From the preface to Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame --from our modern era, when the writer submits and hopes -- comes this testimony from his wife on the book's journey into print:
"Still, in 1955, no editor had much hope for Mame. One editor whose specialty was humor turned her down twice. The book then began waltzing through publishers, in alphabetic order. But no publisher asked her to dance until Julian Muller, representing V for Vanguard, took the big chance. 'The next choice,' said Pat, 'would have been the Yale University Press.' "
Auntie Mame went on to become a huge bestseller, and was of course turned into "a play, a movie, a musical, and a movie of the musical." The People responded to a book that might just as easily have been denied them, that might have lain in an attic moldering and then been thrown out by uninterested great-nephews decades later. Similar stories are told of J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter. She is said to have only been accepted, by an associate editor taking home a bundle of manuscripts one weekend, on her eighth or ninth try. To my mind, that's terrific luck. I have kept my Pearls and Roses in a drawer ever since losing count after its fortieth denial. (And George Eliot couldn't face any!) All book publishing firms and all magazine editors, in all their submissions guidelines and in all their rejection letters, admit the same thing: many works of great quality have to be regretfully turned down (why?), every house has editorial needs and every editor is only a human being whose subjective judgment is fallible. I sincerely hope someone else will find this right, etc. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.
Yes, thank you. But logically, then, there must be thousands of manuscript books sitting in people's desk drawers right now, very fine books which simply have not had the luck to appeal to one editor at one firm on one weekend. Logically, there is no explanation for anyone's acceptance at all. (They tell us this, but it takes years to realize they mean it.) At some point, the lucky ones had to have joined the queue and then been plucked out of it. I have been, myself, six times, so what I write is not pure sour grapes and disappointment. Logically, if rejection is just a question of an impressed editor sadly turning aside a fine piece now, then an author willing to wait two or three months, or years, ought eventually to come naturally to the head of the queue. But that is never the answer, either. Meanwhile, the gates of publication remain open to all sorts of, ah, product that fits needs and earns money, but constitutes nothing that will render Austen and Tolstoy, or John Doe or -- who knows? maybe even me -- ridiculous. The editor decides who comes in these gates, and it is still his position and his responsibilities, his very existence, that puzzle me.
A charming old book that I found in a college library helps explain his advent. (There are probably lots of books that explain his advent; but here is the one I found.) It's called The Earlier History of English Bookselling and it was written by one William Roberts, and published in London in 1889. Before the age of printing, Roberts explains, when books were hand-written and illustrated and bound in bejeweled covers, they belonged to monasteries, to the first universities, and to kings. The monasteries and universities took especial care that these treasures did not sell to anyone. In 1373 Oxford University decreed that no one might sell any book worth more than half a mark in value. Monks and dons apparently did not want fine, valuable books lost to the medieval equivalent of private collectors.
With the invention of the printing press, things changed. Books could be churned out with a revolutionary rapidity, and bejeweled covers were not particularly necessary anymore. The steps leading to physical publication were still expensive -- printing, binding, and claspmaking -- but far cheaper and more efficient than the age-old necessities of hand-copying in miniscule and majuscule. Once the book was ready to be sold, the bookseller stood ready to make good money.
He made good money because he had so many publication options at his disposal. No bookseller bothered about copyright issues, but re-printed classics, or indeed printed and re-printed anything, including other sellers' pirated material, including any old dreadful stuff, and including new works to whose writers the bookseller paid nothing, and which he then changed, sold, and re-sold. Booksellers also operated as fee-charging libraries. The public could pay a subscription to come and read books they did not intend to buy. Through all this, the poor Authour scribbled in lofty isolation, as usual.
In Roberts' telling, the editor seems to have made his appearance because the expensive physical task of printing a book was often hampered by the physical problem of the printer being "drunken and ignorant." Booksellers did not have it all easy: they, and writers too, became impatient with smeared glug that the printer simply pressed off in a stupor because he knew how to work the machine. Among the first printers to avail himself of sober editorial help, long before Fanny Burney or Disraeli or Louisa May Alcott wrote and hoped and wept for joy, was Jacob Tonson, a business partner of John Dryden's who had printed Dryden's translations of Virgil in the 1690s. Afterward, Tonson published Caesar and Shakespeare, two long-dead authors whose complexities would seem to call for a sharp eye and a steady wit at the fount.