Steps to a writing career.
August 6, 2013 9:23 AM   Subscribe

The man who turned rejection into a career. Chuck 'Ross had written a mystery novel that had been turned down everywhere he sent it. So, as an experiment to see how the publishing business really worked, he retyped a National Book Award-winning novel -- "Steps," by Jerzy Kosinski -- and submitted it to 14 major publishers and 13 top agents. But he didn't put a title on it, and he didn't put Kosinski's name on it.'

'Every publisher and every agent turned it down. None recognized that they were rejecting a book that had already been a bestseller and had already won the National Book Award. So much for talent being judged on its own merit.'
posted by VikingSword (149 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Maybe they can sense timewasters?
posted by Artw at 9:27 AM on August 6, 2013 [15 favorites]


There's something fundamentally broken with this industry. J K Rowling's latest book is further proof of this.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:28 AM on August 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


J K Rowling's latest book is further proof of this.

How so?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:31 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ah yes, the ultra-clever gambit of proving they didn't read until the end so they don't know how good it is! If I have to read all the way to the end to find out whether or not it's a good book... it's not. If the first chapter isn't interesting enough to make an agent or editor want to keep reading, why on earth would the last pages suddenly make it retrospectively a wonderful book?
posted by skycrashesdown at 9:32 AM on August 6, 2013 [11 favorites]


Yeah, I don't know how much this tell us. That it's not 1968 and the market for experimental fiction is smaller? I wonder what the result would have been if he had tried smaller presses. Anyhoo, the slush pile has always contributed a small percentage of works that make it to publication. If you want to see your book in print, self-publish-- or get a good agent.
posted by gwint at 9:32 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


FFS Unsolicited manuscript submission for publishing houses and agents must be a nightmare.
posted by lalochezia at 9:32 AM on August 6, 2013 [14 favorites]


I remember an agent talking about the last time someone tried this and it was yeah basically they don't reply to obvious time wasters and / or potentially problamatic mentally ill people
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:32 AM on August 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


The buried lede is that he did this in the 70s.
posted by jessamyn at 9:32 AM on August 6, 2013 [21 favorites]



The buried lede is that he did this in the 70s.


Yea, you need to RTFA to see that.
posted by sweetkid at 9:34 AM on August 6, 2013 [12 favorites]


That jawn was buried! Nice exhumation.
posted by Mister_A at 9:34 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anyhoo, the slush pile has always contributed a small percentage of works that make it to publication.

You just restated the problem.
posted by DU at 9:36 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I heard of someone doing a similar stunt to "prove" the same point by retyping the script of Casablanca.

The thing is, publishers are not obliged to publish your novel even if it's good. Right or wrong, good or bad, they know what they're looking for. If they don't see something they want to publish in your manuscript, even if it's brilliant, that doesn't mean some fundamental injustice has occurred, it means they weren't attracted to the manuscript for reasons entirely their own.

Also, this stunt had the basic flaw that 'Steps' was by a writer who had an incredible buzz around him at the time and everything he wrote was selling. That was what got it published, not some genius submissions editor reading it and saying "this is excellent and will win the National Book Award!"
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:36 AM on August 6, 2013 [18 favorites]


Someday some poor slush pile reader is going to discover something wonderful in a style that might seem a bit antiquated but the world is ready for again and it'll get everyone else up the chain excited and it'll go to print and it'll turn out that it's some asshole submitting Jane Austen or what the fuck ever again.
posted by Artw at 9:36 AM on August 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yeah, the idea that you have to finish a book (or movie or meal) to know if it's good or not is wrong. He should have taken the lesson to heart that he had failed to write a compelling book, and worked on his craft.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:37 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


This isn't a surprising result, is it? Everybody knows it's next to impossible to get anyone to read a work that isn't from an established working author or that doesn't have some bigger money-making deal (a movie, some other creative property) tied up in it. Talent/merit is necessary but not sufficient in just about every creative industry. Personal connections/wealth/popularity can be substituted for required merit credits in just about any field. But new books do still occasionally get published, so it works out for some people eventually.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:37 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


He had put a little seal on the last few pages of the manuscript -- the pages that were the payoff to his story.

Tobias Fünke: So fill each one of these bags with some glitter, my photo resume, some candy, and a note.

Mae 'Maebe' Funke: [reading one of the notes] "I know where you live, ha ha!" Casting directors hate this.

Narrator: They really do.

Casting Director: [cut to casting director's office] The glitter queen struck again. Never hire Tobias Funke.
posted by The Whelk at 9:37 AM on August 6, 2013 [20 favorites]


Getting really good with Google Books searches may, I suspect, be a valuable skill for publishersin future, assuming they exist in future.
posted by Artw at 9:38 AM on August 6, 2013


Maybe they just didn't have a form letter for "Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, blatant plagiarism is not what we are looking for at this time."
posted by Sys Rq at 9:38 AM on August 6, 2013 [15 favorites]


Similar anecdotes abound. Conversely, there was The King's Daughters, an erotic retelling of the Grimm fairy tale, that was submitted anonymously to various publishers, and only found a publisher when Arnold Wesker revealed he'd written it.
posted by raygirvan at 9:39 AM on August 6, 2013


I think that much, if not most of life is like this. Luck, and other ancillary factors, are far more influential than inherent skill, talent, or intelligence, in nearly all aspects of life. The situations where you can make something good, and people discover and find you, and you receive recognition/reward for it, just doesn't happen that often.

The simplistic free-market rules all, all I need is something good and others will find me, just doesn't work out in most cases.
posted by Llama-Lime at 9:39 AM on August 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yeah, the idea that you have to finish a book (or movie or meal) to know if it's good or not is wrong.

Also, the idea that getting/not getting your book published means it is good or not is also wrong, as George_Spiggott's comment explains.

People publish books to make money, not to further the development of human culture or reward accomplishment or merit. It's pretty simple. We may not like it, but that's how it works.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:40 AM on August 6, 2013 [14 favorites]


I heard of someone doing a similar stunt to "prove" the same point by retyping the script of Casablanca.

Apparently it was the same Chuck Ross.
posted by cazoo at 9:40 AM on August 6, 2013


How so?

Because sales of The Cuckoo's Calling took off only after Rowling was exposed as its author. I admit that consumers have to carry some of the blame here. Imagine how much great literature we don't get to experience simply because the author isn't known or marketed enough.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:41 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Man am I glad I stopped writing. I can't even fathom trying to figure out what publishers are looking for. All the more so as very few new publications have blown me away in the past few years.
posted by Anima Mundi at 9:43 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


It might have been a very nice book, but not right for the publishers he selected as well.
posted by Mister_A at 9:43 AM on August 6, 2013


Pointing to the briefcase I said: "How do you know you are going to reject them?"

"If they were any good, they wouldn't be dropped at my hotel by the writers in person. Some New York agent would have them."

"Then why take them at all?"

"Partly not to hurt feelings. Partly the thousand-to-one chance all publishers live for. But mostly you're at a cocktail party and get introduced to all sorts of people, and some of them have novels written and you are just liquored up enough to be benevolent and full of love for the human race, so you say you'd love to see the script. It is then dropped at your hotel with such sickening speed that you are forced to go through the motions of reading it. But I don't suppose you are much interested in publishers and their problems."
-- The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:43 AM on August 6, 2013 [27 favorites]


Also, the idea that getting/not getting your book published means it is good or not is also wrong, as George_Spiggott's comment explains.

Sure. But the average quality of a novel published by a major publisher is orders of magnitude higher than the average quality of an unpublished novel. Have you ever seen the stuff in a slush pile?
posted by Justinian at 9:44 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Imagine how much great literature we don't get to experience simply because the author isn't known or marketed enough.

You could always browse the free-$1 self-published ebooks on Amazon or Apple Book Store. You might discover a gem. I guess you might also get a feel for what it's like being a publisher, and having to search through a pile of shit for that gem.
posted by Jimbob at 9:45 AM on August 6, 2013 [37 favorites]


I can't even fathom trying to figure out what publishers are looking for.

Crime novels are still the most profitable genre. Followed by Romance.

