Digging for mushrooms

by | Sep 20, 2007 | Literary Agents | 40 comments

Watch out, because I’m about to get all metaphorical on you.

I recently read a New Yorker article on mushroom pickers (bear with me here). There are these people who go into the forests in Oregon to pick matsutake mushrooms, which are very popular but difficult to find. You see, the matsutake doesn’t grow above ground, so the mushroom pickers have to look for small mounds in the ground in certain places near certain trees and dig to see if there’s a matsutake there.

So there are these people who will see an almost imperceptible mound of dirt and yell out, “MATSUTAKE!”

(I especially like to imagine the part where they yell out “Matsutake!”, which I completely made up. In fact I just like saying, “matsutake.” I think I’m going to use that when I finish a book or find a good manuscript. The end MATSUTAKE!!)

Anyway, the whole matsutake search is just like being an agent. Mostly. Kind of.

As anyone who has worked in publishing knows, there’s a huge psychological difference between reading something as a finished book and reading it in manuscript form. With a book, not only is the reading experience completely different, but when the book is published by real publisher you are absorbing the implicit endorsement through the binding.

Someone out there believed in the book and invested in it and thinks the book is good and will sell. Sure, not everyone will like the book, but it still carries that implicit weight of endorsement, particularly one that has already been branded a “classic.” It’s a mushroom that has already been dug up and cleaned off.

But when the book is just a manuscript, especially one by an unknown author, it is really, really difficult to read something and decide if it is good or will resonate with readers. Really difficult. Finding a mushroom in a small mound of dirt difficult.

Which is why I cringed when I saw the recent New York Times article that highlighted Knopf’s old rejection files and readers reports, including the rejection letters for classics like THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK and THE GOOD EARTH and LOLITA.

Let’s be honest, people love playing the schadenfreude game with rejected books that went on to be mega-successes (to be fair, the Times article is very balanced). It’s extremely tempting to laugh at publishers and agents who missed the big ones, and similarly tempting for publishers and agents to kick themselves when they miss said big ones.

But there’s a good reason this happens: it’s really, really hard. It’s subjective. It’s slippery. Heck, sometimes an agent or publisher just wasn’t the right fit, and even if they had repped/bought the book it might not have caught on like it did because they didn’t see what someone else saw in it. The right fit can be everything.

So sure, everyone who has spent much time in publishing has missed one, but it doesn’t mean they’re stupid. No one said digging for mushrooms is easy.


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Art: Still life with mushrooms by Anonymous


  1. Anonymous

    Writing is very subjective.

    I, for instance, read a book a while back that I hated. I mean, I really didn’t like the tone or voice or anything about it. Later, I find out it’s a Newbery Medal winner.

    If I was an agent with foresight and knew it was going to win the medal, I still would have rejected it.

    I just didn’t like it enough. And it would be a big disservice to me AND the author for me to rep it, because I wouldn’t be a good match – I just didn’t like it, and nothing’s going to change that.

    Not even knowing it was hit book that sold tons of copies.

  2. Dwight's Writing Manifesto

    I attended one of Agent Ashley Grayson’s writing workshops. One of his handouts consisted of a series of opening paragraphs of manuscripts.

    The question was, “If you were an agent, would you ask for a partial if these were the sample pages?”

    I assumed there would be a mix of terrible writing and published work in the handout.

    I read all the examples and realized that I wouldn’t have asked for a single partial.

    Turns out that every one of the examples was a successful published novel.

    I absolutely hated the opening to The Postman Always Rings Twice. Ouch.

    Perception colors judgement, no doubt.

  3. Isak

    The more I read this blog and other sources, the more I think that matching all of these subjective elements is near impossible and a shared frustration of all parties involved. There is no formula for it, just trial and error.

    I have to ask: Nathan, did you announce MATSUTAKE because you found something today?

  4. Scott

    So it’s kind of like walking through a bookstore door. You see a mound (a section containing the kinds of books you like) so you dig through the mound to see if there’s a bit of tasty fungus.

    Only it’s not like with the mushrooms, because everything in the mound, each scrap of detritus, has a big ol’ sign on the front and another on the back saying “Pick me! I’m a tasty fungus!”

    But in reality, a lot of those bits of dirt and debris don’t really tickle your taste buds at all. And some could actually BE tasty fungus, only poisonous.

    And that’s about as far as I want to go with this.

    I coulda sworn you were going to use the ‘shrooms as a metaphor for your query pile. You almost sorta kinda did, but didn’t quite go there, but we can draw the line because we’re smart people.

    Or some of the others are, anyway.

