I read a wonderful post on The Atlantic by Kavita Das the other day, which discussed one of my pet peeves.
Jamaican writer Marlon James recently won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his riveting novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings.
The media gleefully reported how James’s first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected close to 80 times before finally being published in 2005.
As expected, James had almost given up when faced with such vast rejection. “There was a time I actually thought I was writing the kind of stories people didn’t want to read,” he said, going on to describe how his desperation drove him to destroy his own work. “I actually destroyed the manuscript, I even went on my friends’ computers and erased it.”
James is hardly alone. Time and time again, the literary establishment seizes on the story of a writer who meets inordinate obstacles, including financial struggles, crippling self-doubt, and rejection across the board, only to finally achieve the recognition and success they deserve. From Stephen King (whose early novel Carrie was rejected 30 times before being published), to Alex Haley (whose epic Roots was rejected 200 times in eight years), this seems to be the normal way of doing business for writers. In fact, there’s Litrejections – an entire website dedicated to bestsellers that were initially rejected.
But wait. Perhaps it wasn’t lack of imagination on the part of those publishers. Nor was it an unconscious bias against a new and unfamiliar narrative—one that they didn’t regard as “mainstream.” Maybe it was a complex business decision based on multiple factors instead. So, let’s examine some reasons for rejections, as reported by Cracked.
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Facing rejection after rejection, Rowling decided she needed an agent. She thumbed through a directory and chose Christopher Little because the name sounded like a character in a children’s book. She shipped her manuscript off to Little’s office, where it met a familiar fate: An assistant tossed it straight into the rejection pile because Little thought that children’s books didn’t make any money.
Rowling’s illustrations caught the eye of Little’s assistant while she was sending out the rejections. She convinced Little, who signed Rowling on… at which point publishers continued to reject Harry Potter. Finally, Little shipped it off to Bloomsbury Publishing, where chairman Nigel Newton agreed to look at it as a personal favor.
Newton then did something that apparently never occurred to other children’s book publishers, which was to show it to an actual child. He tossed the manuscript to his 8-year-old daughter, who devoured it in hours and came back to him demanding more. Only at that point did someone finally decide, “Eh, let’s put some copies out there. Who knows, maybe this will make us all enough money that we can each live on an island made of gold.”
Animal Farm by George Orwell
One of the 100 greatest novels of the last century, Animal Farm was repeatedly rejected because it criticized Britain’s ally – Stalin. And one American publisher rejected the book on the grounds that there was no market for “animal stories” in the USA.
Publisher Jonathan Cape almost pulled the trigger, but then backed out of the deal. Why? Well, he consulted the Ministry of Information (an agency set up in the U.K. during the war to manage propaganda), and the guy he talked to there advised him against it. That man was Peter Smollett, and he was later confirmed to be a Soviet spy.
The manuscript then made its way to famed poet T.S. Eliot, who was director of the publishing company Faber and Faber at the time. Eliot wasn’t big on it, either — he sent Orwell a detailed letter explaining why he thought Animal Farm had totally missed the head of the ideological nail, admitting that the novella was very well-written but that Orwell was being a bit too hard on poor old Stalin, who maybe perhaps wasn’t so bad of a guy after all, you know?
Four publishers passed on Animal Farm before it finally got published in 1945 — after the war was safely over and nobody cared about Stalin anymore.
And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street by Dr. Seuss
Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, was a writer and illustrator of advertisements, polishing up his first book on the side. And the world came damn close to condemning Seuss to a lifetime of writing ad copy, because his first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected by everyone who saw it. The manuscript was rejected by 27 publishers, and the verdict was unanimous: It was just too different and “silly.”
After this barrage of rejections, Dr. Seuss vowed to torch the manuscript. But in a coincidence that might best be described as Seussian, he bumped into an old friend, Marshall McClintock, on the very same day that McClintock had become the children’s book editor for Vanguard Press. He either liked the book or maybe just felt sorry for his old friend, and he agreed to publish it.
Dr. Seuss’ children’s books have gone on to sell a mind-boggling 600 million copies.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
A Confederacy of Dunces is a Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy considered by many to be the funniest book ever written. But the story behind how it got published is almost as insane as the story itself. It’s a shining example of how, through hard work and unyielding perseverance, anyone can make their lifelong dreams come true.
