Sunday, April 30, 2006

Same Product, New and Improved Packaging

The whole Opal Metha affair came to a close (physically at least) for my store on Friday when we got the notice that Little, Brown was recalling all copies. Sometime next week they’ll find their way back to the distribution center and from there, I assume, they’ll go to be pulped. This unprecedented action is covered much more thoroughly (with many nifty links) at GalleyCat, but I really don’t think that most readers noticed, which is interesting to me for several reasons.

With the Frey incident I had customers coming and buying the book because they wanted to read the lies, I had others who wanted to read it because he “felled” the great and mighty Oprah, and still others that just heard it was a good book and didn’t care about the scandal. Sales of A Million Little Pieces actually got better for us once the scandal broke, pulling in all those people who avoid Oprah and all that she stands for (Or as I call them, the Franzens). We sold through our old copies waiting for the new printing with the apology letter from Frey and his publisher. To this day I have customers who come in looking for the book because their best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s cousin said it was the greatest.

Opal Metha’s sales did not increase (at my store at least) when the scandal broke, and until that point the sales had been less than stellar. One could blame the “demise” of Chick Lit for this, or bad product placement, or the fact that Opal’s author was trying to get through her second year at Harvard and couldn’t make the author rounds, but I think the answer lies elsewhere.

I was talking to my boss the other day and she admitted that in the beginning, she wondered if the scandal was being blown out of proportion, “There’s a commonality in the teenage experience,” and that it was only after reading the side by side comparisons provided by the Crimson and other publications that she was convinced that plagiarism took place. Furthermore it didn’t seem that Opal’s ethnicity added anything other to the experience (granted she hadn’t read the book, nor have I, so if it does indeed add something please let us know) unlike it did to Gurinder Chahda’s character Jesminder in the movie Bend it Like Beckham. Beckham became a sleeper hit because not only did it have an attractive cast, but it enlarged on the teenage experience of social and parental pressure by introducing the ethnic and religious element. Even if Little, Brown does release a new edition of Opal, I don’t think that it will achieve any measure of success (other than those who will buy it to compare to the original version, and even then they’ll probably wait until the paperback edition) that Beckham did because Opal has nothing new to add. It was the same ol’ same ol in a new, pretty pink cover.

If you have nothing new then you’ve got no legs to stand on in the book market beyond the first flash of being the hot precie on the scene. The Written Nerd has covered the topic of long legs (books that continue to sell and sell and sell some more long after their release date) much more eloquently than I, and I’ll only add that everyone from the smallest independent to the largest chain to the publisher itself relies on the backlist books to keep them afloat.

Those shiny, frontlist hardcovers just aren’t selling as well as they used to (especially with the cost of gas these days, goodbye disposable income, hello cheaper book), while trades remain steady (and lately I’ve noticed a bump in mass market sales, along with more bitching about the premium paperbacks). If Little, Brown does decide to go ahead and re-release Opal, their best bet would be to a paperback edition, and they need to make the changes and get the book out soon. In a couple of months I’m not sure that even the best publicity team could get the literary world excited in once again reading about the teenage experience.

After all, they all lived it at some point.

Perhaps Viswanathan’s best choice would be to write a memoir from this whole experience. Seventeen year old, Harvard accepted plagiarizer caught up in the publishing and packaging world from her point of view? Sounds like it could be a hit to me as long as someone made sure the words were all her own.

She could even publish it through Talese/Doubleday.

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist).


Anonymous said...

Ugh, don't get me started on price point. I find it disturbing that all your publisher will say about the exorbitant price it's charging for your release -- even once it's been told by bookstores that it's exorbitant and they should really reconsider -- is "look how discounted it is on Amazon!"

jmc said...

Ethnicity wasn't really a factor in Opal Mehta, I thought after reading the book. There were family references, a minor subplot about a Princeton drop-out cousin, and even a holiday party, so it seemed like the author wanted Indian-ness or Asian-ness to add flavor for the book, but it wasn't successful (for me, at least).

FWIW (and ignoring the issue of plagiarism) the book itself was fairly average. I've read better YA and worse.

Ms. Librarian said...

After further thought about this whole "plagiarism event," it occurs to me that maybe the young author didn't think she was doing anything wrong (if indeed she wrote the book herself).

In the academic literature, there are several studies of student attitudes toward plagiarism. Estimates of the numbers of students who plagiarize range between 20-90%. Many educational institutions have specific information for faculty on plagiarism on their websites, such as Iowa State's site on Detecting and Detering Plagiarism

I think that this book is merely the tip of the iceberg of this phenomenon. Students have grown up using the web, working on teams, and under great pressure to get good grades in school. Many of them have only a tenuous concept that stealing other people's work is wrong, and they will do whatever it is they need to do to "succeed." Here are some articles on the Incidence and Prevalence of plagiarism by students.

lady t said...

Interesting that the whole Opal Mehta scam didn't seem to help sell the book-maybe more folks are shocked by non-fiction fakery rather than a college kid's crib notes.

Galleycat spoke with a chick lit author,Sonia Singh(she's written two cool books,Bollywood Confidential and Goddess for Hire)regarding one of Kaavya's pre-scandal statements about not finding any Indian-American authors or books about Indian experiences which alledgedly inspired her to write Opal Mehta. Sonia not only thought that was nonsense(especially for a college student)but pointed out a couple of ethnic errors,such as naming a character Kali. That's not something even those devoted to Kali would do,which further strengthens my belief that Alloy did some major tinkering with the book here.

Robin Brande said...

It's interesting what Ms. Librarian said--I've never considered the idea that maybe some plagiarists don't really consider what they're doing wrong. But I have to think people who steal/use other authors' work must be living in some fear of being found out--especially after getting a huge advance or having the book spotlighted by Oprah.

I really don't understand the phenomenon of James Frey's book selling so well after the truth came out. If it had been marketed as fiction all along, I can see people wanting to read it. But if you portray it as a self-help, I-did-it-you-can-too memoir, how can people not feel betrayed? I'm as willing to get my life pointers from fictional characters as real ones--Dumbledore and Gandalf have lots of sage advice--but I like to know what I'm reading when I set out. I need to flick that special switch in my brain: truth, fantasy.

And are you serious--people will buy Frey's book now just because they think it's kicking sand in Oprah's face? Come on. How sad. But it just shows the power of Oprah's Book Club. Good for her.

fusenumber8 said...

While book sales of "Opal Mehta" may not have increased, holds in libraries shot up considerably. We've only 30 some copies in the entire NYPL system. Number of holds? 200 and rising. Has this turned into an intricate game of Find The Next Author She Ripped Off? The Harvard Crimson discovered Salman Rusdie and Meg Cabot passages not to long ago at
I'll grant them the Cabot, but the Rushdie's pushing it.