Publishing folklore is passed along from writer to writer, from blog to e-mail. Often its transmission is meant to buck up those who are despondent over the torrent of rejection slips writers tend to receive from literary magazine editors, agents, publishers, and other Guardians of Literary Culture.
Rejection notices arrive in response even to work that has been written, rewritten, rewritten again, submitted for critique to friend- and family-readers, rewritten, submitted for sharper critique to readers who are writers, and rewritten again -- work, in other words, that is probably at the bleeding edge of as good as a writer can produce.
A writer's path forward might be to let a project go and begin a new one. Or it might be to radically reconceptualize and rewrite one more time. It could even be as simple as continuing to look for the right agent or editor for work that's on the mark but hasn't found its home yet. To a writer who has put her all into a piece, it's easy for any of these options to look like a towering, unscalable cliff.
So publishing folklore is often recounted by friends and peers as encouragement, meant to lighten the load of serial rejection and keep a writer's shoulder to the proverbial wheel. And yet, from a certain disadvantage-point, it can have the opposite effect: to cause a writer to see just how tough it is to get even the best written work to an audience.
Here are a few bits of folklore I've heard or read over the years, and could be taken as encouragement or discouragement, depending. These are not meant to be revelations -- whether or not you're a writer, these ephemera may have crossed your radar before.
John Grisham was rejected by 50 agents (the way I heard it first) or a couple dozen agents and editors (the way Sammy McDavis told it in a 1989 Mississipi State Alum magazine article) before three agents responded positively to A Time to Kill. That novel went to Wynwood Press for a $15,000 advance, and didn't sell so well. The editor at Wynwood -- Bill Thompson, the very same editor who discovered Stephen King -- couldn't talk his publisher into buying Grisham's next try, a little romp called The Firm, for the low, low price of $50K. And that was after Tom Cruise had already optioned the film rights! Wynwood was burned once, and twice shy. Grisham sold The Firm elsewhere for a six-figure advance, and the rest is history.
Jerzy Kosinski won the National Book Award in 1969 for his second novel, Steps. In 1975, a fellow named Chuck Ross did a little experiment: he typed up 21 pages of Steps and submitted it to several New York publishers as the work of "Erik Demos." The submissions were rejected unanimously, even by Random House, the original publisher of Kosinski's prizewinning work. After publicizing the results of his hoax, Ross tried again a couple of years later, this time with the full mss. of Kosinski's Steps. Once again: unanimous rejection from editors and agents alike. You can read all about it in a 1979 article in Time magazine.
Agatha Christie endured 20 rejections of her first mystery novel, according to Debbie Ridpath Ohi, author of The Writer's Online Marketplace. Christie's estate claims that with four billion books sold she's the best selling writer ever, with the minor exceptions of the bible and some fellow named Will Shakespeare. Four billion. The mind reels. Ohi maintains a blogged museum of rejection stories to further amuse or outrage you.
John Kennedy Toole wrote Confederacy of Dunces and saw his work roundly and widely rejected. He committed suicide at age 32. With relentless determination and the help of Walker Percy, Toole's mother found a publisher for her son's novel 11 years after his death. Confederacy of Dunces won its author a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Appropriately enough, the title of Toole's novel is taken from Jonathan Swift's essay Thoughts on Various Subjects, wherein the satirist wrote: "When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."
If you're a writer, do stories like these inspire you to keep scribbling against the tidal flood of rejections? Or do they convince you that the book industry is constitutionally incapable of recognizing value, and that you'll die in abject, unpublished poverty?
Whether or not you're a writer, what's your favorite bit of publishing folklore?