Thursday, July 19, 2007

Publishers in book rejection shock!

Everybody knows that publishing houses are staffed exclusively by idiots. To prove it, I recently copied out the first tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh - in the original Akkadian but retitled as The Frivolity of Beagles and with the character name "Gilgamesh" changed to "John Tesh" - and posted it off to a bunch of publishers. Shockingly, not one publisher recognised this classic of world literature. One respondent suggested I read Janet Evanovich's How I Write: Secrets of a Bestselling Author to learn how to "inject some sass" into my story. Another commended my "earthy voice" but found the story dated and confusing. Still another admitted that he hadn't bothered to read my submission at all: "Might I suggest that you make use of a word processor next time? Chiseled clay tablets are unwieldy, and, I might add, hurt like hell when dropped on one's foot. Also, a living language would be nice."

The wholesale rejection of "my" book is disturbing on two counts. First, it defies belief that people employed to read manuscripts for publishers aren't able to immediately identify any given work from any point in the history of literature, even if that work has been mocked up to look like a new, unpublished submission by an unknown author. Second, it demonstrates the lack of taste that is endemic in the publishing industry. These ignorant, clerk-type people with no literary sensibilities are being allowed to act as gatekeepers, and it is impossible to get quality material through. Not only did they knock back Gilgamesh - it's only been a classic for 4000 years! - but they've also rejected my original thriller The Field of Black Cabbages: A Detective Philip Spanx Novel. Philistines, the lot of them.


Ghost said...

Ah - thank you. I'm glad I'm not the only one that was bemused that this even made the news. Of course, it's been done before (a quick google didn't find any links for me but I'm sure I remember reading something similar in the past few years).

I think people forget that authors become classic not just because of what they wrote, but when they wrote it. Themes that would titillate and shock an early 19th century audience world barely cause a blink today.

The concept that those who filter out manuscripts for publishing companies are looking for something that will make money (regardless of if it will sell well or create a 'scandal' and therefore provide free advertising) - well, a publishing company is a company, it's job is to make money. The person reading those sample chapters and plot outlines is being paid to recognise what people want today, in this era - not what would sell or attract attention in 1813.

Then there is the issue of reputation - 'Pride and Prejudice' was the third published novel by Jane Austen. It wasn't the first submission by an unestablished writer. Stephen King began his career by selling short stories to men's magazines - it was only after the publication of 'Carrie' that he started to become famous. Now he could probably publish a book that consisted of nothing but blank pages and it would still hit the NY Times best-seller list - I imagine if the imaginary submission had come from him it would have been accepted for publication immediately.

Another thing I don't understand - fiction is primarily for enjoyment, if you can get a message across at the same time - well and good. For most people, myself included, when I decide what book I'm going to buy or what movie I'm going to see I don't think 'Hmm - is this a message I want to receive?', I think 'Am I going to enjoy this?' Not everything needs a 'message' and more often than not the 'message' that is received is unintentional. Did Shakespeare write plays to send messages to people or did he just want bums on seats in the Globe?

Fiction is, above all, escapism. I imagine people in the 1800's reading 'Pride and Prejudice' imagining they could do or say the things Elizabeth Bennet or Fitzwilliam Darcy do in the novel (depending on their sex and social standing of course). And sometimes just imagining that scenario is enough - it provides fodder for your dreams and daydreams, it lets you imagine a world that might have been (and might still be) and it gets you through the day.

Dan Green said...

On the other hand, it's pretty pathetic when editors don't recognize the famous first line of Pride and Prejudice. Shouldn't people ostensibly in the business of publishing books have just a smidgen of acquaintance with literary history?

audrey said...

The incident ghostly is thinking of happened last year, and it was the novel that won Patrick White the Nobel Prize. Not only wasn't it recognised, it wasn't solicited.

Publishing houses aren't necessarily staffed by idiots - but they are there to make money and it's mostly idiots that buy books like The Da Vinci Code and think that reading them constitutes engaging with literature.

I can't believe someone suggested you read Janet Evanovich's guide to writing...

audrey said...

*ghost* not *ghostly* - soz.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, it's pretty pathetic when editors don't recognize the famous first line of Pride and Prejudice. Shouldn't people ostensibly in the business of publishing books have just a smidgen of acquaintance with literary history?

I was in A&R looking for Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia. Couldn't remember the author's name, so I asked the nice twentysomething to google it for me. "What's Ophelia? How do you spell that?"


lucy tartan said...

The not recognising the first line of P & P bit obviously reflects the fact that nobody at the publishers' read the manuscript submissions. Who can blame them. I can hardly bear to read most of the books they actually publish.

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