Over five years ago, at a very early stage in these chronicles, I contrasted the book publishing process with scientific peer review.

Back then I was navigating in a murky sea of correspondence with literary agents, where you provide a pitch that describes your book, and in some cases a few pages to illustrate the quality (or not) of your writing.

What frustrated me was the process rather than the rejection. Almost all bestselling authors (which I’m not, of course) have been enthusiastically and emphatically rejected.

After 5 years of continual rejection, the writer finally lands a publishing deal: Agatha Christie. Her book sales are now in excess of $2 billion.

The Literary Agency receives 12 publishing rejections in a row for their new client, until the eight-year-old daughter of an editor demands to read the rest of the book. The editor agrees to publish but advises the writer to get a day job since she has little chance of making money in children’s books. Yet Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling spawns a series where the last four novels consecutively set records as the fastest-selling books in history, on both sides of the Atlantic, with combined sales of 450 million.

Louis L’Amour received 200 rejections before Bantam took a chance on him. He is now their best ever selling author with 330 million sales.

“I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” Shunned by all the major publishers, the author goes to France and lands a deal with Olympia Press. The first 5000 copies quickly sell out. But the author Vladimir Nabokov now sees his novel, Lolita, published by all those that initially turned it down, with combined sales of 50 million.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter was rejected so many times she decided to self-publish 250 copies. It has now sold 45 million.

These are quotes from a website called Literary Rejections, itself testimony to the vagaries of the publishing world. I can’t help but add this last rejoinder, separated from the others due to its poignancy.

“The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.” Perhaps the most misguided literary critique in history. With a further 15 rejections, there remained little hope her personal thoughts would see the light of day. Eventually, Doubleday bring the translation to the world, and The Diary of Anne Frank sells 25 million.

It’s difficult to understand the lack of human compassion and sensitivity that would make a critic write those words—maybe the reviewer was Joseph Mengele.

"I want to go on living after my death". A young Dutch girl clearly lacking in perception.

“I want to go on living after my death”. A young Dutch girl clearly lacking in perception or feeling.

The publishing industry has historically drawn from the pontifications of a few people with an ‘eye’ for winners. The comments above suggest instead that it bumbles through and occasionally strikes lucky, reliant on the dim light visible through a cloudy cataract.

If an agent or a publisher rejects a manuscript, there’s no indication that whatever you sent was even read. You’ll never receive a letter of any substance, only a note saying ‘this isn’t right for us’ or words to that effect.

And although the comment Nabokov received provides strong judgement, it is evidence of arrogance rather than wisdom. I find questions provide more guidance in life than answers, and I find why the best question of all.

Nabokov would no doubt have liked to know why his book deserved to be petrified for a millennium—anyone who has labored at a manuscript, no matter how poor, deserves at least a couple of whys. Perhaps the subject matter is uninteresting, the characters poorly developed, the dialog insipid.

I critiqued a book a couple of years ago where the main characters were two boys, roughly the same age, with similar views on everything. If you don’t put characters at odds with each other, you don’t generate tension.

And if you provide a perspective such as ‘Damian and Marcos thought Jennifer was the most beautiful woman they’d ever seen’, you dilute the capacity of your reader to identify with either Damian or Marcos. Now if the two have a fight over Jennifer and become arch-enemies… you’ll take sides.

Then again, I recently read a book that had a twelve page sex scene. Now I like a well-written sex scene as much as the next person, but these were twelve pages of hardship, if you excuse the pun. I think toe-sucking featured prominently in the foreplay (perhaps a couple of pages), followed by eons of priapic posturing.

Digital publishing has done for literature what YouTube did for music—it has put the market within anyone’s reach. No barriers, and the market judges quality and interest. Websites like Goodreads contain reviews and discussion groups, and Amazon asks you to rate what you read.

For books that don’t come from mainstream publishers (and I buy more and more) that’s an excellent way to rate an author. And when I have time I add a comment or two, with emphasis on the why. People have opinions, not boilerplate letters—I’ve never read a comment saying ‘this isn’t right for us.’

Five years ago I put this into context with scientific peer review, where detailed comments precede and condition publication. But in that case, those who comment are experts in the field, you are appraised by a jury of your peers. When a scientific paper is accepted, the message is: welcome to the club.

In the days of eclectic science, the times of Newton and Leibniz, Lavoisier and Darwin, scientists wrote letters to each other, describing their discoveries or inventions, the progress of their work.

Newton and Leibniz, two academics who defined science as we know it today.

Newton and Leibniz, two academics who defined science as we know it today.

In time, learned societies were established, where scientists would gather and discussions would ensue, some more fruitful than others.

These learned societies received letters from their members, and in due course those letters were peer-reviewed and published. That explains why a number of journals, still today, have names such as Physics Letters or Geophysical Research Letters.

Peer-reviews in that context were a duty the members willingly performed. If literature has moved to digital at the speed of sound, then scientific publication has moved at the speed of light.

With this came consolidation, and two publishing houses, Elsevier and Springer, overwhelm the market. Literature is usually read for pleasure (unless you’re forced to do it at school) but science papers are read out of necessity—without reading papers you cannot be a student of science.

Scientific peer-review, the gold standard in establishing whether a text is publishable, continues to work for free—that’s the equivalent of getting John Le Carré or Emily Bronte to review your book for nothing.

In an age where knowledge is no longer communicated by the scientific equivalent of gentlemen’s clubs but as a multimillion dollar business, this obviously must change.

Peer-review has its own flaws—if your paper is read by an expert in your field, they are likely to be a competitor.

Robbie Fox, the great 20th century editor of the Lancet, who was no admirer of peer review, wondered whether anybody would notice if he were to swap the piles marked `publish’ and `reject’. He also joked that the Lancet had a system of throwing a pile of papers down the stairs and publishing those that reached the bottom.

Like Anne Frank, I want to go on living after my death. Unlike poor Anne, I live in a digital world, and although I don’t yet know how I will die, I do know the only way to keep on living.


Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.


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