Why Do Editors Reject Bestsellers?

Why do some brilliant editors discover bestsellers and other incompetent editors miss them? From Emily Dickenson to Harry Potter, how could so many have turned them down? In his history of the Scribners publishing house, written 75 years ago, Roger Burlingame pulls back the veil on this mystery.* For many writers and readers, this will be a revelation. Editors will not be surprised at all. They will recognize their own experience in this account, affirming how true it is in our digital age as it was a century ago when moveable type still ruled.

When a book by a new writer becomes a best-seller, a body of legend grows about it. It appears that it was declined by a dozen stupid publishers until some genius saw its worth and brought the author from his garret into the daylight. It is not explained that the genius who discovered Author A, the week before let Author B’s manuscript slide through his fingers to another genius who may, indeed, be the very oaf who originally saw no prospects in Author A, but now is acclaimed as the discoverer of B’s masterpiece. Nor is it told how long and patiently both these publishers have labored with the beautiful lost words of Authors X and Y, upon whom, year after year, the public has inscrutably turned its back.

To those who know the facts beneath the legend, therefore, it is not surprising that good publishers waste so few tears over mistaken judgments of manuscripts. Over a long career any publisher can find in his record dozens of declinations of books which later brought fame and profit to someone else. If, in that career, he has built up a solid body of good authors who enjoy working with him and bring him a steady income, year after year, and if, besides, he has laid a backlog of departments producing steady-selling religious, educational, juvenile, subscription or technical books, he has spent his energies more wisely than in the restless search for big sellers. The proof of this is in his survival. Those publisher who have approached their job in this way have lived the longest, and the wisest young publishers in the field today are those who are steady building, regardless of brilliant, quick and sporadic successes.

The public, too, amused by the best-seller legends, is seldom aware of the peculiar reasons behind some declinations or of how beneficial to an author the rejection of a manuscript may be. A publisher whose list is full, say, for two seasons ahead, will reluctantly let go a book which seems sure-fire to himself and all his editors. He is already committed to the limit of his capacity. If, now, he takes on another large job, he knows either that he cannot do it justice or that, if he does, the books for which he has already agreed to do his best will suffer. . . . So, though it would be surprising to find an author pleased at a rejection—even when these things are explained to him—yet it is common enough, afterward, for him to look back over his manuscript’s stormy voyage and thank his luck stars that it came to haven at last in the place where the fullest measure of attention could be accorded it.

*Roger Burlingame, Of Making Many Books: A Hundred Years of Reading, Writing and Publishing (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1946; 1996), 61-62.

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Advice to Publishers–From a Previous Century

In 1996 Charles Scribner III wrote the introduction to a history of the publishing house whose name he shares.* Here are some quotations that show that the more things change in publishing, the more they stay the same.

On the Importance of Finding New Writers
In 1913 Charles Scribner’s only son, another Charles (III), graduated from Princeton and began his career in publishing. He was a contemporary of Perkins and Wheelock, and his age gave him a ready grasp of the importance of the new writers who were beginning to appear on the scene. (p. xviii)

On the Importance of a Balanced List
I think it’s fair to say that by the 1950s the star-studded Perkins years had left an unfortunate legacy. The editors were on the perpetual lookout for the new Hemingway or Wolfe to arrive—like Godot. Their attention was fixed on the fiction front, to the exclusion of other areas of publishing. To restore some balance to the list–and a balanced list is essential to a publisher’s survival—Scribner set out to develop fields of nonfiction history, biography, how to books…. But Charles Scribner, Jr.’s own true love was for reference works, and these years saw the birth of works that have become the staple of every major school, college, and public library. (pp. xxiii-xxiv)

On Finding the New in the Old
In the context of my thumbnail history of Scribners very little of recent times is truly new; we were doing much the same a century ago. In effect, the postwar decades may be viewed as a recapitulation of earlier themes; that is to say, striking a balanced list, recognizing the importance of non-fiction, maintaining a backlist, bringing out series of books such as reference sets, and co-publishing with British firms. (p. xxiv-xxv)

For those in publishing looking for good ideas for the future, sometimes the best ones can be found in the past.

*The book is Of Making Many Books by Roger Burlingame, which (originally published in 1946) covers the first hundred years of Scribner’s. The book was reprinted fifty years later by the Pennsylvania State University Press.

Getting a Publisher’s Attention

How can you get a publisher’s attention when you are an unpublished writer only beginning to build a platform?

Writers know editors and agents are looking for people who not only are good writers but who are well-known, are experts in their field, speak to hundreds, or get thousands of hits on YouTube. Is there a way to get them to notice your proposal among the hundreds they see even if you aren’t a household name? Here’s one idea.

Secure endorsements from people who already have platforms. Then present those along with your proposal. These can be previously published authors, well-known speakers or bloggers, leaders in organizations related to the topic of your book, or professors at seminaries or colleges. If you know people like that, ask them to read your manuscript or proposal with an eye toward possibly offering a two- or three-sentence commendation should they find it worthwhile.

Your personal relationship with these people will make it more likely they would consider the request. Make it clear they have no obligation; you are only asking them to take a look.

What if you don’t know anyone famous? Then think about your networks of friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. Maybe some of them know people with platforms. A question to this effect on Facebook could get you several possibilities. Ask those people if they’d be willing to pass on your manuscript to their prominent friend with the same request.

Once I received a proposal from a professor of New Testament I had never heard of who worked at a small seminary I had never heard of. In the proposal he claimed to have solved a significant and long-standing problem in the interpretation of the Bible. I thought his proposal was way overconfident, that he was all too certain of the revolutionary nature of his idea. I was ready to turn it down.

Then I saw that with the other usual things you find in a proposal, he had a page of endorsements from a half-dozen well-known and well-respected scholars, several of whom I knew personally. They clearly indicated this book was significant. What’s more, they were people from across a range of denominational and theological perspectives. It was because of that page of endorsements that I took the proposal seriously, and eventually the book was published to some acclaim.

I don’t recommend writing to prominent people you don’t know. It is a waste of your time and theirs. But if you have a personal link, consider asking for a favor.

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When Eugene Peterson Was Unknown

As we grieve the recent passing of Eugene Peterson, we remember the first encounter IVP had with him. When Peterson was an unknown Presbyterian pastor in Maryland, he sent IVP an unsolicited manuscript. Here is an excerpt from Heart. Soul. Mind. Strength. that tells what happened behind the scenes that led to the publication in 1980 of one of his most influential books.
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The Publishing Experience (2)

Does a fifty-year-old book on publishing have anything to offer the radically different publishing environment today? Cass Canfield’s The Publishing Experience, on his career at Harper from 1924 to 1986, is such a book. While his brief vignettes of many prominent authors are most fascinating and worthwhile quite on their own, along the way he also offers some precepts that guided his work, which still ring true decades later.
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Farewell, Jim Hoover

Jim Hoover has given us the sad news (for us) but the good news (for him) that December 31, 2013, will officially be his last day at IVP.


I could try to measure the contribution Jim has made in number of books edited or pages published in his more than thirty-five years with IVP, but that would be wholly inadequate. He has been a work horse, but much more. He has been our sheet anchor of wisdom as we have faced innumerable decisions and quandaries over the years.
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The Silver Lining on Doom and Gloom

Here’s a doom-and-gloom article about the publishing industry with a twist: it might not all be doom and gloom.

Despite the continual stream of stories about authors making $10,000 a month or more on self-published ebooks and in the process crushing traditional publishing out of existence, Evan Hughes in Wired magazine (April 2013) says there’s another side of the story.
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