Authors have always suspected that publishers don’t actually read unsolicited manuscripts. They suspect that publishers are either not reading unsolicited submissions, though they claim to do so, or don’t recognize talent when they see it.
Some irate authors have turned to disguised submissions – or hoaxes – as proof of these claims. They take famous, formerly published novels, change the name of the author to someone unknown, then submit it to publishers for submission.
One famous hoax was the John Milton hoax submission.
The earliest known example of this hoax dates back to the late nineteenth century, when a would-be author, frustrated by frequent rejections, sent around a re-titled copy of John Milton’s Samson Agonistes to publishers and magazine editors, none of whom recognized it.
In 1887 a “disappointed literary aspirant,” hoping to illustrate the ignorance of publishers and the diffulties faced by unknown authors, copied out the text of Milton’s drama “Samson Agonistes,” retitled it “Like a Giant Refreshed,” and sent it as an original work of his own to publishers and editors. None recognized the work. One rejected it because it was too like a sensational novel. Another said it was “disfigured by Scotticisms.” A third offered to publish it, but only if the author contributed thirty pounds toward the expenses.
Then there’s the adage “Nothing succeeds like success” where unknown authors are routinely rejected – even though they have a good product – because publishers prefer existing best selling authors – even though their performance has deteriorated over time.
It’s a safer ‘bet’ than unknown authors.
This phenomenon is known as the “Matthew Effect,” a term coined by the sociologist Robert Merton. The term derives from a line in the Bible’s Book of Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” (Matthew XXV:29, KJV).
Rejected classics don’t stop at publishers. The mentality also carries over to the movies.
Casablanca is arguably the most famous movie in the history of film. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1943, and was voted as one of the top three American films ever made by the American Film Institute. It’s a movie that everyone in the film industry should instantly be able to recognize. But in 1982 freelance writer Chuck Ross asked himself this question: Would contemporary Hollywood movie agents actually be able to recognize Casablanca if it was submitted to them as a script? Or failing that, would they at least be able to recognize it as great writing?
To find out, Ross devised an experiment. He retyped the script of Casablanca, changed its title to “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” (the title of the original play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison), changed the name of Rick’s sidekick from Sam to Dooley (after Dooley Wilson, the actor who played that character), and submitted it to 217 agencies as a script supposedly by an unknown writer, “Erik Demos.”
Of course, the screenplay was rejected by agents. The comments on the screenplay were hilarious.
“I just think you need to rework it… you have excessive dialogue at times.”
“To bridge the gap between ‘talented writer’, which you now are, and ‘professional writer’, which is yet to come, you need professional help. And that will have to be paid for. I could recommend a ‘literary surgeon’ who would help you, but are you ready to accept professional help????”
“I think the dialogue could have been sharper and I think the plot had a tendency to ramble. It could’ve been tighter and there could have been a cleaner line to it.”
“I gave you five pages to grab me — didn’t do it.”
“Too much dialogue, not enough exposition, the story line was weak, and in general didn’t hold my interest.”
“I strongly recommend that you leaf through a book called Screenplay by Syd Field, especially the section pertaining to dialogue. This book may be an aid to you in putting a professional polish on your script, which I feel is its strongest need.”
Oh well. I guess it’s up to us authors to toil in the dark until the real experts – the reading public – give our submissions acceptance.
Or should we seek “professional help”?
Then there’s this.
Claire Chazal was a well-known newswoman who presented the evening news on France’s TF1 network. Like many French celebrities, she had decided to write a novel. She titled it L’Institutrice (The Primary School Teacher). It was published in 1997 by Plon and became a bestseller.
In 2000, the editors of Voici magazine, a weekly tabloid, decided to use her novel to prove that the success of novels by celebrities has little to do with the literary merit of the novels themselves and everything to do with the fame of their authors.
They changed the title of her novel to Maitresse d’Ecole, altered the names of some of the characters, and changed the two opening sentences. They then submitted the manuscript to numerous publishing houses, claiming it was a work by an unknown author. Every publisher rejected it, including Chazal’s own publisher, Plon. To add insult to injury, Plon not only didn’t recognize the book, but also suggested that the author should send a self-addressed/stamped envelope if she wanted the manuscript back!