It must have been a slow news day at the London Times. They brought out the old standard “test,” where someone retypes a published book and sends it around to various publishers and agents. To what should be no one’s surprise, it’s rejected all over town. “Hah!” say the intrepid reporters who try this stunt. “Editors can’t recognize good writing!”
Publishers toss Booker winners into the reject pile
Jonathan Calvert and Will Iredale
They can’t judge a book without its cover. Publishers and agents have rejected two Booker Prize-winning novels submitted as works by aspiring authors.
One of the books considered unworthy by the publishing industry was by V. S. Naipaul, one of Britain’s greatest living writers, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The exercise by The Sunday Times draws attention to concerns that the industry has become incapable of spotting genuine literary talent.
Typed manuscripts of the opening chapters of Naipaul’s In a Free State and a second novel, Holiday, by Stanley Middleton, were sent to 20 publishers and agents.
And so on.
This isn’t the first time such a thing’s been done. As Grumpy Old Bookman reports when commenting on this foolishness:
A similar scheme was carried out in 1996 by one Kevin Banks, of Colchester, who was actually a journalist on the Sunday Mirror. He sent a chapter of a novel to 10 publishers and asked if they were interested in seeing the rest with a view to publishing it. None were.
“Kevin Banks” then revealed that the chapter in question was a “lightly amended” version of Chapter 1 of Popcorn, which was a current bestseller by the comedian Ben Elton.
Yet another similar exercise was undertaken in France, in the summer of 2000. A famous French television presenter had written a novel which was published by a leading firm called Plon; the book was a great “success”, in that the author was interviewed widely, made lots of personal appearances, and the public was persuaded to buy a large number of copies.
The magazine Voici decided, however, that this novel was less than interesting, and that it would never have been published at all had it come from an unknown author. Voici typed out the first chapter of the book and offered it, under a pseudonym, to every leading publisher in France. None of them accepted it, and none recognised it as the season’s hit—including Plon, which had published the book in the first place.
In 1969, the well-known writer Jerzy Kosinski published a novel, Steps, which won the National Book Award. In 1975, a freelance writer named Chuck Ross was convinced that unknown writers just didn’t have a chance to have a novel accepted. To test his theory, Ross typed out the first twenty-one pages of Steps and sent them out to four publishers, using the pseudonym “Erik Demos.” All four rejected the sample. In 1977, Ross typed out the entire book and, again using the name “Erik Demos,” sent it to ten publishers and thirteen literary agents. One of the publishers was Random House, which had originally published Steps in 1969. The manuscript was neither recognized nor accepted by any publishers or literary agents, including Random House, which used a form rejection letter. That made twenty-seven rejections for a book that had won an important literary prize!
The film world isn’t immune from this sort of experiment either:
In the 1980s, [Casablanca’s] script was sent to readers at a number of major studios and production companies under its original title, Everybody Comes To Rick’s. Some readers recognized the script but most did not. Many complained that the script was “not good enough” to make a decent movie.
So, why is it that published works are routinely rejected when intrepid reporters submit them?
Books are rejected all the time, and “poorly written” is only one (though one of the most common) of them. See, for example, the list the lovely and talented Miss Teresa posted at Slushkiller:
2. Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.
10. The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it’s not the author’s, and everybody’s already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic.
(You have now eliminated 95-99% of the submissions.)
11. Someone could publish this book, but we don’t see why it should be us.
13. It’s a good book, but the house isn’t going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it’ll just get lost in the shuffle.
Yet other reasons include “We’re already publishing a similar book/we’ve run out of money to acquire more books/we’ve filled our schedule for the rest of the decade.”
Over at Scrivener’s Error, Charlie Petit finds numerous formal problems with the experiment, including sample size and failure to conform to submission guidelines. In brief, it’s poor science.
Our Genial Host, Mister Patrick, in commenting on this experiment, says (in another place):
I’ve seen some variation on this chestnut every year or two for the entire twenty years I’ve been working in the industry. Granted, this is a particularly thorough version, culminating as it does in a fine kids-today-don’t-know-what’s-good rant from Stanley Middleton. (And their music! It’s just noise!)
It’s not my job as an editor to decide what’s “worthy” of publication. It’s my job to find and acquire books that Tor can do a good job of publishing. I’ve passed on some very good books for which I felt we weren’t the right house.
I also haven’t read every well-regarded novel in the English language, and some of those which I have read I would certainly have rejected if they’d been submitted as new work to Tor in 2006. So the gotcha! aspect of this stunt also fails to impress.
But that isn’t the biggest problem with this experiment. The problem is that what’s a positive result isn’t defined.
Suppose one of four possible reactions from the editor:
- This book sucks; I wouldn’t buy it in a million years.
- I love this book! Alas, we’ve already filled our inventory.
- I love this book! Alas, it’s a literary slice-of-life story and we only publish splatterpunk horror.
- You son of a bitch! That’s In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul and you totally plagiarized it!
What’s the editor do in all four of those cases? He or she reaches over and grabs a pre-printed “Dear contributor: Your work does not suit our current needs” note, shoves it in the SASE, and sends it back.
The reporter seeing the response that meant “You son of a bitch! That’s In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul and you totally plagiarized it!” writes his story to imply the editor said “This book sucks; I wouldn’t buy it in a million years.”
Suppose you are an editor trying to fill an anthology. One day, reading slush, you find a story that you instantly recognize as “A Cask of Amontillado,” from “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could,” straight through to “In pace requiescat!” Do you really want to get into a lengthy correspondence with someone who may be a nutjob, a guy who thinks he’s E. A. Poe’s reincarnation? Who might sue you for mental cruelty for suggesting the work wasn’t his? Do you want this guy to start stalking you? Do you want to get Legal involved? Or do you just reach for that pre-printed form? I don’t know about you, bucko, but I know what I’d do.
Alas, I fear that Charlie Petit’s predictions will come true:
- On or before 15 February 2006, one of the recognized “self-publishing gurus” not otherwise affiliated with a publisher will cite this work as “further proof” that self-publishing a novel is a viable alternative.
- On or before 15 February 2006, a branch of a major vanity publisher (more than 5,000 titles in print this century) will do the same, probably while mislabeling its service as “self-publishing” and using a name different from its recognized vanity-press parent.
- On or before 15 February 2006, a major writers’ conference will cite this “experiment” as part of a program or panel purporting to tell authors how to do better themselves.