So, guns and kissing.
posted by The Whelk at 9:45 AM on August 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


Once in a high school English class, I accidentally turned in a cover sheet on top of a blank sheet of paper and got an A. I always thought it was because that teacher was an incompetent, lazy ass, but apparently he was more qualified to teach Lit than I thought.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:45 AM on August 6, 2013 [14 favorites]


This reminds me of the time I retyped one of sonascope's comments and still didn't get any favourites.
posted by ODiV at 9:46 AM on August 6, 2013 [31 favorites]



This reminds me of the time I retyped one of sonascope's comments and still didn't get any favourites.
posted by The Whelk at 9:47 AM on August 6, 2013 [65 favorites]


I have a novel about these guns that kiss each other.
posted by Mister_A at 9:47 AM on August 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


You're Jonathan Letham?
posted by The Whelk at 9:48 AM on August 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


How so?

Because sales of The Cuckoo's Calling took off only after Rowling was exposed as its author.


Maybe it wasn't very good?
posted by Artw at 9:48 AM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've also heard that submissions editors often take the approach, with any unrepresented or unknown work, of reading just until the point where they find something to dislike, and take that as their reason to stop. They don't take this approach with represented or known authors.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:48 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


None recognized that they were rejecting a book that had already been a bestseller and had already won the National Book Award.

This is a really, really big assumption that isn't borne out by the evidence. Why would a publisher or an agent that gets yet another plagiarized manuscript waste their time by sending anything other than a stock rejection? They're not going to write back and say "ha, ha, nice try, but our slush reader recognized this book right off. Fuck you, buddy."
posted by restless_nomad at 9:49 AM on August 6, 2013 [15 favorites]


None recognized that they were rejecting a book that had already been a bestseller and had already won the National Book Award.

^^^ - i'm too slow - ^^^
posted by mrgrimm at 9:51 AM on August 6, 2013


Which is why good representation is so important. A known, trusted, and well-connected agent can be the difference between languishing for months or suddently being everywhere.

I still wish big publishing firms either did more competent marketing for their authors or did like...any at all. That burden almost always falls on the author's side and it blows.
posted by The Whelk at 9:52 AM on August 6, 2013


Have you ever seen the stuff in a slush pile?

Well, yes. I've edited a couple of zines and academic literary journals (which isn't exactly the same thing as working for a major publishing house, but its basically the same thing on a smaller, probably even more disgusting scale--I remember our little stapled zine once actually got a submission in which the outside of the envelope had been decorated with what the author's letter informed us was menstrual flow), and I've run an indie record label, so I'm acutely aware that the vast majority of random submissions are going to be crap.

But TBH, I've also had some really high-quality material come my way when I was running the label that I passed on because we didn't have the resources to really do the work justice. And when I was poetry editor for our undergrad literary journal at the university, we did eventually find tolerably good work buried in that slush pile, all other things being equal.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:52 AM on August 6, 2013


Artw: Maybe it wasn't very good?

According to this NPR piece, the reviews were excellent before the great reveal.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:53 AM on August 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


You could always browse the free-$1 self-published ebooks on Amazon or Apple Book Store. You might discover a gem. I guess you might also get a feel for what it's like being a publisher

This is a fun experiment, but yeah, good luck.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:53 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


You could always browse the free-$1 self-published ebooks on Amazon or Apple Book Store. You might discover a gem. I guess you might also get a feel for what it's like being a publisher, and having to search through a pile of shit for that gem.

This is exactly why I stopped reading science fiction. I couldn't find a way to reliably separate the good from the shit and boy was I ever tired of the shit. That was just from reading things that I thought would be good. I can't even fathom how awful it would be to read for work.
posted by srboisvert at 9:54 AM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also, life is not fair. Fortune often goes to the fortunate.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:54 AM on August 6, 2013


Wow, tough room. I'd have thought that this really just goes to prove the old saying about Hollywood: "nobody knows anything." That is, publishers don't, actually, have a really good idea what will and won't sell, they don't have some magical ability to read a couple of chapters of something and say "this is a pointless waste of time" or "this will be a megahit!" I'm not sure why most people in this thread are leaping to the defense of the publishing house's slush-pile readers. Not, of course, that they're doing anything wrong--it is an inherently impossible job. But he wasn't trying to convict them of doing something wrong--he's just showing that whatever else it is, it's not a guaranteed method of winnowing out the winners from the losers.

The real question, though, is why he bothered with the experiment. It's not as if it hadn't already been carried out hundreds of times before. There are more stories than you can count of eventual best-sellers that were turned down myriad times by myriad publishers: Harry Potter being a pretty relevant case in point.
posted by yoink at 9:54 AM on August 6, 2013 [9 favorites]


Have you ever seen the stuff in a slush pile?

I remember an interview with a publisher that said that you don't get that many written in green crayon type submissions but you do get a hell of lot of B to C/D level material and they could only afford to publish / take a risk on A/A+ stuff
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:55 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


You could always browse the free-$1 self-published ebooks on Amazon or Apple Book Store. You might discover a gem. I guess you might also get a feel for what it's like being a publisher, and having to search through a pile of shit for that gem.

saulgoodman: I've run an indie record label, so I'm acutely aware that the vast majority of random submissions are going to be crap

As a former music director for a decent college radio station, dear gods yes. I imagine the experience would be similar for screening writing, except it's harder to skim through a book and get a good sense of it. Some is easy to screen: terribly writing can jump out at you, and ridiculous stuff can be a fun break. But the hum-drum stuff is what really wears on you. So many sound-alikes, that even music you're excited about can turn to mush in your ears. If you find yourself in that situation, I suggest listening to some harsh noise. Seriously, it really cleans the ears out. I'm not sure what you could do as a book reviewer, though.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:57 AM on August 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


This assumes that the purposes of the industry is to get every talented publisher published. I'm not sure much of life actually works this way, really. I wish merit alone was what moves the world ahead, but, assuming a lot of good stuff from which the industry can pick, it's also about connections, moments of convenience vs. other ongoing projects currently in play by publishers, and a myriad of other variables. I've turned down good things in life simply because I don't have time or resources to move something ahead, even if it has inherent value. If the industry was trying to get crap published over good work, that might be something. But I think publishers probably have limited resources to publish from the good options that are currently there. And as such, there is perhaps a regular turning away of good things because of those limited resources.

The seals on the last few pages had not been broken. Not on any of the manuscripts.

It's indicative of something, but not perhaps not what the author concludes. One possibility is that the beginning of the novel was not written well enough to warrant a thorough read.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:59 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have a novel about these guns that kiss each other.

Wait, so people are writing Felix Gilman slash fic now? I can't keep up.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:59 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Which is why good representation is so important. A known, trusted, and well-connected agent can be the difference between languishing for months or suddently being everywhere.

The process of trying to find an agent is a major ordeal in its own way, though--half the time, the credible agencies aren't open to new authors at all, especially not if they haven't already had an introduction by some other channel; a lot of them require that you submit exclusively, meaning you can't do anything more with your manuscript but wait for a response to come or not come anywhere from 3 to 6 months later or risk being blacklisted on the basis of your poor professional etiquette.

But hey, them's the breaks. The only half-decent alternative might be better funded public programs to nurture non-commercially viable but culturally important creative works. Those programs do exist already, though they've gotten smaller and less important in the scheme of things in recent years.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:59 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Because sales of The Cuckoo's Calling took off only after Rowling was exposed as its author.

Why is that a problem with the publishing industry rather than the audience? The novel was published before the reveal, after all. It seems like you're blaming the wrong people.
posted by Justinian at 9:59 AM on August 6, 2013


The novel was published before the reveal, after all.

Not only that, but it was enthusiastically reviewed by people who knew nothing of the author's real identity. Seems like a win all around.
posted by yoink at 10:02 AM on August 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


he retyped a National Book Award-winning novel -- "Steps," by Jerzy Kosinski -

That's ok, kid. Kosinski stole some of his best stuff, too.
posted by octobersurprise at 10:08 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've also heard that submissions editors often take the approach, with any unrepresented or unknown work, of reading just until the point where they find something to dislike, and take that as their reason to stop. They don't take this approach with represented or known authors.

