Truth About Publishing

Though no exact figures regarding unsolicited manuscripts are available in India or elsewhere, yet the fact remains that a staggering number keeps on pouring every day and only a few of them see the light of the day. These manuscripts are neither commissioned nor recommended by their editors. GS Jolly finds out what authors think and how publishers work.


The two most important partners in the production of a book are the author, who writes the book and the publisher who brings the other partners together and usually serves as the basic taker of business risk of book publishing. The author is the creator or formulator of the ideas to be given to the world through a book. Publishing is an integral part of the intellectual and cultural system of any country. A publisher is, therefore, a businessman, an intellectual, a publicity agent, a grammarian and hopefully in the long run, a teacher. John Fox once wrote to Charles Scribner, “a publisher is a man who is blamed if a book fails and is ignored if it is successful.” Emily Temple writes and rightly so that “If you’re a writer, here’s an idea: resolve to get rejected 100 times this year, if you’re lucky. After all, some very famous books (and authors) began their careers at the bottom of the NO pile”.

Rejections lead to bestseller…at times!

The history of publishing is full of incidents in which authors of literary merit were treated very roughly. James Joyce, the famous writer wrote in one of his letters written in 1917. “My book Dubliners was rejected by 40 publishers, three times set up and once burnt… All refused to help me except Mr. Ezra Pond. In the end it was published in 1914, word for word as I wrote in 1905.”

James Joyce was not the only isolated example of publishers rejecting manuscripts indiscriminately. The story of John Creasey, a noted mystery and detective story novelist who died several years ago is more interesting. According to his obituary, he had 744 rejection slips before his first work was accepted for publication. To add to this the Guinness Book Of records statistics show that he wrote and had published 560 novels during his life time.

GS JollyThe most famous books of all time faced many rejections before finding a publisher. Harry Potter was rejected 12 times before the daughter of an editor at a big publishing house insisted that she get to finish reading the entire book. It wasn’t until then that the editor realized he was sitting on a goldmine.

Then there is the story of George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm rejected by American Publisher with comments “American readers don’t like animal stories.” Robert Parsing, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had121 rejections.

Marlon James, author of John Crow’s Devil got 78 rejections from publishers. He writes, “There was a time I actually thought I was writing the kind of stories people didn’t want to read,” James explained. “I did give it up. I actually destroyed the manuscript; I even went on my friends computers and erased it.” (Luckily, he found it again in his email.) In 2015, he won the Man Booker Prize for his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Interestingly, before Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling found its way into the print world; the book was rejected while the editor went ahead to claim that Mr. Kipling didn’t know how to use the English language.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller was originally titled Catch-18 but he increased the number with each rejection letter from leading publishers. Of course, Heller had the last laugh as his comic masterpiece became an international bestseller and became a cultural reference point in 1960s. The Oxford English Dictionary even includes the phrase today and a Hollywood film was based on the book.

English August: An Indian Story by Upamanyu Chatterjee which was later hailed as J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, with an Indian twist, was rejected by eight publishers before publisher agreed to publish it. Even that took 15 months.

Even Nobel Prize winners have a certain percentage of rejections.

Truth about publishing

Authors should understand that there is always certain percentage of rejections. A feeling has taken roots among the authors that publishers are not interested in the works of new authors. Phillip Unwin in his book ‘Truth about Publishing’ explains on behalf of the publishers the basic spirit behind mass rejections. He says, “Publishers are not necessarily either philanthropists or rogues. As a working hypothesis think of them as an ordinary human being trying to earn their living in an unusually difficult occupation. It is easy to become a publisher, but difficult to remain one, or to remain independent, the mortality rate in infancy is higher than in any other trade or profession.”

Though authors do a lot of labour on writing the manuscript, they must research in finding out who would be interested in that kind of manuscript. Authors should self edit or get the help of a professional editor. Submit a book proposal along with the manuscript. Indicate the genre of your proposal. Introduce the readership and how this work is useful to them. Describe the book in as few words as possible.

It is important to send the manuscript to the right publishers. Authors should follow the submission guidelines, if there are any. What is required therefore is to identify one’s work with that of a publisher’s list. If the work has the quality and if the market is identifiable, there will be a publisher who will recognize this and pay for the time and effort of the author.

Budding authors should take a clue from Jack Canfield, the author of classic Chicken Soup for the soul, which had 144 rejections. The book became a best-seller, and then a series, “If we had given up after 100 publishers, I likely would not be where I am now.” He wrote, “I encourage you to reject rejection. If someone says no, just say NEXT!” So like King Bruce never give up. Don’t die with a book in your heart!

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