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    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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The One That Got Away

When the venerable editor and publisher Robert Giroux died last year, his NYT obituary listed some of the illustrious writers he worked with  including Flannery O’Connor, Robert Lowell, Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag. Equally interesting to me were stories about the ones who got away.  One of these writers brought in his manuscript on teletype paper pasted together into a roll of 120 feet long and demanded that no changes be made. Giroux would not agree and Kerouac walked out, On the Road with him. Giroux had also courted a new short story writer whose work had appeared in The New Yorker. When it came time to offer on his first novel, the brass at his company said it wasn’t right for them: adios Catcher in the Rye.

With this is mind, I surveyed some of New York’s top editors asking if they would divulge which books got away, either because they didn’t recognize their value (either commercial or literary) when they saw it, or because the deciders said nay. Friends, the results:

“My saddest loss was the three day auction of the Steig Larsson trilogy which I was sure I was about to land,” writes one editor. He goes on to say they lost the book to Sonny (that’s Sonny Mehta, publisher of Knopf, and known pistachio nosher). “If you’re going to lose it might as well be Sonny.”

NOTE: Everywhere I’ve ever worked, there was no publishing house people would rather lose to or win from more than Knopf. I worked for a publisher who actually defaced a jacket with a ball point pen because she was so frustrated with the art director. “Well, what do you want?” the art director screamed back.  “I want Knopf jackets!” the publisher yelled. “Can you make a Knopf jacket?”

Then there’s the so-called  beauty contest, that is when two publishers make the same bid and the author chooses the publisher/editor she prefers. One editor writes in, “I wish I had acquired The Physick Book of Deliverace Dane. Our offer was identical to the acquiring publisher, but the author went with the other house. ” That’s always a great feeling, like standing in line at your camp social, or for that matter sitting on a bar stool at 3:00 a.m., and not getting picked, not that that’s ever happened to me.

“I passed on Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld.” another editor shares. Years later she approached Sittenfeld for a blurb on a debut novel and praised Prep in the letter. Sittenfeld wrote back saying she’d be glad to read the novel, but did the editor remember that she had turned down Prep?  Ouch. P.S. She never got the endorsement.

Another editor is still smarting over her boss’ refusal to let her bid on Kevyn Aucoin’s Making Faces. (What’s with that spelling of  Kevin??) The book immediately hit the list  and the editor shares how she relished the “oh-so-immature-yet satisfying feeling of I-told-you-so.”  (Disappointing, but not exactly Holden Caulfield.)

Another editor admitted that she cried over losing  The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. And also regrets not getting a shot at Edgar Sawtelle and Olive Kittredge. (Note to self:  post a list of novels that are titled with the character’s name? Have a contest? Too nerdy?)

Another editor confessed: “I turned down Guernsey even though I thought it was a very commercial idea because it was stiffly told. Of course then it was rewritten and the rest is history.” And another, “I passed on Shopaholic because I had a current bestseller and thought I didn’t need another one. Ha.” (Funny, no matter what I have, I always want another.)

In the If-You-Don’t-Have’Anything-Nice-To-Say-Don’t-Say-Anything-At-All department, one editor addmitted to having passed on Cold Mountain. But she didn’t just decline, “I airily declared to the agent that I grew  up on a Civil War battlefield and that if I didn’t believe it, noone would.” Thanks for sharing.

And then there’s the horse. Everyone wished they had published The Biscuit.  For two years, all editors said when asked what kind of books they want to publish was Seabiscuit. One editor wrote in to say that she offered, “Except, I told the agent is was worth $50,000.” What are the odds that the book would’ve wound up on the NYT Bestseller list for 23 weeks? And be made into a feature film starring the incredibly sexy Jeff Bridges and be nominated for an Oscar?

And last, our annual “The One That Got Away Award” goes to the editor who claimed he “turned down James Patterson’s first novel Along Came a Spider because it was so poorly, sketchily written even though it was pacey, as the Brits say. MISTAKE!” Hey, you don’t get the prize for nothing.

Full disclosure: When I was an editor, I turned down The Liar’s Club. I just didn’t believe her.

25 Responses

  1. It is awful of me that I enjoyed this post? Thanks for the grins. And the history, too. I hope the stories about Kerouac and Salinger are captured somewhere for grad students everywhere. I think I enjoyed hearing those names most of all.