Pretty much. Nobody did this at mine, but I've heard writers talk about Clarion instructors going through all the stories for a session and drawing a thick red marker line across the page at the point where, if this had been a real submission to them at Magazine X, they would have stopped reading and moved on to the next sub. Supposedly, if your line was on page 2, you were doing great.
posted by Naberius at 10:10 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


This seems like a logical story to me. He wrote a novel, and book publishers recognized it wasn't very good. Result: rejection. Then he pulled a stunt, wrote it up, and magazine publishers recognized his ability to sensationalize. Result: he gets hired writing on entertainment beats.

The moral of the story has nothing to do with book publishers. The moral is about figuring out where your talents lie.
posted by cribcage at 10:15 AM on August 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


Here are some early reviews for The Cuckoo's Calling

Publishers Weekly, 2/25/2013
In a rare feat, the pseudonymous Galbraith combines a complex and compelling sleuth and an equally well-formed and unlikely assistant with a baffling crime in his stellar debut.
Booklist review (review date unlisted)
This debut is instantly absorbing, featuring a detective facing crumbling circumstances with resolve instead of clichéd self-destruction and a lovable sidekick with contagious enthusiasm for detection.
Shots: Crime and Thriller ezine (review date unknown)
This is a good debut novel with an excellent protagonist in Strike. However, if there is one thing that put a dampener on this debut novel is the fact that there is a tad too much repetition of information, which spoils this otherwise excellent story. Despite this I look forward to reading more about Cormoran Strike. He is fascinating to say the least.
But after the reveal, the only surprise in Rowling's 'Cuckoo's Calling' is the author. Hindsight is great.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:16 AM on August 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


I imagine the experience would be similar for screening writing, except it's harder to skim through a book and get a good sense of it.

Many moons ago, I ran, for a few months, the story department at one of the big three talent agencies in town. We usually got only scripts by represented writers. Our readers didn't have the option of skimming. We had to read the whole script, and then write coverage - the way I got to run the department was through a stunt of having done coverage for nine scripts over a twenty four hour period, when I was the assistant for the independent film agent. So let me tell you about reading scripts by already represented writers, folks who actually made money through writing: it was torture and hell. I cannot even imagine what it must be like to read unsolicited submissions from the general public. The only unsolicited scripts we took, were friends or relatives of agents who got the agent to promise s/he'll read their stuff. Of course, the agent would do no such thing, and instead it would be the job of the assistant to plow through the thing and give the agent a ten second oral summary. And of course, I too was prevailed upon, many times, by friends and friends of friends, to "give feedback" on their scripts. I'd rather eat rocks.
posted by VikingSword at 10:18 AM on August 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


He wrote a novel, and book publishers recognized it wasn't very good. Result: rejection.

There are just too many established cases of beloved literary classics being rejected by myriads of publishers for it to be possible to safely infer that his book "wasn't very good" from the fact that it got rejected a bunch of times. Of course, you can't infer that it was any good, either. But the notion that only bad books get rejected by publishers is demonstrably untrue.
posted by yoink at 10:19 AM on August 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


Have you ever seen the stuff in a slush pile?

Supposedly, if your line was on page 2, you were doing great.

I haven't done much prose slush-piling, but I've done the screenplay version ... and these two comments pretty much nail it.

A. the slush pile can be huge, but
B. most submissions are pretty much instantly dismissible

More on B. Dismissible comes in two categories (with overlap). 1. just awful-to-second-rate writing, no mastery of craft all. 2. really dull subject matter.

Interestingly, a piece that's pretty amateur in terms of craft can still garner interest if the idea/content is potent enough. I remember getting asked to story edit a screenplay that had been written by a young woman who'd done a lot of her growing up on the street. Technically, it was a mess (not just in terms of grammar etc, but also structurally) ... but it was engrossing stuff nonetheless. Unfortunately, she was completely incapable of working with an editor. We met once. I passed.
posted by philip-random at 10:21 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Forgive me for not researching this myself -- I daresay someone has written this up somewhere -- but my assumption is that J.K. Rowling did not go through the entire process of shopping her novel pseudonymously, that her contacts and information were involved in getting it published.

The thing about that world is if you're in, you're in. The agents are glad to talk to you, you know what's going on, how it's done. If you fuck up badly you can definitely fall off the A-List, but unless you completely flip out and end up doing meth in a trailer because you're frankly insane, you'll never really be back to square one again.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:24 AM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm betting that "being funny on the internet professionally" is enough agent bait myself. (of course I am obnoxiously privileged cause these people move in my social circles sooooo, yeah, fortune attracts fortune.)
posted by The Whelk at 10:26 AM on August 6, 2013


Some is easy to screen: terribly writing can jump out at you,

I see what you did there.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:26 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


We don't have all the details, so we make our own conclusions based on our assumptions. Several people here (maybe some in the publishing business?) assume that the publishers and agents recognized the Kosinski novel and considered their time being wasted.

It seems Chuck Ross actually got rejection letters for the Kosinski novel that didn't mention plagiarism. Maybe they just didn't bother. But my assumption is that these agents and publishers are not all geniuses and not only didn't recognize Kosinski's work, but also didn't recognize that the book is bestseller material.

As people have said, they probably get so much slush that it becomes hard to recognize the good stuff, so a new author getting published becomes more a matter of luck and connections than talent.

I can't even fathom trying to figure out what publishers are looking for.--Anima Mundi

Well, purely from a business point of view, they should be looking for what sells. Maybe it is too difficult to figure out what sells, but that should be the goal. If they can't do that then they aren't doing their job. Maybe a publisher should keep his agents on their toes and send some lesser known bestsellers to them every now and then. If they recognize it or recognize that it is a book that will sell (regardless of whether they personally like it or not), then the publishers will know that they have a good agent on their hands.
posted by eye of newt at 10:28 AM on August 6, 2013


There are just too many established cases of beloved literary classics being rejected by myriads of publishers for it to be possible to safely infer that his book "wasn't very good" from the fact that it got rejected a bunch of times.

Yeah, that's your classic "Bozo the Clown" fallacy. For every Henry Melville or J. K. Rowling that gets rejected umpteen times only to become a bestseller, there are not tens, not hundreds, but thousands of people who'd struggle to get their stories read on fanfiction.net.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:28 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Terribly, writing can jump out at you. It's a real problem and it's why you should always wear safety goggles before attempting to read any text of unknown provenance.
posted by theodolite at 10:29 AM on August 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


If you fuck up badly you can definitely fall off the A-List, but unless you completely flip out and end up doing meth in a trailer because you're frankly insane, you'll never really be back to square one again.

Megan Lindsholm Robin Hobb to the white courtesy phone please.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:30 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, purely from a business point of view, they should be looking for what sells. Maybe it is too difficult to figure out what sells, but that should be the goal.

A friend of mine who worked as a reader while a Fine Arts student basically said he'd had it to the eyeballs with reading Vampire scripts -- and that was a long time ago. As has been indirectly observed elsewhere recently on Metafilter, publishers (would-be publishers of popular piffle anyway) are looking for the next vampires, not actual vampires. He said the problem is that everyone writes what's popular now, when in fact those things went into development years earlier.

Saturday Night Live had a fairly high-concept sketch about an attempt to generate vampirelike tragic romance from Frankenstein-style monsters: tragically accidentally strangling people to death instead of biting their necks and sharing blood. It was funny in a too-cerebral-for-SNL's-audience sort of way.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:33 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that's your classic "Bozo the Clown" fallacy.

No, that would be if I said that you could infer it was good because it was rejected. I explicitly said that that was not the case. The fact that excellent novels are routinely rejected by agents and by publishers, however, does, quite logically, prove beyond any possible argument that we cannot safely infer from the mere fact of multiple rejections that a manuscript is of poor quality.
posted by yoink at 10:36 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


didn't recognize that the book is bestseller material

But "bestseller material" is essentially never independent of other factors. Pretty much every wildly popular debut novel has a huge marketing push behind it, aimed at not only the general reading public, but also reviewers, libraries, and booksellers. Sometimes that's preceded by sales out of the trunk of the author's car, Grisham-style, but that's more a feature that adds color to the later marketing push than something that can generate large-volume sales.
posted by asperity at 10:36 AM on August 6, 2013


I recently got a "we were not quite enthusiastic enough to pursue this" style soft rejection from an agency after getting a resubmit request for a query (after making some structural revisions my manuscript needed), and frankly, I'm taking all that as pretty positive, considering I'm a nobody who hasn't even shopped his work around (much less published) in the last 10 years.

