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Monday, May 01, 2006 
book packaging
this will probably be my last post relating to kaavya viswanathan, but i wanted to briefly touch on book packaging.

in my previous post on the topic, i mentioned that viswanathan's book had been "shaped" by a book packaging company called 17th street productions. at some point, 17th street was bought out by a company called alloy entertainment (a subdivision of alloy marketing). this acquisition actually happened years ago, but the 17th street name has still been in use. though curiously, i can't seem to get the 17th street website to work; i could swear that it worked last week when the plagiarism allegations first broke. the alloy site still works, though.

the revelation that viswanathan's book contained some 40-odd plagiarized passages has shone a spotlight on 17th street/alloy, which have operated in relative obscurity despite being involved in a number of hit teen books and upcoming movies (including one the already-released sisterhood of the traveling pants movie). i'm not the only one who was curious about 17th street/alloy's role in viswanathan's book and whether it had a hand in the plagiarism. (at the very least, alloy, being the ones who edited the book, are the ones who should have caught the plagiarism before the book went to print.)

tom tomorrow looked into book packaging and found this primer on the subject, which is a bit dated (it refers to IDG, now known as wilye, and macmillan, which has been pearson education for 6-7 years now). still, it's a good read if you're not familiar with the concept:

Book packagers (also known as book producers) 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 don't 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 they've 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 aren't aware that the books they carry were created by companies other than the publishing houses.

There are two main reasons for a publishing house to hire a packager: labor-intensive books, and series books.

Anything other than a standard, text-only book by a single author qualifies as a "labor-intensive book." Books that are highly illustrated or contain lots of photographs, require several authors, or utilize special gimmicks and merchandise (for example, a gardening book that includes packets of seeds as a "bonus," or a book about tarot card reading that includes a deck of cards and silk cloth) fall into this category. Commonly, these include coffee table books, textbooks, reference books, and children's books, though packaged books can really run the gamut. They cover every genre and book style.

Packagers are also known for producing series books. Quite often, a successful series will become a "fill-in-the-blanks" exercise, wherein talented writers and artists can easily continue the series. In these cases, publishing houses may develop an outline, then pass it over to a packager to bring it to completed project. The packager then sends the outline to a commissioned author. Once complete, the packager delivers the final product to the publisher in print-ready condition. Occasionally, they even handle the printing.

in my 8 years at pearson education, we definitely worked with book packagers for some smaller series, though obviously i didn't work on those books (because the packagers were doing the editing). but most of our books were done in-house. still, i'm very familiar with this kind of workflow, because in the non-fiction realm is the norm rather than the exception (at least in the technical, reference, and lifestyle markets; there are extremely few authors in these markets who can sell books on namepower alone). we did the work in-house most of the time, and our authors got their names on their books, but otherwise, the workflow was much the same:

development and acquisitions editors research the market to determine subjects and market segments that are (theoretically) being under-served. the acquisitions editor locates author(s)—very often more than one—who hopefully have the expertise and writing skills for the job. the author and development editor devise with an outline and the book is proposed to the editorial board for approval. if it's approved, the book is written and goes through a series of editing passes, including a technical edit, development (what we would call "shaping"), copy edit, and so forth before the book is eventually laid out and published. of course, a lot of other stuff is also going on: marketing, cover design, and all kinds of decisions about print run, page count, number of colors, and so on... and that's just for a series book: for a one-off, you also need to come up with a design and make decisions about paper stock, cover special effects, and so on.

the advantage of using a book packager is that the packager does most of this stuff for you. this helps the publishing houses cut costs (and payrolls) while maintaining a high title count (number of new titles published per year). title count is fundamental to publishing's bottom line because so many books fail that you need to publish a lot to ensure that enough will succeed. the disadvantage, besides a lack of oversight as demonstrated in the viswanathan case, is that the pacakging house owns half the copyright to the packaged books. that can mean a lot of money if the book is a bestseller.

bloggers aren't the only ones who've been asking questions about 17th street productions and alloy entertainment. jon liu, in an article in last week's harvard independent has some interesting quotes from lizzie skurnick, "a former editor at GLC, a 17th Street subsidiary":

For her part, Skurnick thinks that the realities of the market, but not any malicious plagiarism on Viswanathan's part, may account for the similarities with Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. "They seem like very brief and stupid phrases to copy," Skurnick said after reading the passages in question. "I'm sure the same phrases are in like 20 teen novels... I think in the case of teen fiction, obviously there are stock characters, there's a stock plot often, there’s sort of these stock areas — the boy, the body, the family, the friend."

