Thursday, May 3, 2007

Do all good works get published?

The writer sends out, and sends out again, and again and again, and the rejections keep coming, whether printed slips or letters, and so at last the moment comes when many a promising writer folds his wings and drops. His teachers and classmates praised him, back in school, his spouse is baffled by the rejections; but the writer’s despair wins out. It’s a terrible thing to write for five or even ten years and continue to be rejected. (I know.) And so at last, down goes another good writer. Let no one tell you that all good writers eventually get published.

—John Gardner

(Gardner himself was rejected for ten years, and unpublished through five completed novels—all five of which were finally published to substantial acclaim. Unlike most novelists, Gardner is an author still in print twenty-five years after his death…but what if he’d listened to agents and editors for those first nine years and eleven months?)

Do all good works find a publisher? Ask almost any editor or agent, and the answer will be, “Of course not.” Most editors have a story about a great book they couldn’t convince their house to buy, and it is a rare agent who doesn’t have a tale of woe about hawking a fabulous novel from house-to-house without success.

One would think that most writers would automatically take Gardner’s side, and assume there are, if not many, at least some excellent manuscripts that never see the light of day. There are simply too many fine books—Gardner’s are a case in point—that almost didn’t make it to print for us to assume that, by some miracle, everything publishable gets published, with some squeaking by at the last-minute as though life is a Hollywood movie.

“Publishable” is, of course, a dangerous word, inviting obvious circular logic. There are a wide range of books that nearly didn’t find a publisher ranging from the highly literary to the strictly commercial. It is hard to see what The Hunt for Red October and October Light have in common besides coming from authors who had difficulty in finding a publisher. (And, oh, yeah, the October thing. Moral: never use October in a title.)

James Lee Burke’s Pulitzer-nominated Lost Get-Back Boogie went to 111 editors before it found a home; Pirsig’s bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance may hold the record at 121 editors (though Zen, of course, isn’t a novel). Today, with submission-tracking software in place at most houses, submitting to more than 100 editors isn’t possible, but even if it were, you’d have to assume that for every James Lee Burke, there must be someone with a decent book who stopped shy of submitting to every possible publisher…or who hit that last publisher on a bad day.

So everyone must agree that there are bound to be plenty of publishable books that never see the light of day, right?

Wrong. Not everyone agrees. There are a surprising number of folks out there—mostly published authors, I hasten to add—who will tell you that any good book will eventually be published, and that if a book doesn’t find a publisher, this constitutes irrefutable evidence that it simply isn’t good enough. This circular logic is particularly common at certain web forums (, for all its other virtues, is pervaded by this point of view). At a time when many fine, long-established midlist authors are unable to get their fourth or fifth or fifteenth books published, this attitude seems both cruel and unhelpful.

Insofar as the accusation that your book isn’t good enough sends you back to your manuscript to improve it, this can have a salutary effect. But keep in mind that there are many reasons your book might not be selling other than the quality of the book.

Perhaps your agent systematically sent it to exactly the wrong person at every press. Perhaps it was perfect for one editor, but that editor had the flu when she read it. Perhaps the imprint had just acquired a similar book. Perhaps the imprint’s list was full. Perhaps there had just been a sales conference and everyone had agreed that thrillers/chick lit/black lit/erotica/horror/your genre is headed into a downturn. Perhaps your name is Sherman, and the editor had a very bad relationship with someone named Sherman.

As a reader, I reject books every time I walk into a bookstore. When I pick up a book and glance it over, and then decide not to buy, that doesn’t usually mean I hate the book, or that I judge it to be a bad book. It just means that, as they say, it doesn’t meet my needs at that time. This says more about my needs, and about my wallet, than about the book.

I have a friend (of a far more sanguine nature than I) who has become convinced there are many good books slipping between the cracks, and so he’s started a publishing company, Iota Publishing. Now, publishing strikes me as an uphill battle even for those houses already long-established, so I tend to put this in the class of extremely brave but quixotic ventures—especially as he is going with traditional offset printing and binding rather than copping out with POD. But with only limited publicity and no publication record at all, damned if he hasn’t already found some decent manuscripts.

Then again, since some of the best writers I’ve read aren’t yet published, I’m not terribly surprised.

I suppose this is the real problem: Is your manuscript unsold because it simply isn’t good enough, or are you a victim of, say, bad planetary alignments?

Lawyers tell you never to ask questions to which you don’t know the answer, but I’m afraid I just asked one...


Roger Morris said...

I have to agree with you here. I have spent more years as an unpublished novelist than a published one, and there was a point where I thought I would never get published. I was staring the end of the road in the face. Everything looks inevitable with hindsight, but I am extremely aware how precarious and luck-laden any success in this game is. Of course, if you stick around for long enough, and refuse to do the sensible thing of just giving up, then maybe the breaks will go your way eventually. But I was told at one point that my name was starting to meet resistance with editors: ie, they had seen enough of me and wanted fresh names. I prepared myself emotionally for giving up, threw the dice for one last time, without any real hope...

David Isaak said...

Thanks for laying that out, Roger, as you're a spectacular case in point.

The frightening thing is that experiences like yours draw no clear lesson for other writers. Once could argue that your case shows that talent coupled with determination will always win out eventually, and I'd really like to believe the world works that way.

A rationalist would probably argue that talent and hard work are necessary but not sufficient, and that luck is the third component, which comes along when it pleases (and that may include 'never').

And as a thrid option, I sometimes have an intuition that there's no one Lady Fortuna loves better than a writer who stares despair in the face and then moves forward in the absence of hope. So many writers seem to be on the verge of quitting when their big break occurs.

Makes for better drama, I suppose, though I'd be happy to keep the drama on the page and my head out of the oven. But maybe Fortuna needs her dose of entertainment first?