I think yoink nailed it: the process is inherently imperfect and always will be. It's a just-world delusion to think everything that gets rejected is without merit, and it's a persecution fantasy to think merit doesn't factor in at all.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:37 AM on August 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


Oh man, I have read some stinky scripts in my time... from professional screenwriters... you've heard of... who got paid.

One Superman reboot script in particular had a character who was introduced as Lois Lane's niece, and was referred to as NIECE through the rest of the pages. 'Cause who needs a name anyway?!

But that script, that terrible time-waster, was a billion times better than some of the others in the slush pile.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:39 AM on August 6, 2013


'Cause who needs a name anyway?!

I'm well prepared to believe the script was a stinker, but this seems an odd thing to bring up as the final, definitive proof of its dreadfulness. I mean, what possible difference would it make to the quality of the script would the choice of name for Lois Lane's niece make? If she'd been called "Mary" would the script have suddenly fallen into place?

TBH, this seems like an example of the "read until you find a reason to discard" principle alluded to earlier.
posted by yoink at 10:47 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


"This book has been rejected by 14 publishers, so it is probably bad" is pretty solid inductive reasoning. By "we cannot safely infer....", you seem to be pointing out (correctly) that this isn't a valid deductive argument. But, thank God, we are not limited to the canons of deductive logic, when we reason, or we'd get nothing done at all. We'd have to read EVERY MANUSCRIPT, since it might be the genius exception. And no one has time for that.

(Actually "This book is probably bad" is also pretty good inductive reasoning.....)
posted by thelonius at 10:50 AM on August 6, 2013


"This book has been rejected by 14 publishers, so it is probably bad" is pretty solid inductive reasoning.

Not really. I mean "this book has been submitted to a publisher, so it is probably bad" is a pretty good starting point. Most books that are written are bad. So the question is what the added information value of rejection from the slushpile is. I would argue that that added information is actually incredibly low. The vast majority of MSS that come in over the transom to a publisher receive, at best, cursory examination, and they do so from bored, hassled, underpaid people who are looking, at most, for a reason to say "this is obviously crap" in the first couple of pages.
posted by yoink at 10:56 AM on August 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


Convinced I was every bit the writer my older brother was, yet not receiving the grades I knew I deserved from the same teacher he had just the year before, I turned in one of my brother’s papers word for word convinced I would receive a much lower grade. I envisioned, only somewhat jokingly, calling out said teacher for his bias and then turning in my own work to receive the grade I knew I deserved. I had halfheartedly written my own paper, as I always did, and informed a couple of my friends of the deceit in the event that I was caught prior to my unveiling.

On the day the papers were returned I was shocked to discover I received 3 points more than my brother had for his very same words. I stood up and announced in front of the class what I had done and thanked the teacher for being as amazing as he really was. He was so shocked that in the end he just laughed it off and never requested that I turn in my own paper which was quite a relief because I’m sure it would have received the horrible marks that I really did deserve.
posted by Quack at 10:59 AM on August 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


Because sales of The Cuckoo's Calling took off only after Rowling was exposed as its author.

My understanding was that The Cuckoo's Calling was actually selling pretty well for a debut mystery novel. It wasn't a bestseller, but those sorts of books are not generally expected to be. Can someone with more info/experience confirm?
posted by Rock Steady at 11:01 AM on August 6, 2013


He was a highly creative young writer; to set his manuscript apart from all the others that authors send in, he had thought up a gimmick. He had put a little seal on the last few pages of the manuscript -- the pages that were the payoff to his story. It was intended to be a clever enticement; when the editors at the publishing houses got to the end, they would remove the little seal to read the climax of the book.

I spent ten years running a small playwriting contest. And I can tell you that anyone who pulled this kind of stunt probably would have ended up getting rejected out of sheer spite - because when you have 400 scripts to read in the space of six weeks all by yourself, you don't have time for this kind of bullshit. Especially after having just read that last piece of dreck that you just told your roommate was "like if My Dinner With Andre had been directed by Tarantino".

And 400 manuscripts is a small pile compared to the number of submissions that a big-name publisher gets. And the people reading those scripts are usually not the head of the department - they are lower people on the totem pole who are hideously overworked. They didn't fail to break the seal because they were literary philistines - they saw the seal and gave up because it was so transparently gimmicky that they didn't have time to deal with it. In fact, I bet that the readers at each and every one of the publishing houses ended up talking around the water cooler for another week or so afterward about "oh God, can you believe the guy who put that fuckin' SEAL on the last few pages of his book that we had to break open to read it? Man, fuck that pretentious wanker." I have seen similar "make me stand out" ploys from other would-be writers (my favorite was trying to pad their submission with a whole selection of photos from their personal life, including photos of the playwright on board her boyfriend's new yacht - her play, mind you, had nothing to do with boyfriends or yachts), and their only impact was to annoy me and make me predisposed against the actual script.

The problem is simply that there are too many manuscripts for readers to go through. And the solution to this problem is either to a) hire more readers, or b) convince authors to write less, neither of which is going to happen. So - does this mean that some diamonds get overlooked in the pile of crap? Well, yes - but this has been happening all the time. There are scores of stories, in every industry, about the underling at [talent agency or publishing house] who rejected the [band/film/book/movie] because they were in a hurry. But these stories often end with the rejected [band/film/book/movie] trying again elsewhere - and getting picked up. And that is the key to getting published - not trickery to ensure that your manuscripts get read in their entirety.

Also - dude, rather than putting a freakin' seal on the last few pages of the book to make sure I read it, why not make your book good enough that I'll want to know how it ends?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:03 AM on August 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


I would put a book down as soon as I read the name "Cormoran Strike".
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:05 AM on August 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


He had put a little seal on the last few pages of the manuscript -- the pages that were the payoff to his story.

I'd assume that what's inside that seal is what he's going to sue me over if anything vaguely like it ever shows up in a book published by my company. You couldn't pay me to break the damn thing.
posted by InfidelZombie at 11:06 AM on August 6, 2013 [11 favorites]




The inference I'm getting here is that we should all be on the lookout for masterpieces that have been rejected a hundred times, and are now self-published. Screw that- as reader I don't have time to read your gripping drama about the tragedy of pet dander. There's more good novels out there than I can read in a lifetime; editors should be rejecting more crap, rather than less.

Basically, just put your masterpiece out on fanfic.net and ask for donations, and leave me alone.
posted by happyroach at 11:07 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


One Superman reboot script in particular had a character who was introduced as Lois Lane's niece, and was referred to as NIECE through the rest of the pages. 'Cause who needs a name anyway?!

Heh. I may have done similar from time to time. Of course if someone appears in more than one scene it may be time to start thinking about giving them a name rather than BYSTANDER, MUTANT 1 or FAMILY MEMBER.
posted by Artw at 11:09 AM on August 6, 2013


it strikes me that one of the key misconceptions behind this "I'm going to take something that's been vetted as good and submit it anonymously to publishers to see if they can recognize its quality" game is the idea that a given piece of writing is simply good or bad, full stop, rather than good or bad at specific things in specific contexts at a specific moment.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:13 AM on August 6, 2013 [9 favorites]


(Actually "This book is probably bad" is also pretty good inductive reasoning.....)

It could also be something having less to do with literary merit and more to do with trends/attitudes in current popular culture--for example, a book like Ulysses by an unknown author working today would almost certainly be rejected by most publishers because contemporary readers don't have much tolerance for difficult works of literary fiction. At the time, it attracted a lot of attention because it pushed the bounds of the obscenity standards of its day. I seriously doubt a book like that could get published or gain serious traction today, and especially not if it came from an author who didn't already have an established literary reputation. Also, if a particular subject has recently been hyped to death, then it might be hard to sell a new work dealing with similar subject matter even if it's good.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:13 AM on August 6, 2013


"like if My Dinner With Andre had been directed by Tarantino."
"Things don't affect people the way they used to. I mean it may very well be that 10 years from now people will pay $10,000 in cash to be castrated just in order to be affected by something."
I dunno. The words say Andre Gregory, but the idea screams Quentin Tarantino.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:15 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


good or bad at specific things in specific contexts at a specific moment.

