Once again, in an effort to prove the sorry state of modern publishing, someone has pulled a fake submission hoax. Frustrated by his unsuccessful attempts to sell his novel, writer David Lassman pseudonymously submitted chapters from several Jane Austen books to top UK publishers and literary agents, to test whether they could recognize great literature when they saw it. The result? Rejection or nonresponse on all fronts.
(Fake submission hoaxes have been around for a long time, though those committing them often seem to believe they're the first to have conceived the idea. In 1979, a freelance writer called Chuck Ross submitted Jerzy Kosinski's bestselling Steps to fourteen publishers and twenty-six literary agents under a pseudonym, all of whom rejected it. He repeated the experiment in 1982 with the script for Casablanca, with similar results. Also in 1982, Doris Lessing submitted two of her own novels under a pen name to her long-time publisher, Jonathan Cape, and was rejected. [The novels did eventually find publication.] In 2005, the UK's Sunday Times pseudonymously sent opening chapters from Stanley Middleton's and V.S. Naipaul's Booker Prize-winning novels to 20 agents and publishers, to no avail. In 2006, an Australian newspaper submitted chapters of Nobel Prize-winner Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm to publishers using a made-up name, and was met with unanimous rejection.)
The books Lassman chose were Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Pride and Prejudice. A cover letter, synopsis, and the first two or three chapters from each novel were sent to four publishers and two agents each, for a total of 18 packages. Lassman used an invented name, Alison Laydee (a play on a pseudonym used by Austen, "A Lady"), and changed the titles and some of the characters' names, but otherwise left Austen's text unaltered.
Of the 18 submissions, 3 went unacknowledged. 15 were returned, many with what writers accustomed to rejection will recognize as form responses: "not right for our list," "not publishing any new fiction," "not confident of placing this material with a publisher." Only one respondent acknowledged the hoax--Alex Bowler, assistant editor at Jonathan Cape, who sent Lassman this exquisitely snarky reply: "Thank you for sending us the first two chapters of First Impressions; my first impressions on reading these were ones of disbelief and mild annoyance--along, of course, with a moment's laughter. I suggest you reach for your copy of Pride and Prejudice, which I'd guess lives in close proximity to your typewriter, and make sure that your opening pages don't too closely mimic the book's opening. After all, there is such a thing as plagiarism, and I'd hate for you to get in any kind of trouble with Jane Austen's estate."
Quoted in one of a number of news articles on the hoax, Lassman professes himself boggled. "If the major publishers can't recognise great literature, who knows what might be slipping through the net? Here is one of the greatest writers that has lived, with her oeuvre securely fixed in the English canon and yet only one recipient recognised them as Austen's work."
Conclusion: publishing is broken. The system ignores great literature. New authors can't get a break. Etc. Etc. Cue violins.
I can think of a number of reasons for the results of Lassman's experiment, most having far more to do with the self-fulfilling nature of the experiment than with the current state of publishing.
1. A couple of Lassman's arch cover letters are on view here. The one for Susan (the re-titled Northanger Abbey) identifies its genre thus: "I suppose you would call it a Regency Romance (does this type of writing exist? because if not, I think there would be a great demand for it, especially from women readers.)" Now, I don't know whether the Regency romance is as moribund in the UK as it is in the US, or the degree to which the apparent cluelessness of the parenthetical statement might have prejudiced whoever opened Lassman's submission package--but identifying a book as romance, and sending it to an agent who doesn't rep romance or a publisher that doesn't have a romance line (for instance, Bloomsbury, one of the publishers that sent a form rejection for this submission), is a recipe for rejection, regardless of literary quality. Querying inappropriate publishers and agents is, by the way, an extremely common newbie writer mistake.
2. Lassman sent a number of his packages to publishers that only accept agented submissions. This is another recipe for automatic rejection with a form response. (One of the publishers, Penguin, says as much in one of the articles linked in above). Submitting unagented to an agent-only publisher may prove something about the mechanics of the modern publishing process, but it doesn't say a thing about the current state of literature.
3. One of Lassman's submissions was the first chapters of a re-titled Pride and Prejudice, complete with one of the most famous opening sentences in the English language. The fact that just one editor let Lassman know he'd seen through the hoax doesn't necessarily mean he's the only person who did--maybe he's just the only person who felt the hoax deserved response. I wonder how many other editors and agents recognized or suspected what was going on, and simply didn't bother to acknowledge it?
4. Publishing is all about context. Popular tastes and interests shift, often very quickly, as does literary style. Yes, people still eagerly read Jane Austen--her books outsell many popular present-day authors--but they do so in context, as classic literature. It's hardly a wonder that a 19th century novel, written in 19th century prose, couldn't find a home when presented as a new novel by a previously-unpublished modern writer. (It's worth noting that most of the other submission hoaxes mentioned above involved work that was several decades old.) More on context (and euphemistic form rejection letters), in this interesting commentary on the hoax from Profile Books publisher Andrew Franklin.
The only fake submission experiment that strikes me as at all relevant is the one conducted recently in France by the editors of Voici magazine, who wanted to show that the popularity of books written by famous people has little to do with literary merit. In 2000, they submitted a re-titled and slightly altered celebrity-written novel--L'Institutrice by Claire Chazal, a 1997 bestseller--to numerous publishers, every one of which responded by rejecting.
Anyone want to fake-submit The English Roses?
(Thanks to Hoaxipedia for the information on older submission hoaxes.)