Skurnick continues, "The impulse at a place like the 17th Street is to have a house voice. There are just reams and reams of stuff that's written... It's unavoidable that certain phrases will be recycled or said in a certain way... Often what you'll find is that, it's not that anyone is copying, it's just that [these phrases] are the first things a mediocre writer would reach for."

But was Viswanathan the mediocre writer doing the reaching, or were the stock phrases in question implanted, consciously or otherwise, by the professional packagers at 17th Street? Skurnick — who admits to knowing little about the specifics of the case — could not say. She did insist, however, that Viswanathan's borrowings, if they were hers, would have been almost impossible for editors to catch: "It sounds like the market is geared to a certain type of book, and [17th Street] just worked on that with her, and some stuff slipped though — God knows why... But I have to say, [as a] teen editor, you just see the same shit over and over again."

i don't buy the idea that all the similarities to mccafferty's books were just coincidence, but the whole "inside 17th street" section of the article is worth a read.

a couple days later, the nytimes reported a very interesting coincidence:

The relationships between Alloy and the publishers are so intertwined that the same editor, Claudia Gabel, is thanked on the acknowledgments pages of both Ms. McCafferty's books and Ms. Viswanathan's "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life." Ms. Gabel had been an editorial assistant at Crown Publishing Group, then moved to Alloy, where she helped develop the idea for Ms. Viswanathan's book. She has recently become an editor at Knopf Delacorte Dell Young Readers Group, a sister imprint to Crown.

Ms. Gabel did not return calls for comment. But Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, the publishing company that owns Crown, said Ms. Gabel, who worked at Alloy from the spring of 2003 until last November, had left the company "before the editorial work was completed" on Ms. Viswanathan's book.

"Claudia told us she did not touch a single line of Kaavya's writing at any point in any drafts," said Mr. Applebaum, who added that Ms. Gabel was one of several people who worked on the project in its conceptual stage.

of course, it's possible that gabel lied about the extent of her involvement with opal, but more likely it's yet another omen of what you could call the increasing network-ization of the literary world. as sara nelson said in publisher's weekly:

Enter book packagers, who traditionally respond to a perceived market opportunity by researching, commissioning and producing books for publishers. Our bookstores are filled with decorating and entertaining titles, film and TV tie-ins, many of which are sumptuously produced, well marketed and perfectly fine this way. But in recent years—and this is what is disturbing—the kinds of books packagers do has widened. As is now generally known, a packager called Alloy Entertainment not only shares the copyright with Viswanathan on Opal, but has had a serious hand in the making of some of the most successful YA books around. The packaging of Opal has caused a particular stir because it has been published, despite its young themes, as a novel for adults. Such "real" novels we consider to be personal works of art, or entertainment, anyway, not something produced by a committee awash in demographics.

Okay, call me naïve. Before the withdrawal, one longtime book packager told me she thought packaging of "crossover" books was just beginning. But, she said, it's not so much about subjugating good old-fashioned publishing to a marketing survey, but about the fact—maybe you've heard this one already?—that most in-house editors "don't have the time" to put blue pencil to paper on all the manuscripts they buy; they're way too busy lunching and acquiring and managing up.

We've known for years that publishers, probably including Little, Brown, have long employed freelance editors and "book doctors," of which packagers are just an institutional version. But Little, Brown has to resort to this? Realizing that a major house is willing to pay major money for a book that executives knew was going to require major work smacks of something majorly disturbing. It suggests that even the most well-bred publishing houses are not as desperate to find promising writers and great novels as they are to find attractive authors (preferably with interesting backstories) with whom they can match up test-marketed, packaged stories. And then they can take all the credit.

Or blame, as the case may be.

as i know all too well, having been laid off a couple months ago, after living through several other layoffs, including a significant purge of in-house editing staff back in 2000, the publishing industry has been increasingly moving toward a business model centered around freelancers and outsourcing. i hadn't realized that book packaging was quite so prominent in the world of fiction, but i can't say i'm shocked by it. this doesn't have to mean that quality will go down (though it often does), but it does mean that the job market for full-time editors has shrunk to near-microscopic proportions.

I am developing a new business model for my company that features developing our intellectual property portfolio so that we have a valuable company to sell in 5-7 years. Does anyone know of examples of companies that have done this successfully that I can learn about/talk to the CEOs of, especially those in the educational publishing business? ¶

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