Mistakes Were Made

Long ago, I attended a publishing dinner, where the more seasoned editors started to pick at a favorite scab: successful books they’d turned away. (I was still counting myself lucky to get submissions at all, let alone have the option to pursue or pass.)  At the time, a book of political humor was a surprise bestseller, and one editor said ruefully that it had been submitted to her but “my assistant turned it down.”   Note to self!   Should I ever have an assistant, I vowed:  I would not decline something without reading it (I know: it sounds obvious), and I would never throw her under a bus.   I would also, of course, never make a mistake, and decline only books that were never meant to be.

I’m two for three on the youthful vows.

I was reminded of this the other day on Twitter, when writer Jennifer Mendelsohn (@CleverTitleTK) posted a link to her blog and asked, Have you read this great memoir, “Half Baked” yet?  The blog entry, as you can see for yourself, is highly persuasive, and I promptly tweeted a jaunty reply that I had not read the book but would do so, pronto.

And then distant bells started to chime. It has a lovely blurb from Elizabeth McCracken, whose own great memoir, “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination,” we published in 2008.  The details of the story, about Alexa Stevenson’s experiences with her premature baby, as told originally on her blog, sounded familiar.  Soon That Sinking Feeling set in, and a trip through my submissions log confirmed it: I had indeed read the book – last year, in proposal form, and I turned it down.

Why? I liked the writing, liked her voice, found the story moving and funny, one that many readers would relate to.  But something held me back.  My point here is not to decline the book all over again,  but to remind myself and you, Gentle Reader and perhaps Writer, that these decisions editors make every day can be brilliant and they can be misguided, and all we can do is follow our instincts at a given moment, and trust that good books will find the good homes they deserve.   It sounds annoyingly pat and Pollyanna-ish, but I’m sure Alexa Stevenson, now being beautifully published by Running Press (look at this terrific jacket), would agree.


  1. Posted August 19, 2010 at 7:08 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Excellent post. Thanks for sharing so candidly on this topic.

  2. Dana Tehrani
    Posted August 20, 2010 at 7:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I would not describe passing on Half Baked as a mistake, but a judgment call. Thank you for your blog–it reminds aspiring writers to keep trying! 🙂

  3. Posted August 21, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink | Reply

    Quite nice, it happens. At least you passed for the “right” reasons, rather than lazy attention, superficial irritation, or a bad vibe… all reasons stuff in my biz gets passed on (by the interns yet, yeesh!)

    Your turn of phrase (a favorite scab; two for three on the youthful vows) is warm, your voice is clean, your pace is breezy — your “confession” feels honorable, as @Dana put it: a judgment call — even if you’d like to reverse it now — rather than a mistake.

    Nice to let them know that a pass affects both sides of the submission, eh?

  4. J. Nelson Leith
    Posted August 22, 2010 at 9:04 pm | Permalink | Reply

    A popular theme in non-fiction over the past decade has been the negative effect of cognitive biases and similar psychosocial phenomena, particularly on our economic decision making.

    Based on what we know about how cognitive biases scuttle our good judgment, I’m not sure following instinct is all we can do, even in the literary world. A set of explicit and accountable principles and standards could help avoid instinct’s little gaffs. Even if those principles and standards vary from pro to pro, they still stand ready to be revised, reformed, or revoked when they fall short. When “instincts” fall short, how can one reform them … other than by establishing explicit principles against which to check and correct them?

    Even when instinct succeeds — for example, as it did so often for the late Elaine Koster — we can still analyze the workings of that instinct to derive explicit principles. In fact, that’s exactly where all those books on cognitive bias come from: careful, professional analysis of human instinct.

    For example: to trust that someone else will pick up what we pass by is a phenomenon that already has a mountain of analysis dedicated to it. It’s “The Bystander Effect.” A good book failing to find a home is the least of its negative effects, however: this past April a surveillance camera recorded two dozen people in NYC simply walking by as a homeless man, who had been stabbed while saving a woman from assault, bled to death. Some of them even paused to stare directly into his face as he lay dying.

    Sure, Stevenson is happy with the way things turned out, but selection bias makes it impossible for us even to know how many Stevensons (or Stephen Kings) remain invisible to us because instinct never skewed toward them. Our literary culture — and publishing professionals — might be only marginally richer if these gems were excavated, but they also could be magnitudes richer.

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    […] Well, of course we do. This week veteran editor Reagan Arthur wrote a very candid post about how she passed on Alexa Stevenson’s memoir HALF BAKED, which was recently published by Running Press, but […]

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