If I spent my life fretting about the ones that got away, I would never attend to the fish in the net. (and when literary culture becomes confused with seafood, we're already in deep doo-doo)
Publishers are everyone's favourite whipping post. We don't pay our authors enough (but we writers know how expensive it is to live in NYC, you poor dears), books are too expensive, and no one likes the ones we love most. Now, on top of it all, we are revealed to be fools (this just in). Yesterday the director of the Bath Jane Austen Festival reported that he submitted thinly disguised versions of Pride and Prejudice and two other Austen favourites to 18 UK publishers, and every single publisher turned them down.
Publishers turn down masterpieces every day and miss the opportunity to publish great bestsellers. Last year I missed Freakonomics. And there are other great books that I am too embarrassed to name. But if I spent my life fretting about the ones that got away I would never attend to the fish in the net (stink as they may). And we can console ourselves with another thought: if we didn't see the potential when it was submitted to us (pretty difficult, after all, when Buffy and Chanteuse, sisters from your Ivy League MFA program, are staffing the office from their respective Rolodexes) we couldn't have published it successfully either. The sort of person who lies awake worrying about the books that they are not publishing is not cut out for the job and should confine themselves to running a cosy literary society (note the hauteur implied by this empty suit, as if such societies are somehow anathematic to our literary culture).
The real reason that publishers miss good books is no secret, and it is nothing to do with literary judgement, knowledge of first lines or acquaintance with the classics (why anyone would expect such acumen from those who populate the NYC literatti is unclear). It is the same reason that film companies miss great scripts and record labels fail to sign up the most interesting bands. It is the numbers game - the sheer volumes of paper (and now, worse still, the email attachments), that cross our desk every day (and, as tentacles of multi-billion dollar media conglomerates, we certainly can't be expected to actually hire more staff! Then we'd have to hire outside our cosy MFA sororities - and where would American letters be then?). Every year 200,000 books are published. This is far too many, and really the first duty of every publisher should be to publish fewer, rather than more, new titles (yes, that's the solution to the health of American letters - cut back on them. Then again, that seems to have worked in our public schools...).
But the situation is worse than that, because for every title that we sign up, we turn down 20 to 30 others. The ratio is worse still for new fiction (otherwise known as: Folks in our Rolodexes looking for a novel credit who, of course, live in NYC). So the math is simple. If an editor commissions 20 titles a year, which is probably about average, they are being asked to consider around 500 manuscripts a year. That is an awful lot of words (forget that we rarely ask for complete manuscripts, staff out the summary of those actual 50 pages, and basically look for pretty fonts, titilating first chapters, and names we either went to school with us, live in our co-op, or are otherwise decidely not from the Forbidden Zone, er, flyover states or some demographic we ourselves don't reflect). No one can be surprised to learn that not every manuscript gets the careful attention it deserves (what is a real surprise is ever finding a fresh manuscript from a fresh name actually get ANY attention, much less, the courtesy of a reply). It should not come as a shock that many manuscripts are returned unread to the sender. We need to clear our desks in order to look after the authors (from aformentioned alumni lists, Rolodexes, co-op neighbors, exchanged business cards from the last mixer, etc) whom we do sign up, and the unsolicited manuscripts are often a chore to be dealt with at the end of the day by an overworked intern (from our MFA program waiting for their first agency gig).
Apparently GPs give their patients an average of six minutes before they are shown the door of the surgery. The average author sending an unsolicited script certainly gets much less. Publishers now rely on specialists - agents, in fact (think of them as the consultants of the publishing profession) - to supply them with novels, though we all still buy some non-fiction directly from authors. To plagiarise, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that the most celebrated fiction houses now only buy fiction from agents (and we all know how utterly qualified agent-types and their office staffs are at husbanding and further developing our precious literary traditions). All serious aspiring authors know this and seek out an agent as an essential stage in the process of finding the right publisher, and of course the best contract too.
That means the unsolicited fiction is now the leftovers. A terrifying proportion of these manuscripts come from people writing in green ink on scraps of Basildon Bond - surely its only use now. And if they aren't in green ink, the manuscripts arrive handwritten in capital letters, or from prison, or from a secure mental hospital. Of course there may be lost masterpieces lurking in the mad rantings of the sad, the bad and the dangerous to know (to plagiarise again), but publishers are not social workers (hell, they're barely publishers).
One of the first things every editor is taught is that the rejection letter should be final, that is, it should not give any opportunity for a response. When you return the manuscript you never want to have to think about it again. So it is fatal to suggest that, for example, the plot is quite good but needs work in the closing chapters, or that there are too many characters, or that the dialogue needs work. Send these suggestions to the writer you don't want and you are entering the long-term relationship from hell, because in three weeks the manuscript will come straight back at you with the changes you have recommended (after all, we can't be bothered with anything that might actually develop into something of value - we want the diamond mine mined, polished, and pre-sold!). So publishers use euphemistic - all right, let's be honest, weaselly (a weaselly publisher? That's like an ethical agent...or an editor who can actually diagram a sentence, freely discuss the canon, and associate with folks who didn't graduate from their same MFA program or live in the Forbidden Zone)- phrases when rejecting manuscripts, like "not quite right for our list" or "would not fit our publishing programme". The clear subtext is that the manuscript is unpublishable and the writer should consign it to their bottom drawer. For ever.
Finally, let's get personal and specific. David Lassman, über-Austenite, has sought publicity with the news that a number of publishers have rejected his plagiarised Austen novels. His game is one played on unsuspecting publishers every two or three years and it always brings a wry smile to some faces. Last time it was Fay Weldon, and who knows who will be next? But it proves nothing (except the obvious fact the said editors and publishers have no idea what a Jane Austin novel looks like, which, after all, wasn't part of the Brown MFA program, anyhoo). Jane Austen is, without question, canonical, but she is not contemporary (nor, you blinkered ass, is St. Augustine, Shakespeare, the Bible, von Clauswitz, Tolstoy, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, or Mark Twain, but they all seem to post pretty healthy numbers for Barnes, Amazon, and Borders). She is not the new voice that publishers are looking for ('new voice'? NEW VOICE?! Exactly which 'new voice' of any national literary value has the NYC literatti managed to produce in the last two decades?). Why would editors now look for a writer describing riding down streets on horses, wearing petticoats, or ordering broughams to call on neighbours, visiting card in hand (I dunno, how was the marketing prognosis for a boy child wizard ten years ago...or an alcoholic ex-sailor in secret service to Her Majesty back in '52)?
John Murray became a rich man publishing Persuasion in 1818, but his firm would have found that Salman Rushdie, Irvine Welsh or Don Delillo were "not quite right for the list". In publishing, time and context (shared alumni lists, exchanged business cards, and the crucial NYC zip & area codes, too) are all. And Jane Austen belongs at the heart of any list of classics, where all her books sell in numerous editions by the hundreds of thousands every year. But a new novel? An Orange Prize winner? As she would not have said: yeah, right, lol.
Inexplicably, Andrew Franklin is publisher and managing director of Profile Books. Poor them.