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Despite what YouTube might have you believe, a quality prank isn’t easy to pull off. If it’s going to be one for the history books, it needs a layered, well-thought-out strategy so the rest of us can enjoy a heaping helping of schadenfreude when the target falls for it. And while you might think pulling one over on people in the literary world would be difficult, what with things like research being a part of their job, you’d be wrong.
Very, very wrong.
Science Fiction Writers Band Together To Expose A Dodgy Publisher
Following the turn of the millennium, a beef started developing between the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and an independent publishing company called PublishAmerica (now America Star Books). PublishAmerica prided itself on being a traditional publisher who only accepted high-quality manuscripts, so when SFWA advocates suggested that PublishAmerica might not be practicing the standards they preached, the publisher retaliated with multiple blog posts on their Author’s Market website, with contemptuous statements like these:
“As a rule of thumb, the quality bar for sci-fi and fantasy is a lot lower than for all other fiction. Therefore, beware of published authors who are self-crowned writing experts. When they tell you what to do and not to do in getting your book published, always first ask them what genre they write. If it’s sci-fi or fantasy, run. They have no clue about what it is to write real-life stories, and how to find them a home.”
The SFWA advocates maintained that the publisher was accepting any and all manuscripts because they were making money off the authors and didn’t care about actual book sales. PublishAmerica, of course, responded by vehemently denying these claims and taking more shots at the sci-fi/fantasy writing community. And that’s when author James D. MacDonald and a group of fellow sci-fi writers decided to write a book so awful that no publishing house would ever accept it, and then send it to PublishAmerica for review. The collective work was called Atlanta Nights, and each author was asked to write a chapter. There was no solid plot, and no detailed outline of any of the characters. The authors were encouraged to write poorly, which meant the end result was a mess of bad grammar and a laughable storyline.
Surely, a high-quality, traditional publisher would never accept a novel with word garbage like that, would they? Well, yes. Yes they would.
When PublishAmerica learned that the book was a hoax, they retracted their acceptance letter, but by then it was too late. They had been exposed, and one can only imagine the copious amount of booze that was ingested in celebration that night. Hilariously, MacDonald went on to actually publish the book, using a nom de plume that summed up this weird, entire saga: Travis Tea.
Oh, and you can go listen to a dramatic reading of the entire novel on YouTube, if brain explosions are your thing.
The DJ Who Created A Non-Existent Book To Screw With “Day People” (And Bookstores)
During the 1950s, WOR AM graveyard DJ Jean Shepherd acquired a staunch following of night owls who enjoyed his quirky, imaginative radio show. People like Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce were fans, and were among the many who enjoyed how Shepherd used his crummy time slot to share his worldly musings before yelling his catchphrase: “Excelsior, you fathead!” He called his followers “Night People,” and he frequently lamented the fact that so-called “Day People” were pretentious and thought themselves superior, simply because they did office stuff.
The story goes that one day Shepherd visited a New York book store where he asked a clerk about a particular book, only to be told that the book couldn’t possibly exist because it wasn’t on any publisher’s list. Shepherd found the clerk’s reasoning ... well, dumb, and also insulting. He also thought it unjust that books only made best seller lists because both the bookstores and newspapers seemed to have their own agendas. So, he decided to create a buzz around a book that didn’t exist.
During one of his radio shows, he asked his listeners to participate in the prank, because he wanted to make it an “us versus them” sort of thing. One listener came up with the title of I, Libertine, and Shepherd himself created an entire backstory for the fake author: Frederick R. Ewing, a retired Royal Navy Commander known for his BBC broadcasts about 18th century erotica.
Which, of course, everyone tuned into.
Shepherd then asked his followers to head on out to various bookstores and request a copy of the imaginary book. The prank went global, with reports of requests coming in from Paris and Rome. At first, bookstore clerks were confused. Then they became smug, pretending that they knew this Frederick Ewing guy and that it was high time the public knew about him, too. Those who were in on the joke started writing college papers about Ewing, only to be praised for their impeccable research. The non-existent book even got banned in Boston.
Shepherd eventually exposed the hoax with the help of the Wall Street Journal, but it didn’t exactly end there. Sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon contacted Shepherd and, together with Ballantine Books, they published the tale of I, Libertine. And yes, there are copies still floating around out there, or you can just get the Kindle version.
In the postscript, Shepherd tips his hat to the Night People, “whose battle cry is ‘Excelsior,’ and whose humor and forbearance are really responsible for the work.”
