The traditional publishing industry does not exactly have 100% record of identifying books carrying the stamp of massive popularity and commercial success. Consider this list of best-sellers from various genres and their initial rejection totals (source: “How Stuff Works“):
- Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (38)
- Dune by Frank Herbert (20)
- Carrie by Stephen King (30)
- Dubliners by James Joyce (22)
- M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker (21)
- Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl (20)
- Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis (15)
- Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (140)
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (12)
- The Peter Principle by Laurence Peter (16)
- Lorna Doone by Richard Doddridge Blackmore (18)
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (121)
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (22)
- Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison by Charles Shaw (20)
- Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach (18)
You might have heard of some of these stunning best-sellers – but not thanks to the many publishers who saw no potential.
We All Make Mistakes
The book-publishing industry is not alone in “playing safe”. We have experienced much merriment over the years concerning Decca Records’ rejection of the Beatles in 1961 because “guitar groups are on the way out” and “The Beatles have no future in show business”. (You might have heard of the Beatles.)
Decca saw no track record, no (London) following and made a guess. And that applies to publishers. Most of the above authors had never been previously published. No track record, no following. Back then, all the publishers could do was to draw upon their experience of what sells and make a judgement call.
Who can honestly say they never made a mistake in their professional lives? I forgive each single one of these bad judgements, but am horrified at the overall totals. Is it really so hard to spot a great read?
Like these multi-rejected writers, the Beatles had the confidence and drive to keep trying until they got a contract.
So How Do You Spot A Winner?
John Lennon said, when asked about the secret of their success, “If we knew that, we’d form another group and be managers.”
Next post, I’ll look at “How To Spot A Winner” in the publishing industry.
4 thoughts on “Failing To Spot A Winner”
Excellent points that you make. Makes one think that the publishing industry isn’t far from the casino industry but there, the house always has the edge. With publishing or producing (records, tV shows and the like), they don’t make money unless what they pick becomes a best seller or gets sold or brings eyeballs (in the case of TV). Still, editors who are human, make these decisions and the fact that a book like “A Million Little Pieces” by James Frey (yes, the one where he basically made it all up but passed it off as a memoir and then got yelled at by Oprah for doing so) got published (and to my shame, I bought it, but I’m a sucker for a good recovery story), but Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance got 122 rejections (but eventually someone saw it’s potential and published it), does make one pause. You could argue that Million Pieces was a winner because of suckers like me. You could also argue that Zen was an eventual winner because of “suckers” like me (it’s one of my all-time favorite books). That’s actually the one that I think is most surprising on this list. I can understand the lack of appeal of the chicken soup books (they’re mostly pablum), and the others have rejections but not over 100 rejections. And I’m guessing that most really good “bestseller” books can have 15-20 rejections on a regular basis before publication. It may seem like a lot to me who hasn’t tried to get anything published, but is it? I don’t know. But still, 122 rejections – just makes me admire Pirsig even more to go through all that! Thank goodness he didn’t give up.
That rejections list IS pretty scary. I don’t know how I would handle 122 rejections.
The “no simultaneous submissions” rule prevents an aspiring author from submitting a manuscript to more than one publisher at a time. Unless you get a fast response (which is unlikely for an unknown writer), you could wait years to be published if initial responses are negative. I assume, of course, that the work is actually worth publishing – many rejections are very valid 😉
It certainly argues for a confident writer to self-publish and I will be covering that in upcoming posts 😉
Thanks for this, Andy. I’ve been send out query letters to agents, and haven’t been keeping up with my blogs, but this came at the right time for em.
My own blog posting has been slipping down the priority list recently, in favour of writing, revising, editing and promoting anthologies including some of my short stories. “Writers write, right?” Hmmm… and so much else besides. I wish you luck with your agent search – you can expect it to take a long time, from what I have heard. As I am pushing 63, I don’t have time for the slow process of agent-and-publisher; I intend to self-publish my novels, so they will be online while I can still enjoy seeing them there.