  5. Lauren

    As writers, it’s our job to make sure it actually is matsutake mushrooms we’re peddling, and that we’re not fooling ourselves into thinking that our plain old white button mushrooms are the prizes for which the hunters are searching.

    (Gotta love extended metaphors.)

    I’m sure many of us know a writer (or seven) who wears his “my manuscript has been rejected 200 times” badge of honor, and who will keep adding to that number and bemoaning the unfair publishing industry instead of writing a new novel, or at least taking another hack at revising the old one. Sometimes I’ll come across one of those oft-rejected manuscripts on a critique site, and it’s tough to be the one to say, “Uh, did you know that all of your dialogue is punctuated incorrectly? And that you have five paragraphs telling us about the weather before we even meet the main character?”

    And then there are those of us (me) who are afraid to declare that we’ve got anything better than post-downpour toadstools in our baskets. My husband, my friends, my co-workers are always after me with “Isn’t your novel revised and rewritten enough already? Isn’t it good enough to send out yet?” To me, it’s not. To me, it’s still a toadstool. But I hope I’ll have the perception (and the beta readers) to know when it’s better than that.

  6. Heidi the Hick

    well…I’ve had a few friends commiserate with me after a rejection, saying things like “Well HE’LL be sorry when you’re a huge bestseller someday,” and maybe “I’ll be laughing at HER when she realizes she shouldn’t have rejected you” and “THEY’LL all be kicking themselves!”

    I dunno. Every week I look at what I’ve just written and think, “Dang. I’d reject me too.”

    (Although I am notoriously hard on myself.)

    So basically, today’s lesson at Bransford Blogiversary is:

    Learn to be the delectable mound of dirt that will hold the delicious mushroom.
    Am I right?

  7. Conduit

    I recently read the first novel by a best selling thriller author that got an astronomical advance. I thought it was awful. I really, really struggled to finish it. It was long-winded, purple-prosed, and often just plain dull. I stuck with it just to see did the author pull off some kind of miraculous ending that would make it all worthwhile. Well, the ending was hackneyed and implausible, and my relief at being finished with the bloody thing was balanced out by my annoyance at having wasted all that time reading it.

    This book got rave reviews, and as stated, got a huge advance. As I have done many times before, I’m going to quote William Goldman’s pearl of wisdom: “Nobody knows anything.”

  8. Other Lisa

    Yeah…like this Special Topics in Calamity Physics that I just finished – there were some really cool things about it, so not to say there’s no matsutake there.

    But for me the mushroom was still buried in the dirt pile. I never would have championed the book as published.

  9. Kimber An

    Suddenly, I have the overwhelming urge to watch the Muppet Show episode in which Gonzo shows John Denver his mold collection and John Denver says, “Far out.”

  10. Melanie Avila

    I also thought you were going for the slush pile analogy. You’ll tell us if you found something wonderful?

  11. Chris Redding

    That’s why we have critique groups.
    To tell us whether our manuscript is the mushroom or the dirt it grows in.
    And, no, not every critique group works,but you will know when you get a good one.
    They don’t praise you all the time.
    What have I learned from those who send out classics that get rejected?
    That I don’t take my rejections personally. And that I do my best to create the mushroom someone wants. While I’m looking for that someone, I create another mushroom.

  12. cynjay

    And many times, the matsutake turn out to actually be poisonous and nearly kill you.

  13. Isak

    Right on, kimber an…

  14. Tammie

    Man it’s so subjective – the stars have to be just so aligned.

    Hmmm, now I want a mushroom pizza….

  15. Eric

    Thanks, Nathan.

  16. Anonymous

    Just in case your head hasn’t been swelled with enough compliments through your query stack today,
    I love you.

    Oprah may have her A-ha moments, but you have given me “MATSUTAKE!”

    Thank you. =)

  17. Anonymous

    You can tell the size of the mushroom from above. The amount of cracks, you know how big it is. However, you don’t know if the worms have gotten to it already. Once they did, it’s no good.

  18. 'drew

    The article seems pretty balanced, but I’m sure the average reader will get just one impression from it, the “Oh my God, they rejected Anne Frank.” And yet, when I hear these tales of rejections going on to become classics, I think it’s kind of silly to focus on them. Simply put, different readers like different books. Liking a book enough to represent or publish it is like liking a person enough to propose marriage.

    So I recognize that Nabokov is widely considered a great writer, and the quality of his work certainly is unimpeachable; and yet I can’t say I regularly have the desire to sit down with one of his books. Animal Farm and Anne Frank are classics, but I haven’t read either of them since the 1980s. Enough people do read and reread them that they are justified staying in print, but knowing that taste is subjective, I can’t say, “Only a fool would pass this up.” Not everyone’s going to like it. Find someone who does.

