Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Rejection Letter

I'm sure you've forgotten the saga of my unpublishable manuscript, The Vagabond's Bookshelf: Essays on Rereading. But the saga continues. Yesterday, in response to a 2010 submission, I received the following letter from a very well known independent publisher:
I very much appreciate you sending me the manuscript. I apologize that it's taken an unconscionably long time to get back to you, but everyone here really wanted to give this manuscript the time and thought we think it deserves. 
Although you've heard it before, I'll say it again: your writing is an absolute joy to read. Your love of literature comes across as clearly as your grasp of the English language, and inspires any reader with even a smidgen of taste and sensitivity to share your enthusiasms. 
Unfortunately, I'll have to follow up with yet another line you often hear: there's just no market to sell this type of book. Of course publishers and editors are going to appreciate a writer's reaction to great works of literature, but your fan base won't extend much beyond that. These "omnium gatherums" are very seldom reviewed because they are impossible to describe and deliberately eclectic. Without a real and substantial audience, miscellaneous collections like this are simply too difficult to sell. 
I would love to find something to do with this work. However, as things exist today, there just isn't enough of a market for your kind of writing to make it a viable undertaking for a small and putatively "for profit" house like this.

I opened this letter, read it, then set it down on the kitchen counter and walked away. What else could I do?

Sure, tell me to bask in the praise. You're right: praise is lovely, and having this particular publisher praise my writing is a jaunty feather in my cap. And while you're at it, you might as well remind me that I've published other books, that all of the essays in this particular manuscript have appeared in famous literary journals. Remind me that other writers are far less fortunate than I am. All of this is true.

But it is deeply discouraging to be told that no matter how well I write, no one will read my book. I mean, deeply discouraging. I mean, why bother continuing to write discouraging. Although I am inured to routine rejection letters, this one has just about pushed me over the edge. There is something so exquisitely painful in being told that high success in my art has made my art unsalable. What do I do with that information? Try to write less well about things that don't matter to me?


Maureen said...

Three years later you are getting a response?! My first reaction is, "You couldn't send a reply to Dawn to let her know how 'everyone really wanted' to give time to her manuscript?"

Given the large number of books that have been published by writers about their reading or even how to read literature, this response (which seems exquisitely carefully written) does not come across as entirely honest to me. But who knows? I'm sure having a well-known name helps.

How does any writer ever find a "real" audience? The use of that word in the letter truly bothers me. Are Internet readers not "real"?

It's so easy to say "there's just no market". Well, how about creating one, dear publisher? "[S]imply too difficult to sell"? Well, how do you know that if you've never tried?

I understand the economics of book publishing. Thankfully, we've have publishers that choose to ignore the dollar signs. If they didn't, there'd be no poetry collections in print.

Ruth said...

Maureen, your response is right on. I have similar reactions. Thank you for putting so well.

Ruth said...

Oops...insert \it\ after the putting!!

Carlene said...

I agree, the niche for this kind of thoughtful and thought-filled work is relatively small, but I also seem to think that this is a very flowery cop-out. There are millions of teachers, scholars, and other careful readers out there who yearn to hear a kindred voice. I no longer subscribe to the English Journal, but I seem to remember that there were scads of books not nearly as nice as this dealing with far less interesting topics. How can there be so many "writing prompts" handbooks, for example, but no meaty books that one could read, reference, and connect with? Bah. Maybe it's time to self-publish it? Just a thought. I loved Wes McNair's Mapping the Heart...maybe the press that published that collection of essays would be interested?

Christopher said...

" There are millions of teachers, scholars, and other careful readers out there who yearn to hear a kindred voice," you say, Carlene. And of course you're right -- but perhaps they don't have to pay for it in order to have it in their lives. There are millions of excellent writers everywhere, and that's no exaggeration either, millions or more, but there never has been and never will be the resources to publish all of them, or even a tiny fraction. Because publishing is not the only or even the primary way those "millions of teachers, scholars and other careful readers" share their views with one another -- they also talk, debate, give lectures, formal or over a beer, go for walks, hikes, work together, and of course write letters, e-mails and I suspect even tweet. Even bloggers do it, and what a pleasure it is to pop in on Dawn Potter's stream any morning to get treated to a snippet of the best writing in English you can find anywhere in the world -- for free! Everyday at sunrise with your first cup of coffee you can, or in my case at the antipodes sheltering from the heat in the late afternoon.

The same goes for painting, carving, sewing and cooking -- there are millions and millions of great artists out there that nobody pays to experience or talk about any of their art, but it's nevertheless genius wonderful.

It's a historically very rare and unsustainable phenomenon that witnesses an artist as great yet provincial as Dawn Potter getting paid where she lives on her small, hard-scrabble farm in Harmony Maine. We're so spoiled and naive when we think art generates money by nature, which it never has anywhere else but in America today. Art is what an artist does anyway even if nobody notices, and and artists are everywhere!

Publishing in America today is like teaching at a so-called 'good college' in preparation for a 'nice living'-- Americans are so monumentally naive and isolated when they assume that all artists live on nice campuses with lawns as well as in the country with gardens AND get paid!


Christopher said...

Just to remind you that this is always a primary theme on this site, a theme which is always a source of discomfort for artists who refuse to come in from the cold.

Which means the artist at home like everywhere: Dawn Potter: Poems, essays, music, reading & teaching projects, and what I made for dinner.

I think we hit it particularly well here: http://dlpotter.blogspot.com/2013/04/this-week-big-news-around-here-is-north.html