I recently wrote a blog post pointing out the obvious: that any writer who has sold 450 million books has a clear marketing advantage over an unknown scribbler. I was comparing J.K. Rowling and an unknown author, Robert Galbraith, after those two writers were outed as being the one and the same (though somewhat transgendered perhaps).
Besides giving us the year’s best book publishing controversy, the incident provides a nifty case study on the power of brands, even if the brand happens to be an artist.
It turns out that another novelist conducted a similar case study in the 1970s. Bob Greene recently recounted on CNN’s website a story which he first reported over 30 years ago. Chuck Ross was an aspiring writer whose first novel was getting rejected left and right. Frustrated, and curious whether his writing was mediocre or if he was getting no traction because he was simply unknown, he typed (this was the pre-word processor era) every word of the novel Steps by Jerzy Kosinski, which had won the National Book Award for fiction in 1969. Manuscript typed, he left off a title and put down his own name as author, made photocopies, and shipped it off to 14 major publishing houses. Every publisher rejected it, never realizing they were turning down the National Book Award winner from a few years earlier.
The story gets better. Four of the declining publishers had published books by Kosinski. Random House, the actual publisher of Steps, not realizing it had already published the novel, sent Ross a form rejection letter. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which had published Kosinski's Being There (later made into a movie starring Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine), wrote to Ross: "While your prose style is very lucid, the content of the book didn't inspire the level of enthusiasm here that a publisher should have for any book on their list in order to do well by it."
Houghton Mifflin, which had published three of Kosinski's books, told Ross it was passing on his novel because it "doesn't add up to a satisfactory whole. It has some very impressive moments, but gives the impression of sketchiness and incompleteness." With a keen editorial eye they did praise his style: "Jerzy Kosinski comes to mind . . . when reading the stark, chilly, episodic incidents you have set down." They said they’d be happy to consider future efforts by him, but that this one just didn't work.
Ross then wondered if his novel – that is, Kosinski's novel – was rejected because he had submitted it without an agent. So he sent the manuscript to 13 top agents, inviting them to represent it. Not one was interested. Some excerpts from the agents' rejection letters:
● "I'm afraid the novel's episodic nature and the lack of strong characterization would not allow this book to compete in a very tough fiction market."
● "From the section I read of your untitled novel, it seems too fragmented and dreamlike to be a good commercial bet."
● "Thanks for having sent me your untitled novel. You write clearly and well, but I felt that the novel jumped around so much that it did not hold interest, and I would not be the right agent for it."
Ross’s experiment demonstrates how easily the fate of a work of art can be untethered from quality; just how contingent external success is and always will be for an artist.
This might be an apt time to remind readers about that novelist who strikes terror among trees because 450 million of her books have been printed. J.K. Rowling’s first manuscript, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (which by the way Rowling had typed on an old manual typewriter), was rejected by twelve publishers before Bloomsbury took it on, showering Rowling with a ₤1,500 advance. Rowling is now ranked as the twelfth richest woman in the U.K.