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.
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.
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.