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Monday, Jul. 23, 2007 at 11:40 am

Book Publishers Stupider Than Anyone Imagined

By Jeffrey Eisenberg
July 23rd, 2007

As an author, my headline is hard to believe, yet it’s confirmed once again. This morning, while having coffee and reading the news I spotted this:

“Austen Scam Exposes Publishers’ Pride and Prejudice”

LONDON (AFP) – A string of publishers failed to spot blatant plagiarism of one of English literature’s most famous authors, in a cheeky test to see if she would have secured a book deal today, a report said Thursday.

David Lassman, head of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, sent manuscripts to 18 editors seeking a publishing contract, using only slightly disguised versions of chapters from the iconic novelist’s most famous works.

But only one publisher spotted the fakes, which included perhaps the most famous line in all English literature, the opening sentence of her 1813 work “Pride and Prejudice”.

“I was staggered. Here is one of the greatest writers that has lived, with her oeuvre securely fixed in the canon and yet only one recipient recognised them as Austen’s work,” Lassman told The Guardian newspaper.

Making only minor changes, he sent off sample chapters from three of her best known books: “Northanger Abbey”; “Persuasion”, and finally “Pride and Prejudice” which he renamed “First Impressions”.

For the latter, he made no changes to the opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

But all he got was a series of rejection slips, including from major publishing houses.

“Thank you for your recent letter and chapters from your book ‘First Impressions’. It seems like a really original and interesting read,” wrote Penguin. Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling’s agents Christopher Little said they were “not confident” of being able to place the work.

The only editor to spot the ruse was apparently Alex Bowler of Jonathan Cape.

“Thank-you for sending us the first two chapters of ‘First Impressions’; my first impression on reading these were ones of disbelief and mild annoyance, along, of course, with a moment’s laughter,” he wrote back.

“I suggest you reach for your copy of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, which I’d guess lives in close proximity to your typewriter, and make sure that your opening pages don’t too closely mimic that book’s opening.”

The publishing houses scrambled to explain their failure to spot what are some of the well-known passages in the English literary canon.

“Our letter was a polite note declining representation and provided a standard response,” said a spokesman for Christopher Little cited by The Guardian.

“Our internal notes did recognise similarities with existing published works and indeed there were even discussions about possible plagiarism.”

A spokeswoman for Penguin noted that its rejection letter had said only that it “seemed” original and interesting. “It would not have been read,” she insisted.

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Comments (5)

  1. i think you’ll find a response along the lines of ‘most publishers prefer to avoid the accusation of plagiarism so will reply to this sort of thing with a polite “not for us” note and leave it at that.

    but then that wouldn’t make you much of a headline, would it.

  2. Well, there’s the issue of whether or not they spotted it as Austen’s work… and then there’s the issue of saleability. Would an original novel written in a 19th century style with a 19th century mindset and embodying 19th century mores and settings sell? My guess is no. Says nothing about Austen as literature, but everything about style. Some things are almost immortal. Others are not

  3. Loki, You’re right about the headline.

    Rick, I suspect you’re correct about the saleability.

  4. What most authors don’t realize is how little time publishers actually spend looking at manuscripts.

    Last year, according to R.K. Bowker, 291,920 new book titles were published.

    Most publishers I have worked with or interviewed have informed me that they receive about 100 manuscripts for every one book they publish.

    If even 50% of the 291,920 books published last year were not self-published, but were traditionally published, and publishers are correct that they receive 100 manuscripts for every one book they publish, this means that roughly 14,000,000 manuscripts were sent to publishers last year.

    There simply isn’t enough time for publisher to look at and review every manuscript that they are sent.

    Q. What made David Lassman’s book proposal so different that publishers paid more attention to it than to other proposals?

    A. My guess? Nothing. David was just lucky to even receive the form letters he did get back.

    My experience tells me that most publishers had low-level editors and assistants sorting through the manuscript submissions. They didn’t read most or any of the manuscript and therefore didn’t notice it was plagiarized.

  5. There’s another possibility, here:

    In his 2006 book The Knowledge Deficit, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., points out that reading ability is dominantly influenced by the background knowledge of the reader on the subject being read.

    (Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit is, by the way, a far shorter version of his bestselling Cultural Literacy [1987, 2002]. Hirsch founded the Core Knowledge Foundation to try to help America’s education system to standardize its curricula and pass on the American cultural legacy that a literate person needs to be familiar with to converse intelligently through the broad range discussions in America.)

    It’s just possible that the low-level editors and assistants going through the “sort pile” simply weren’t aware of Jane Austen’s work. And, of course, it goes without saying that NOT being conversant with Jane Austen’s work — even though it’s British, not American, literature — is something no one in the book industry would dare to admit, if they could help it.

    Not all editors are as literate as they may pose as being, though that may seem practically sacreligious where Jane Austen’s work is concerned….

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Jeffrey Eisenberg, founder of FutureNow, is a professional marketing speaker and the co-author of New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling books Call to Action and Waiting For Your Cat to Bark. You can friend him on Facebook.

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