Question of the Week: Rejection Stories
This week's question for our authors has to do with rejection: Whether they encountered it while pitching their books, what it looked like and how they handled it.
I wrote The Cup of Coffee Club before having a publisher. It was a passion project that I would be writing whether it had a home. Even as an first-time author with no agent I was confident that I could find somebody willing to take a chance on it, and submitted the pitch myself to a handful of publishers. As I learned more about the process, however — namely, how you must have a huge following on social platforms — I began to grow pessimistic. My hopes grew when one acquisitions editor showed encouraging interest ... and then got laid off. His replacement declined the project.
Still, that original acquisitions editor became a great mentor to me, and eventually pointed me in the direction toward Rowman & Littlefield, the publisher who ended up buying my book. As a young, naive writer, those many rejections actually motivated me more — not because I thought I'd written the next Ball Four, but because I wanted to show that my idea was something that would interest readers. Over the first six months my book has been out, this appears to be the case.
In addition, I have a forthcoming book whose publishing process nearly broke my spirit. It’s another piece of narrative nonfiction, focusing on the story of a baseball player who overcame insurmountable odds to play in the College World Series. I collaborated on it with my brother, and I think the writing is even better than in The Cup of Coffee Club. After sending queries to about 60 editors I got some nibbles, but no takers. Because the book was already finished, rather than let it die I made the decision to self-publish.
Just then, I noticed an acquisitions editor at McFarland interacting on social media with my fellow PBBC author, Ralph Carhart, and I decided to reach out to the editor directly. Within a few weeks, my new project had a home at McFarland. Through the Butterfly Effect, without the Pandemic Baseball Book Club, it's possible that my new project wouldn't have a publisher at all. Now, we’re looking at a release next spring.
When I was shopping Bouton, I essentially had a deal with Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, which would have been a dream placement. The acquiring editor and I talked at length about next steps, and I remember his parting words to me: “I very much look forward to working with you on this. This is going to be a lot of fun.” I couldn't have been happier. For someone in academia looking for a prestige publisher, FSG is about as good as it gets.
Cut to about two weeks later, when I learn that the acquiring editor had been overruled by someone in FSG's marketing department who had never heard of Jim Bouton and apparently didn't care to listen to reasons why he might be a worthy subject. (It's unclear if the marketing guy had ever heard of Ball Four, which to date has sold more than 5 million copies.) The editor told me beforehand that he had to sell it in a pitch meeting with various departments, but said that shouldn't be a problem. It was a problem. I never spoke to the acquiring editor after that, but he spoke to my agent, telling him that this kind of thing — bottom-line marketing departments overruling editorial departments (which are likewise looking to make a profit, but which might be staffed by people with sharper eyes for what might be new, different and interesting) — is happening with increasing frequency.
All of which is to say that it's getting more and more difficult to publish history with the Big 5 if you're not writing about a topic that is already familiar to them. When it comes to baseball books, this means that there will always be bios of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe Dimaggio, etc. — the legends. It also means that popular journalists will have a better shot at publishing there, because they've got recognizable names. But baseball history typically isn't written by journalists, popular or otherwise. And who needs another biography of Ted Williams? Nobody, yet we're destined to receive one approximately once every 30 minutes or so. Of course, there is a place for popular history and for journalistic takes on baseball. But at the Big 5, I think that's all we're going to see, with the rare exception that does little more than drive home the prevailing rule.
In the end, I placed Bouton at another publisher, which proceeded to go out of business (a story for another day), and eventually at Nebraska, which does a great job with baseball books and is one of the few publishers that takes great pride in moving the baseball-history genre forward.
Hall of Name was pitched to multiple niche publishing houses in 2012. At each house, I was told that they loved the concept but didn’t think it would sell. So I shelved the book and concentrated on other writing projects. In 2019, with the self-publishing world having significantly broadened and become more accessible, I decided to go that route. Two-thirds of my sales have come from online retailers like Amazon, and one-third are customers coming directly to me. In the six months that it’s been available, Hall of Name has sold more than 525 copies.
In the process, I’ve learned a lot about the book business — maybe more than I would have if I went with a formal publishing house. I was passionate about my subject, and controled the timeline for research and writing. That took a lot of pressure off of me. There were still times when I could really have used a formal editor, but in the end, it all worked out.
I don't think Stealing Home would exist if it was not for rejection. The book was in my head for years and years before I actually got a contract to write it, and in that time I talked to all kinds of editors and agents about it. I even had an agent — my agent — tell me that the idea was too esoteric, too local, too narrow. I got so discouraged that for a few stretches I actually put the project away. But then I'd open that drawer in my head and start thinking about it again. I could never put it all the way away.
