If you're curious about this kind of thing -- what goes on inside the submission process of publishing -- there follow, a few paragraphs down, eight edited examples of the rejection notes I got, through my agent, for 25,000 words of a memoir. The book is about my childhood, work at the New Yorker, and twelve years in the book business and is tentatively titled My Mistake. (The title seemed apter and apter as these "nos" piled up-if aptness admits of degree.) Those who know the business may enjoy a guessing game here. Those who don't may enjoy a glimpse of book-business manners and lack of them. I post them here because in a way they are all part of a coded conversation. You can read between the lines, assaying the praise for sincerity -- I believe half of it, maybe, but am pathetically grateful for all of it, and was of course inclined to accept all of it prima facie, especially "sublime." And finally, these notes give a taste of how disappointing and frustrating the writing game can be, especially these days. In case you think it's vanity at work here, remember this: a rejection is a rejection.
That said, there exist in my mind at least two perfect examples of ego-sparing ways in which a book can be turned down. One is in Ian MacEwan's Atonement -- a fictional rejection sent to the novel's protagonist from a real and very famous editor, Cyril Connolly, which includes such specific and helpful questions as "If this girl has so fully misunderstood or been so wholly baffled by the strange little scene that has unfolded before her, how might it affect the lives of the two adults? Might she come between them in some disastrous fashion?" The other letter was perhaps an urban legend I once heard about a titanically self-effacing Japanese publisher who said, more or less, "Your book is so wonderful that if we were to publish it, we would have to go out of business completely, since we would never again be able to match its excellence."
I've edited out only identifying information. And a deal has now been made, I'm glad to say-with a great publisher and editor. If they had all declined, it would have been on to Mushroom Spore Press, in Weehawken, New Jersey, and Raccoon Scat Books, P.O. Box 43,227, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Or, seriously, self-publishing -- an option that in fact gave me great comfort throughout this process, as the tide inexorably turns against the traditional models of offering books to the public.
I regret I'm going to have to pass on Dan's memoir. I'm sure you and Dan will understand why this book would be tricky for us to do. I remember Dan once telling me that he loved my "sense of mischief," so I appreciate the spirit in which this came my way. I'm sorry not to get the chance to work with him on this....
I particularly enjoyed the reminiscences of Pauline Kael and of the school days in Nyack, and Dan's wry and bemused portrait of all the infighting and incestuousness at William Shawn's New Yorker.
Thank you very much indeed for sending me Dan Menaker's My Mistake. I truly love the narrative energy of these pages, the sharpness of the humor -- which spares no one, including Dan himself...
That being said, I must add something far harder to say, and that is that I'm afraid that there is some concern here about the size of the audience for this book...Therefore, I feel I must decline, though I do so with regret, and wishing you and he every success with the book: I am certain that you will soon find another editor who feels differently, and the right house for Dan and My Mistake.
After much thought, I've decided not to offer on Dan Menaker's memoir. I loved the parts on the New Yorker -- as did everyone who read it here. But the family history sections, with the exception of the devastating pages on his brother, were not as striking -- to me in any case...
Thank you and Dan for including me.
I love the humor and playfulness and intelligence of Dan's writing. I have too much trepidation about the marketplace for a memoir to move forward. I had previously suggested to Dan that he put his personal stories in the service of a larger idea, beyond memoir, as he did so well with conversation, but that's just my bias. I understand and appreciate Dan's desire to tell his story in the most direct and personal way. I'm sure he'll do it brilliantly, and I wish both of you great success with it. Thanks, as always, for the opportunity.
The easy pass here is to say, truthfully, that _______ is largely in business to feed paperbacks to _______. And I don't think there is going to be much paperback action for a publishing memoir. So it's really not right for the list....
This book will get reviewed everywhere, but I don't think we are going to be able to get readers to come to it based on the name dropping, and I can't figure out how to position it in a bigger way.
Thanks for the chance to consider Dan's memoir but I don't see this as working for me.
Thanks for this. Dan is a sublime writer and I enjoyed reading about his childhood... But I'm sorry to say that I don't think the draw of these subjects is strong enough to drive sufficient sales for us....
Thank you for letting me read this, and please give my thanks and best wishes to Dan.
Sorry for the slow response regarding Dan's manuscript; I had spoken to _______ about it and I've been meaning to get in touch.
I enjoyed the pages. The two narratives bounce off each other in intriguing and suggestive ways, and both are infused with great energy and charm; a tantalizing kind of tension is developed. The shifts between the two stories are sometimes rather abrupt, the pacing sometimes off, but I'm sure this will get worked out in the writing.
Ultimately, though, ______ and I felt we should step aside....
Thanks for the chance to look at the chapters; please give my regards to Dan. I hope we'll connect on something else before too long,
Have a good weekend.
The last letter, from one of the smartest and most likable editors I know, gave me a bit of a laugh, to go along with the tears. I mentally filled in the blank inadvertently left by "I've been meaning to get in touch" with "but there was a tiger sitting on my keyboard who would have killed me" or "but Obama called me in for some help with bin Laden" or "but there was this one word in the crossword puzzle I just couldn't get."