Thursday, February 12, 2009

Five problems with trying to fool gatekeepers

If you’re a member of a writers’ discussion board, you will periodically read of how someone submitted the opening chapters of some famous or award-winning novel to a publisher or agent, minus the author’s name and title. When the submissions were rejected, this was evidence that the publishing industry was broken, that agents and editors couldn’t recognize genuine talent when they saw it.

That’s one conclusion which could be drawn from the rejections. But here are a few other reasons why the work might have been rejected.

1. Plagiarism

If agents or editors recognize the work, they might well conclude that this is a plagiarized manuscript. That the rejection didn’t include, “We are rejecting this work because it was previously published in 1813 by Jane Austen” is due to agents and editors having better things to do with their time than explain why they’re not falling for tricks.

2. A changing market

What was great literature a hundred years ago may still be great literature, but will it have equally great sales? Thirty years ago, bodice-rippers were common in romance; today, the industry has largely moved on. The same thing goes for The Da Vinci Code.

Ultimately, it’s about whether the book is marketable as well as good.

3. A mistargeted submission

Even if a writer creates a fantasy that would make Tolkien weep, Harlequin Blaze is not going to publish it. In the rejection stunt stories, there’s seldom any indication that the submissions were accurately targeted, sent to houses which publish that genre or agents who represent it.

4. Submission guidelines not followed

Many agents don’t want to receive partials unless those are requested, and I just queried an agent whose website specifically stated not to send any manuscript material with the query. Ignoring those guidelines to send off the copied chapter(s) might be a good way to get a form rejection.

As for why the agents might give a form rejection to such a brilliant (albeit stolen) piece of literature… well, it’s not easy to work with someone who considers himself above guidelines.

5. Subjectivity

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a critically acclaimed novel. It won the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards in 2005. Thousands of readers love it.

I couldn’t get past page 108.

Does that mean Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a bad book? No, it just means that this particular novel doesn’t work for me. Likewise, there are books which one agent will love and another one will pass on. This is an industry which can be as subjective as the book-buying public.

This kind of stunt annoys me for two reasons. First, it wastes time that could be spent on writers who submit their own material and who aren’t trying to pull a quick one. Second, it’s invariably pounced upon by advocates of vanity publishing or self-publishing as proof that the industry is indeed broken. When there are at least five reasons that it isn’t.


JH said...

As a big Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell fan I would be interested in seeing you review it. Not because I need to get on my suit of armor and ride to its rescue, but I like seeing things from different perspectives.

Marian Perera said...

To be honest, I wouldn’t have much to say in a review because I don’t remember much of what I read. Mr Norrell worked magic on the cathedral, and created an illusion of the ships blocking the French port. I think. Then there was a young lady who lost a finger. And a fairy with thistledown hair.

But I didn’t have any sense of how the characters and events fitted into a single coherent plot, or any emotional connection to the characters. And even with all the description, I felt as though I was groping through a thick fog.

I love novels set in Merrie Olde Englande, and I’m OK with slow-moving literary-type books, but there has to be something to hook me – e.g. characters (Dickens), symbolism (Jean Rhys). I’m afraid I couldn’t find that thread leading me through the fog here, though.

Anonymous said...


Very intelligent post as always.
I wonder what said persons would do if the agent *didn't* recognize a work had already been published. Would they actually try to get away with it? Or would they write back, "har har. Just kidding..."

JH said...

In fairness, The Man with the Thistledown Hair was the major antagonist and the entry point into the over-all plot of the book. But since we discussed Dune I have known that you have little patience for epic meandering plots, and JS&Mr.N is as meandering as it gets. I don't necessarily blame you, it is really a matter of taste.

colbymarshall said...

It's the same reason Danielle Steele is a bestselling novelist and yet I've not read any of her books- just not my cuppa.

Marian Perera said...

The French Lieutenant's Woman has a meandering storyline too. That novel discusses everything from Victorian morals to evolution, pauses to check on a secondary character's experiences in the afterlife and offers three different endings to the story.

But I liked Sarah Woodruff and was curious about how she would affect Charles and Ernestina's relationship. So it was the personal factor which pulled me through.

Unfortunately I didn't connect to any characters in JS&MN, so it was difficult to keep reading even though I liked the concept of magic returning to England.

I'm glad you enjoyed it, though. :)

JH said...

What hooked me was the way Clarke kept magic actually mysterious and occult-seeming all throughout the book. I can definitely see "not attaching to the characters" being an issue, though, since Strange is the more sympathetic of the two and doesn't get introduced for a few chapters at least.

Marian Perera said...

Oh, great.

Now as well as a post on when good vs. evil works, I want to do one on "making the rules of magic clear vs. keeping them mysterious and occultic".

Marian Perera said...

Hey Tasha, glad you liked the post. :)

As for what such a person would do if the agent didn't recognize that the work had already been published... why, that would prove the gatekeepers aren't keeping up with literature, making them equally unfit to vet submissions.

JH said...

Now as well as a post on when good vs. evil works, I want to do one on "making the rules of magic clear vs. keeping them mysterious and occultic".


Anonymous said...

"As for what such a person would do if the agent didn't recognize that the work had already been published... why, that would prove the gatekeepers aren't keeping up with literature, making them equally unfit to vet submissions."

- Of course! How could I not have thought of that? :)

Anonymous said...

Changing times is so true. A few years ago, I picked up a book at the bookstore called The R Document. It was a political thriller, and the cover proclaimed it as an international best seller.

As I read it, though, I started to wonder about the book. It lacked a sophistication I'd seen in other recent thrillers. At last, I ran across a referenced to Hoover, so I checked the copyright date. It had originally been published in 1977. The publisher had republished it to take advantage of a political siutation in the news.

I'm sure the book was fantastic and controversial in 1977. Today, the writing just didn't make the cut.

Barbara Martin said...

The gatekeepers have such a large pile of submissions to look at that a query letter has to have that 'firecracker' to wake them up to take notice of a new concept.