Thursday, July 19, 2007

Jane Austen Couldn't Get a Second Look By Today's Publishing Experts!!!

I intended to post an article inspired by a blog discussing agent feedback on query letters, but this one definitely supersedes that idea...

Jane Austen couldn't get a second look by today's publishing experts!!!

I don't quite know whether to be amused or disgusted... or possibly discouraged. I ran across this article detailing how David Lassman, the head of some sort of Jane Austen society, sent sample chapters of her manuscripts to eighteen different publishers and agents. You can read the article for yourself, but they were all rejections, with only ONE of the eighteen queries spotting the plagiarism!!!

First, maybe we can give the benefit of the doubt that some of these professionals spotted the work for what it is, but didn't want to take the time to deal with a nitwit who would try to pass off Austen as their own, so just sent the standard rejection and were done with it... but, what about the number, and their must have been a few to not have to respond, that didn't recognize the work? What does that say about publishing today?

Then, it makes for a sensational story, but we writers know how important the query is to get the pages even glanced at - who's to say Mr. Lassman wrote a passable query? So there are other factors involved... but, maybe what the the experts are really saying here is that the classics are no longer saleable... brilliance is over rated.

I don't know. What do you guys make of it? On the surface it almost makes the road to publication seem like a crap shoot...


jjdebenedictis said...

I think the test is completely hokey and should be ignored.

- How do we know if the query letter was any good?
- How do we know if it was personalised or even addressed to an agent/editor who still worked at that agency/publishing house?
- How do we know if the agencies are accepting new clients? If the publishing houses are accepting unsolicited submissions?
- How do we know if the agency/house accepted that sort of fiction? If someone specialises in fresh and edgy urban fantasy, they don't want a Jane Austen clone.

Finally, I suspect most of the agents/publisher recognised the book. What would their reaction be? Along the lines of: "Some dork is wasting my time. I'm not going to waste anymore of it. Form letter reject for this imbecile."

In short, I think the story is sensationalistic nonsense.

Also, people have also done this sort of test before; I heard of one that used a Nobel prize winner's book as the "bait".

Sun Singer said...

People are always trying this as a way of "proving" the system doesn't work. In this case, you may be right: some people didn't respond because they knew what they were looking at.

On the other hand, novels in all their variety tend to be part of the fabric of the culture at that point. The Austen novels speak to another time and another country and it is difficult for me to envision them being published now as new works.


Mary Witzl said...

I have to agree with the other commenters here.

Agents and publishers work hard to find writers whose works will sell. I love Jane Austen, but I cannot imagine that her books would garner as much readership today as, say, Danielle Steele's. It has nothing to do with writing great works, and everything to do with writing good prose that is compelling and in tune with the times.

Recently I reread Henry James' 'Daisy Miller,' a well-known classic. I couldn't get over how redundant and long-winded much of the prose was. Not to denigrate Henry James, a great writer who, unlike myself, is published, but he wouldn't have a hope in hell of publishing Daisy Miller today. Times and tastes really do change, and agents and publishers have to follow the trends in order to make a living. I am more irritated with the agents, publishers and editors who failed to notice the similarities between Kaavya Viswanathan's prose to Meg Cabot's, Salman Rushdie's, etc. The latter are all contemporary writers, after all, and you would think that if the readers could spot this, the agents certainly should have noticed it.

As for this test, someone resubmitted one of V. S. Naipaul's prize- winning novels from the seventies, and even Doris Lessing had someone resubmit one of her books with different characters and a different author's name. In both cases, the works were roundly rejected. In a way it is rather cheering. When we are rejected, we can tell ourselves that we are in good company...

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi JJ, Sunsinger, and Mary,

Thanks for stopping in and propelling the conversation so much.

JJ, I love this: "In short, I think the story is sensationalistic nonsense."

Putting it in perspective, what was this individual trying to prove? It seems he had more of a story if it was universally rejected, but what was he trying to say? And then, did he even query people who might be interested in that type of writing? One of the agents mentioned was JK Rowling's agent... umn... if I was writing in the style of Jane Austen that probably wouldn't be my first choice...

Sunsinger and Mary, you're right to point out that Austen's work is representative of her time and wouldn't be commercially successful in today's market... I'm sure there are a plethora of opinions about why that is, but it still is - and these agents and editors are looking at books that SELL...

I still can't get past the idea that the protocal for submitting wasn't necessarily followed. The article didn't say - but is it fairly safe to assume this person didn't take time researching the best agent or publisher for the work if he was intent on having it rejected... I have to wonder what the query looked like... if half of these agents passed before finishing the query letter, can we really blame them for not recognizing the author?

The Anti-Wife said...

All the variables you mention concerning his method of querying and reasons for doing this in the first place (it did get published!) are valid.

However, the fact is Jane Austen still sells books and movies and TV shows of her works are still being made. He may not have succeeded because of his methodology, but she succeeded then and continues to do so now.

Makes you think, huh?

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi anti-wife,

You know, I love the classics and I think most writers do have a soft spot for them. I like literary fiction, too, and I think a lot of literary fiction runs more along the older or classic writing style as well. But I do think some of the reason Jane Austen still sells is because she is Jane Austen. I'm not certain that a no name writer could put out the same book and have it sell so well - though, I will say, I do think an author writing that way could get published (I really believe that if it's good writing and you're persistent, you will get there, you will eventually find that agent / publisher who believes in you).

I'm not trying to take anything away from Jane Austen's work, I think it's brilliant. But I think you have to attribute some of her sales today to the fact that she's recommended in higher education or taught in classes. With that kind of constant promotion, it makes sense that movies would do well, too...

But again, I don't know that someone writing today, the same way, would garner a following. Then again, you never really know. Today's popular fiction is written in a much more conversational tone, but that doesn't mean the old classic prose can't make a come back - the next great trend may be a reversion... wouldn't that be fantastic?

Travis Erwin said...

I got to agree witha ll the others. I've seen a similiar experimant with Faulkner. There are too many variables. Sure the system isn't perfect but what is.

I think it is easy as an unpublished writer to label agetns as evil minded dream stealers but over the years I have met many agetns and truthfully they all want to find the next great writer. Sure some guess wrong, but the eky is for us as wroters to give them and editors a bookt hey cannot say no to. The ball is really in our court to prodice quality work and not excuses.

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Travis,

I'm with you on that. Generally, the would be authors who get so cynical about the system and it's unfairness are the same ones who are either difficult to deal with or won't follow the regular guidelines - either of which are a good way to shoot yourself in the foot professionally.

There was an attempt at this type of thing in, I think, the 70's - my mom told me about it, but essentially the 'author' had a lot of different writers write one chapter - the only thing they were told was that it had to contain a lot of sex - at the end he had all these mismatched chapters and he went through changing the names, but nothing else. The book apparently got a deal - his point was that it didn't need to be good writing or even contain a cohesive plot, just a lot of sensationalism and sex... I'll have to find out the name of the book and author and post on that one.

Lillie Ammann said...

This is an interesting study, but as other commenters have said, it doesn't really prove anything. I do agree that it would be much harder for any of the classics to be published today because popular fiction has to appeal to the times. But classics become classics because they are great books in any time period.

I've named you a Rockin' Girl Blogger. Congratulations!

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Lillie,

Thanks for stopping in and for the Rockin' Girl Blogger Award!!! I appreciate that so much.