Friday, September 14, 2007

The art of saying no

Several other blogs have mentioned a recent article in the New York Times, but it was not until tipped off by Jon Jermey (an Aussie indexer -- thanks Jon) that I actually went and looked at it. It turns out to be a lot of fun.

It seems that the ancient (by US standards) and honourable publishing firm of Knopf have lodged their archives in the University of Texas, and Professor Oshinsky has been reading through them.

Among the gems he has unearthed are the rejection letters sent to many a famous name, in respect of many books which later went on to become famous. Among the works which Knopf did not want to know about were The Diary of Anne Frank and Lolita.

This is all very entertaining, and will, of course, provide further ammunition to those of the 'all publishers are completely clueless' persuasion. As the years pass, however, I grow more sympathetic with the poor bastards who make fifty decisions a day about piles of manuscript, only to find, fifty years later, that some smart-arse, full of the benefit of hindsight, is sniggering at them.

I am particularly sympathetic to the Knopfs (Alfred and Blanche) because they were at least conscious that, in a commercial publishing company, there is no getting away from the fact that commerce is the key.

For instance, Harold Strauss, editor in chief, once wrote to a distinguished historian as follows: 'I am terribly sorry to have to tell you that, while we recognize the scholarly merits of the manuscript, we are deeply disappointed in its trade possibilities. We feel that you have completely missed your chance to write a colorful and dramatic book.'

The NYT article does not, however, include my favourite story about the house of Knopf. It appears (if my aged memory is still functioning correctly), in the autobiography of the English literary agent George Greenfield. The story was in all probability based on fact, but, like all good stories, it may have been embroidered somewhat over the years.

It is said that for some time the firm of Knopf had been keen to get its hands on the American rights of the novels by the very successful English writer, John Buchan. So keen, in fact, that Blanche Knopf is said to have gone down on her knees in front of Mr Buchan, and said, with intense feeling: 'Mr Buchan -- will you put your American end into my hands?'


Dave Fragments said...

An interesting read in the NYT. Amusing and enjoyable.
It just seems to say what we all know - publishing is a business of editorial judgements, rather personal editorial judgements and subject to all the whims, chances and vagaries of human judgement.

Anonymous said...

I can sympathize with the publishers who have so many submissions to review (and always lack the staff to do it), but I have to cringe at comments like, "It’s Poland and the rich Jews again."

Anonymous said...

Looking at this selection of submissions rationally, surely it must be the case that hundreds of manuscripts are turned down, which, given the chance, would make it as good marketable books. But there is no way of knowing which simply because the manuscripts are never published. Or if self-published, they don't get reviewed or promoted. The continuing closures of independent book shops increases this possibility.
Those that fail to recognise the gold in the mud are not necessarily worse readers/editors than those who do - could be their ciggy smoke got in their eyes that particular morning. And if writers are daft enough to expect instant recognition of their genius, they must suffer the consequences.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and as to that last statement -
is that where that rather odd expression 'smart arse' comes from?
How extraordinary!

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Sometimes you cannot say no , and always say yes to please others and may be you do not feel so good with that situation, so we should have to change it.

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