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Publication Is Not Recommended: From the Knopf Archives Introduction Mention pubUshing these days and people in the industry, from the writers and agents to those working in book sales and pubUshing houses, think about consolidation, the blockbuster complex, abandonment of the midUst, the lowest common denominator and the bottom line. The pubUshing biz has a bad name even among those who work in it. Over the past few months, when I have mentioned that The Missouri Review is doing a feature on a sampling of publisher Alfred A. Knopf's rejections—the in-house readers' reports on notable authors or books that they rejected—people have expressed ready cynicism toward the publisher and the whole pubUshing industry, even though I've also mentioned that some of these rejections go back to the 1940s, a time that many imagine to be a golden era in publishing. One presumably knowledgeable writer appeared to be quite surprised that Knopf's editors ever thought about anything except sales figures in making their decisions. Sore at their own publishers' faUures and misdeeds, delighted that we are showing the missed caUs of one of America's premier Uterary houses, three writers were so eager to see the papers that they asked if they could read them before we pubUshed them. Ashbel Green, longtime Knopf editor, is the first to admit that there is plenty of fodder for such feelings—the year, for example, that he hears Knopf rejected The Deer Park, Giovanni's Room and Lolita. As he and most editors know, however, any publisher that endures more than a few years misses plenty of good work. Some of the negative reads by Knopf's editors are incisive critiques of authors and books—later famous or not. The real interest of these rejections Ues not in the fact that Knopf made mistakes (some arguably aren't mistakes at aU but are interesting for other reasons) but in the picture of the publisher that emerges from them and the impression one gets that uterary pubUshing is finaUy a crap game. What wUl happen to a manuscript or author simply can't be predicted with any certainty. AU evidence may indicate that a book is unlikely to seU more than a few thousand copies, and then somehow, against aU sober predictions, it becomes a classic or its author becomes a celebrated success. 84 · The Missouri Review From the KnopfArchives Among these authors, for example, who would have thought that John Barth, with his big, excessive metafictions, would become one of the icons for a generation of Uterary readers? Herbert Weinstock had two cracks at Jorge Luis Borges, in 1949 and 1957. InitiaUy he admired the author's erudite phUosophical fictions but feared that they were "$50-a-pound caviar" and Knopf would be lucky to seU "750 copies." Upon a second reading of Borges' work years later, encouraged by the author's publication in various Uterary magazines, he figured that the stories would be a "succès d'estime" and likely get "spectacular reviews," yet, stiU fearing that Knopf would lose money, rejected them a second time. Who would have guessed that within ten years, the work of this librarian from Argentina would be weU on the way to becoming a classic? Such predictions about sales could either kiU a book that the editors admired or be the deciding factor in rejecting a book about which they were lukewarm. An inherent business conservatism has dominated editorial decision making at this noted pubUshing house throughout the years. Barth's "The Sot Weed Factor" and "GUes Goat-Boy" seemed too fanciful and bookish. Of Italo Calvino's L'entrata in Guerra, Francis Lindley wrote, "There is no reason to suppose that you can seU more than 1,600, 1,800, 2,000 of this book. But IF you are interested in gambling on what ought to be a rich future, go ahead and publish." A lesson from these rejections is that the publishing syndrome whereby manuscripts are rejected because of previous sales history is not new. The sales numbers that editors like to see from an author's previous books have crept higher over the years, but they were already...


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pp. 83-86
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