Much Ado About Nothin’

This article in the Times UK describes yet another of those experiments where famous published authors’ manuscripts are sent anonymously to publishers and agents in hopes that they will be rejected and thus provide grist for the “publishing ain’t what it used to be” mill.

There are so many problems with this experiment that it’s not worth listing them all (besides, our favorite shark, C.E. Petit, has already done so). Most obvious, it seems to me, is that publishing styles change; what was desirable 30 years ago isn’t necessarily what’s desirable today. For instance, I’ll bet that Ursula K. Le Guin might have a very tough time publishing The Dispossessed today–but that doesn’t necessarily imply (as is clearly the subtext of the Times article) that publishing has gone to hell in a handbag and no one is publishing good books anymore. Good books are being published. Just not the same kind of books.

The experiment included 20 publishers and agents (no word as to how many of each). The article mentions 21 responses–just over half, if one assumes that both mss. were sent to the same places. I wonder how many of those 19 nonresponses stemmed from the fact that someone recognized the books? Also, in a world where publishers are increasingly unwilling to consider unagented manuscripts (a whole other issue, which I won’t get into here), how many of the publisher submissions actually found their way onto the desk of an editor? Not many, I’ll bet. A form rejection from a harassed assistant assigned to whittle down the slush pile does not count as a comment on the state of literature.

Yet another question: how were the publishers and agents chosen? For their appropriateness to the manuscripts? At random? If you’re a savvy writer, you know that it’s a waste of time to approach an editor or agent who isn’t interested in the kind of book you’ve written. You don’t send a dense literary novel to an agent or an imprint that’s mainly focused on commercial fiction. I wonder how many of the rejections (or nonresponses) stemmed from the simple fact that the manuscripts weren’t a good fit?

One of the authors whose book was used is quoted as saying, “People don’t seem to know what a good novel is nowadays.” But in my opinion, this experiment doesn’t prove that publishing is in decline, only how frothingly eager people are to proclaim that it is. I’m not saying that things aren’t tough for writers–just ask me how tough, I can bitch about it with the best of them, though I usually do so in private–or that things aren’t wrong in the publishing industry. But what’s tough and what’s wrong are deeper issues than this kind of facile hoax can address. In my opinion, this “experiment” means precisely nothing.


  1. A totally specious and supercilious exercise.
    As you point out, because submission methods have changed, it doesn’t even particularly prove that tastes have altered in thirty years.

  2. Hmmm, I read this same story over at Books, Inq, but it was just a “check this out” post.

    the questions you put forth are very compelling. They really put a spin on the reliabilty of the results…I guess that’s why we’re lucky to have you in our corner!

  3. The whole premise of this experiment is flawed. Were I an agent or editor who received a manuscript that was exactly the same as a book I’d read, of course I’d reject it — it’s not like I could legally publish it.

  4. I used to overanalyze books, saying that nothing good had been published since at least the 1980’s. I have seen lots of writers be overly critical in the same way. One day, I stopped doing that, went back and read books from the 1970’s and 1980’s. Book quality has improved a lot over time. Morever, by today’s standards, I don’t think any of those ones I read would make the cut today. Even when I read my uncle’s books–a children’s author published up until the 1970’s–I found myself saying that this wouldn’t sell today.

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