Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Old news for newer writers

I'm pretty sure I had heard this story before, years ago. But I came across this story again today, and in the context of the writing life, it caused more ripples than it once might have.

Jerzy Kosinski, in the days before his reputation was partially sullied by a story in the Village Voice which accused him of both plagiarism and excessive creativity (long story, read about it on Wiki if you wanna), was a hugely successful novelist. He was the author of Being There, the basis for one of my favorite films, and had won the National Book Award in 1969 for Steps.

In 1975 (and again in 1977) fellow writer named Chuck Ross wanted to prove a point about the publishing industry, and Kosinski allowed him to submit Steps as a his own work, changing the title and putting a pseudonym on the manuscript. In all he submitted Kosinski's award-winning book to 14 publishers and 13 agents, receiving rejections or no response at all in each instance.

The publishers rejecting the work included both the original publisher of the book and Kosinski's then-current publisher, who wrote: "Several of us read your untitled novel here with admiration for writing and style. Jerzy Kosinski comes to mind as a point of comparison when reading the stark, chilly, episodic incidents you have set down. The drawback to the manuscript, as it stands, is that it doesn't add up to a satisfactory whole."

None of the publishers noticed that the work may have crossed their desks before. Agents informed him that they simply did not read unsolicited manuscripts, or implied that the novel was substandard work. Publishers suggested he submit the work through an agent.

It seems pretty clear in this tale that the writing was not the issue.

Like a lot of writers, I tend to blithely assume that when I get around to submitting a manuscript, the process will go smoothly and I will have no problems whatsoever getting it published. After all, I think, by the time I get a manuscript into shape, it will undoubtedly be stuffed with excellent writing. Agents and then publishers will be happy to get my stuff in the mail, and they will be immediately taken with my work and offer me large canvas bags with dollar signs imprinted on the sides.

But of course, as this story reminds me, good writing isn't necessarily the ballgame. If my manuscript happens to land in the wrong part of the stack on some reader's desk, that's a likely rejection. Maybe it's the last one read before an exciting vacation, or the first one on a day with no coffee or after quitting smoking. Either way, seems like a rejection could ensue due to circumstances entirely beyond my control. Plus the possibility that the reader just doesn't connect with my stuff.

And that's if it makes it into the reader pile to begin with, which is by no means certain.

Some of the writers I've met through the blogging community are good writers. Judging from their blogs, and from the bits of fiction they sometimes leak to us, they are deserving of publication. And some of them are having a devil of a time getting the appropriate attention. They are told that their manuscripts are "difficult to market" or too this or too that. Some of the replies are encouraging about the writing, but none have decided that the bait on the hook was the succulent morsel for which they had been searching.

It is hard to fault the authors too much for this. And it is perhaps understandable from the other side of the table as well. Hundreds of manuscripts pass through these people's offices each week. It would be impossible to give each piece the attention it might deserve.

The lesson seems to me to be a positive one for someone like me. There might be a tendency to feel like rejection slips mean I'll never get published. But initial rejection is not necessarily indicative of a flaw in the work. I'm probably gonna have to remember that a few months from now when I start the process of looking for an agent and publisher for my work.


Suzan Abrams, email: suzanabrams@live.co.uk said...

Hi Moon,

Enjoyed this post that stirred up thoughts.

Basically, on submission, my philosophy is to just expect rejections but to perservere. But you're right. It's the devil of a time... I've heard from author friends that though a lot of manuscripts reach the slush pile, many are not even suitable, so there you are, you just never know.

I'm submitting my work to Britain. The idea there where mainstream publishing is concerned as I understand it to be, is to go through the agents now. So the slush pile is rightfully on a literary agent's desk if you attempt the UK.

Also they did try it in London about established authors resending their manuscripts on to literary agents, but being rejected; being told that as you said..unsolicited manuscripts are not being read or that the work isn't suitable.

But I do wonder about this. At the end of the day, literary agents are still business people, and plots, styles, the use of language or even an audience's needs...all these do change with the times. What worked yesterday may not work today, that kind of thing.

CC2383 said...

Just stick with it. Persistince seems to count a lot in this field.

You can always publish your own book... The Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print, and Sell Your Own Book, by Dan Poynter

Who knows it might work. When your ready for that step I wish you nothing but luck.

basest said...

Another trend that has led to a certain amount of success that i've noticed is authors getting their books out there as free podcast audio novels. This seems to help them build an audience so that when they self-publish or go to submit to publishers, they have some momentum behind them. It seems to be pretty popular with genre (e.g., horror, SF) writers, anyway.

Could be fun, anyhow...playing around with "acting" again...c'mon...you know you want to....

He Who Does Not Subscribe said...

Excellent post, excellent thoughts, Mr. T.

I am with you on Kosinski. I loved him (loved Being There, the book AND the film), met him once and love this image of him you have posted.

But just like acting, writing and being published is much more about who you know, what and how things fall into place and very little to do with actual talent or creative worth.

Liz Dwyer said...

I do think it's 50% skill and 50% networking...it's how folks get ahead in any profession, although I do wish it were all skill based.

The Moon Topples said...

Susan: I'm not allowed, apparently, to seek publication i the UK, since I'm American and they worry about all the idiomatic differences, but your comments I suspect are more or less universally true. And yes, the tides change and suddenly something that the same reader would have rejected becomes something to be excited about.

CC: I'm hoping to avoid self-publishing, but I certainly haven't ruled it out.

Basest: I haven't heard much about this trend, but am a little intrigued by the idea. I'm gonna look into this a bit more, I think...

HWDNS: Mr. T? Yet another accidental pseudonym, I guess. I wouldn't say it has "very little" to do with talent and craft and such. I would say that these aren't the only criteria by which something is judged, though.

Liz: I agree. But I guess they have to try to find the things people might read. So maybe this post is actually about the audience for books (or the perceptions of the audience) as much as it is about the agents and publishers.

Kosinski himself addressed this point, citing that it was ten years since Steps had first been published, and that nobody is who they were ten years ago.

nmj said...

Hey Moon, I wish you all the best when it comes time to submit your MS. After my own travails, I have no advice: I believe talent is not always enough, luck is certainly a factor, and whatever is fashionable at the moment. At the end of the day, agents and publishers are as flawed and fickle as the writing process itself, that is the only truth I have come to. Hope that makes sense!