Wait, no. It’s actually sort of the exact opposite of that.
In contrast to the other entries on this list, when young struggling writer John Kennedy Toole shipped his precious manuscript off to Simon & Schuster, it immediately garnered the attention of the senior editor. That senior editor was Robert Gottlieb, and while he saw the novel’s potential, he also thought it wasn’t quite where it needed to be. So he embarked on a string of successive requests for revisions, which Toole readily complied with because, hey, if a big-time publisher shows interest in your manuscript, you damn well do as he says. But Gottlieb eventually lost interest in the book, writing:
“With all its wonderfulness … [the book] does not have a reason. It isn’t really about anything. And that’s something no one can do anything about.”
Again, it’s feedback that in retrospect probably looks silly (starting from around the time it won the Pulitzer), but the point is, if Simon & Schuster didn’t want A Confederacy of Dunces, nobody else did, either.
Five years later, the author killed himself.
And thus, Toole’s ingenious, future prize-winning tragicomedy that wasn’t about anything was relegated to a dusty dresser drawer in his mom’s house. Toole’s mother then set out on a seven-year mission to get her son’s work published and prove to the world that he was the genius she believed him to be. When her submissions to publishers (pretty much all of them, with the exception of Simon & Schuster) resulted in rejection, she set her sights on esteemed author Walker Percy and (quite literally) stalked the man until he agreed to read the manuscript. Percy later admitted that he’d hoped that it was so bad that he could discard it after reading a couple of pages, but he found quite the opposite to be true — after finishing the manuscript, he penned a letter to Toole’s mother filled with basically every synonym for “extraordinary.”
Walker became the biggest proponent for getting the novel published, and he succeeded — 11 years after Toole’s suicide. The world pretty much agreed that the book was fabulous and tossed Toole the posthumous Pulitzer Prize for fiction as a consolation prize.
Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen
“They all said it was a stupid title, that nobody bought collections of short stories, that there was no edge — no sex, no violence. Why would anyone read it?”
At one point, Hansen went so far as to collect preorders from people saying that they would buy the books. He’d walk into pitch meetings with a briefcase full of little coupons signed by guaranteed customers — 20,000 of them — and publishers still said no. Hey, do you know another industry in which you can present a distributor with tens of thousands of guaranteed sales and still get turned down?
In the end, the fate of the book came down to finding a publisher who was desperate enough. That publisher was Health Communications, a small company specializing in recovery books on subjects like alcoholism and drug addiction, and they were seriously hurting financially. When they saw Chicken Soup for the Soul, they immediately loved it and snapped it right up for a hefty advance of zero dollars. Then they watched as approximately every English-speaking person on Earth bought a copy.
And thus Health Communications was pulled back from the brink of bankruptcy, Canfield and Hansen became bajillionaires, and no one’s grandmother ever had to go hurting for reading material ever again.
So what, you may ask. What it matter if writers must develop a thick skin? Would the world be such a better place had Toole produced some further books?
Well, for one thing, I don’t see much cause to celebrate when writers of such profound talent are roundly rejected in the course of business as normal. I remain perplexed by a system that creates the conditions by which manuscripts that will go on to be lauded are first broadly rejected. If these authors persevered, how many more did not?
But there’s something more to it than that. While other sectors have certainly overlooked brilliant new ideas and missed opportunities for innovation, this fact isn’t usually romanticized or celebrated. In other sectors this level of oversight would be called “a system failure,” or “inefficiency,” or “failure to innovate.” All sorts of policies and practices would be put into place to try to prevent this from happening in the future.
The only one who has actually disrupted this obviously problematic environment is Amazon. A lot of people complain about the company, but from where I’m standing, Bezos stepped up and created a genuine game-changer. For the first time ever, authors can reach readers with no intermediaries to stop them.
Does this guarantee success? No, or half of the posts in this blog wouldn’t be about book promotion. But it does mean that a major roadblock has been removed from your path. And this is good news for both readers and authors.
So, while we’re still waiting for a self-critiquing evaluative discussion or a major effort to improve the situation by the literary world, the world is changing all around them.
About time, I say.