Wednesday, June 02, 2004

One constant in an ever-changing world

Yesterday's Times carried an obituary of Roger Straus, one of the founders of what became Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a famous New York publisher. It was mentioned in the course of this obit that Giroux joined the firm when he grew sick of working at Harcourt Brace, under the command of one Eugene Reynal. The latter had distinguished himself by turning down Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

Well, ole Eugene was in pretty damn good company, in the sense that publishers have a long and distinguished history of turning down books which went on to become smash hits or distinguished literary masterpieces. Or even, occasionally, both. There have been so many of these bloopers that a whole book has been written about them -- Rotten Rejections by Andre Bernard. Not a new book, but it keeps appearing in new editions.

Typical rejection letters quoted by Bernard include the following:'
'It is impossible to sell animal stories.' (Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1945.)
'You're welcome to John le Carre -- he hasn't got any future.' (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1963.)
Perhaps the most famous and I suppose tragic case of author rejection is that of the American novelist, John Kennedy Toole. In the early 1960s Toole became deeply disturbed by the frequent rejection of his book A Confederacy of Dunces, and in 1969 he committed suicide as a result.

Toole’s mother then took on the task of trying to find a publisher for her son's book. She finally managed it, and A Confederacy of Dunces was hailed by the New York Times as a ‘masterwork of comedy.' In 1981 the novel was awarded the Pulitzer prize. But that was a bit late in the day for its author.

Of course, editors not only overlook potentially successful books, but they also pay more than good money -- huge sums of money in fact -- for books which prove to be flops in the marketplace.

In the 2002 edition of the Writer’s Handbook, Barry Turner gave a couple of examples. I will omit the authors’ names here, because they have suffered enough already. One minute they were told, by publishers, that they were geniuses whose books were going to be big hits, and the next they were told, by the public, that actually they weren’t very interesting at all.

Author A was paid £300,000 by Faber for two novels. The first came out in 2001 and sold less than 4,000 copies. Author B was paid £250,000 for one book, by a different publisher, and this one generated sales of 1,500 copies.

All of which reminds me to mention, before it becomes hopelessly out of date, a point made by Nicholas Clee in his Guardian column on 22 May. He pointed out that book buyers continue to surprise publishers by what takes their fancy. Katie Price's Being Jordan, for instance, which was turned down by several firms, became the second-bestselling biography of the year after only three days on the market. And Transworld paid only a modest advance for Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, the success of which was reportedly unexpected.

So, it's kind of comforting really, isn't it, to know that in an ever-changing world, full of hustle and bustle, hurly and burly, one thing remains absolutely constant and eternally the same: whether it's 1945, 1963, 1981 or 2004, the unfailing ability of publishers to back the wrong horse while simultaneously turning down a winner remains gloriously unimpaired.

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