-called books that were “written” by these corporations, and i am going to loudly boycott EVERY SINGLE one of them. and since i’ll be posting the names and titles of each and every one of them in as many places as possible, i fully expect each and every one of you to do the same.

    corporate books. this country is going straight to hell.

  8. MikeofWV

    Well, money CAN by you happiness. It is evident that there is nothing honest in good in corporate America. I want my mom and dad to make me famous!! Its hard to be succsessful, just ask G.W. I wish my name sake was good enough to take me places. Anyways, Frank I have faith in you, I know you and your talents will take you far, despite all the bllshit in the world.

  9. girlgrey

    so, for now, here’s what i am doing, and what want you all to do: before purchasing ANY book, look at the copyright page. if it says:

    copyright (c) 200- , by Author’s Name,

    you have an all-clear.

    if it is “produced” by a corporation, it must say so. it will look like this:

    copyright (c) 200-, by 17th Street Collective [or any other corporation name] and Author’s Name.

    if you see that, please, just drop it like a strange envelope filled with unknown white powder. then tell ALL your friends to do the same. simply put, DO NOT PURCHASE EVEN ONE MORE BOOK without checking the copyright. not one.

    in the meantime, i will be scrounging around, finding titles, authors and names of these companies. whenever i find one, i will let you know about it.

    i am going to make some fuckin noise here.

    i hope you all join me.

  10. N. Frank Daniels

    Hell yes. The way I look at it, that half-mil that went to one book packager and a 17 yr old Harvard student could have started the careers (nicely, I might add) of ten actual writers. So real artists are kept in the box, while the worst possible “writing” is given the front shelf. It’s an affront to everything I care about artistically.

  11. ~Sunny D~

    Right on..Girlgrey, right on…….AWESOME research you did…I’ll make the noise with you myfriend’s! TIME TO GET THE REAL ARTIST OUT OF THE BOX as you said Frank…Mak’n Noise…Girlgrey:)

  12. Ilenesays

    Girlgrey, you may just have started a revolution!..Thank YOU and i am glad the book i’m currently reading is OKAY.

    Frank, I am pretty disgusted by the whole thing w/ the Harvard chick. Thanks for opening my already obsessed(been reading everything about it, not hard being in New England) eyes to even more outrageous truths.

  13. Alfonso Mangione

    The problem with the entertainment business is that it is run by business people. It might be a good thing, too, because I don’t want to cloud my pretty artistic head with business stuff, but mostly it is a problem because business people usually assume that what has sold in the past will sell in the future.

    Too often, this means that they sell genres, not stories. The Da Vinci Code sold a bajillion copies, so people want more “thrillers with mystical and/or ancient conspiracy tie-ins.” (Actual words from a published author’s advice to my mother about my career.) Before that, it was depraved alcoholic memoirs.

    What readers really want, though, are good stories. Instead of mining a particular lode of story type until it is tapped out because readers got sick of derivative crap, the powers-that-be should spend a little more time prospecting for diamonds-in-the-rough.

    Especially if one of the diamonds they find is me. (Or Frank.)

  14. N. Frank Daniels

    No, it is not in the slightest way a good thing for business people to run the business end of entertainment. Artists need to just get real, and learn to multi-task a bit so that they aren’t getting reamed on the business end of “the business.” I think a major problem that writers have is that they put their all into creating and then very little into making what they’ve created an actual success. We need to take care of ourselves, of our own. Let the business folk ruin some other industry. But it is oxymoronic (and also just plain moronic) to be letting people with the only the slightest interest in art to control its ebb and flow. It’s time we stood up for ourselves, even if it means learning some icky business principles. Because the onlt alternative that I can see is to have the business people come to appreciate art more, and for some reason I just don’t see that happening. Call me crazy. There ain’t enough dollar signs in it.

  15. Steve Reynolds

    Believe it or not, major publishing houses are not – and never were – established for the promotion of art or the betterment of the national culture. Dickens wrote for profit. He even invented the term “potboiler”, i.e. novels to feed the family, not to leave an exquisite mark on the history of the language. Why are we all so surprised to discover that companies tasked with making a profit from publishing find ever more effective ways of doing so, such as book packaging? Publishers favour what we might call crap because most people want to read crap. They want to read crime fiction, romance and depraved or heartbreaking memoirs. “A Million Little Pieces” would’ve flopped as fiction, I’m certain of it. Not because it’s bad (it isn’t), but because as fiction most readers would not have bought it. They wouldn’t even have seen it. It would’ve been hidden in that part of the bookstore they never visit, rather than front-and-centre with the rest of the depraved and heartbreaking memoirs. Frey’s publishers and agents gave him excellent advice, I think. Most people don’t want to read literary fiction. Period. They don’t want to be stretched. They want to relax, to be entertained. And no, I do not at all believe this is because they have been raised on a diet of crap and don’t know any better. There are millions of literary novels already out there in the world – millions of them already published, right there on the shelves, begging to be picked up and read every day – and most people never do. Most kids are exposed to at least some quality fiction in high school, and most flee from it never to return. Why? People mostly read for entertainment, to pass the time, to take a break from reality. They are well-served by publishing houses who know how to meet those needs. Frankly, I don’t think that’s such a heinous crime.