Joshua Bell comes to mind also. Not having time to listen to a virtuoso violinist in the subway says less about our culture's ability to recognize greatness than a bunch of other things.
posted by jessamyn at 11:16 AM on August 6, 2013 [11 favorites]


Steely-eyed Missile Man: I would put a book down as soon as I read the name "Cormoran Strike".

Rowling is just really bad with names. She apparently puts a huge amount of thought into it, which I just don't understand. Maybe she is overthinking it? Cormoran Strike isn't even the worst name in the book -- the dead supermodel is somehow called Lula Landry.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:18 AM on August 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


The article reads like one of those "stories" you see in small papers, where a local businessperson is highlighted, but it all comes out sounding like it's both a long advertisement and a formulaic template from a "101 Ways to Increase Your Business Fast!"
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:19 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's funny ... when I was a kid, sometimes I'd drag out a book, reading it intentionally very slowly, or re-reading pages or even whole chapters, to make it last longer. On some level I was afraid that if I read too quickly, then I'd run out of Good Things to read. (Which is a not-unreasonable concern when you're a kid and have to depend on others' largesse to get to the library.)

At some point I realized that the actual challenge is quite different. Even if you have very high standards of quality, there are more Good Things than you could ever actually read in a lifetime. There's also a lot of crap, and the time you spend reading crap, you're not spending reading anything good. And similarly, the time you spend sorting the good stuff from the crap you're not reading either. So the challenge is just to separate the two out as efficiently as possible.

So the submission editors are probably right when they err heavily on the side of rejection rather than acceptance. It's better to reject a few masterpieces than publish a stinker (and it's hard enough to avoid that even when you are trying to be selective).
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:22 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Rock Steady: Rowling is just really bad with names. She apparently puts a huge amount of thought into it, which I just don't understand. Maybe she is overthinking it?

She's stuck in Harry Potter Naming Mode, in which the names must be fun to say. Bathsheba Babbling AND Bathilda Bagshot! Lavender Brown! Millicent Bulstrode! And that's just a few picks from the Bs!
posted by filthy light thief at 11:23 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


The vast majority of MSS that come in over the transom to a publisher receive, at best, cursory examination, and they do so from bored, hassled, underpaid people who are looking, at most, for a reason to say "this is obviously crap" in the first couple of pages.

I can't speak for readers at publishing houses, but script readers, while definitely underpaid, are not looking for a reason to reject a script as fast as possible. Quite the opposite. You say "bored" - ask yourself, if confronted by a pile of scripts you have to get through, are you hoping for an interesting script or a boring one?

The truth is, we were looking - and desperately hoping - for any merit at all in these scripts. In fact, I'd say it was the opposite. I would even occasionally champion a marginal script, because I was so overjoyed to find something that was not utter garbage; I wanted to encourage anyone who had even a speck of talent.

That said, I'm of two minds about the winnowing process. On the one hand, I firmly believe, that a decent script - not even a great one, just a decent one - stands out immediately. You know it, when you see it. So the whole premise of your remark about bored clueless readers is off the mark. We can tell, believe me. Now, I'm not going to say there are no script readers who are subpar, but on the whole, quality cannot be denied... because it's not that hard! It practically throws itself at you. You'd have to be blind to miss it.

On the other hand, yes, film/TV is a business. That has consequences. There is a school of thought, prevalent in many production offices, that 'it takes one to know one'. The audience out there is composed of segments you are addressing yourself to, so you want a reader who is 'one of them' - that's how the production office hires the semi-literate surfer dude as reader, and not the eng. lit. phd who is super sophisticated. "If the surfer likes it, his buddies will like it, the film will be a hit". You end up with a lot of rejections and acceptances which might strike an outsider as rather baffling. This is the same idea behind having the agent's assistant read stuff - 'of the people', rather than a pro reader.

But Hollywood is not a monolith - and today even less of a monolith, if possible. There are plenty of production offices that cater to all sorts, and employ all sorts of people. If it's good, I believe it will find a champion. Tons and tons of them have every incentive to find a script that will make a good film.

Most script readers are massive film fans, budding writers/directors, people who live and breathe screenwriting. They desperately want to find a good script. If they don't, it's rarely because the readers are lazy, bored and stupid.

I guess I have to cop to believing this: the cream will rise to the top. At least in screenplays. I base this less on rose glasses, and more on fairly careful observation over quite a lengthy period of time. But this comes with a major caveat: not all good quality stuff will get made, because there are commercial/market considerations, and a ton of rubbish will get made, because people are trying for commercial success, often cynically; furthermore, commercial success is a very, very imperfect measure of quality.

Quentin Tarantino would hand his scripts to industry people and say (paraphrasing) - just give me two pages... if you don't like it after two pages, throw it out. He understood the basic truth, that you can tell what you are in for after reading very, very little of the script. I often could tell within the first paragraph - but was in a position where I HAD TO read to the end and write it all up. So, if someone handed me a script and said, "read only the first two pages, then you're welcome to chuck it if you don't like it", it would get my attention - because it jibes with my experience.
posted by VikingSword at 11:25 AM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


MartinWisse: what?! Robin Hobb is doing meth in a trailer now?
posted by AmandaA at 11:25 AM on August 6, 2013


Getting published is basically like winning the lottery.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:27 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I love JK Rowling's ridiculous names. Don't hate on the brain that came up with 'Sturgis Podmore' and 'Blaise Zabini.'
posted by sonmi at 11:29 AM on August 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


The real question, though, is why he bothered with the experiment.

Especially since the experiment makes a number of assumptions about how acquisitions works in all cases that aren't necessarily confirmed by the results. Unsolicited manuscripts are an industry-wide no-no for obvious logistical reasons. If your manuscript manages to avoid recycling, you're then at the mercy of the cat manning the slush pile. Your book may be perfectly serviceable but doesn't fit that publisher's profile; it may be too similar to something else that was recently discarded; maybe the tikka masala the editor ate for lunch is backing up on her and you're just a casualty of gastrointestinal distress; maybe she thinks your book sucks; maybe your book sucks.

There are just too many established cases of beloved literary classics being rejected by myriads of publishers for it to be possible to safely infer that his book "wasn't very good" from the fact that it got rejected a bunch of times.

Maybe it's great but the publisher estimates it won't sell enough copies to warrant printing. The days of publishers taking risks on experimental authors and books that might pay off down the road and which could be supplemented by solid back catalog sales are long gone with the rise of bottom-line publishing. The risks taken are fewer and more calculated. This is precisely why self-publishing was initially hailed as the great equalizer that would give lie to the literary gatekeepers.

Acquisitions is a complex endeavor and not always about the quality of a work. Sometimes it's pure economics. Sometimes it's reading chicken entrails.
posted by echocollate at 11:31 AM on August 6, 2013


echocollate: Sometimes it's reading chicken entrails.

I'll wait for the paperback on that one.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:32 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would put a book down as soon as I read the name "Cormoran Strike".

This is why we had to wait until the end of the series to learn Morse's first name.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:32 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Getting published is basically like winning the lottery.

It's like winning the loterery if completing the application firm to buy the ticket took a bunch of skill and effort and there were a whole bunch if people you could send the applicatiom to with varying degrees of interest in reviewing applications of particular types and it wasn't always that apparent which you should send it to.
posted by Artw at 11:33 AM on August 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


I watch too much TV.

This reminds me of The Famous Teddy Z episode, "Mr. Zakalokis Goes to Washington."

A writer submits a reworked script of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and submits it to 30 agents. Only Teddy Z likes it as-is.
posted by MoxieProxy at 11:35 AM on August 6, 2013


If you find yourself in that situation, I suggest listening to some harsh noise. Seriously, it really cleans the ears out. I'm not sure what you could do as a book reviewer, though.

