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.