So What Do Publishers Know when Publishers Say No? Nothing.
January 4, 2013
For too long, we who write for a living have stood in awe of the agents and editors and publishers who look down from their thrones on high and give their blessings to the next great batch of books to hit the bookstore shelves.
They have a sixth sense, we thought.
They have their pulse on the buying public, we thought.
They know what was good.
They know what was great.
They sent us, the great unwashed, rejection letters.
Thanks, but no thanks, they said.
And we felt as though we had failed. We failed only we regarded their acceptance or rejection as the final authority on the worth of our work and our words. The reality is, those agents and editors and publishers didn’t know either.
They played the odds.
They played favorites.
And sometimes they won.
But often, more than any of us will ever know, the hierarchy of publishing failed as well.
When George Orwell submitted his manuscript for Animal Farm to Alfred Knopf, the editor turned down the dystopian allegory, writing that it was “impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.” A British publisher rejected the novel, pointing out “the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offense to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.” Animal Farm, or 1984, has become an AP Reader standard, selling millions of copies, and winning the Retrospective Hugo Award.
Gertrude Stein must have been devastated. All of her hard work had gone for naught Arthur C. Fifield sent her a rejection letter for Three Lives, writing, “Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your MS three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here.” He had turned his back on Gertrude Stein’s only best seller, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
One agent glanced over a manuscript submitted by William Golding and called the book “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” The 14.5 million people who have read Lord of the Flies may have disagreed with him. So would the filmmakers who have adapted the classic twice for the screen.
She was a young romance writer in 1966 when Mary Higgins Clark tried to sell a story to Redbook. It was rejected with a note that said: “We found the heroine as boring as her husband had.” Failure? Not really. She turned the story into a two-part serial in an English magazine, and it took off, setting the stage for forty-two best-selling novels.
Stephen King, like most first-time authors, felt a lot of fear and trepidation when he sent in his manuscript for Carrie. Who, he wondered, would be interested in a novel about an abused girl with no friends, a pitiful girl who just happened to possess secret telekinetic powers. The publishing house certainly wasn’t. The rejection said: “Not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” After the novel was published by a little independent house, Doubleday finally picked up the rights to the paperback version of the novel and managed to sell a million copies the first year.
So what do the big boys know?
When is there a need to depend on them?
Forget they ever existed. In reality, they don’t anymore.
Write your novel.
And let the readers tell you whether it’s good or not.