Demonstrating that agents are not, in fact, morons (except the ones who reject ME, who obviously are)


April 25, 2008 by Tracey S. Rosenberg

I didn’t have a blog when this story broke, but I just found the article and I need something to rant about, so here’s the belated response.

The gist is: this guy submitted the opening chapters of Jane Austen novels to publishers and literary agencies, then decided that no one agreeing to publish/represent the work meant that no one recognized the genius of Jane Austen. Here’s a pdf of an article in Regency News. The guy claims that of 15 returned submissions, only one – Alex Bowler, an assistant editor at Jonathan Cape (guy deserves a mention by name) – wrote back with an acknowledgement that the author might want to revise and maybe this time check his copy of P&P.

All the rest? They failed to recognize genius! Alas, poor Jane!!1!1!

Except…no. There’s an incredibly big logical fallacy here. Like, gaping hole-sized. Go ahead and read the article and see if you can figure it out for yourself. I’ll wait.

*plays hold music*

Back? You found it? Congratulations!

Anyway, so, Thundercat actually did catch a mouse the other day, and I texted a friend to say that Minnie had phoned looking for her husband, but –


Here’s the thing. Agents are smart. They are also busy. Check out any of the agent websites listed in my sidebar (under ‘Nuts, Bolts, and Agents’) and have a scroll through their entries. Most if not all will indicate every so often just how many queries stream in through the inbox and the mailbox. HUNDREDS AND THOUSANDS. Only a tiny percentage will even be followed up to the tune of partials, much less fulls and representation. Therefore, most agents (or editors, who are also smart and busy) who recognize plagiarism are not going to send you an e-mail saying that ‘gosh, this is totally the opening of a Jane Austen novel’ because they do not have the time to waste on you.

Also, let’s say that you are not some snarky guy trying to see how Jane Austen would have fared in today’s publishing climate – leaving aside any sense of historical context, of course – and decides as a result (I extrapolate the next bit from the ‘my unpublished novel was not recognized for its genius, woe’ aspect) that you are going to be a champion for downtrodden, unpublished authors and prove that the publishing industry is dumb/a closed market/only likes you if you’re in the in crowd etc.

Alternately, let’s say that you are genuinely stupid, or clueless, or Cassie Edwards, and you actually in all seriousness type up the first pages of Mansfield Park and submit them.

What do you expect an agent to do about it? TELL you that you’re stupid/clueless/Cassie Edwards? See the point above about agents being busy people, and also smart. Someone so idiotic to try and pass off great literature as their own is not going to be a person they want to open a dialogue with. What they want is to ensure that you will never, ever contact them again, whether with a barrage of follow-up e-mails or a poisoned cake.

Also, please note that many publishing houses have Unpaid Interns ™, and I’d guess that a lot of those interns have degrees in English Literature, and those interns are the ones making some initial passes through the manuscripts. If THEY can’t recognize Austen they have to give their BAs back.

Does this mean that every one of those 15 responses did, in fact, recognize that ‘Alison Laydee’ was someone either really messed up, or trying to mess with them? No, that sadly can’t be proved.

What this does prove is that claims that ‘only one person recognised the material for what it was – classic literature written by one of the greatest writers that has ever lived’ and that ‘it seems a fair assumption that if Jane Austen’s reputation had not already been secure, she would have struggled even to find an agent to represent her, let alone have any of her novels published’ are hogwash.

Hats off to Alex Bowler, though, for being willing to write back.

And a search turns up a very sensible Grauniad response.


One thought on “Demonstrating that agents are not, in fact, morons (except the ones who reject ME, who obviously are)

  1. kicking_k says:

    Well, quite. I have heard this story from various places, and my only thought was… if you really must run an experiment like this, why not pick something less well-known?

    Although, all that would prove is that, say, a specific agent doesn’t think whatever it is would sell. I have read many acknowledged classics of literature which I didn’t like, and it doesn’t mean a thing except that I don’t like them.

    I used to be one of those unpaid interns, by the way – at Picador. One slushpile manuscript I read made it to paperback! The rest were never heard of again, even the ones I liked. Such is life.

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Tiny bio

I live, work, and write in Edinburgh. I travel to other places as much as I can. To contact me, email writingmostly at gmail dot com.


CURRENTLY READING: The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo.

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