Saturday, 17 January 2009


Everyone is wrong sometimes. (Don't tell me about spritual leaders claiming a hotline to a higher being - we're talking ordinary people here, and publishers are as ordinary as the rest of us. In fact, sometimes being ordinary is what makes them publishers and not writers. Hold onto that thought.)

But, more interestingly and relevantly, define "wrong". You will all have heard many stories of famous authors/books who were rejected 99 times before going on to be massive. So, does this mean that all the publishers who rejected them were wrong?

You will also have heard of authors who were serially rejected, then self-published, and then were picked up by a publisher and given a contract. (Thanks, Nick Green, for your comment to that effect on another article, because it gives me a chance to make an important point, not that my other points are not important, of course.)

So, the implication is that those publishers were wrong. And they might have been, not being infallible etc, but I'd like you to consider some other possibilities. (And nearly all of these apply to agents, too.)

As I say, define "wrong". If by "wrong" you mean that they have missed making a load of money because they too would have made a huge success of this book, then no, not necessarily. If you mean that they ought to have said yes because any non-stupid publisher would have recognised the commercial merit of the book, and since they didn't they must be stupid, again, no, not necessarily.

In order to understand, consider the reasons why a publisher may validly and sensibly reject a book that goes on to be a success. Even a good book. Even occasionally a really really good book.

Good reasons why a publisher might reject a potentially commercially successful / critically acclaimed / classic book and not feel like blushing afterwards:
  1. It's not the sort of book they publish and therefore they would not make a good job of it / wouldn't have the necessary marketing (eg) budget for it - different books do require different expertise. If they'd taken it on, we might never have heard of it.
  2. They have filled their list for the next year (or whatever) and can't take on anything else and commit time and money to it in a time-scale acceptable to an agent/author who might be knocked down by a bus before the next possible publication date 25 years hence - publishers tend to have a very small number (depending on the size of the company) of "lead titles" each month, scheduled up to 18 months (or sometimes more) ahead. If they have their max of lead titles and your book is important enough to require it to be a lead title (or your agent wouldn't have it any other way), then they can't rightly commit to it and would be doing you a disservice in taking it. Publishers have to take on only the amount they can deal with well. Remember that a lot of their costs have to be paid long before they can expect any income, so budgets are an issue.
  3. They are scheduled to publish another book which would be in competition with it. In some cases this might not be a problem but it easily could be.
  4. The editor in question just personally doesn't love the book enough. As you will agree, everyone has different opinions about books, and you DO need an editor who loves yours. If she/he doesn't, she/he can't speak up for it at the acquisitions meeting (of which more another day) and it simply won't get taken on, even if another editor in another company might have loved it. It really is and MUST be largely personal choice. The same hugely applies to agents.
  5. Some books that become huge commercial successes, are, in the humble opinion of yours truly, utter tripe, and have absolutely nothing about them that anyone who fulfilled the criteria of sanity and consciousness and wasn't drunk or stoned would ever detect.
Apart from that, yeah, publishers are sometimes "wrong" - in the sense that sometimes they say no when they should say yes and sometimes they say yes when they will wish they'd said no. But let's not get it into our heads that this whole business of saying which book is going to work or not could or should ever be an exact science. Luckily, it's a weird weird world out there, with beautifully unpredictable readers who can turn a dead-cert into a disappearing act or dress the Emperor in the most glittering new clothes.

For you, the poor author trying to deal with another rejection of what you must hope is a dead-cert, it is perhaps no consolation to be reminded that all that glitters is not sold.

All I can say is that perseverence is essential - so, do keep polishing your gold.

And by the way, over indulgence in metaphors is considered very bad style.

But you can start a sentence with "and". And "but". But you really shouldn't end an article totally off topic.


HelenMHunt said...

Great post. I really like reason 5. I'm nowhere near looking for an agent or publisher yet, but your blog is fascinating.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thank you, Helen! And actually, many people look for an agent/publisher way too soon, so the fact that you consider yourself not at that stage yet is a GOOD sign. You get this evening's gold star for modesty and self-perceptiveness!

Ebony McKenna. said...

Hi Nicola,
I've come here via Editorial Anonymous and I am really enjoying your blog.
Your advice is spot on.
Thank you very much.

Nick Green said...

A very thought-provoking post, this. Here's a little parable that I think helps to illustrate it.

Last week I went into Waterstones (as you do). I picked up the latest Louis de Bernieres and read the first chapter. Unsurprisingly, I loved it. I love Louis de B. I have read every book he's ever published, up to this one. I weighed the book in my hand, wondering if I wanted to buy it today.
I didn't buy it.
Was I 'wrong'?
Well, yes. But that doesn't mean I wasn't also right. I didn't buy it that day. I don't have to explain myself. We've all been there and you know what I'm talking about.
And if this is one person buying just one book to read, then how much more difficult the decision of an Editor, buying a book to publish!

Nicola Morgan said...

Exactly. Because whereas you only had to decide whether YOU liked it enough to pay £8.99 for it, the ED has to decide whether lots of other unknown people will like it enough to justify spending several 1000s of company money on it.

Donna Hosie said...

I thoroughly enjoy your blog, Nicola. It's essential reading - erudite and yet damn funny at times.

Nicola Morgan said...

Since you are clearly a reader of such discerning taste, Donna, of course I had to go and visit your blog, and I see that you are a writer who actually DOES know what she's doing/talking about. I loved your post "What do you do?" and I recommend that everyone who comes here should read it too. You are spot on. GOSH, that has happened to me so many times and it makes me veer towards violence. Yeah, wouldn't we all be writers "if we only had time"??? So, everyone, read Donna's words - the post I refer to was Sunday 18th Jan - GOOD LUCK!

Sharon Blackie said...

Nicola - speaking as a small publisher (at a very focused independent literary house) I can only say that this (and the rest of your blog!) is spot on. I can't tell you how many times I've turned down very fine pieces of writing because they genuinely don't fit with our list or because we have no more energy and badly need to get a life ... but much more often and very simply because I don't love it enough - and if I'm going to spend months of my life working on a book (because like most small presses we do EVERYTHING ourselves - we can't afford to do otherwise) I have to adore it otherwise I'll lose the will to live. There are, however, not so good reasons why some publishers turn down fine manuscripts and that's because they don't fit a preconceived mould that the marketing department will feel comfortable with ... but generally speaking no, it's not usually out of mean-spiritedness or stupidity! Keep up the excellent work.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks, Sharon. That reminds me to get Esther Woolfson's Piano Angel, because I loved Corvus and met her at an event I organised in Aberdeenshire. She and I were also fellow sufferers at a dire festival hotel (not Edinburgh). ALSO, seeing your spot-on comments about why buy from Two Ravens I think you might be interested in my "Fair Reading" idea - if you're on Facebook, check out the group, which will explain. And maybe spread the word, if you agree.