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Book Publishers Stupider Than Anyone Imagined

Posted By Jeffrey Eisenberg On July 23, 2007 @ 11:40 am In Books,Publishing | 5 Comments

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” [1]

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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[1] “Austen Scam Exposes Publishers’ Pride and Prejudice” : http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20070719/wl_uk_afp/entertainmentbritain

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