Jane Austen Rejected

Could Jane Austen, one of the most celebrated and popular writers in the English language, get published today? To find out, David Lassman, director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, typed up some opening chapters of her books, added a cover letter with plot synopses, and sent them off to publishers. He changed the titles of the works, renamed the characters, and called himself "Alison Laydee," but otherwise he didn't change Austen's prose. Here's the rather predictable result of Lassman's experiment, as described by the Guardian:
the deception was not spotted and the rejection letters thudded on to Mr Lassman's doormat, most notably one from Penguin. Its letter read: "Thank you for your recent letter and chapters from your book First Impressions. It seems like a really original and interesting read." Only one person appeared to have spotted the deception, Alex Bowler, of Jonathan Cape. His reply read: "Thank-you for sending us the first two chapters of First Impressions; my first impression 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 that book's opening."
If Lassman's prose was not original to himself, neither was the hoax itself. This type of hoax has definitely been done before. It's periodically perpetrated by disgruntled authors hoping to reveal the superficiality of the publishing industry. Lassman, for instance, is nursing a grudge because his novel Freedom's Temple, "a modern take on the story of Theseus and the Minotaur," has failed to find a publisher. But though the hoax has been done before, the lesson it teaches is one that's worth repeating -- namely that relying on talent alone is probably not enough to guarantee getting published. A little bit of luck is also necessary (and having contacts inside the publishing industry doesn't hurt either).

Some recent examples of this genre of hoax, reported here: The Wraith Picket Experiment, in which chapters from the award-winning Australian writer Patrick White's novels were submitted to publishers and rejected; and Booker Prize Winners rejected, in which chapters from the works of V.S. Naipaul and Stanley Middleton were rejected by 20 publishers.


Posted on Fri Jul 20, 2007


Of course, one that went through was "Naked Came the Stranger" about 30-40 years ago. About a dozen journalists deliberately wrote a bad book, one chapter each, and submitted it under a pen name. It became a best seller. From what little I know, having my submissions all rejected, the people who read the submissions go by the first few pages and if they like it, they continue while always looking for a reason to reject. Once past the reader, then it gets to an editor. Jane Austin may be a great writer, she forced Nero Wolfe to admit a woman could write, but her writing is not do the sort of writing most people want to read today. A true test would be to take a best-setter from last year and submit it.
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Fri Jul 20, 2007  at  05:51 PM
Naked Came the Stranger was a little different, because the writers of that weren't trying to expose the lack of judgement of the publishing industry. Instead, they were trying to expose the lack of judgement of American readers.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Fri Jul 20, 2007  at  06:05 PM
Also, if I remember correctly, Naked Came The Stranger was published by a company that was in on the joke. Lyle Stewart, I believe.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Fri Jul 20, 2007  at  07:00 PM
As you would suspect, Wikipedia has an entry for Naked Came The Stranger. I just checked. 1969, by the way.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Fri Jul 20, 2007  at  07:03 PM
Alex, CMG, I don't remember if the publisher was in on it or not I just remember the incident. But my point was that Jane Austin wouldn't have near the readership if she wasn't "a classic" and "a great writer" since her style, while proper for her time, is nowhere near what the publishers and reading public are looking for today. I would be more impressed by the "test" if they had used something not more than a couple of years old. Even something thirty years old is a completely different ballgame. Compare Terry Brooks and Mercedes Lackey as an example. Both good writers and I enjoy both, but I doubt "The Sword of Shannara" could be accepted today.
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Fri Jul 20, 2007  at  11:37 PM
I'm about 99.9% sure that Lyle Stewart was in on the gag. Never mind that, though.

I think your point that this "test" of the publishing business' ability to detect a "hit" would have been better if the "testers" had used a more contemporary novel is a good one.

If publishing works like everything else, the readers probably skim the first few pages of the submission and if they don't "feel it," it gets rejected. Something written in an archaic style is almost certain to get thrown into the circular file.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Sat Jul 21, 2007  at  02:19 AM
Now, I love Jane Austen. I mean...I really love Jane Austen, but as Chris Cole said, if I found a recent author that wrote similarly I probably wouldn't read it. What's so great about Jane Austen was that she was so ahead of her time, though obviously the prose is outdated. I would wonder what was wrong with an author that wrote like that now.
Posted by Razela  in  Chicago, IL  on  Sat Jul 21, 2007  at  09:43 AM
I'm not sure that publishers receiving unsolicited submissions even do so much as skim the first few pages of the novel. I suspect they look at the cover letter, and if something in the cover letter doesn't interest them (be it prior publications by the author, an interesting plot synopsis, or some kind of hook that they think might help sell the book), it goes on the discard pile.

I have a friend who sends chocolate covered strawberries along with her submissions to publishers. That may help get some attention.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Sat Jul 21, 2007  at  01:40 PM
Chocolate covered strawberries? Nice idea, thanks Alex!
Posted by Nona  on  Sat Jul 21, 2007  at  04:31 PM
As I said the last time this came up, the majority of book publishers nowadays don't accept any manuscripts "over the transom." The only manuscripts they even think about reading and considering are the ones pitched to them by literary agents. There are exceptions, but not as many as we would like.

Therefore, it's not surprising that many publishers receiving, out of the blue, an unsolicited manuscript by a totally unknown author, would automatically reject it. It's maybe more surprising that some of the editors seem to have actually read the chapters and wrote individual rejection notices (not just form letters).
Posted by Big Gary  on  Mon Jul 23, 2007  at  12:30 AM
"If Lassman's prose was not original to himself, neither was the hoax itself. This type of hoax is a tired old clunker that's periodically carried out by disgruntled authors hoping to reveal the superficiality of the publishing industry"....

This is not quite the point! The point is that publishing houses are being manned (or rather wo-manned 😉 by a bunch of half-literate hacks who have no clue in recognizing the greatness from the run of the mill clone-like trash they churn out in millions of copies...
Penguin, what happened to Penguin?
In fact, this is a hilarious pointing the finger at the people who shold not be calling themselves neither 'publishers' nor 'editors'.
Posted by Boris  on  Tue Jul 24, 2007  at  08:28 PM
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