Who Will Keep the Harvard Story Alive? Harvard Kids!

Harvard is the most nastily competitive hive of pre-/post-/intrapubescent energy to be found anywhere this side of Pluto. Take it from me, bub. The kids who end up at Harvard have tunnel vision about success. They have been selected to possibly enter the American power structure, but as each of them walks through the door or the gates, I forget which it is, the President of Harvard hands them a secret little red ticket saying, Only 1 in 3 of you will make it in New York. Well one of every three doesn’t care, tosses the ticket to the side. But the other two stitch the thing to their flesh, and they spend the next four years scratching one another’s eyes out for what is called a Harvard Golden Pass, which allows you to ride the New York rides for free for a year.

I think that’s how I remember it anyway. It’s been a while.

All this to say that the best reporting on the Kaavya story is of course coming from other undergraduates. And at least one of them is on to the real angle. Jon Liu in the Harvard Independent has done a great piece unearthing some of the weird goings-on at the packaging mills that put together the chick lit:

The picture Skurnick paints of 17th Street and similar packaging firms suggests a contemporary publishing world that has more in common with market-driven, assembly-line industrial production than any romantic notions of the tortured solitary artist.

“How Sweet Valley High came into being,” Skurnick explained to the Indy, “was Francine Pascal came to them with a concept for probably six books, and what was 17th Street Productions at the time — they might have had a different name — sold all six to Random House, and the books took off. What happens to a tremendously popular series like that is that a publisher will renew it, and they’ll renew it for, let’s say, 12 books for that year. But they’ll say, ‘Oh, we want to change it’ — ‘Now they’re in high school,’ or ‘Now they’re going to be witches.’ All sorts of things; whatever keeps them selling.”

Few series-fiction “authors” write past Books Five or Six; nonetheless, successful ones like Pascal and Gossip Girl creator Cecily von Ziegesar, another 17th Street affiliate, continue to profit dozens of volumes deep into a series. How this lucrative business model sustains itself is the direct result of the efficiency and industry positioning achieved by the packagers.

“In my case, I was a former editor at the [17th Street] office where books are farmed out to. But there’s a whole network of writers who mostly do this kind of book,” Skurnick said, referring to scribes who churn out new installments long after a series’ original author has dropped out of the picture. As “work-for-hire” employees with usually no royalty or copyright claims on their output, many of these writers labor with the hopes of gaining the connections that might land them a project of their own. Skurnick explained, “They write books that already exist in series, they pitch series themselves, they pitch standalones, they sort of exist in this netherworld in which they have a relationship with the packager and then, maybe eventually, they’ll have a relationship with the publisher…”

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