01 January, 2006

Agents and publishers reject Booker winners

If you got a rejection letter for Christmas, this might take some of the sting out of it. Publishers toss Booker winners into the reject pile. Journalists at the Sunday Times typed out the first three chapters of two Booker-winning novels from the 1970s, changed the titles and the names of the characters, and sent them to 20 London literary agents and publishers as the work of a first-time author. Near-universal rejection ensued.

There are some more details and some comment from the industry in a companion piece. Booker winners need not apply. No-one seems very surprised. Indeed, this has been done before with similar results, as discussed in the Grumpy Old Bookman's essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile. So it probably doesn't demonstrate the decline and fall of UK publishing. What it does demonstrate is that "commercially published writing" and "good writing" are not necessarily the same thing. Which is not news, if only because "commercially published" is an objective fact but "good" is subjective and depends on the taste of the reader.

It would be interesting to see this done with commercial instead of literary fiction. I wonder if you'd get the same result if you tried it with The Eagle Has Landed or The Odessa File or the first Kay Scarpetta mystery?

Thanks to Alex Bordessa for posting the original link.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to the Grumpy Old Bookman essay. Although I don't like his ideas about reading fees, I love the concept of being a "pro-am". I definitely see myself as working toward "pro-am" status.

Carla said...

Elizabeth, thanks for commenting. No, I don't much like the idea of reading fees either, though I do see his point.

Bernita said...

Think there's also a slight problem with the age of the sample.
Tastes have changed in 30 years or agents/editors perception of tastes have changed or whatever.
And thank you, Carla for dropping by my blog and offering this dim poster a clue on "Clwyd".
It is so nice you have begun to blog too.

Carla said...

Bernita, VS Naipaul said something like that - the world has moved on. It would be interesting to do it with something from the time that still sells, because then you'd know it was still to the taste of the reading public.
As it stands, this could be interpreted as (a) literary agents and publishers can't recognise good writing (the Sunday Times view); (b) Booker judges reward contemporary literary taste and fashion, rather than good writing; (c) agents and publishers are looking for stuff that sells and stuff that sold in the 70s wouldn't sell today because the reading public's tastes have changed; (d) agents and publishers are looking for stuff that sells and Booker status is irrelevant to sales potential; (e) agents and publishers are so awash in unsolicited material that they don't have time to read submissions. And no doubt more that I haven't thought of.

An experiment that can be interpreted that many ways has way too many variables and should have been better designed. But 2 January is a slow news day. And it probably got the Sunday Times onto every vaguely literary blog or publication or website in the world. I don't suppose they minded all that free publicity.

Mark Pettus said...

I've seen it suggested many times that Agatha Christie would never get published today. Here in the states, it has become almost cliche for books that were roundly rejected ten years ago to win National Book Awards when they finally get published.

I suppose that if I knew what kind of book would become a bestseller next year, I'd write it instead of agenting it, so maybe we shouldn't blame agents for missing the boat on this one.