Read the comments section of your local online newspaper.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:35 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Read the comments section of your local online newspaper.

I'm pretty sure that's forbidden under the 8th Amendment.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:38 AM on August 6, 2013


I recently got a "we were not quite enthusiastic enough to pursue this" style soft rejection from an agency after getting a resubmit request for a query (after making some structural revisions my manuscript needed), and frankly, I'm taking all that as pretty positive, considering I'm a nobody who hasn't even shopped his work around (much less published) in the last 10 years.

You should. The moment that they're actually personally rejecting, rather than slapping the form in the envelope, means that if you come back, you're already ahead of the slushpile. To them, you're worth taking the time to look it -- this time, it didn't quite make the grade, but it was close enough to merit a couple of hours of time. That's vastly more than what most other mss. get, and if they said anything like "perhaps talk to X", then, well, submit to X and note why you chose X. No decent agent is going to say something like that unless they mean it, because they're effectively endorsing the book with their reputation.

I wouldn't submit this mss. to them again, unless they ask for it -- but if you come up with something different, do send it to them. Unless, in the meantime, you've gotten an agent. In which case, give it to them and let them do what they do. An agent's job is to sell publishers your manuscript.

People forget the true goal of a publisher -- to sell books. You may be a splendid writer, but if an agent can't find a market to buy your mss., or the publisher can't find someone to buy the book, you're not worth publishing.

So, arguably, the true goal of the writer is to write manuscripts that sell. That doesn't mean they're well written (though they usually are), it means they have enough interest to be sold with the expectation of being bought. This is why publishers would rather work with agents -- because agents are people who go find sellable manuscripts.
posted by eriko at 11:40 AM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


The "author submits famous book under his own name, it gets rejected, proof no one in publishing knows what they're doing" thing gets recycled every few years; it amuses those who like to say "HA! I KNEW IT!" and is otherwise harmless to everyone else. The last one I heard of was a couple of years ago with Pride and Prejudice, I think; it'll come around again at some soonish point.

The idea that even a book that's already been published can be rejected is not in the least surprising because there is more that goes into consideration of a book than literary quality. Among them: How well known the author is, the current state of the marketplace, the particular interests of the publishing house and the acquiring editor, whether the editor believes he can get the sales department on board, whether there is another book in the house' pipeline similar to that particular book, etc (all of this even before the possibility that the editor reading the manuscript picked it up, recognized it and the stunt, rolled his or her eyes and sent it back with a form rejection). Steps was not Kozinski's first book; he was not a nobody and The Painted Bird was critically lauded and controversial in positive ways. If Kozinski didn't have that going for him, he might not have been able to get it published either.
posted by jscalzi at 11:40 AM on August 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


he's certain that the mystery novel he wrote in the '70s is stored in a box or trunk somewhere

Actually, Jerzy Kosinski retyped it and won another National Book Award with it.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:41 AM on August 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


The "author submits famous book under his own name, it gets rejected, proof no one in publishing knows what they're doing" thing gets recycled every few years; it amuses those who like to say "HA! I KNEW IT!" and is otherwise harmless to everyone else.

I sounds like this guy invented the genre, so that's something, at least.

Next up: the guy who invented listicles.
posted by Artw at 11:43 AM on August 6, 2013


there are more Good Things than you could ever actually read in a lifetime.

Definitely true. And from that standpoint it wouldn't be the worst idea if publishers coordinated a five-year hiatus, and we all focused on reading those books we "know" are great but, let's be honest, we haven't read.

But the reality is, however idealistic an individual reader or editor might be, there's a corporation behind them. That corporation doesn't care whether you read good books or bad books or no books, just so long as you're buying its books. Acquisitions departments aren't university admissions offices: they don't get bragging rights for buying only 1 percent of submissions. Their job is to find things you will buy.

If an individual reader or editor finds himself looking for reasons to discard after the thousandth manuscript, that's understandable. Jadedness is a factor. It's also a logical shortcut, especially if you have a short list of good reasons that keep occurring in manuscript after manuscript. Lurking behind that shortcut, however, should be—and probably is—the knowledge that their job is to find, not to discard. The reader's job depends on the publisher staying in business, and publishers gotta publish.

Added to which, most readers have a momentary fantasy about being the person who discovers the next pop craze or Great American Novel. Even the jaded ones want that book to be somewhere in their pile.
posted by cribcage at 11:45 AM on August 6, 2013


The other part of this is the belief that once you get published you have made it into the Secret Writers Club and everything will be easy from that point on. Which is true for almost nobody - unless youve somehow lucked into an airport bestseller first time ariund getting published again will require just as much effort.
posted by Artw at 11:51 AM on August 6, 2013


I'd read a version of the "sealed ending" story in Betsy Lerner's Forest for the Trees, where when the writer then called the editor on not finishing the novel, the editor replied to the effect of, "I don't need to eat a whole egg to know if it was bad or not."
posted by Navelgazer at 11:56 AM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


For every Henry Melville or J. K. Rowling that gets rejected umpteen times

Ah yes, Henry Melville, now there was a tragic figure. The embittered author of the unjustly neglected "Moby Scott."
posted by Naberius at 12:06 PM on August 6, 2013 [9 favorites]


Call me Fishmael.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:10 PM on August 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


I would even occasionally champion a marginal script, because I was so overjoyed to find something that was not utter garbage; I wanted to encourage anyone who had even a speck of talent.

This actually gives me hope cause I know I don't produce utter garbage. It may only be a few steps above it, but I know how to tell a damn story in a reasonably engaging way and I don't fuck up my formatting or act breaks.
posted by The Whelk at 12:16 PM on August 6, 2013


Henry Melville, now there was a tragic figure. The embittered author of the unjustly neglected "Moby Scott."

The controversial story of one man's licentious escapades with a whale.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:21 PM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


He was a highly creative young writer; to set his manuscript apart from all the others that authors send in, he had thought up a gimmick. He had put a little seal on the last few pages of the manuscript -- the pages that were the payoff to his story. It was intended to be a clever enticement; when the editors at the publishing houses got to the end, they would remove the little seal to read the climax of the book.

Yeah, highly creative but not knowledgeable enough to know that what the publisher wants is to be grabbed by the throat in that first paragraph. What a jerk.

I'm working on fantasy novel (3 chapters to go to finish the first draft) and I know damn well you don't use gimmicks. Write a solid query letter, submit it to an agent with a sample that has sparks shooting off it from the first word, and if you do this enough times you might have a chance of getting noticed.
posted by Ber at 12:23 PM on August 6, 2013


Getting published is basically like winning the lottery.

One of the most astute thing I ever heard anyone say about getting an unpublished play produced was when I told an old boss about the whole process, from first reading to development to off-off-Broadway premiere to maybe getting picked p for a longer run or invested in, and he said "that sounds like a lottery ticket it takes ten years just to buy."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:25 PM on August 6, 2013 [14 favorites]


This actually gives me hope cause I know I don't produce utter garbage. It may only be a few steps above it, but I know how to tell a damn story in a reasonably engaging way and I don't fuck up my formatting or act breaks.

Ahem. May I draw your attention to your two peacocks cartoon? "If you can't be bothered to proof-read a two word caption that is the key to your artwork, how much effort do you put into your work?"/jk/

Joking aside, the usual advice given to screenwriters is to submit scripts with no misspellings, because the idea is that a writer who doesn't proof-read or catch mistakes is sloppy by nature in everything and readers dismiss them out of hand. Personally, I've always been more lenient in that respect because, well, dyslexia is a real thing, and many very good writers are just not good spellers (Tarantino for one). But yeah, it's a definitely something some people pay attention to.
posted by VikingSword at 12:26 PM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


KokuRyu: "Getting published is basically like winning the lottery."

Except without all the money.
posted by Mister_A at 12:33 PM on August 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


Eh I don't proof the captions and I only cartoon for one market now.

I pay actual professional proofreaders to go over my actual submissions.
posted by The Whelk at 12:35 PM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


But my assumption is that these agents and publishers are not all geniuses and not only didn't recognize Kosinski's work, but also didn't recognize that the book is bestseller material.

