You’ve heard this story before, but I’m going to tell it again. It’s from a wonderful book by A. Scott Berg published in 1978.
A young writer’s first novel, nontraditional in structure and language, lands on the desk of the editor-in-chief at a big publishing company. He reads a few pages and pushes it off on a newbie editor who’d just been transferred from the advertising department. The neophyte doesn’t know that editors-in-chief don’t pass manuscripts to their underlings unless they are certain passes.
With no understanding of what people would want to read beyond his own predilections, a week later the ambitious young man enters the company editorial meeting and passionately advocates to acquire the manuscript.
Not one other editor at the table supports him. He’s told to decline the book.
Although he’d probably like to, the young man doesn’t freak out and call everyone in the room a bunch of cowards and idiots. Instead he shuts his mouth, contacts the writer and tells him he needs to revise the book. He’ll help him firm up the form and together they’ll come up with a new title.
The writer—happy just to get any kind of feedback—listens to the editor and takes notes. Four months later, he sends the book back to the editor to try the editorial board again.
The song remains the same. NO.
So, the editor and writer do another round of revisions. Still, NO.
They do a fourth round.
By this time, no one wants to read yet another version of a book that they all thought they’d rejected on three previous occasions. Especially the publisher who presides at the front of the editorial board table and actually owns the place.
Realizing that young editor isn’t going to quit on the project and seems to have no averse response to the ridicule of his colleagues, the old man at the firm throws him a bone.
“Okay, we’ll publish the book…just don’t make me read it again. But no money up front. It must be a royalty only deal.”
And then the book goes on to become a bestseller.
Now that’s the book publishing Horatio Alger story, the one everyone trots out to piss and moan about how publishers don’t have balls like they used to. The reward for the editor’s tenacity is public recognition of his prowess figuring out what the marketplace wants to read. Having the bestseller is the proof of his genius. Bestsellers good…the primary goal for every editor.
And it’s true that this kind of story is highly unlikely to happen today. Because publishers get so many submissions, the idea of an editor spending time on spec developing a book that the company doesn’t already own is ridiculous.
Today, writers get one read per house. And once it’s a pass, it’s always a pass…no matter how many revisions the writer went through to change it.
I cannot think of an exception in my twenty plus years in the trade. I pity the young editor who asks any of his colleagues to read a revised manuscript after it’s already been rejected. There’s just so little time and so many submissions. Move on.
Back to the editor with the golden touch from yesteryear. What’s more important is what happens after his writer and he have a big hit.
The writer’s next novel, the one everyone in the company thinks is a sure thing based on the success of the first one, bombs.
And so does the one after that.
And the one after that.
The writer hightails it to Hollywood to write screenplays, which inevitably leads to his drinking himself to death.
The truly heroic part about this publishing story, lost in the myth about how trusting your self will get you a bestseller, is that the editor never gave up on the writer. The guy had only one hit out of five novels that were ultimately published and it was the first one, the least accomplished of the lot. The one that’s hard to engage with today.
Perhaps the editor was just stubborn, refusing to accept that he was just lucky and didn’t have the pulse of the American public down pat. He knew he’d be able to get the writer back on the bestseller list if he just tried hard enough. So he kept going back to the well, hoping that this time the newest offering would sell better than the big hit.
But the truth is something perhaps quite difficult to grasp in our day and age of compelling commerce as proof of legitimacy. The editor truly cared more about the work than he did about its performance in the marketplace. His job, as he understood it, was to find a way to keep the writer working, to help him find his voice, to keep his spirits up when he was broke and saddled with debts no honest man could pay. His job wasn’t to find the next new thing. It was to help create a lasting thing.
So the editor found ways to subsidize the losses from the novels that tanked. He culled the best short stories his writer wrote for magazines and issued successful story collections so that the bottom line to his company was black ink and not red ink. He didn’t expect his publisher to keep publishing a guy who lost money just because it was in the service of “Literature.” He knew he had to find a way to make it profitable. So when the publishers and his fellow editors moaned and groaned when he presented the next novel, he had the overall numbers from all of the writer’s titles to back him up. That’s how he kept him on his list.
That kind of reasoning makes complete sense, but it doesn’t convince the decision makers in today’s big publishing.
At the Big Five, all projects are evaluated in a vacuum. Will this book “work.” Not the body of work, just this one. Not in the long term, but in the first eight weeks. If the chances are that the book won’t sell like hotcakes right out of the gate, then forget it. Pass.
Sadly, even if all are in agreement at a house at one of the big five that a work has the potential to become a classic in its genre, if it doesn’t have the zip capable of garnering national publicity to sell in the first eight weeks too, then forget it. Pass.
This reality, by the way, is the great opportunity for the Maxwell Perkins’ of our age.
Be bold. If you’re an editor or a publisher, think about ten years from now, not just the launch… Be something more than just another clown filling his bookcases with stupid Lucite encased copies of The New York Times bestseller list. Think about why books are important, why they matter. How they can affect change. Be a publisher, not a diviner of bestsellers.
As Steve likes to say… “Fuck the marshmallows!”
The Big Five today pass on the books that Maxwell Perkins dedicated decades of his life cultivating, novels like THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED, THE GREAT GATSBY, and TENDER IS THE NIGHT. Perkins didn’t publish them so that they would be temporal bestsellers. But because they meant something to him. They were his life’s work.
This is the gut check we all need to remember. We didn’t get into art to get rich. We did it to facilitate transcendental human creation.
Maxwell Perkins was a great editor not because he had an incredible editorial vision or because he could pick a winner out of a stack of losers. He was a great editor because he saw the nobility in and the necessity of cultivating people with the desire to tell stories that last longer than eight weeks.