Strangely similar tales from a literary agent

The would-be novelist treads a road paved with rejection and disappointment, so Peter Thorndike was thrilled when the Penman Literary Agency of Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, expressed interest in his science-fiction black comedy, The Alchemists. Encouraged, he paid Penman pounds 35 for a 'specially prepared reader's report'.

The 1,000-word report, by Trevor J Douglas, Penman's president, arrived two months later. It had good news. 'I have read this manuscript with much interest,' Mr Douglas wrote. 'The author is to be highly congratulated on his achievement.'

But he had reservations. There was a 'need for more attention to character detail and description', to 'interweave a little more personal description of the people involved, introducing further points about their looks, appearance, dress, mannerisms, movements, etc'.

Details, wrote Mr Douglas, were given generally in a highly capable manner, though some 'were rather too trivial for the somewhat prolonged treatment they received'. And while,on the whole, the dialogue was good, there tended 'to be a certain sameness about it in parts of the script'. The parts were not specified.

None the less, Mr Douglas thought there was a 50-50 chance of the work being published after revision. He added: '(If) there is anything further I can personally do to help, I will willingly do whatever is possible, as this is a manuscript that I, for one, would like to see in print eventually.'

Excited, Mr Thorndike bought a word-processor and spent a year revising The Alchemists, which he says was inspired by Lawrence Durrell and Anthony Burgess, 'with a dash of Italo Calvino'. But when he sent Penman the rewritten novel, he received only a note saying that, despite the revisions, it was not suitable for publication.

That was last year. Mr Thorndike, 27, took the news on the chin, and went back to the word-processor.

But then, in March this year, Helen Watling received her 'specially prepared reader's report' from Penman - she had sent the agency pounds 35 and her fourth unpublished novel, The Salamander Stone, a mystical tale about archaeology and earth energies.

She says: 'I was immediately suspicious, because it talked of the need for more attention to character detail, and the one thing I had gone into is details of all of the characters.' She felt Penman had not read the book.

She showed the report to her friend Peter Thorndike, who realised that, as the Penman Literary Agency might put it, his report and Ms Watling's had a certain sameness about them. In fact they were identical. The would-be authors were not amused.

'They're both stupid,' said Leonard G Stubbs, director of Penman. 'In works of fiction, there are certain basic weaknesses, and the same remarks apply about a specific weakness. Very rarely, two scripts have identical weaknesses, so the phrasing of the report can be the same.'

Exactly the same? 'We have a standard part for each particular item in the manuscript,' he admitted, though he insisted that every script is read. And he saw nothing wrong in raising hopeful authors' expectations - 'We don't like to discourage people.'

Mr Stubbs, who founded the agency 50 years ago, has now refunded both fees with a note saying: 'I appreciate your feelings, although I believe them to have been incorrectly based.'

The two authors have complained about Penman (motto: 'Writers help writers') to the Writers' and Authors' Yearbook, in which the agency advertises its services.

Penman receives about 500 manuscripts a year, but Mr Stubbs doesn't remember any big success. Had Penman in fact ever managed to get anything published? 'We had a book called Strange Holiday published by Fiction House of Leicester. But that was many years ago.'

Mark Le Fanu, president of the Society of Authors, said: 'This is the most bizarre incident I've had to deal with concerning a literary agency.' He wants other authors who have had dealings with Penman to contact him.

Ms Watling, landscape artist, is now at work on her fifth novel. Mr Thorndike has sent The Alchemists to Daedalus Press, and a sheaf of his poems wait at Chatto and Windus. 'You need a bit of stamina and perseverance in this business,' he says.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all