THE POWER OF PERSISTENCE
After five years of hard work completing The Help, Kathryn Stockett tried to get it published. Sixty literary agents rejected it. The sixty-first agent agreed to take it on. The Help was released in 2009, spent more than 100 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list and sold more than five million copies worldwide. She could have given up after the sixtieth rejection but she didn’t.
E.E. Cummings self-published six books in the 1930s when he was unable to get them published any other way. He could have given up but he didn’t.
An editor rejected The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman, best known for his series of mystery novels set on the Navajo Reservation, advising him “to get rid of all that Indian stuff.” Harper & Row saw the merit in his book and Hillerman went on to become an award-winning, bestselling author. He could have taken the first editor’s advice but he didn’t.
Jack London impaled his rejection letters on a spindle. The stack eventually reached a height of four feet. Why in hell didn’t he just give up? Most people would have.
When H.G. Wells asked for representation for The War of the Worlds, an editor wrote that, if published, “I think the verdict would be, ‘Oh, don’t read that horrid book.’” Nevertheless, it was published in 1898 and has not since gone out of print.
In 1974, Robert Pirsig published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an exploration of the underlying metaphysics of western culture. The book was rejected 121 times before William Morrow & Company picked it up. It’s true Pirsig had an IQ in the stratosphere and plenty of natural talent, but 120 publishers failed to recognize those factors. It didn’t help that Pirsig was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic. He could have given up but he didn’t. He sold five million copies worldwide.
William Kennedy wrote thirty short stories, but none of them were published. He managed to sell two novels, but Kennedy’s current publisher turned down Ironweed. So did twelve other publishers. Finally, he managed to sell it, but his editor promptly dropped dead on his way to work. After Ironweed was published, it won a Pulitzer Prize and became a movie.
Another big mistake on the part of an editor:
"Overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian...the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream… I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years."
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov went on to be rejected in several countries and, when published, was banned in France and the United Kingdom. Now it’s a classic because Nabokov wouldn’t give up.
And I thought all of these writers were overnight successes.
Shortly after I acquired an agent at the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, she took me with her to the bar and we sat with a group of agents and editors. The topic of discussion? All the books they had passed on that went on to become bestsellers.
Years ago, I was at a book launch party when I met up with a guy who had attended writing classes with the featured author.
“She wasn’t the most talented in our class,” he said, “but she wouldn’t give up."
Call it obstinacy, stupidity, pig-headedness or just plain refusal to believe you have no talent, but it’s part of becoming published, and you should know that. When your confidence falters, when you receive venomous rejection letters from agents and editors, when some editor tells you to change the most important theme of the novel and when you're sure you're writing crap, study the craft, learn everything you can about the writing process, but don't give up.