Viswanathan-athon: Plagiarizing Writer Fell in Weird Alloy

050806 article kolhatkar Viswanathan athon:  Plagiarizing Writer  Fell in Weird AlloyThe company behind Harvard author Kaavya Viswanathan and her now-cancelled book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, is a young-adult media giant called Alloy Entertainment, whose unconventional way of doing business has left some authors in the Y.A. world with mixed feelings about the company.

The convoluted authorial structure of Alloy books is anything but transparent.

“To me, all that stuff is such a black box,” said one author who has worked with the company. “They have writers who don’t exist, and they have writers who don’t really write the stuff, and they have one series supposedly by one author that are by many. There’s no one-to-one alignment between anything that gets produced and the producer. There’s no literary accountability.”

Alloy also has a reputation among writers for not always sharing its successes with the underlings who contributed to them. A case in point, often repeated as a cautionary tale among Y.A. authors, is the story behind one of the book packager’s most lucrative hits, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

The Traveling Pants idea originated with a woman named Jodi Anderson, who was then an editor at Alloy. Ms. Anderson proposed the concept (a group of girlfriends who share a pair of jeans), which was based on some of her own college experiences. She wrote a proposal sketching out the idea that was sold to a publisher, and was under the impression that she might then get to write the book(s).

The concept was also sent to non-Alloy Y.A. writers, according to one writer who was approached, who were invited to write samples for the book. The writer said that she wasn’t paid for what she submitted and wasn’t contacted again or given feedback by the company. Ms. Anderson also wrote a sample.

In the meantime, Ann Brashares, who was then co-president of Alloy with Les Morgenstein, decided to write the book. Ms. Brashares’ The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants was published in 2001, became a huge best-seller, was developed into a movie (Mr. Morgenstein is listed as executive producer), and spawned two sequels. According to three sources, Ms. Anderson was unhappy with this outcome.

In an e-mail, Ms. Anderson said that after the book’s success, her title was changed to “editor” from “assistant editor,” and she received a small “bonus” for her contribution. When asked whether she was bitter about the situation, she said: “[N]o. I asked about receiving a story credit when I found out about the movie, but I was told to look to the future instead of the past.” She no longer works at Alloy, but she published her own Y.A. novel, Peaches, with Alloy last summer.

“There are some very talented people at Alloy, and I have grown immensely as a writer by working with those people,” Ms. Anderson wrote. “Additionally, for a long time I had a personal attachment to the company I didn’t want to let go of. We were a very tight group.”

Alloy and Mr. Morgenstein declined to comment, and Ms. Brashares could not be reached for comment.

In the Traveling Pants books, Ms. Brashares opens her “Acknowledgments” section with the following: “I would like to express my great and unending appreciation to Jodi Anderson.”

FORMER ALLOY EMPLOYEES AND OTHERS in the publishing world sometimes point out that the company is run by men—president Les Morgenstein, vice president of development Josh Bank and editorial director Ben Schrank—but that young women provide most of the grunt labor on Alloy’s book projects. (These include sexy titles geared toward teenage girls, including the incredibly popular Gossip Girl and Sweet Valley High series.)

“It’s run by three guys, and 90 percent of what they do is for teenage girls,” said one adult publisher, adding: “It’s not usual, the packager thing. Packaging is almost always photo books or reference books. But with fiction?”

In the old days, before Alloy bought what was then called 17th Street Productions, there was a young, collaborative environment and lots of group brainstorming that could be inspiring, according to former employees and authors.

“It was a great place to work, and we all learned so much and we all respected each other,” said an editor who worked at the company.

However, over time, as the company’s ownership changed and its ambitions expanded, this atmosphere changed as well.

“You just got the sense that if you came up with an idea, there wasn’t much incentive for you to bring this idea into the fold and let it become a potential product,” said Ryan Nerz, a former Alloy editor and author who recently published Eat This Book: A Year of Gorging and Glory on the Competitive Eating Circuit, sans Alloy, with St. Martin’s. “You’d research it, flesh it out, turn it into a proposal, then the company itself would take it and pitch it. At that point—unless they absolutely thought you were the best person for it—you rarely would be attached on as the author.” (An exception to this is the case of Cecily von Ziegesar, who developed and began writing the Gossip Girl series while working at Alloy.)

Mr. Nerz added: “If it sounds like I resent them, I don’t. I was able to pay my bills and get a little bit of tutelage in writing, and got paid for it.”

According to one former Alloy editor, the company used to pay $1,000 to $2,000 bonuses to staffers whose ideas had been sold, but nothing more.

The company was also known for commissioning outside authors to write on spec with the hope of ultimately receiving a contract.

“A couple of years ago, Alloy came to me with this proposal—they were looking for writers. I did 25 to 30 pages of sample work; I worked pretty hard, turned it in and never heard anything back,” said Mr. Nerz.

When authors are brought in to write their own books, as in the Viswanathan case, Alloy is known to take 30 to 50 percent of all revenues and shares the copyright with the author. When someone is hired to ghostwrite a series title, it’s a flat fee.

Opal Mehta’s journey to Alloy was not entirely linear. According to William Morris sources, Ms. Viswanathan first signed with agent Suzanne Gluck, who then passed the author to a junior agent in her office. The junior agent worked with Ms. Viswanathan and eventually hit a wall in terms of developing a commercial proposal. The junior agent then suggested that the writer speak with Josh Bank at Alloy. The Opal Mehta idea emerged from Ms. Vis-wanathan’s conversations with Mr. Bank; once an outline was ready, it was decided that another William Morris agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, would try to sell it to publishers, which she did, to Little, Brown. (Ms. Walsh also represents Ms. Brashares of the Traveling Pants.)

Ms. Walsh and the rest of William Morris’ literary department do a great deal of business with Alloy, which involves some complicated accounting. In the case of Opal Mehta, Ms. Walsh would have taken her standard 15 percent of Ms. Viswanathan’s reported $500,000 two-book deal, which works out to $75,000 for Ms. Walsh. It could be argued that William Morris was not necessarily representing Ms. Viswanathan’s best interests by sending her to a company that could potentially take 30 to 50 percent of the advance as well.

“To my mind, there is no conflict of interest,” Ms. Walsh said. “The relationship between the book packager and the author are very similar to the collaboration between two authors, or between an expert and an author, in that their interests are completely aligned in the project.”

William Morris recently picked up another Alloy-related client. Ms. von Ziegesar of Gossip Girls left her previous agent, Sarah Burnes, last fall, and went to Ms. Gluck. Ms. Burnes also represents Jodi Anderson.

But for all the tangled dealings in the Alloy book-packaging world, for a few, the more depressing concern is the content of some Alloy books. “Emotionally, there’s no progress,” said Francine Pascal, the creator of the Sweet Valley High series and an Alloy author. “It doesn’t touch on the classic values that Sweet Valley did—love, loyalty, friendship.”