Professor Wu's Rulebook

The reality of success and rejection in the publishing industry

time is short

This year, the Jamaican writer Marlon James won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. In the aftermath of his win, much was made of how the manuscript of his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected almost 80 times before finally being accepted by a publisher and printed in 2005.

James himself has said that, in face of such overwhelming rejection, he actually stopped writing and destroyed his own work:

“There was a time I actually thought I was writing the kind of stories people didn’t want to read. I actually destroyed the manuscript, I even went on my friends’ computers and erased it.”

While social media seized on this and encouraged writers “not to give up” and to “keep going”, while posting various motivational pictures and GIFs and quotes, it also cast light on the thoughts and feelings of countless writers across the world, who, faced with constant rejection, either give up or seek alternative routes to getting their work out there – most notably with the rise of self-publishing.

Of course, this trend is nothing new. One of the most celebrated minds in the history of letters, Henry David Thoreau, confronted his own trials in seeking publication as he completed A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack Rivers.

Unable to find a publisher for the book, Thoreau paid out-of-pocket for a print run of 1000 copies – but sold less than 300. What is interesting to note, however, is his response to such rejection, as he considers the experience in this funny and poignant diary entry (which can be found in The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861):

“For a year or two past, my publisher, falsely so called, has been writing from time to time to ask what disposition should be made of the copies of “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” still on hand, and at last suggesting that he had use for the room they occupied in his cellar. So I had them all sent to me here, and they have arrived to-day by express, filling the man’s wagon, — 706 copies out of an edition of 1000 which I bought of Munroe four years ago and have been ever since paying for, and have not quite paid for yet. The wares are sent to me at last, and I have an opportunity to examine my purchase. They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin. Of the remaining two hundred and ninety and odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold. I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor? My works are piled up on one side of my chamber half as high as my head, my opera omnia. This is authorship; these are the work of my brain. There was just one piece of good luck in the venture. The unbound were tied up by the printer four years ago in stout paper wrappers, and inscribed, —

H.D. Thoreau’s
Concord River
50 cops.

So Munroe had only to cross out “River” and write “Mass.” and deliver them to the expressman at once. I can see now what I write for, the result of my labors.

Nevertheless, in spite of this result, sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever. Indeed, I believe that this result is more inspiring and better for me than if a thousand had bought my wares. It affects my privacy less and leaves me freer.”

Define your own success

What does such an entry teach us? Put simply, it’s about defining your own success. This is of course a topic Thoreau discussed extensively in his 1854 paean, Walden. Take the following extract, for instance:

“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.”

Or this, as Thoreau nears a conclusion:

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

What this hints at, is that we are likely looking at success entirely in the wrong way. James’s Booker Prize victory is not his success – nor should writers measure their own success by such metrics.

This is not simply posited for philosophical reasons. But also because such metrics are symbolic of institutionalised failings within the publishing industry.

The establishment

Time and time again, the literary establishment will seize upon stories of writers who meet inordinate obstacles, overcome rejection to achieve publication and recognition and success. It is a story that has perhaps disturbing echoes of the arc of the American dream – and undoubtedly one Kurt Vonnegut would find remarkably easy to draw in his famous ‘graphs’ of stories. However, as with the American Dream, the romantic narrative hides a more sinister one: because by focusing on how individual artists should persist in the face of rejection obscures how the system is set up to reward only a select, chosen few.

This is an issue engrained within many literary institutions – with honourable exceptions, such as Litro Magazine. And it is one discussed in detail by the writer Chimamanda Ngozo Adichie in her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”:

“It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is nkali. It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another.’ Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.”

The real story beneath James’s overarching American-Dream-narrative is of the systemic failings within the publishing industry, the literary establishment – and indeed the wider media industry – to permit different artists and culture a voice.

Until we begin to define and measure success by our own standards – as both writers and readers – those in power will continue to use measurements of success that do everyone but their shareholders a disservice.




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