Friday, August 17, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Whoops, They Did it Again

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.)

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Speaking of fake submissions, I just started my next WIP and - unlike the one I just finished - decided to try writing the query hook BEFORE writing the book. Once I had it the way I wanted it, I briefly (oh, for a couple days I suppose) thought about sending out this query to see if I got any bites, figuring at my rate of speed that two years will pass before I query for real. I decided this is abusing the time & energy of the well-meaning agents who may request material. So I didn't do it. Of course, a part of me also was afraid I'd get so many rejections, I'd give up writing the dern book.

What are your thoughts on this? Is it unethical to test a concept with a query & first chapter when you're only 5% done with the novel?

Marsupialis said...

The hoax submission and its predictable result always brings about a gnashing of teeth and dire warnings about the death of literature. But agents and publishers aren't really interested in literature, they're interested in sales. This is why we have so many many books which are little more than self-consuming artifacts. Their shelf life is only a second beyond the time it takes to read them and then they can be discarded and forgotten because they have no long term value as literature. Literature happens after the fact and most often by mistake. Some process allows a book's cultural capital to wax and wane. Look at Steinbeck -- literary star once now on the outs. Look at Dick -- hack sci-fi writer during his lifetime now immortalized in a new Library of America edition (frankly I think those editors are running out of the material the way "Actors Studio" is running out of actual talent to interview).

Here's a better experiment: Let's take a difficult piece of literature and market the crap out of it. Full court press. Let the marketeers work for their living and actually make something a success. That I'd like to see (though I see it all the time in the film business).

Mad Scientist Matt said...

When I read that one, I pictured an editor looking at the querry and thinking, "Blech, a total ripoff of Jane Austin!"

It's too bad he didn't chose to start with something from Dickens or Dumas, in which case we could also laugh at him for having tried to send a work to a book publisher that had originally been written to be a weekly newspaper feature.

Anonymous said...

Steinbeck's East of Eden was a huge bestseller recently when chosen for Oprah's book club, marsupialis. And the Grapes of Wrath and/or The Red Pony are read in pretty much every high school in the country. I think he's doing swell.

Angie said...

Your number three was my first thought. If I'd been one of those agents, my immediate response would've been an eyeroll and a muttered "What an idiot!" before tossing the whole package in the trash. Whether he was a hoaxer or a deliberate plagiarist, either way it was a ridiculous experiment.

Angie

Anonymous said...

I searched your blog for info on the Institute of Children's Literature, which I hear a lot about. Can you point us toward info on how legitimate they are?

Bernita said...

WELL SAID, Victoria.
You've outlined exactly what has always annoyed me about these examples of "proof."

Anonymous said...

I vote we all go to our bookshelves and pull out a novel that is, let's say, about ten years old. It needs to be a wonderful novel with great reviews, but not a best, best seller because we don't want it to be too well known.

Then we fans of Victoria's (i.e., scamming-agent-haters) put together a fantastic query on our little novel and send it to about twenty agents, preferably those in the twenty/thirty-year-old group with some decent sales. And then we sit back and wait to see what comes in the mail.

I bet we get rejected. And what'll really be fun is some of them will say, "I don't believe the narrative is strong enough to sell to a publisher in today's competitive market."

C'mon. C'mon. I'll do it if you will.

Anonymous said...

anonymous, you run the risk of actually getting your WIP accepted. I've heard of writers being unable to complete their work after being paid an advance. I wouldn't risk it.

You're much better off writing 75 well written pages and then sending the query out.

Anonymous said...

It's believable that editors would not recognize Jane Austin. I haven't met many English majors who have read Persuasion but I know lots who have read Fight Club or Memoirs of a Geisha.

But I agree with Strauss, you have to submit your work in the right genre or the editor will throw it away. Even if your goal is to be taken seriously as a literary writer, you have to think about genre in order to get published.

Finally, Philip K. Dick is a deceptive writer because he made his prose as transparent as glass to the readers. With him, it works because his ideas are fantastic. Yes, his early short stories aren't so great but you can say the same thing about Pynchon's Slow Learner.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

Although these hoaxes usually don't prove anything in and of themselves if the hoaxer doesn't do the work of making sure the submissions are sent to editors/agents that actually acquire that kind of writing, they do reaffirm the fact that publishing is an extremely competitive and subjective business. Good writing is not a guarantee of success in this business. What determines success more than anything else in publishing these days is "marketability." That's why Paris Hilton and Madonna can get seven-figure deals despite having no writing ability, while many very talented writers who have high dedication to their craft get nowhere, because they are not "marketable" enough. I know that I had many book deals nixed (even when the acquiring editors wanted the books) by sales-and-marketing departments.

Still, I keep at it and eventually ended up with a deal. I think that good writers who are dedicated to their craft will eventually break through all the obstacles if they stick with it. (sometimes through several books). If you give up after the first "no" in this biz, your career will be very short indeed.

bjh said...

