Could Jane Austen Find a Publisher for Her Work Today?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIn a literary landscape filled with wizards, vampires, the undead, night walkers, and salacious love stories (eg, Fifty Shades of Grey and its ilk), one wonders if Jane Austen were alive today, could she find a publisher for her work? That’s the question that David Lassman, director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England posed back in 2007. Lassman submitted the opening chapters and plot synopses of Austen’s most famous novels to 18 of England’s largest publishers and prominent literary agents. Of course, he had to make a few slight modification to disguise her work. He changed Austen’s name to Alison Laydee (a play on her actual nom de plume, “A Lady”), altered the titles and the recognizable names of the main characters. He was however, bold enough to leave the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice intact: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

So what sort of response did Jane Austen, one of the greatest and enduring writers in British history receive? Shockingly, Austen was rejected by all publishers and agents — yes, you read the correctly: the great Jane Austen received those wretched impersonal and disheartening rejection slips — aspiring writers can commiserate. Lassman elaborates, “I was staggered. Here is one of the greatest writers that has lived, with her oeuvre securely fixed in the English canon, and yet only one recipient recognized them as Austen’s work.” Bloomsbury sent a rejection letter stating that the “chapters had been read with interest but were not suited to our list.” Penguin sent a rejection letter that read: “Thank you for your recent letter and chapters from your book First Impressions [disguised Pride and Prejudice]. It seems like a really original and interesting read.” Thanks a lot, mate.

David Baldock, director of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath,  who was very disappointed with the results of this clever literary experiment, recognized that there is something very broken with the publishing industry today: “It’s interesting that there are these filters that stop work getting through. Clearly clerks and office staff are rejecting these manuscripts offhand.” He is being very polite. Look, when you diss a literary great like Austen, the gloves come off (and you don’t want to see what happens when you piss off all the Janeites who will quickly shed the polite and proper customs of the Regency Period and go off on a rampage, Game-of-Thrones style…). The problem is much deeper, much worse than “filters” that stop literary work. Let’s face it — one can surmise that these clerks are not very well-read. How is it possible that these appointed literary gatekeepers lack a level of education where they cannot even spot one of the most famous opening lines in literature (“It is a truth universally acknowledged…”). Would they even recognize Dickens, Shakespeare, Hardy, Eliot, Tolkien, Bronte, Orwell, or Woolf? And more critically, would they appreciate the brilliance, the creativity, and the depth of these great writers?

Based on the results of this literary experiment, one might arrive at the depressing conclusion that the decisions made by this new generation of literary gatekeepers would deprive the world of the greatest writers from the pantheon of literature. Nearly 400 years ago, Ben Jonson eloquently praised William Shakespeare in the preface to the First Folio by stating that the Bard was “not of an age, but for all time.” Perhaps Jonson was wrong. Sadly, as Lassman found out, that although some of of these author’s work has endured for several centuries, it is not for modern times, the Google Era. Alas, we live in a culture where readers crave banal, formulaic narratives, and the internet surreptitiously continues the dumbing down of the masses by offering fleeting digital communication filled with emojis, 140-character tweets, disappearing messages, sound bites on an endless loop, and Kardashianism. To quote Puck, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

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“Rejecting Jane” by David Lassman, Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine, No 28, July/August 2007

4 responses to “Could Jane Austen Find a Publisher for Her Work Today?

  • 1kindness2day

    Ack. Does Penguin not publish Austen? Perhaps the pursuit of the torrid and the morbid have obscured the economics and thus appreciation of good writing 🤔

  • Sophia Ismaa Writes

    “Thank you for your recent letter and chapters from your book First Impressions [disguised Pride and Prejudice]. It seems like a really original and interesting read.” – Could the use of the word “original” here possibly indicate that they knew it was the opposite, that it was indeed a slightly modified Pride and Prejudice?
    I think, perhaps, with the rise of accessibility to art and expression, the literary industry is becoming a crowded market. We live in the digital age where opinions and perspectives are everywhere. So, I could understand if agents are rather overwhelmed. I just hoped that they’re not overwhelmed to the point that they’re not giving their full energy to authors and aspiring authors who’ve worked really hard on their stories.

    • Alexander Atkins

      Hi Sophia: If the meaning of “original” was as you suggest, that would mean that it was a sarcastic letter, implying that they were familiar with Austen’s oeuvre and a sense of humor. Neither is true. It was simply a form letter — they couldn’t be bothered carefully reading beyond a few pages. Only one publisher (!) actually realized that this was an actual Austen manuscript cleverly disguised. As you surmised, part of the tepid response is that readers at publishers are overwhelmed; the other part is that they just are not particularly well-read. How can you possibly miss the style of Regency Period/Pre-Victorian era prose? Cheers. Alex

      • Sophia Ismaa Writes

        I am not aware of how much profit the industry is making/not making but it is a literary industry and thus better care and attention should be given to the stories they receive even if it means that it’ll take more time to go through the ever building stories they receive on a daily basis, especially considering the amount of great works that received several rejections. That alone should warrant greater care.
        As to not recognising Austen’s work due to lack of knowledge, it is inexcusable. It would be like being a major football fan and not knowing Barcelona and Real Madrid. Pride and Prejudice still stands the test of time so it is not as if the themes are no longer relevant or that the prose is no longer sought after. Great prose should and will always be sought after and to not do so, is an insult to readers intelligence.

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