    Maybe that’s the writer’s matsutake… digging through the dirt piles of agents and editors until you find the right one for your book.

  19. J M Peltier

    So many times I’ve read books that everyone I know loved and I didn’t like them at all.

    Other times everyone hated a book I loved. And there are plenty others that we agree on our appreciation.

    Then there’s my own books. I started writing as a teen and was hurt by rejections. Now I’m glad they rejected me. Without rejections I’d have never learned the craft of writing.

    Sometimes picking an unripe matsutake can be worse than mistaking a dung ball for a truffle (I’m sure we’ve all made that jump mentally, but I said it). It pretty much guarantees a stunted career, but you can almost always find some one who’ll enjoy the dung ball. There’s no accounting for taste.

    Oh, and that is a great word.


  20. Chumplet

    So, that thing that pushed up in the middle of my driveway could be a culinary delight? Who coulda figured? I wanted to take a picture of it but my hubby scraped it away.

    To think that our oft-rejected novels could be diamonds in the rough is reason enough to keep trying.

  21. Anne-Marie

    There was the choirmaster at the Liverpool church who told the 14 year-old Paul McCartney he’s never amount to anything musically and then kicked him out of his choir too. That would be a fun thing to live down in your hometown.

  22. Susan Sundwall

    Nathan – Are you saying that the only books you’ll rep are the ones that will appeal to readers who like what you like? I’m confused. Writers are constantly told that publishing is a BUSINESS; that even when one writes a perfect little masterpiece of a story ,if it doesn’t have mass appeal, and if the accountants don’t think the company will make any money, your project is dead in the water. I assume that’s also true of literary agencies. So, say you found a mushroom . . uh,story . . that was just okay, To You, but you knew deep down that a certain demographic (maybe boys between 9 -14) would flock in hoards to buy the thing, would you take it on? Please help me understand and I’ll be forever in your debt.

  23. Nathan Bransford


    I don’t think it’s as strict as something that would only appeal to people who like what I like or — it’s more that I need to see something in a really good novel that I feel will appeal to people. I’m obviously not the target demographic for young adult novels or women’s fiction, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see something in those novels that is good or appealing or will strike a chord. That’s why I read as widely as possible (and watch all sorts of TV shows) — to try and understand what cord Fannie Flagg or Martin Cruz Smith or James Patterson is striking so I might develop that nebulous 6th sense that a book might resonate with people. Hope that helps.

  24. Lupina

    I found this a fascinating analogy, Nathan, but while it illuminates a certain amount of your selection process, I feel as confused as ever about how agents select books. That’s because I have been reading everything I can find written by agents about the selection process for a couple of years now, and every one is different. The caveats, instructions and exasperated scoldings… it all makes feel like one of the hapless supplicants of Seinfeld’s soup Nazi. Except the punchline is “No book for you!”

    What I keep reminding myself is that for her first novel, Jane Hamilton went through a book of agents alphabetically, and didn’t get one til she’d reached the end of the list. And of course, Jane is fabulous. That agent knew her matsutake!

  25. Robbie H

    Note to self: Next time you query Nathan Bransford, use the stationary with the borderline-subliminal Matsutake watermarks on it.

  26. Susan Sundwall

    Nathan – May the nebulous 6th sense descend to you from on high – soon. Thank you, that does help. And if you figure out James Patterson will you let us know?

  27. JaxPop

    I have to admit you got me at first on describing these people yelling out ‘Matsutake’. My initial thought was – why the hell would they start yellin’ when they found a freakin’ mushroom – just dig the SOB up & keep going! I’m startin’ to wonder what other chain jerkin’ is goin’ on here. Hmmmm. Despite being a sucker at first – I got da point.

  28. A Paperback Writer

    Kimber an–
    I like that episode too!
    anne-marie —
    I was also thinking of the recording company that listened to an early demo of the Beatles and turned them down, saying “guitar music is on its way out, anyway.”
    And let’s not forget that the first agent that JKR queried turned her down, too.

    okay, so I’m not JKR or one of the Beatles. I guess I can still hope to be a mushroom someday. Can I be a portabello, though, please? I like those.

  29. Jennifer L. Griffith

    The “bestseller” thing is subjective as well. I read one that has spent MONTHS near the top of the list. I was bored stiff by the repetitious reminder of how the whole story started and other details that a reader could not possibly forget. The writer took all of the high points of her story and beat them into the reader’s head. I threw the book across my bed several times and wanted to stop reading, but I also wanted to learn about “bestseller appeal” from a “bestseller”. The ending was contrived and the writing digressed. The beginning held so much promise. Sigh.