    • If only I could have rejected Prep: even now the goosebumps come rushing up my arm.

      M.F.K. Fisher driving past a McDonald’s and all that…

  2. I’m with Carolyn. This was a nice way to start my morning.

  3. Did any editor pass on “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” even after Dave Eggers spelled-it-out for them? That’s what I want to know.

    The Liars Club didn’t just start the whole memoir craze. I hold it responsible for all those books that came after that had Club, Society, or Sisterhood in the title, each one cuter than the next. Thank you, Betsy, for trying to save us from them all.

  4. I love these kinds of stories… about stories that got away.

  5. What’s with Kevyn is that he died several years ago (on May 7, 2002).. Questioning how a wonderful, albeit tall, magical man who is missed yb many & brought joy to even more … I fail to see how a snarky comment about how he chose to spell his name is anything but tacky & bitchy. Would you ask the same of oh, say, Athena Starwoman? Or, Starhawk?

  6. If there’s no chemistry it doesn’t matter how great looking or cool or connected or smart (fill in your guilt trigger) the person is–the relationship will never work. Good to remember everywhere and all the time.

  7. I knew Kevyn. I slept with Kevyn. He was no Kevin.

  8. Hot.

  9. Anonymous = T.A.

  10. Betsy, you turned down my first novel, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, and said in your rejection letter to my agent Gloria Loomis that you really didn’t think it was publishable. It was published in 1995 by Peter Ginna at Crown and in 1996 by Picador. From here, with my fifth novel coming in January, I can look back and say that everything from then to now has worked out for the best. At the time, given that it was my first novel, it felt as if you — and others — in rejecting my first novel, were not letting me be a novelist.

  11. As my grandmother said, there’s a cover for every pot. It made me smile to think of those who curse their misjudgment of cover circumference. Am I now guilty of Schadenfreude?

  12. love this, know an editor who keeps a shelf of the books that got away in their office.
    not at all too nerdy to make a list of books whose titles are names.
    one sub zero friday night at my favorite haunt brooklyn fish camp, me and the wait staff complied a lovely long list of song that are a woman’s first name.

  13. […] Betsy Lerner. The One That Got Away […]

  14. What’s with that spelling of Stieg? I mean, Stieg is a pretty pretentious variant ot Stig (but understandable as “Stig Larsson” was an already established actor), but at least they’re both pronounced “steeg”, whereas Steig would be “styghe”.

  15. Katharine–thank you for sharing that. I needed it today. I had been awaiting word since February from an editor at a large NYC house regarding my mystery novel. I couldn’t get any response, so a lovely person who works with that editor finally emailed her today with the question (“Have you seen X? We were told it was on your desk.” Very mildly phrased.) I do so appreciate her doing that. The answer I got was, “Tell X we are not publishing her novel.” Rejectomancy may be futile, but somehow I read more into that than the usual, “Thanks, but not for us” or “I’m passing on it.” My family leapt on it as a Sign that I am NOT A GOOD WRITER and should get back to being the machine that slaves on their behalf. So hearing that you bounced back helps me, and perhaps others. Carry on with the good work!

    I think it’s nice of these editors to admit where they passed on novels that became money-makers or that turned out to appeal to a wide audience. They could’ve just said, “I never make mistakes.” *grin* That’s what MY management staff would say, if they know what’s good for them. . . .

  16. Katherine — what a way to start the day! Writers need reminding that when all is said and done, there’s a lot of room in creation for new species! The Cold Mountain & Patterson stories were the icing on the cake!

    Of course, we shouldn’t take pleasure in someone else’s misfortune. Not even a tiny, weensie bit. Should we?

  17. […] on the other end of the spectrum, an interesting article about “the one that got away” — the books that were NOT bought by editors and went on to become quite […]

  18. Thank you for the great post.
    I enjoyed reading about the ones that got away.
    I think everybody knows the story about the publishers who turned down J.K. Rowling.
    (Do the editors still wake up in the dead of night in a cold sweat?)
    All the best,

  19. Really good stuff. RE The Liar’s Club… I still sometimes use the book when teaching memoir, and …. I just don’t believe her, either. Damn good writing, though!

    Buddy Levy

  20. […] Lerner. The One That Got Away This is one of my all-time favorite posts by literary agent Lerner. Every time I read Mary Karr, I […]

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