Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Many authors who have been recently published in book form for the first time have a momentary sense of invincibility, of momentum, surely of a continuing sense of purpose.  Whatever the dynamic leading up to the first venture, they’ll have gone through a ritual of trial and rejection seeming unusual in its harshness.

The process is no more harsh in actuality than any number of disciplines; the academic profession comes to mind as an example.  An individual who has earned a doctorate at one of the more rigorous and prestigious universities has seen as many forms of rejection, hints of favoritism, or irrational standards applied in judging the outcome.

Publishing—even self-publishing—is not a rational landscape.  There are no reasons to suppose it is, even to the point of realizing that any hope of finding rational behavior and equal opportunity and advancement on sheer merit are wish-fulfillment fantasy, set in large type font.

You have been on such a long fling with publishing that you can no longer remember your motives for wishing to indulge it other than what may have been your single, one-dimensional reason.  You wished to be published.

Thanks to a number of books on the subject, notably Walter Campbell writing as Stanley Vestal, a number of teachers of creative writing (the names Herman Quick, Vernon King, and J. E. Johnston come racing to mind) you were alert to the flurry of rejection slips you were about to endure before the arrival of that one special envelope which you would keep forever, paste in a scrapbook, or somehow enshrine.  The special envelope would contain a long letter explaining why the magazine who’d accepted your story was won over by its dramatic grandeur.

You have interrupted the writing of these paragraphs to check out the Stanley Vestal title—Writing Magazine Fiction—was available on Amazon.  You need another book, right?  But the Campbell/Vestal was available.  You ordered it to remind you of one of the earliest catalysts of your memory.  From this vantage point, Herman Quick, your high school creative writing teacher, made a solid choice.  Magazines of all sorts proliferated in those days, including the pulps, which you were on your way to loving with the same fascination you later found in your attraction to young ladies you knew from the outset were wrong for you.  You would try your hand at all manner of short stories, including the then called confessions which differed from the more contemporary confessionals.

True enough, you collected your share of rejection slips from a cornucopia of sources.  Of equal truth, however, the first sale did not produce a letter for a scrap book but rather a phone call that baffled you because the caller, after asking for you by name and waiting to be transferred to you from your mother, who’d been waiting for a call to confirm an afternoon of mah jong, failed to identify himself, his publication, or the piece he was buying.  “Lowenkopf?” he said.

“Yes,” you said.

“We’ll take it,” he said.  “We may have to cut some stuff out of the middle.  We’ll see.”  And then he was gone.

The magazine arrived some months later, in an envelope with a check paper clipped to the front cover.

Nor was it rational for you to have discovered that what you’d thought was the first was no such thing, a previous acceptance had been unexplainably sent to Tucson, Arizona, as though you’d lived there or that someone with your name was living there.

Even less rational was your becoming an editor, working the “other” side of the desk.  Your “publisher” was a mail-order genius.  Because you’d written some mail order copy describing—you’ll never forget this—a collection of short stories by Henry James, the ‘publisher,” no reader, became convinced that he could make a fortune selling books by subscription through mail order, avoiding the cost of bookstore and distributor discounts.  Based on his sales of other books, he came forth with a list of titles he wished to publish.  Waving a list of titles at you, he asked how many of them you thought you could write.

 You began to think you were seeing such a thing as permanent paychecks.  “All of them,” you said.

This strategy worked for nearly six months, when the “publisher” called you into his office, and asked you to close the door.  You’d been in enough office situations by then to understand that a superior who called you into his office, then asked you to shut the door, had something to tell you he did not wish the rest of the world to know.

You were not working fast enough.  A book a month wouldn’t cut it.  Surely you had other friends who were writers.  After a few months of being highly regarded by a growing coterie of friends, the “publisher” said a friend in the publishing profession had told him that books needed editors.  Thus you became his editor, whereupon a literary agent who’d thought you unsuitable for the kinds of books he seemed to place with some regularity turned the tables by offering you as an editor a book on writing he had written.

You have seen too many projects succeed when there was no rational reason for them to do so and many other projects fail in spite of the overwhelming logic that they should do well.

By this time, your publisher was publishing enough titles to hire a sales manager from a New York publisher, a seemingly rational move that produced disastrous results of the sort a first-time author could not imagine—until the time for the author’s first royalty statement.

Grown men and women often cry when they see their royalty statements.

You want rational, stay away from publishing.  But the more you think about it, where else would you go?

Publishing is irrational.  Its people are irrational.  Its readers are absolutes paradigms of the irrational.  But they are your irrational.  And you, in your mysterious ways, are theirs.

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