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 we’re stupid. At least I hope not. No one said digging for mushrooms is easy.