What It Takes

What It Takes

Gut Check

By Shawn Coyne | Published: November 15, 2013

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.

Paradise

Fitzgerald's only instant best-seller

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.

Posted in What It Takes

17 Responses to “Gut Check”

  1. Mary
    November 15, 2013 at 3:35 am

    Thanks Shawn, this was a great follow-up to Steve’s “Poof Goes the Middle Class” because publishing has changed as much as the bygone form of the American Dream. Writers have to find a new way to identify and build a readership. I was the one who submitted the “Ask Me Anything” question about which path you would recommend an unknown author take – traditional versus direct e-book publishing. Your answer confirmed what I had already been thinking; take the e-book route, build a platform and find an audience. You also said something else that was very heartening, that “right now, today is the most exciting time in book publishing history…because you today have an option.” Having that option outside of the Big 5’s control is one of the things that keeps me going with my own work, knowing that I can take it to the marketplace myself and that it will succeed or fail on its merit and on my own efforts to find an audience. That said, the story you shared about Perkins and Fitzgerald was great. I read “Editor of Genius” when it first came out. Anyone interested in reading about the old publishing world should read it and also Bennett Cerf’s “At Random,” which came out in 1977; both are available on Kindle now.

  2. November 15, 2013 at 6:36 am

    I didn’t know people thought like this any more. I thought everything in the writing world was for expediency and notoriety and recognition. I do so want to tell stories that last longer than eight weeks.

  3. November 15, 2013 at 7:07 am

    Agree with Mary being a great follow-up to Steve’s “Poof Goes the Middle Class”. Also LIKE!! the gut check equally for me “I didn’t get into ‘what I do’ to get rich, I do it to facilitate a transcendental creation.” I’ve had a F. Scott Fitzgerald quote on a yellow POST IT that I put on an antiquated Rolodex 3 or 4 years ago…maybe longer: “Vitality shows not only in the ability to persist but in the ability to start over.” It is just as difficult to “get someone” that would want to “write the story” as it is to get an editor or publisher to even want to look at or read “the story” OR a network marketing company to simply “go out of the box” of what appears to be the norm to be successful [monetary wise] within a network marketing in home business.

  4. Laura
    November 15, 2013 at 7:10 am

    I enjoyed your post Shawn and your call to arms, as it were, for people to not respond and give in to the ridiculous short term focus of the publishing industry (8 weeks!). Your example of Fitzgerald was interesting – I didn’t know about his history – but so very sad. None of us wants to end up drinking ourselves to death because we didn’t live up to our potential as a bestseller, or other’s expectations of us. We don’t want to be recognized more after we are gone than when we were alive.
    I believe you are also saying to essentially disregard the whole notion of being a bestseller (and Steve has referred to that as well in his post on The War of Art and how it is more of a ‘bestseller’ over the long haul than in its initial release). Writing used to be an art – think of the Bloomsbury Circle, for example, Virginia Woolf and EM Forster, who were celebrated for their words and ideas and not their bottom lines – but now everything is reduced to money. We’re so focused on money and success – no one would quote Steve Jobs or care about him if he created the coolest gadget that only sold a few hundred thousand copies. Societally, we all want to be rich and successful, and we want it now. The publishing industry is no different. I appreciate and admire that you, Steve, Callie, and the whole gang over there are trying to change that.

  5. November 15, 2013 at 7:41 am

    Shawn, thanks so much for your inspirational post. It helped to keep my spirits up as I wait to hear from an agent on my first book. I value the work that you, Steven and your fantastic team do for us. Y’all are a bright light in a sometimes darkened tunnel.

  6. cindy
    November 15, 2013 at 7:42 am

    Great post Shawn and I agree that this represents an enormous opportunity for the Maxwell Perkins of our age. I run a local writer’s group and there is so much unpolished talent in just my little group–anyone can break out– and it is so exciting seeing them improve (and being part of the process).

    I would just add that Perkins was also a great editor because he had the courage to stick to what he believed. I’ve worked as a consultant in advertising and text book publishing and it ain’t easy in that environment. But when you’re right just once, do they ever change their minds quick!

    Lucky for me, I had parents who valued stick-to-it-ive-ness overall. But my dad was an entrepreneur with various ups and downs in his career so he didn’t just say it, he lived it. I always thought his career seemed like a great adventure and I did not last long with a J.O.B. once i got into the “working” world.

    Being an entrepreneur is the only way to go for some of us :) the rewards are far beyond money

    • Mariane
      November 15, 2013 at 12:10 pm

      thanx for sharing your story Cindy, it seems you really had the basics rubbed in the right way!

  7. November 15, 2013 at 8:08 am

    Wow. Had no idea about this backstory. So inspirational. Tucking this wisdom in my back pocket for keeps. Thank you (again!)

  8. November 15, 2013 at 9:21 am

    Thank you for this.

  9. November 15, 2013 at 10:16 am

    “Gut check,” and “facilitate transcendental human creation” are the phrases that resonated with me most. It’s more important than ever for artists to stay the course and be true to their sacred callings, especially because technology allows us options prior generations did not have. Thanks so much for this inspiring, thought-provoking post.

  10. Nely
    November 15, 2013 at 10:29 am

    Great post! Thank you so much for this. :)

  11. byHisgrace
    November 16, 2013 at 5:48 am

    Love it! What a concept, ‘cultivating people with the desire to,’…

  12. November 16, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    Great post Shawn, thanks! I’m very happy to read your confirmation that my own inner belief in the value of building momentum and not feeding into the “flash in the pan” mentality of modern-day publishing, is at the core of what is most important…creating something that leaves a long-term impact.

  13. R. Leslie Snyder
    November 18, 2013 at 11:12 am

    ‘Be something more than just another clown filling his bookcases with stupid Lucite encased copies of The New York Times bestseller list’
    Damn. That makes a point!

  14. Jackie
    November 20, 2013 at 7:14 am

    LOL…this sounds like a reoccurring dream I have.
    I finally have the balls to put all my passion into my writing and my “baby” gets rejected by EVERYONE and I’m found lying in the fetal position. Some time after my “recovery” period I decide to throw a hail mary and send you a copy and you express to me that its a “mess” but you can see what I’m trying to accomplish.

  15. November 23, 2013 at 12:31 am

    A classic post.

    What resonates with me is not a discussion about art, but the story of persistence and courage. There is a new era dawning, where a million books will be self published each year. The persistence that will be required to make a living as a writer, even in part, will be of a similar type to the persistence displayed here. Each of us faces our own trials of Hercules. That is why that story will go on as long as their is a fire for it to be told by.

  16. December 10, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    I’ve long been an admirer of Perkins, for just this reason. Perkins also worked with Thomas Wolfe. Ford Maddox Ford is another one strong editor that comes to mind. Comic books were shaped by strong editors, as were many of the great genre magazines. (What would SF be today without Campbell?)

    Shawn, I’m just discovering your work as an editor in the mystery field (it happened a few years ago:), and I admire what you did – based on the writer’s books.

    Every writer needs an editor. More than an agent. As the publishing industry changes, I suspect we’ll see the editor-writer relationship develop in new ways, with you and Steven being in the vanguard or a prototype. That is, just as writers are going “independent,” so are “editors.” Good editors will be recognized as more valuable than a publisher.

    Thanks for the reminder.