    If I were an agent, I would’ve PASSED on this one, OR messed up her “bestseller” with an over-haul of her storyline. Sigh, again.

  30. Anonymous

    I have to admit, I’ve been in the presence of writers (who’ve gotten agents and have had success with their books) derive great pleasure from telling me which “dumbshit” agents rejected their book and why.
    Anyway, they’ve had many a laugh at your expense!

  31. Anna Maria Junus

    Those stories give comfort to those of us who get rejections.

    We know we have brilliant books, we’re just hoping to find someone who sees it too.

  32. liquidambar

    There are at least 3 reasons I can think of that a book that later became a big famous beloved classic would get rejected:

    The book wasn’t ready yet; it was a later rewrite that became big and famous.

    The book was such a new idea that only a truly visionary editor/agent saw that it would set a new trend instead of following an old one.

    The book just wasn’t that editor/agent’s cup of tea. Not everyone likes every book, even the ones you’re “supposed” to like.

    Comforting to think that a rejection slip might just mean “not yet,” instead of “never!”

  33. V L Smith

    I would think that every Oregon matsutake picker is careful to pick a good mushroom, just as every agent searches for the right manuscript. Neither of them wants shiitake!

    But for an agent, doesn’t there need to be more than just a great story line told exceptionally well? Since your reputation is at stake, don’t you need to feel a connection, something that makes you willing to put yourself on the line for that particular book?

    I don’t think agents have passed on the greats because they thought they were bad books, they just didn’t connect with them. It was a bad fit.

  34. getitwritten_guy

    The schadenfreude game that Nathan mentions seems unprofessional. And no matter how artistic the very act of writing is, it’s still a business.

    Talking about ‘which d*s* agents rejected a book and why’ can come back to bite – – hard sometimes.

    What happens when the agent who finally did accept that book ends up working with the agent you’ve been running around talking about?

    There’s always the chance that someone who rejected your work at one time could be a potential ally.

    It costs noting to be polite, even when we strongly disagree with someone’s decision. The potential benefits far outweigh the effort it takes to stifle an ego.

  35. JaxPop

    The agent has to believe in what they’re trying to sell. It still comes down to what gets them pumped enough to go through the whole tedious effort. I suspect that the agents that keep running into the ‘NO Thanks’ response tend to get frustrated & burned out. I would like to know what the ratio of MS pitches to sales averages out to. I would bet that the percentages would keep an agent up late every night – of course they’re reading anyway. Last point-Burning bridges is unprofessional in any business. Even disgruntled mushroom pickers are careful not to trash others in the trade.

  36. Dave Wood

    “As anyone who has worked in publishing knows, there’s a huge psychological difference between reading something as a finished book and reading it in manuscript form.”

    I know this isn’t a critiquing blog, but I’m going to take this quote back to my writing group, if you don’t mind. (And point them to your great blog, of course!) We sometimes get carried away with “I need to say something because I’m critiquing and that means I have to say something”-type comments. A reader of a published book has a level of trust in the author that a critiquing group doesn’t, and I think we need to keep that in mind so that we don’t try to force each other to bog our books down with too much backstory and explanation. This’ll help with that discussion.

    As for the whole “They rejected V.S. Naipal?!” thing, I guess we could take such articles as “aaa ha!” moments, or we can quietly take heart that the process is subjective and individual rejections needn’t necessarily mean the death of a work.

  37. Linnea

    Glad I don’t have your job, Nathan. I know what you mean,though, even as a writer. A box of double spaced typed lines on loose pages is very different from a printed book with a cover and everything. An agent’s dreams are so different from my own. To be seen in your favorite restaurant and hear other agents whispering amongst themselves -‘Hey, isn’t he the guy that discovered that gem (fill in the blank)?’Then a little preening as you watch their jealous eyes follow you around the room. Well, this may not be YOUR dream but it’s what I imagine an agent’s dream to be – plus the big fat cheque of course!

  38. Chumplet

    It’s like going to your high school reunion and discovering that the guy you dumped is now a millionaire.

    Like dating, agenting is a crapshoot.

  39. Katie Alender

    I saw a special matsutake soup on a sushi menu the other night (after reading this) and said, “MATSUTAKE!” It was very delicious.

  40. ~paulette

    very funny! I’ll remember that comparison for a long time. Talk about a good example of “word of mouth”; i’ve already referred your blog to friends of mine, just because i think this post was cool.



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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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