#43: Regretful Rejections, by Maria Gagliano
April 23, 2014
Back in Issue 11, I’d curated a nonfiction piece called Regretful Rejections. It was a collection of stories from book editors who’d regretted passing on a proposed book, or otherwise couldn’t get things together in time to make an offer on the project. Here are some highlights from the piece. I’m cutting the editors’ names, so they don’t have to relive the bad memories.
“Before submissions were universally submitted by email, they used to come in stacks of four hundred pages or more, rubber banded together or contained in sturdy (or very flimsy) cardboard paper boxes. Consequently, manuscripts used to physically stack up on the floor of editors’ offices and things very often were literally “at the bottom of the pile” for days, weeks . . . even (regrettably) months. I’d finally had a quiet afternoon during which I carefully opened and considered, or reconsidered, the bottom five manuscripts in my pile. One in particular had been languishing for more than a couple months, and so I called the agent to apologize profusely and ask if I could have the weekend to give the novel my full attention. The agent said, “Oh, don’t worry about it. I sold it weeks ago.” It was Water for Elephants.”
“When I was still working as an editorial assistant, I read (with my boss) the first chunk of a certain southern novel which is now a major motion picture and a huge runaway hit. I stopped reading even when said boss really loved it, because it just wasn’t the book for me. But I was definitely kicking myself when The Help went on to be, you know, The Help. Oh man.”
“One of my very first submissions was one that got away. It was a charming collection of stories called Girls in White Dresses, and the minute I read the first page I fell in love. It was the kind of writing that brings you back to yourself, and it is reminiscent of Melissa Banks’s A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, which is one of the books that made me want to go into publishing. Unfortunately, as with a lot of great fiction, it garnered enthusiasm fast and was off the table quickly. I got a big thrill seeing all the success the book deservedly received upon publication, but there was also the pang of love lost.”
I’m bringing this up because I was recently reminded of my own regretful rejection. I’m not going to say when it happened. It’s enough to say that it was within the last few years. I was offered the opportunity to publish the paperback edition of a book that had been previously published by another house. The book itself was fantastic, but I passed because my imprint isn’t really in the business of publishing other companies’ books—especially when the original hardcover hadn’t been published very long ago. It happens in the industry sometimes, and it’s perfectly fine when it does, but it’s just not a model we typically embrace. My other reason for passing is that the content was a departure from the kinds of books we usually publish. There’s always room for something new, but in this case, it just wasn’t in our strike zone (as my boss would say).
About three weeks after I passed, this little annual award was announced. You may have heard of it. It’s called the Pulitzer Prize. Um, yeah. That book that I’d so easily rejected won the Pulitzer Prize.
I told a couple of people about it—mainly one colleague and my husband. Both said I should call the agent back and ask if I can reconsider. It’s a natural reaction, I suppose, but the last thing I’d do. Not because I’m embarrassed, but because my reasons for passing still stand—Pulitzer Prize or not. It’s a fantastic book, but not for me. That said, it still burns a little…just imagine if I’d signed up the book, only to have it win the Pulitzer soon after. That would have been cool. I’m just glad I didn’t pass based on the book’s merit. That would have really stung.
Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, baker, and Business Director of Slice. Her writing has appeared in BUST magazine, the Huffington Post, and Salon, among other publications. When she’s not playing with words, she’s teaching herself to sew, garden, pickle, preserve, and cook like her Sicilian parents. She shares her (mis)adventures at pomatorevival.com.