David Lassman, the director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, recently staged a familiar experiment intended to determine what sort of response the nineteenth-century author would receive in the current literary marketplace. Under the pseudonym Alison Laydee, he sent plot synopses and only slightly altered chapters from three of Austen’s most notable novels—Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion—to eighteen prominent British publishers and agents.
Every manuscript was declined; most rejections included no mention of the classic books. Only one agent acknowledged Austen’s presence in the prose; Alex Bowler of Jonathan Cape Publishers wrote, "I suggest you reach for your copy of Pride and Prejudice, which I guess lives in close proximity to your typewriter," in response to chapters of what Lassman titled First Impressions.
As the scheme generated media attention last week, publishers offered explanations for neglecting to mention Austen in their replies. A spokesman for Christopher Little, the agency that represents J. K. Rowling, was quoted in the Guardian as saying, "Our internal notes did recognize similarities with existing published works and indeed there were even discussions about possible plagiarism."
The public response to the experiment seems to be one of indifference. "Most manuscripts submitted to agencies and publishers get a form response, even the original ones," wrote John Scalzi on the blog Ficlets. "Why this guy feels he should get a personalized response when he did even less work is beyond me."
"I wish people would stop trying to rooker publishers into looking stupid by sending in classic or bestselling novels from an earlier age for consideration to the current market," wrote Sarah Weinman on the blog Galleycat. "It’s been done before…and it doesn’t really add much in the way of real value."
Indeed, a similar experiment was performed last year—using a book by Nobel Prize winner V. S. Naipaul—with similar results. Lassman says he was moved to test publishers’ literary filters after his own novel, a thriller titled Freedom’s Temple, failed to attract representation.