By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 27 -- The debut novel by a Harvard student, who seemingly copied numerous passages from another author's books, is being withdrawn from sale, the publishing house Little, Brown and Co. announced Thursday evening.
Michael Pietsch, the firm's publisher, said in a brief statement that bookstores would be asked to stop selling "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" and return any remaining copies to the publisher. He said the book's author, Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan, had agreed to the withdrawal.
That announcement ends a tumultuous week that began with Viswanathan riding a wave of good publicity and wound up with her offering a national mea culpa on the "Today" show. Viswanathan said the similarities between her work, which reached No. 32 on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list, and two novels by Megan McCafferty were the result of "unconscious" copying.
After the publisher announced the recall, McCafferty issued her own statement saying that she considered the matter finished.
"I am not seeking restitution in any form," she said, adding, "I look forward to getting back to work and moving on, and hope Ms. Viswanathan can too."
Publishing industry experts said the decision to remove the book from store shelves was rare, and a sign of the seriousness of the allegations against Viswanathan.
"They must have a very good case . . . if Little, Brown and Company is going to such extremes," said Lorraine Shanley, a principal at Market Partners International, a consulting firm in New York.
Shanley noted that in many previous cases involving allegations of wrongdoing by authors -- including the case of James Frey, whose memoir "A Million Little Pieces" was found to be partly fabricated -- the books were corrected for later editions, but continued to be sold.
"In the book industry . . . this is really fairly unheard of," said Jon Schallert, a retail marketing consultant based in Florida.
Beyond the statement from Pietsch, Little, Brown and Co. did not respond to requests for comment Thursday night.
The ordeal has focused attention not only on Viswanathan -- a first-time author whose story about an Indian American teenager from New Jersey closely mirrored her own life -- but on the "book packaging" firm that reportedly helped her along the way.
According to news reports, Viswanathan had been introduced to this firm through a consultant her family hired to help with college applications, and it helped her shape the book's plot. The arrangement seemed to pay off: reports have said that Viswanathan received an advance of about $500,000 for the novel, which had a first printing of 100,000 copies, and a second book, and already had a deal with a movie studio.
But then came the report Sunday in the Harvard Crimson that Viswanathan's book echoed McCafferty's "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings." In all, McCafferty's publishers said there were more than 40 similar elements, from jokes about visiting "170 specialty shops" at the mall to the "sweet and woodsy" smell each author described emanating from the narrator's love interest.