    But we’re different, aren’t we? We happen to read and write for other reasons. But let’s face it. We’re a tiny minority. Literary and experimental fiction is and always will be a cottage industry, so we can’t expect massive corporations to fund it on the grounds of moral responsibility. Publishing is a business. If you back literary fiction, you’ll probably lose money. Here’s an example from my own community here in Australia. Ten years ago, one of my teachers and his wife set up their own publishing house – Giramondo Press – which specializes in high-end literary fiction, poetry and essays with the deliberate intention of encouraging innovative and adventurous Australian work that might not otherwise find publication because of its subtle commercial appeal. In a short time, they’ve hooked up with plenty of local talent, even enticed a few big names to come over from the major publishers, and their catalogue has managed to win or be shortlisted for almost every literary award on offer. Have they broken through? Have readers suddenly sat up and taken notice? Have Aussie readers set aside their Dan Browns and Nora Roberts and switched to literary fiction? No way. Giramondo has produced some truly amazing books, but they aren’t being read and they don’t make money. Giramondo has to rely on government grants for a lot of what it does.

    Books like “futureproof” will never sit atop the Amazon bestseller list, because most people don’t want to read that kind of book. That’s nothing against Frank or his work, which I think is excellent and deserves an audience. All I’m saying is, that audience is likely to be a lot smaller than Dan Brown’s because Frank doesn’t write crap and Dan does. You can’t blame publishers for knowing their market, especially when – as Giramondo shows – not even a devoted publisher can change that market. The only solution is to put your money where your mouth is – and where your heart is – and self-publish or massively self-promote (as Frank does with his site). It’s unlikely that we’ll ever make a fortune from our work, or ever see it top the bestseller list, unless the goddess Oprah deigns to touch our miserable lives. But then we’re into art, right? We don’t want to be rich and famous.

  16. N. Frank Daniels

    You make many god points, Steve. Let me address a few of them:

    1. I have nothing against so-called “potboilers.” When a writer is trying to get by on his craft, there are obviously going to be projects he takes on that aren’t going to be the next War and Peace.” However, I draw the line with that when you have a committee of writers working for a corporation that makes of business of just churning out crap with the same characters, plotline, everything, only with different covers. That’s bullshit.

    2. The Davinci code is the fastest selling adult book of all time. I read it and liked it. It is fiction that has much basis in fact (well–SOME basis in fact). The reason that it is the fastest selling book of all time is because it speaks to a very real component of humanity, it’s religious beliefs, and the way it is written is very page-turn-y. Nothing wrong with that. If, based on the success of Brown’s book, thwe publishers put out a bu7nch of other books by other authors with the same flavor, that’s fine. Nobody has to buy them, and at least those writers are getting a chance to break through.
    3. I completely and totally disagree that publishing should be looked at solely from a business stand-point. If you make good, quality work, and push good quality work, then people are going to buy good, quality work. If, on the other hand, you throw a ton of money and publicity at crap, then you are literally taking money and work out of the hands of writers much better-served by it.
    4. I think you are completely wrong about James Frey not having any success if he had published as fiction. It’s all about promotion and word of mouth. People would have read his work had it been promoted correctly, just as they did with Hemingway and Kerouac and everybody else who has ever used their own lives to create great fiction. Raymond Carver, etc. I mean, you say that people turn to this for entertainment, to be entertained, and I say that it has to be more than that or memoir never would have gotten as big as it did. People want to be able to immerse themselves in the lives of others, and good fiction will always gove them that opportunity. Fuck experimentalism. Let’s get REAL.
    5. You said it yourself, how to make this change: “The only solution is to put your money where your mouth is – and where your heart is.” If the publishing industry put the right people in charge of acquisition, then money would be put into promoting and publicizing good art by real artists. This is where change ultimately needs to happen. And presses such as Giramondo are blazing that trail. Imagine the success rate they’d have if some larger publisher took them under its wing and really tried to promote its authors….There’s no question in my mind that there would be a HUGE response from a public hungry for some real fucking GOOD art.

  17. Steve Reynolds

    Thanks for the response, Frank. I mostly agree with you. But I can’t agree with you about Frey. I just don’t think it would’ve worked if positioned as fiction, no matter how well it was pushed. The thing that had that book flying off the shelves was that people thought it was true. The buzz, even in Australia, was about “this guy’s amazing true story”. It’s the same with “Shantaram”. It was the same with “Dalia”, before the scandal broke. It’s the same with “Running With Scissors”. Would Augusten Burroughs be half as intriguing (or half as successful) if he didn’t have that “true story” pedigree of being abandoned by his mother into the care of a shrink and his molesting son? No way. If people didn’t think “Running With Scissors” were true, they wouldn’t read it. Why would they? Without the memoir mystique, it’s dull. If it’s seen as pure fiction, then for most readers Burroughs becomes just another of the million mildly amusing gay guys who are less talented than Edmund White. Readers are a fickle bunch. They think, “Anyone can make up crazy shit … but this really happened?! How cool is that?! Wow, gimme that book! I want to read all about it!” This isn’t a love of art. This isn’t a latent craving that can be channelled towards literary fiction. This isn’t a desire for the REAL so much as a longing for voyeuristic entertainment. “Thrill my middle-class existence with the horrors of being homeless, but fuck right off if you expect me to actually spend a night on the street.”

    Your assumption seems to be that “fucking GOOD art” will certainly find a mass readership if only publishers spend enough on promoting it and positioning it in the market. I’m not so sure. Of course, it’s possible. But do you have examples of where this has been the case, e.g. a book that wasn’t part of a popular genre (such as memoir), but which got the bold and fearless backing it needed by a publisher and then really took off? When you approach publishers, it will help if you have a few such examples up your sleeve. You really need to make the case for your own work. Show the publisher how it can be done, and why they should have confidence enough to take the chance on you. You basically have to do their job for them – or rather, do the job you are expecting them to do with sellers and readers on your behalf.

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