By Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
For one who is a compulsive writer, it is a self-indulgent and cathartic exercise.And it is easy to suggest that ‘One writes for oneself’ as Ernest Hemingway put it, but Art Butchwald, humorist added, ‘until you desperately seek out a publisher who knows to say Yes’. Yes, you write so that you may be published. And ‘getting read is another ball game altogether’ said Mark Twain.
It is not easy to get published. What is it that convinces a publisher or an agent to ‘go for it’? Tomes have been written on what ‘engages’ them. But it is not a science. There is no secret sauce. It is much like a movie which is marketed big and turns a whimper or another one which quietly enters the scene and becomes a raging hit.
And early rejections from agents and publishers is passé in the world of publishing. Only a writer who understands it, can ‘persevere and prove the SOBs wrong’ said Oscar Wilde. What do ‘they’ know ‘they’ know asked Alex Haley. The roll call of those who were rejected multiple times, not just one or twice, do make the best sellers’ list too.
One was reading Morgan Housel’s ‘Psychology of Money’, a fascinating book of a kind. Not easy to write a good one in a crowded field with ‘established stars dominating and keeping the rest out’, he said. And Housel was rejected by many publishers until a firm in UK agreed ‘to take the risk’. The first print order was for just 5000 copies and ‘ Morgan was ready to buy most of them’ to see his book and name in print. Then it sold. Sold. Sold more. And continues to sell more and more.
How many of us know these facts? Even Jane Austen herself was rejected in her early career. Eminent London publisher Thomas Cadell rejected an early draft of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 1797. The book would not be published for another sixteen years, until Thomas Egerton came to his senses and published it in 1813.
Best-selling author J. K. Rowling has sold over 450 million books and is worth more than $1 billion. Her life is a classic rags to riches tale, going from unemployed single mother ‘as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless’ to one of the wealthiest women in Britain. Rowling describes herself prior to Harry Potter as being ‘the biggest failure I knew’. Yet within her failure she found liberation.
“I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter, and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.’
She sent her finished manuscript to 12 different publishers only to be rejected by them all. A Bloomsbury editor finally picked up the book for an advance of just £1,500. Her editor suggested she get a teaching job as it was unlikely that she would earn a living from writing children’s books. The book went on to become one of the best-selling series in history with over 450 million copies purchased world-wide.
Says Rowling, ‘It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default’.
Stephen King was the first to reject his own story ‘Carrie’. After writing a frustrating first draft and feeling that he was wasting his time creating a book that wouldn’t sell, he threw it out. The next day he found that his wife had pulled the papers out of the trash and wanted him to finish it. He went on to finish and submit it to a publisher who passed it over with the comment ‘We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias’. The manuscript was rejected 30 times before being picked up by Doubleday. It went on to sell over a million copies and become a successful film. Since then King has published over 54 novels, 200 short stories and won numerous awards for his contributions to literature.
Agatha Christie completed her first manuscript at the age of 22. She submitted to many publishers only to receive a stream of rejections. She sought the advice of a family friend writer Eden Philpots who introduced her to his own literary agent who rejected the manuscript but suggested she write a second novel. Agatha Christie’s first novel was never published. Her second novel was also repeatedly rejected before being finally published on the agreement that she change the ending. Agatha Christie went on to have a prolific career writing 72 novels and 15 short-story collections.
Just take the further names who faces multiple rejection slips, Isaac Asimov, Pest S Buck, James Baldwin, Marcel Proust, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (134 rejections before they sold 134 million copies), John Grisham ( Wow!), William Faulkner, Anne Frank … the list goes on and on and is endless.Does it give you solace to be in this select company. What about getting published at some time like ‘they’ got to?
Getting books published may be a tough ask. Getting to print , in newspapers and magazines is even tougher. The priorities and protocols are different. You write. You send. They don’t even reject . Their shredders must be working overtime. They don’t tell you anything. Silence is the response. When you shamelessly seek it, they say, “We only accept those commissioned . We do not entertain unsolicited pieces’. And then you read in print, pieces ‘commissioned’ which are staid, placid and pedestrian, with no ‘heat or light’ as Thomas Friedman , insists they must have.
What do you do? You become a blogger or a ‘reporter’ to another website among the millions or a compulsive writer who shares with a captive mailing list, those who dare you to share, with a fierce weapon in hand. Instant Delete! Who reads beyond you? None. Not one. Yet you make bold to write!
(Writer is practicing advocate in the Madras High Court).