I probably have more sympathy than most people for all those editors whom history has come to ridicule for rejecting stories that have now become classics.
I freely admit I spent many years on the literary hot seat. As an acquisitions editor, and later, as an executive editor tasked with making the final call on whether a manuscript should be accepted or rejected, I have had my share of second thoughts. Is this narrative really a diamond in the rough? Am I glossing over that indefinable spark, that ability to engage the reader and keep momentum going? Am I missing something beneath the amateurish dialogue and regrettable syntax? Should I really cut this one loose?
Before each of those famous ultimate bad calls, I picture that beleaguered editorial spokesperson approaching the unpublished work of some unknown, eager author wearing two hats: one, that of a first reader, who is either immediately drawn in or turned off by a story, and another, that of a marketing genie who must guess at the public’s tastes, because, as a representative of a publishing house that is above all a commercial enterprise, the editor’s job is to take the literary temperature of the reading public, and estimate the ability of the story in question to turn a profit.
The public is fickle. Tastes change. What’s hot today may likely be done to death in 18 months, which used to be the average turnaround time from submission of manuscript to finished book on the retail shelves.
But now the publishing landscape has utterly transformed. Stories can be published digitally in a heartbeat, marketing methods are no longer traditional, and non-fiction authors usually require a “platform.” If they don’t have one, they’re told to get one…that is, successfully brand themselves as experts in their fields.
Today’s authors with a dream and the means can easily self-publish the book of their hearts, but for many, the ultimate is still acceptance and publication by a traditional publishing house. And such acceptance is often an elusive pot of gold.
That makes rejection devastating. And sometimes, in the end, dead wrong for all concerned. Reflecting on the consequences of those decisions for book lovers worldwide prompted me to provide this list of twelve now-famous bad calls:
- Sent to Dr. Seuss, who became the ninth best-selling fiction author of all time:
“Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”
- To Zane Grey, with over 250 million books in print:
“You have no business being a writer, and should give up.”
- Judy Blume, who has combined sales of 80 million, received two years’ worth of rejections telling her that
“ your fiction would have no readership.”
- Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, who have sold 25 million copies of Chicken Soup for the Soul, received 140 rejections stating:
“Anthologies don’t sell.”
- To J.D. Salinger, who, to his credit, did a rewrite of Catcher in the Rye and went on to sell 65 million copies:
“We feel we don’t know the central character well enough.”
- To Vladmir Nabokov about Lolita, initially shunned by all major publishers, who later relented to the tune of 50 million copies:
“I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”
- To Jacqueline Suzann, who refused to give up on Valley of the Dolls, and eventually sold 30 million copies:
“Undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer.”
(M.Z.: Well, yeah……)
8.To Irving Stone, author of Lust for Life, the biographical novel about Vincent Van Gogh that sold 25 million copies:
“A long, dull novel about an artist.”
- To L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:
“Too radical of a departure from traditional juvenile literature.”
- To Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road:
“frenetic and scrambled prose.”
- To Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows:
“An irresponsible holiday story that will never sell.”
12.To Otto Frank, and his agent, about his daughter, Anne’s, wartime diary:
“The girl doesn’t it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”
Colossal misjudgments, yes? Or merely wrong guesses as to which way the current zeitgeist was blowing?
And twelve reminders that when it comes to predicting popular appeal, there are simply no absolute right answers!