Another thing the article doesn't mention: Steps wasn't a bestseller; the Wikipedia page calls it a "commercial failure." And, as noted above, it was experimental fiction... loosely connected short stories without any character or place names. Sure, this should have made it more recognizable but such a work is never going to be popular.
posted by mountmccabe at 12:46 PM on August 6, 2013


All the more reason to pay for unusual books that you would like to see more of. It is hard to publish, just as it is also hard to be published. Slush piles are huge, and readers are both conservative and fickle. There will never be a perfect way to get every Good Book published, and even if there were, you couldn't get all of them read.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:48 PM on August 6, 2013


Another thing the article doesn't mention: Steps wasn't a bestseller; the Wikipedia page calls it a "commercial failure."

Yeah, the mistake wasn't the rejections the book received when Ross re-submitted the book to various publishers, it was (from the publishers point of view) the decision not to reject it when Kosinski originally submitted it. If what they care about is sales and not awards. In reality they probably care about both. But awards don't pay the bills.
posted by Justinian at 1:17 PM on August 6, 2013


I agree that this gimmick doesn't prove anything. However, its worth pointing out that Chuck Ross doesn't come across as bitter or a jerk. He was able to use the gimmick to get his foot in the door as a journalist and seems to be happy that he's been able to have a career. After years as an entertainment journalist, I bet he himself now understands how things work and why even a well-written piece of experimental fiction might not be attractive to publishers.

And from that standpoint it wouldn't be the worst idea if publishers coordinated a five-year hiatus, and we all focused on reading those books we "know" are great but, let's be honest, we haven't read.

Is it time for me to finally read The Left Hand of Darkness?
posted by Area Man at 1:23 PM on August 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yes you should. It's beautiful.
posted by thelonius at 1:29 PM on August 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


reminds me of another recent post
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:35 PM on August 6, 2013


Thinking about the "rejected by x publishers" thing, it seems like it might be a selection bias issue, since one usually only hears about good books that this happened to, and which eventually did get published. I seriously doubt that great books are often picked up by no one, but there are, no doubt, some really good books that never saw the light of day, because the authors became discouraged or never got a break.

This happens with other things, too. Ned Steinberger had his headless bass design rejected by every guitar manufacturer he tried to license it to, so he had to start his own company. It turned out to be pretty successful.
posted by thelonius at 1:36 PM on August 6, 2013


This thread could be a goddamned book. Jesus. It's 10000 lines long. Who the fuck reads THIS all the way to the end?

I'm reading Infinite Jest. I am laughing my ass off at it and realize it's the work of a genius, if not a work of genius. Whomever first saw it could not possibly have thought it so, had they seen it in a vacuum of Wallace's other work, and I am able to enjoy it only because I read a plot summary. Some Aspergery guy hands you a NYC phonebook of indecipherable characters with 400 footnotes and you go read it? Bullshit, says I. Implausible. And pretty damned tragic, if you ask me.

In "The Painted Word", Tom Wolfe holds forth that in the 1960's (relevant because I was alive then if for no other reason), the art world was governed quasi-informally by a tiny cadre of people who decided which bunch of crap glopped on canvas was worth of "The Next Big Thing In Art" status. Meanwhile, a zillion painters honed their observation skills, manual skills, color sense, technique, composition abilities, and exerted cruel and unthanked sweat over superb work no one appreciated then, and maybe never will. Ken Nowland was lumped with Helen Frankenthaler, the latter of which seemed to have something going while the former had geometry and loud colors. HF's work evoked something. Nowland's I just want to aim a missile at. Both played with abstracts, I presume, because classical canons were too complex and hard.

I work with a marble sculptor and am one, in addition to my career definition as an engineer. My mentor has a BA in biology and when he looks at a figure, what he sees is not what I see. His mastery of observation and skill are easily 1000 times more refined that just about anyone reading this (by now, a population to close to zero to estimate, I am sure.) He is a successful artist, in that he is not starving, and lives indoors, and has made it to retirement age doing art. If quality of work were all there were to it, he'd be swimming in riches instead of inventory. It's not his work. It's the magic of putting it in front of people with money who want to buy it.

I am of the opinion that this dynamic, this factor, sits on the written word like a film of dust, invisible but inescapable. Daily, writers of highest quality and greatest potential waste away and there is no way to save them. Their success is only lightly related to quality, but more than that, it is seasoned by a luck broth one cannot buy. That luck can be as simple as the ear of a mover, or the happenstance of birth, or the good fortune of a seat assignment on a plane. Fame, whatever it is, has no hole labelled 'talent'. As an ingredient, it can tag along but it apparently is carried as an afterthought, not as an essential.
posted by FauxScot at 1:45 PM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


My understanding was that The Cuckoo's Calling was actually selling pretty well for a debut mystery novel. It wasn't a bestseller, but those sorts of books are not generally expected to be. Can someone with more info/experience confirm?

I'm basing this on an episode of Front Row I heard shortly after Rowling got outed as the author, but from that, yes. Before the reveal, the book was getting favourable reviews from critics, and putting up sales numbers that were good, given the market.
posted by Urtylug at 1:57 PM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


"oh God, can you believe the guy who put that fuckin' SEAL on the last few pages of his book that we had to break open to read it? “

Four M2 demolition blocks detonated in the underwater stanchions and took down the whole bridge. An entire transitional passage connecting two chapters suddenly destroyed. Then he laid down cover fire to protect his retreat into another manuscript.

Pretentious fuck.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:00 PM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


A perhaps interesting anecdote:

Like many people I have one of these novels that was shopped everywhere, twice, and met nothing but rejection. Like a lot of people I eventually put it on the internet. Unlike a lot of people I got reviewed on Slashdot and by numerous prominent bloggers and have racked up tens of thousands of full loads (it's in eight chapters, so I can be fairly confident that loads of ch. 8 represent people who read the whole thing.)

When Lulu.com opened they wrote me asking me to publish through them, which I eventually did. When Amazon Plus became available I took advantage so it has an ISBN and you can order it from Amazon. I've sold several hundred copies this way, which is unheard of for a self-published novel. Over ten years people have also sent me thousands of dollars in voluntary PayPal tips.

It's no mystery why The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect has a problem with the slush pile; it starts by punching the reader in the face and proceeds to be about the Rapture of the Nerds. Nevertheless, I have literally thousands of emails from people telling me it's one of the best books they've ever read. There is a market, if not a universal one, for this book.

And twice within the last couple of months I've gotten spam emails from Amazon titled with the title of my book. Observe.

I don't believe for a moment Amazon is trying to impress me by spamming me with an invitation to buy my own book which they're reselling for me from Lulu. Their metrics show certain titles sell in certain circles. Certain titles get very high ratings. Their robot doesn't care that I'm in the pariah class of self-published refugees from Lulu; people buy my book at a regular enough clip for it to show up in the stats along with, to work down this email: Accelerando, Neuromancer, Blindsight, Avogadro Corp., Abaddon's Gate, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and Asimov's Foundation series.

Amazon put my novel in the title of the email as a hook to sell those other books.

That tells me some interesting and mostly ego-inflating things. But it also tells me that the publishing industry is changing in very strange ways, some of which may help us enjoy a second novel from the next John Kennedy Toole.
posted by localroger at 2:01 PM on August 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


Ahh. I thought "Observe" was the name of your book. It's been a long day.
posted by Mister_A at 2:16 PM on August 6, 2013


I am apparently much better at writing unpublishable but well-liked books than I am at marketing.
posted by localroger at 2:23 PM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm surprised no-one has mentioned Making Light's (aka Theresa Nielsen Hayden aka Tor Books) Slushkiller post.

The comments, which go on for miles and miles, are solid gold.
posted by jrochest at 2:34 PM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


>Getting published is basically like winning the lottery.

It's like winning the loterery if completing the application firm to buy the ticket took a bunch of skill and effort and there were a whole bunch if people you could send the applicatiom to with varying degrees of interest in reviewing applications of particular types and it wasn't always that apparent which you should send it to.


I have a degree in "creative writing" (man, 20 years ago I could write like Tobias Wolff or Raymond Carver or Richard Ford), but few of the people in my year went on to publish books. One guy did, but realized that getting published didn't necessarily mean earning a comfortable living.

