A Side Note On the Birth of the Rules: Percy Bysshe Shelley

Last night, whilst talking to my writing Pirate buddies, we were discussing agent-y things–query letters, synopsis, and the like. (You know, the stuff only other writers talk to one another about because any other audience would fall asleep at the wheel.) As we were talking I was reminded of a letter from Percy Bysshe Shelley, brilliant Romantic poet and Mr. Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame.

It’s dated January 16, 1816, and is addressed to publisher/editor John Murray.

Here it is, from The Complete Works of Shelley Volume IX: Letters 1812-1818:

I take the liberty of sending you a copy of all the sheets, but the last, of a vol. of poems [which will later be required reading for all British Literature students–Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude] which it is my intention to publish. I send them for the purpose of enabling you to judge whether you would become the publisher and on what terms.

I should certainly prefer to sell the copyright. But I am aware that an Author cannot expect much encouragement for his first poetical production before the public shall have passed their judgement on its merits. I have therefore printed 250 copies with the view of offering it to publication so as to meet the opinions of the publisher as to its probability of success.

I have written to Mr Hamilton, the printer, to send you the sheet which is deficient, title-page, etc.

I beg to apologize for addressing you as a total stranger.

Your obedient servant,
Percy Bysshe Shelley

Times appear to have changed. A comparable letter today would read something like:

Dear Superagent’s Name,

I have enclosed my full manuscript, with the exception of the last chapter or so, with the hope that you will read the whole thing and send it out to people who will pay me. In order to drum up some interest, I’ve put it up on my blog but haven’t gotten any hits yet. You can read it at www.mypoem.com. I haven’t published before, this being my first manuscript, and have no one to recommend me.

Future Legendary Author

The bit I find interesting is that, while volume after volume of agent advice is out there, letters like this–that launched careers two hundred years ago–are roundly discouraged, and rightly so. The world doesn’t work like it did two hundred years ago.

Firstly: Poems? Good luck.

Secondly: Shelley mentions nothing, zero, zilch, about the poem itself. Not even the title. There’s no salesmanship element here. Just: hey, dude, I got this poem, here it is. While this might work back in the day, I’m willing to bet a substantial amount of someone else’s money that Murray did not receive the quantity of letters that agents and editors do today…and Murray was definitely one of the more successful publishers of the early 19th century. Which ties to point #3–

Thirdly: When I first read this letter, I didn’t know that it was essentially a query letter. The way the phrasing went, as with all of Shelley’s business letters, reads like he already knew Murray and they were negotiating terms based on a previous discussion. But the last line was very surprising to me. Shelley tells Murray nothing about himself (partly because he’s such a scandalous little fellow…) nor why the publisher should invest time and money into his work.

Fourthly: If a query letter is about selling your stuff, then Shelley’s self-deprecation is not the ringing bell of confidence with all that talk first poetical productions (a sign that he’s asking for a pass as a beginner–which he wasn’t at this time, several pamphlets and whatnot having already been published, albeit scandalous pamphlets that he never really mentioned elsewhere either) and phrases about expecting no encouragement, referring to the publication as deficient (even though he just referred to the missing title page), and the apologetic introduction of himself.

Fifthly: Shelley is asking the publisher to invest in a piece. He hands over a copy of the poem, says ‘if you want it, it’s yours’. So something really hasn’t changed–it is still about the writing, it’s just that how agents/editors get to the writing has changed.

Shelley’s letter is the reason that so many filters and hoops now exist for modern writers to work through. Imagine, in a world where email dominates the landscape if the only query letters were short ones like Shelley’s and full manuscripts. How on earth would an agent or editor weed the field? Yes, there is no denying that Shelley wrote a very proper letter and his syntax is amazing even in an everyday correspondance like above. But it is so anonymous.

The current climate is difficult for writers–so many ‘rules’ and ‘guidelines’. But those are the very things that will help us out. If we were told to write just a ‘hi’ and then submit the manuscript, agents working nowadays would still be working on submissions from the 1990’s and by the time they got to us, we’d be posthumous hits. And let’s not even discuss the piles and piles of amazing that would’ve been tossed away just because the stack was so incredibly intimidating–or the number of computer crashes because of so many unwieldy attachments….

3 thoughts on “A Side Note On the Birth of the Rules: Percy Bysshe Shelley

  1. I still wish people wrote all their letters with the grace and elegance of back-in-the-day. But you're right, it wouldn't work nowadays to send a letter saying “here's my MS!” – we definitely need to be able to describe the story in the letter.

  2. It was bad enough getting 2,000 word stories for a small ezine. I can't imagine dealing with full manuscripts on the scale that people are submitting these days.

    And: Go, Jenny, go! Way to up the word count in a very short period of time. You know you're my favorite.

    Shhh. Don't tell Ali.

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