Yes, the publishing industry is definitely broken. I suggest evey person who ever thought, or actually is, a writer immediately cease and desist. Leaves more room for me, *hee hee*

Frankly, I don't believe Austen would be published today. Part of her charm is the depiction of the society and period in which she lived. As for a lot of writers now famous, the reaction of many publishers would be: "Read this too many times before." Fame breeds mimicry.

Victoria Strauss said...

Is it unethical to test a concept with a query & first chapter when you're only 5% done with the novel?

Not unethical, but not really practical. Agents and publishers can take a long time to respond, but they can also respond very fast. Do you want to be in the position of being asked for a full manuscript when you've only got 5% of your book completed? Even if the interested agent or editor agrees to wait, there's no guarantee they'll still be interested by the time you're done--they may decide they're not taking on new clients for a while, or someone else with a similar idea and a ready-right-now manuscript may come along.

The waiting is certainly frustrating--but try to think of it as giving you the time you need to complete your next book.

BuffySquirrel said...

Austen's works are still in print today, and with multiple publishers. How many other nearly-two-hundred-years-old books do you see on the front tables in bookshops or on supermarket shelves? Often with fetching chick lit covers, too. Those books aren't only selling to Englit undergrads.

Iirc, First Impressions was Pride and Prejudice's original title.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to the query letter - it was the most pathetic example I've read in a long time, and regardless of *how* good the novel is, *nothing* attached to that letter would be read with any seriousness, because the writer shows so little understanding of the publishing business that I wouldn't touch him with a bargepole.

The only mistake that was missing was 'my mother loved it' - otherwise I believe we have the full set.

green_knight

Linda said...

-- Not unethical, but not really practical. Agents and publishers can take a long time to respond, but they can also respond very fast. Do you want to be in the position of being asked for a full manuscript when you've only got 5% of your book completed? --

I sent in an equery to an agent. He asked for the first three chapters the next day. I sent them. The following day he asked for the full manuscript.

Mags said...

Full disclosure: I run a blog about Jane Austen and also have written some stuff for various publications of the Jane Austen Centre at Bath.

I couldn't believe the traction this story got in the press. Since my blog covers news of interest to Austen fans, I had to respond to it--the readers kept sending me the articles, and were naturally indignant about it. I attempted to explain why the exercise was bogus from a publishing standpoint, and also pointed out that it was bogus because it is difficult to take her work out of its historical context. If Jane Austen were writing today, her work would be very different, because she would not have been around 200 years ago to shape modern fiction. Her work (especially the earlier novels, including Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey) was influenced by the fiction of her day, and was a bridge between the 18th century and what would come in the 19th century. She would have written something different after reading James and Eliot--but would James and Eliot have written if they had not read Austen? So the exercise, to me, did not have a lot of validity.

On a related note, the query letter that Jane's father wrote for First Impressions, while well-meant, was pretty lame, too.

Gregory Ludwig said...

Concerning Ms. Strauss's:

"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."

I think most (if not all) of the points in the blog entry are valid, except maybe they are *understated*, not least that of the passage quoted above. When I read the query letter, I was struck by how amateurish it was (though not implausible for a beginning writer to try). And to submit literature that, by today's standards, seems archaic (including with some of the quaint punctuation), and then claim that "editors and agents don't know great literature" seems like the stodgy stupidity of someone who *reads* much too much and hardly writes or works much within the nationally distributing publishing industry.

Dave Kuzminski said...

Hmmm, maybe you should use eQuery submission service to try subbing The English Roses. ;)

J M McDermott said...

I always wondered what would happen when idiots read smart books.

Now, I know.

Deirdre Mundy said...

My husband's never read Pride and Predjudice. So, on a whim (to see how recognizable it really is) I read him the first two paragraphs.

Even HE recognized it as Pride and Predjudice, because the famed passage is quoted in so many other places....

So I find it VERY hard to believe that someone who actually worked in publishing wouldn't at least think "hmm... this sounds awfully familiar"

CreditEgghead said...

it's just amazing how ignorant people can be. Or may be they didn't even bother to read the submissions?

Deirdre Mundy said...

I'm still going with the "They read the first paragraph, realized it was blatent plagiarism, and promptly tossed it in the trash" explanation.

After all, why should busy people use any of their precious time to respond to an obvious jerk?

I'd rather they save the time for ACTUAL submissions from ACTUAL authors..... wouldn't you?

Caitlin said...

Of course, Jane Austen's works are no longer copyright so plagiarism would be perfectly legal, if morally dubious. The real reason it wouldn't find publication as a new novel today is because it doesn't read like a new novel, it reads like what it is - great writing but a product of the early 19th century. I'm with the others who say that the editors probably recognised the book though - especially if the names of the characters are unchanged. Even if you haven't read it, who hasn't heard of Elizabeth and Darcy?