Another one of my classmates dropped out of the program, and went on to manage an outdoor magazine, travelling all over the world by mountain bike.

He regularly publishes popular non-fiction books, and he says it really good for all writers to develop a marketing plan for whatever they write. He recommends "Non-fiction book proposals anyone can write."

In short, by saving the reviewer at a publishing house a lot of work (and pointing out the value proposition of your book) you have a better chance at getting published. Still, things change so fast these days, that it's difficult to tell what will work and what will not.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:56 PM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Publishers don't have much time left, what with ebooks and self-publishing on Amazon and other places, and the fact that their product is overpriced, wasteful and inefficient. Guy shoulda just put his book on the internets. It worked for Hugh Howey (Wool is pretty good, though it could have used a good trimming), it could work for you too! I think I will write an internet book about the end of the world, those things are downloading like hotcakes.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:00 PM on August 6, 2013


don't download hotcakes, the flour and butter and syrup will RUIN your iPad.

(I got balsamic vinegar on my iPhone screen once and the comedians at the Genius Bar were all "what were you downloading?" "what app is that?" "what recipe calls for iPhone" HAHAHA and then charged me for a new phone).
posted by sweetkid at 3:02 PM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Guy shoulda just put his book on the internets.

See, that's why I'm writing my novel as a series of metafilter comments. It's a kind of bildungsroman. It may never make me rich or famous, but at least I'll have the critical respect that comes with favorites.
posted by octobersurprise at 4:18 PM on August 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


It seems Chuck Ross actually got rejection letters for the Kosinski novel that didn't mention plagiarism. Maybe they just didn't bother. But my assumption is that these agents and publishers are not all geniuses and not only didn't recognize Kosinski's work, but also didn't recognize that the book is bestseller material.

Which raises the question, how did Ross present himself> I'm guessing that part of Kosinski's appeal to publishers came from his own back-story.

Guy shoulda just put his book on the internets.

Certainly he should now. This story's been hanging around for forty years. I don't care if the manuscript is in storage, I think Ross has an obligation to show us what the publishers of 40 years ago didn't like. I'm willing to bet it really was crap. No shame in that. Most manuscripts are crap.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:12 PM on August 6, 2013


I can't even fathom how awful it would be to read for work.

Oh it's the pits. Back in my freelancing days, one of my regular gigs was book reviewing. I was ecstatic, at first. I am an avid reader, and what could be better for an avid reader than piles of free books and plenty of author interviews.

This initial joy quickly faded, however, due to my own stupidity, and the general standard of published books. I am an avid, and indiscriminate reader; I'll suck up any genre or type of book if it sounds interesting or has a recommendation. Naturally, publicists would recommend anything to you.

Unforunately, most books, are just not very good. Not really. It absolutely killed my love of reading after six months or so. From a reviewing perspective it was terrible. Sure, there were some great or interesting books. Certainly, there were some insanely bad books. But the vast, vast majority were simply Not Very Good. Reviewing them was a nightmare; just thinking about them made me tired. How many times can you say "This isn't a very good book. If this book is your kind of thing, you will probably find it okay, as the quality is not insultingly bad, it's just indifferent. If you don't like this kind of thing, you won't like it. Everything you need to know about this book can be gleaned from the cover and blurb, or the first two pages."

It was tough. And I was overjoyed to quit it.
posted by smoke at 5:22 PM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


The process of trying to find an agent is a major ordeal in its own way, though--half the time, the credible agencies aren't open to new authors at all, especially not if they haven't already had an introduction by some other channel; a lot of them require that you submit exclusively, meaning you can't do anything more with your manuscript but wait for a response to come or not come anywhere from 3 to 6 months later or risk being blacklisted on the basis of your poor professional etiquette.


This is not accurate. There are plenty of agencies who take new authors, from the slushpile. Common wisdom is that you should never grant exclusives to agents, and even if you do, you shouldn't grant them for more than two weeks.

Because it feels relevant, my stats: I submitted three novels to agencies over the course of a year. On the first two, I submitted well over 90 queries and received a small handful of personal rejections, but mostly form rejections. On the third novel, I submitted eight queries, and received one offer within two weeks. It turned out to be the only offer, though I had seven requests for the full manuscript. When we went on submission to publishers, I likewise received one offer very quickly, out of twelve. This also turned out to be the only offer.

I truly believe that, to an extent, the strength of your manuscript is certainly relevant. Those first two books were bad. They don't mean I was a bad author. They just weren't very good books. The third was much better. But even then, in the case of both agents and editors, I needed to connect with the right person. Most of my rejections, both before and after publication, have been very kind indeed. I'm inclined to believe these editors, rather than just believing they're being nice out of some sense of obligation. In my experience, editors want to love your book, absolutely and completely.

Which is why an agent is good. They're pretty much matchmakers for authors.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:44 PM on August 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


Publishers have at the center of their business model this filtering task: it's basically like spam filtering in all the ways that matter. Currently, they are not excellent: it's at about the state that Bayesian spam filtering was in the late 90's: consider this paper, where they have rates of something like 90% precision and recall. I mean, that's pretty good, and maybe publishing's recall could be better, but I think it's up there.

Currently, Bayesian spam filtering usually manage to get more than three nines on spam, most of the time, because we know much better features. Gmail, for example, had around that rate last time I heard. 99.9% precision and recall. Think about that for a moment. Computational methods might be worse than humans at times, but computational methods are cheap and don't get tired. I don't know who will be the first publishers to use machine learning determinants of publication quality (Amazon already is effectively doing that, of course, with their recommendation engine) but it might be something to this alternate spam problem.
posted by curuinor at 8:13 PM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the personal perspective, PhoBWanKenobi. It's reassuring to hear that the slog isn't always hard and uphill. I've really only queried a couple of places by this point myself; I was under the mistaken impression there were relatively few agencies open to unsolicited queries at any given time and so had only seriously queried an agency I learned about from a friend and former colleague of mine.

curuinor: There's already something like this for music. It used to be featured on a website named Uplaya or something. You could upload songs and it would score them based on their pop hit potential, using Bayesian analysis. You could put a widget on your blog advertising your song's score.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:25 PM on August 6, 2013


Querytracker is your friend. Which isn't to say it wasn't hard or uphill? When I was in the thick of those 90 queries it certainly felt it. But the system is sort of predicated on making yourself prove yourself--not just your writing, but your moxie, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:29 PM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Doris Lessing and the Perils of the Pseudonymous Novel is a great New Yorker blog post by the person who, as a young publisher's reader, turned down a pseudonymous book from Doris Lessing.
posted by caek at 9:18 PM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


This was done for Patrick White (Nobel prize for literature) as well.
posted by wilful at 10:32 PM on August 6, 2013


Here's a rejection letter Ursula Le Guin's agent received for The Left Hand of Darkness.
posted by newdaddy at 3:46 AM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


That Le Guin rejection letter is fantastic. You have to credit the editor for not offering any weasel-wordy "doesn't suit our present purposes" kind of stuff. He lays it right on the line that The Left Hand of Darkness is a load of crap. And, of course, if Le Guin had taken this to heart, shelved the novel, and plugged away until she got some other book published she would no doubt recall this as salutary advice that helped make her a better writer. No one knows anything.
posted by yoink at 9:20 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you find yourself in that situation, I suggest listening to some harsh noise. Seriously, it really cleans the ears out. I'm not sure what you could do as a book reviewer, though.

You put pins in your eyes. By which I mean you read something solid like Oedipus Rex.
posted by ersatz at 11:29 AM on August 7, 2013




That's a really good analysis, Artw.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:28 AM on August 10, 2013


You have to credit the editor for not offering any weasel-wordy "doesn't suit our present purposes" kind of stuff.

It's obvious the editor at least read the book. LeGuin probably had her agent to thank for that.
posted by localroger at 2:43 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Curious Case of THE CUCKOO’S CALLING—Why it Wasn’t a Success Before We All Knew JK Rowling Wrote It

That review is pure "wisdom of hindsight."
posted by yoink at 4:17 PM on August 10, 2013


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