The Newspaper That Fooled The Future
Though the pranksters behind this 18th century hoax probably didn’t realize it, the legend of The English Mercurie would make people believe that it was the very first English newspaper ever published, and then go on believing it for half a freaking century. It all came about when Phillip Yorke, second Earl of Hardwicke, and Dr. Thomas Birch composed a series of newspapers back in 1744, just for the hell of it.
When historian George Chalmers discovered copies of them in 1794, he believed he’d found the first ever English newspaper, since it was dated 1588, decades before the arrival of newspapers elsewhere in Britain. It even had fake book advertisements to make it seem super legit.
Everyone believed the poor guy, too, and it wasn’t until 45 years later that the hoax was revealed when another historian found Birch’s original manuscript. Apparently this was all just some gentlemen’s game -- an exercise between a couple of friends to see who could come up with the best fictional newspaper. So while the hoax wasn’t necessarily intentional, it’s pretty damn impressive that it fooled historians for over four decades.
Scholars Write Fake Scientific Papers To Be Published In Journals
Last year, a magazine editor, a mathematician, and a philosopher walked into a bar ...
Just kidding, but there really is a joke here. See, these three scholars were frustrated with the level of standards they were witnessing in scientific fields focused on identity. For them, fields like gender studies and critical race studies had become more concerned with socially-hyped grievances instead of scientific truth and rigorous academic research. So they got together (probably in a bar) and wrote 20 fake papers and sent them to high-profile, peer-reviewed journals to see if anyone would publish them.
And then shots were ordered.
To give you an idea of their outlandish arguments, check out this gem from a paper that dismisses western astronomy as sexist, and argues that we should instead be looking into feminist astrology:
“Other means superior to the natural sciences exist to extract alternative knowledges about stars and enriching astronomy, including ethnography and other social science methodologies, careful examination of the intersection of extant astrologies from around the globe, incorporation of mythological narratives and modern feminist analysis of them, feminist interpretative dance (especially with regard to the movements of the stars and their astrological significance), and direct application of feminist and postcolonial discourses concerning alternative knowledges and cultural narratives.”
Other discussion points include convincing men to, uh, self-penetrate so they can overcome transphobia; how dogs rape each other at urban dog parks; and a lengthy study on why men go to places like Hooters. The “studies” themselves contain unrealistic statistics and bogus methodologies, such as “poetic inquiries” and “Moon Meetings.” It’s a lot to take in, and sure, it all sounds pretty ridiculous, which is why it’s kind of astonishing that some of them were actually approved and published.
In fact, 7 of the 20 papers received a thumbs up, another 7 were still being considered by the time the hoax was exposed, and one of them even attained “special recognition” by a highly-ranked journal.
The fact that this is not the first hoax of its sort just goes to show that sometimes, we as a society need to talk about the science of consenting dogs to check our own biases. Or, you know, just go grab a drink at the bar like normal people.
The Aspiring Writer Who Copied An Existing Novel And Tried To Get It Published
Chuck Ross is a man most writers can relate to. When he finished his first novel back in the ’70s, he was filled with hope as he sent it out to publishers, only to have his dreams flushed like a belly-up goldfish, with every rejection letter that followed. On top of that, when his manuscripts were returned to him, he noticed they were still sealed, meaning not one of the publishers even bothered to look at the damn thing.
So Ross decided to conduct a little experiment: Believing that he wasn’t given the green light because he was a no-name writer, he took some pages from author Jerzy Kosinski’s award-winning novel Steps, removed the title and Kosinksi’s name, and submitted them to a couple of major publishers. And he waited …
Of course, they turned him down. And after being criticized for only sending a few pages and a shoddy cover letter, Ross decided to repeat his experiment. This time, he sent the entire book to 14 publishers.
Then waited some more.
Again, he only received rejections, but this time the critique proved hilarious. One publisher, who actually published another work by Jerzy Kosinski, had this to say:
“Several of us read your untitled novel here with admiration for writing and style. Jerzy Kosinski comes to mind as a point of comparison when reading the stark, chilly episodic incidents you have set down. The drawback to the manuscript, as it stands, is that it doesn’t add up to a satisfactory whole. It has some very impressive moments, but gives the impression of sketchiness and incompleteness.”
Now, Ross was starting to enjoying this sort of prank too much, so he did the same thing with the screenplay of Casablanca and sent it out to 200 movie agents.
You can probably guess how that turned out.
Like this article? Check out “5 People Who Pulled Off Impressively High Profile Tricks” and “Awful Pranks That Backfired So Hard, They Made The News”.