Thursday, July 19, 2007

How to get rejected

The Guardian is carrying a story today about the author and the Austen plot that exposed publishers' pride and prejudice. Basically, David Lassman, whose own book keeps getting rejected then submitted to different publishers several works by Jane Austen with a few words swapped round. Funnily enough, no one wanted to publish them.
“David Baldock, director of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, said he was amused and disheartened by the experiment. He added: ‘It's interesting that there are these filters that stop work getting through. Clearly clerks and office staff are rejecting these manuscripts offhand.’”

Steven Morris, The author and the Austen plot that exposed publishers' pride and prejudice, The Guardian, 19 July 2007.

This sort of experiment has been run before, and always with the same result. The conclusion seems to be that if the editorial staff can’t spot the great works of literature they shouldn’t be in their jobs. But having just read more than 1,000 2,500-word short stories for the How the Doctor changed my life competition, and with a great wealth of rejection letters of my own, I think this is hugely missing the point.

First, Lassman’s wheeze rather depends on editorial staff recognising the beginnings of classic novels. And while a devotee of Austen might know how each of them begins, it’s unfair to expect everyone to, just because they work in publishing. It’s not just presupposing that editorial staff have read particular books, but that also they recall specific passages from them.

Personally, I remember the gist of books and key moments in them. And the only first line I can think of right now is from The Dalek Invasion of Earth by Terrance Dicks. Rather than the beginnings, it’s incidents later on in great books that stay with me – stuff that happens to characters I’ve come to know and care for, drama and conflict that’s been earned as part of the story-telling process.

Lassman says he was prompted to test the publishers in this way by his own struggles to find a publisher for his own book. “I know it isn't a masterpiece,” he admits, “but I think it is publishable.”

Publishers aren’t looking for something publishable, they need to find books that will sell. And sell lots of copies. Publishing is an uneven and risky business, with great losses to be made. Even the largest houses can go under if they have a run of books that are merely “okay”. They depend for their survival on books that grab the attention, that surprise and excite the reader, stories that demand to be told.

It’s more likely, then, that the readers in Lassman’s case just went, “It’s a little familiar.” Indeed, Austen’s work has inspired and influenced books and other media for the last 200 years – Mills & Boon even have a line of Regency-period novels. So sending in something that’s reminiscent of Austen (because it is Austen) is going to seem very generic.

Publishing staff have got lots of unsolicited stuff to get through, as well as their work on commissioned and scheduled books. An editor might be tempted to check whether it’s not just copying-and-pasting from an original, but if you’ve already decided to reject it anyway, why would you even bother?

And it may be harsh to hear, “I’m not really bothered,” or “Haven’t we seen this before?” but in the end the editorial staff is not there to employ anyone with basic competence at scribbling. They’re there to pre-empt the response of readers – it’s the readers they serve, not the writers.

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