Wednesday, April 14, 2010

If you don't play you can't win

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?


  1. J.K. Rowling's story, from

    When the manuscript of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was finished, early in the New Year of 1996, Rowling visited Edinburgh Central Library to look up the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book in search of a literary agent. Her first approach had been unsuccessful: a brief rejection letter. She then posted a sample of three chapters and a covering letter to Christopher Little Literary Agents, based in Fulham. It was here that a young reader, Bryony Evans, read the first chapter and laughed. Evans passed the chapters to Fleur Howle, a freelance reader, who agreed with her assessment and together they persuaded Little to sign up Rowling. A few days later Rowling received a letter asking for the remainder of the manuscript. The agency sent Rowling’s 200-page script to 12 publishers, all of whom, to their eternal regret, turned down the book. Harper Collins showed interest but was too slow in formulating a bid and so the first book by the most lucrative writer in the world was picked up by Bloomsbury for an advance of £1,500.

    When Barry Cunningham, head of children’s fiction at Bloomsbury, invited Rowling to lunch in London, he praised her book but told her to be prepared as there was no financial reward in children’s books. Rowling did not care. To hold a hardback copy in her hand was reward enough. Yet prior to publication she would prove him wrong.

  2. Your post is very interesting one - it occurs not only in literary world, but all other art fields where works are subject to subjective judgment. We can only wish that one of the judge will recognize the value of a true gem. The point is, if you don't play, you won't win.

    Matthew Felix Sun