Here’s another of those perennial articles listing the blockbuster books that were initially rejected by publisher after publisher.
I remember I used to own a book that was a collection of editors’ rejection letters for great classic and popular works. It made for entertaining reading—comforting as well, back in the days when I was sending out my own fiction and poetry.
One case I particularly remember, although it’s not on the above list, was that of James Alfred Wright, a man you probably know better as James Herriot. His books of veterinary vignettes are vastly entertaining and really well-written, too, little masterpieces of their genre, and have rightly been extraordinarily popular ever since their publication. But their publication took a while. I can’t find the story online, but they certainly were not grabbed by the first editor who read them, despite their obvious broad appeal and high quality.
The whole thing makes one wonder whether publishers have any sense at all. Perhaps editors are so busy trying to finesse the moneymaking part of it that they lose sight of what people might like to read and why. Like hidebound generals, they’re always fighting the last war, trying to re-create the last best-seller, and have become afraid of their own shadows and of what they perceive as risk.
And no, this isn’t sour grapes. I haven’t sent out any of my “creative” work in over a decade; really don’t even think about it as a rule. It seems so archaic, trying to please the gatekeepers whose minds were running along a different track than mine, and who only accepted an infinitesimal percentage of submissions anyway. And the copying expense, pre-home-computer! And the postage (including the SASE, or “self-addressed stamped envelope”) pre-email! And the waiting time! Some periodicals replied quickly, sending rejection letters back with such force and vigor that I imagined them as having bounced off a springy backboard. Others would sit on things for many months and then finally reply with the ubiquitous form letter, if they even deigned to grace me with the courtesy of a reply.
Worst of all were the near-misses. Somewhere in my musty files I have a series of “we almost took this but not quite, and please send us more” letters from fairly well-known publications. That and a dime (or two bucks and change at Starbucks these days) will get you a cup of coffee, and in fact many of these publications are now either defunct or no longer publish short stories, which was the genre I was submitting.
The worst experience of that type was a publication which had accepted a story of mine pending my changing a couple of sentences, which I promptly did and sent it back. They were going to pay me three thousand dollars, too, which was quite a bit at the time (late 80s?)—or even now, for that matter. But then I got a letter from them saying they had changed editors and were no longer going to be accepting or publishing fiction at all. I seem to have entered the field right on the cusp of the decline of the magazine short story.
It all seems like ancient history to me now. I’ve grown accustomed to having the freedom to write what I want to when I want to, and to publish it myself—and, most importantly, to have an audience with whom to converse. Back then, the few times I got something published (always in somewhat obscure journals), it was like dropping it in a deep and murky well. It sank without a trace, and I have no idea whether people even read it or not, and if so, what they might have thought of it. I much prefer blogging, even though I’m not getting three thousand bucks a pop.
[NOTE: The title of this post refers to this French phrase, which I learned in art history class long ago.]