'How Opal Mehta Got Kissed,' Then Got Pulled
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
It looks like many readers may never really find out how Opal Mehta got kissed, got wild, and got a life after all. The highly publicized debut novel by Kaavya Viswanathan has been ordered off the market by its publisher after a week of intense scrutiny. The 19-year old Harvard sophomore apologized after it was revealed that some 40 passages in her novel were similar, if not identical, to passages in two books by Megan McCafferty.
Ms. Viswanathan had planned to revise her book for future editions, but now the publisher, Little Brown, has asked retailers to return unsold copies for full credit, and no one's talking about future editions now. I asked Karen Holt, deputy editor of Publisher's Weekly, if she's ever seen this happen before.
Ms. KAREN HOLT (Deputy Editor, Publisher's Weekly): Withdrawing a novel is really, really an unusual situation because typically if a book is withdrawn it's because either the credibility of the author is called into question, or there are considered to be serious factual errors in the book itself. So when it's fiction, it's an extremely drastic measure to take a book off the market.
BLOCK: Do you have any inside knowledge of why Little Brown decided to do this? They weren't, they were saying first that they were just going to change it, revise it, but keep it on the market.
Ms. HOLT: You know, it's hard to say what kind of conversations went on between Little Brown and Crown. They haven't said that this was any part of an agreement to avert legal action, but if you look at what both sides are saying, it's not hard to imagine that there may have been discussions behind the scenes where they came to an agreement that this would keep them from going to court.
BLOCK: Crown actually called this literary identity theft.
Ms. HOLT: Yes.
BLOCK: Pretty strong words.
Ms. HOLT: Well, very strong words, but if you look at the similarities, they're pretty striking similarities and if you can imagine what Megan McCafferty was feeling, it must have felt like a pretty serious violation.
BLOCK: When Little Brown withdraws the book, asks sellers to send them back, what do they do? Do they rewrite, reissue, or is this book just dead now?
Ms. HOLT: There's some lack of clarity on that. I think that the book probably is dead. It's hard to imagine what they could do at this point to put this book back out on the market. I mean, it is now so notorious. I don't think it will ever be seen as anything other than the book that had plagiarism in it.
BLOCK: Well, it didn't stop James Frey. His book is still out there and still selling really well.
Ms. HOLT: Well, I mean, there's some pretty key differences between those two cases. I mean, yes, in both cases the authors were somewhat discredited. But the whole appeal of Opal Mehta was that this book was written by a teenager. Months, months, and months before it came out, the discussions were always, my goodness, we have a book coming out by this very young girl and she's only a teenager and she wrote a book. It's so amazing.
And it was always marketed as, we can't believe she's so young, she's so pretty, she's so brilliant, she's too good to be true. And then it turns out she was too good to be true.
BLOCK: It wasn't just a one book deal. She has a deal for, or at least had a deal for two books. Supposed to be $500,000.
Ms. HOLT: Right. I mean they invested quite heavily in this author.
BLOCK: What do you think happens with that second book?
Ms. HOLT: Well, they haven't said that they're canceling this book, but again, it's pretty hard to imagine how they're going to come out with a book by her and give it any sort of vigorous marketing and, you know, present her as this brilliant young author when her reputation has been so tainted.
BLOCK: I wonder whether this raises questions in the publishing world about editing, about how careful editors should be and maybe how vigilant they are not being.
Ms. HOLT: Well whenever one of these scandals breaks, I mean, it always creates this conversation in the industry as to whether editors and publishers need to all be more careful about vetting these books. But frankly nothing ever really seems to change. There's a lot of discussion, and then people sort of go on and go about doing business the way they always have.
BLOCK: I mean, in this case, the publisher is saying there are about 40 examples of direct rip-off of the earlier book. It wouldn't have been that hard for an editor to go through the, the canon of teen lit and probably find those same similarities.
Ms. HOLT: But again, that would take someone actually going through this, you know, sort of variety of books that they think might be similar to check for plagiarism. And that's, frankly, just a mindset that publisher's don't have. It's a very, tends to be a very genteel business where everyone sort of takes everyone's word for it. And if an author says these are my words, publishers by and large say, okay, great, we believe you. So there is this assumption that everyone is working truthfully and honorably, and there aren't a lot of checks and balances.
BLOCK: Well, Karen Holt, thanks very much for talking with us.
Ms. HOLT: Thank you.
BLOCK: Karen Holt is deputy editor of Publishers Weekly.
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