The blessing is that for all those years while I was getting told no, I was also reading, writing and editing. I was learning my craft. I was becoming a better reporter and storyteller. I was growing more connected to the story itself. To the extent that Stealing Home is a good book, it's a good book in part because I was forced to wait and improve and prove to myself that I really needed to write it.
I know a thing or two or 38 about rejection. In all, from conception to publication, The Wax Pack took six years, two agents and 38 rejections. I ended up not even having an agent for my final deal with the University of Nebraska Press. I could write a book about the process, but if I had to distill it down, I would say that as an author, you have to accept that 95 percent of the time spent working on the book — time spent doing research, transcription and especially promotion — will not be spent doing actual writing, which kind of stinks, but is the reality of the situation. And always be honest with yourself; look inward before you look out.
A young Bay Area literary agent invited me out to lunch one day in 1992, when I was a sports columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. I had just written a series of articles in the run-up to the '92 Summer Olympics about the physical and psychological toll on elite female gymnasts, figure skaters, tennis players and swimmers who were among the best in the world at their sports before they were old enough to drive. I had no interest in writing a book. I had never written a book. Frankly, I was kind of burned out from writing the articles. I declined. So she took me out for a second lunch, and talked me into just writing a proposal. As a thank-you for lunch, I said I'd do it. I wrote a terrible proposal. She talked me into rewriting it. I did. Then she began pitching it to editors.
I really didn't want to write a book. I was a sports columnist, not an author. And then the rejections came in, one after another. Suddenly my competitive streak flared. I still didn't want to write the book, but I couldn't tolerate the rejection. I told my agent to keep trying. Finally a young editor at Houghton Mifflin offered $50,000, which wasn't much by New York publishing standards but which seemed like a fortune to me. I figured it would take me six months to write. A year-and-a-half later, I finally turned in the manuscript. It was published in 1995. The book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters (which was ultimately published by Doubleday after my editor moved there) drew huge publicity (Oprah, 60 Minutes and The New Yorker, among a hundred or so outlets) and was later named by Sports Illustrated as one of the top 100 sports books of all time. It has been reissued with updated material in 2002, 2008 and 2018.
For better or worse, I've always given 100 percent to Plan A. I've never been organized enough for a Plan B, which was the case when I submitted my query package for The Incredible Women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League to Chronicle Books. In the years leading up to that query I'd applied for a variety of jobs and fellowships with the publisher, simply because I love the content and design of almost everything they've done. Despite numerous job rejections and/or silence, I had only prepared this one pitch for that one publisher. (Plan A.) I have since learned that this is a rather naive approach, but if it hadn't worked, I'd have just started over and devised a new Plan A. I'm relieved that I didn't have to.
In the publishing world, hitting a bullseye with a single dart is about as common as me hitting an actual bullseye with a literal dart. (I am responsible for many holes in the walls of the Albatross Pub in Berkeley, CA). I am aware of how lucky I am, but I am also aware that this book was not born from luck alone. It was my first book query, but it certainly wasn't my first shot at going all in on something in hopes that would work — that someone would give me the creative reins and allow me to show what I am capable of. My work, style and ethic are the product of 40 years of rejections, small failures, small successes and a multitude of rebuilds and reinventions from the ground up.
All I can figure is that this somehow showed in my proposal. Hopefully my unrelenting and annoying persistence shows in the book, as well.
After the somewhat unexpected success of The Baseball Codes — a relatively small release from a big publisher that wildly exceeded the moderate expectations with which it was launched — I figured that selling my next book would simply be a matter of putting together a decent proposal. Hooo boy was I wrong.
My idea had long been to write a book about the Swingin’ A’s of the early 1970s. They won three straight championships, of course, but the backstory — the abundant drama within those seasons — was legendary. At least to me. I remember the dissonance I felt when I walked down Main Street in Cooperstown, ducking into shop after shop and wondering why those A’s were barely represented among the panoply of Yankees and Red Sox and Dodgers and Cubs. This was obviously a story that needed to be told. I wanted to tell it.
My agent disagreed.
A couple of weeks after I gave her the bones of my outline, she told me that she’d informally polled some folks in her sphere, and that none of them thought that this book would sell. So she turned it down.
Rather than find a new topic, I found a new agent. It wasn’t an easy decision. She was a powerhouse, regarded and connected in equal measures, and she’d done an outstanding job getting a first-time author a good deal with a major imprint my first time out. I badly wanted to write this book, however, and pulling up stakes before we’d even queried publishers seemed awfully short-sighted.
The agent with whom I ended up was much less prominent but much more interested. He believed in the project and was enthusiastic about my chances. He listened to my ideas and offered ideas of his own. I wrote a full pitch, and before long had five publishers bidding for the rights to what became Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic. In the end, some stories are worth fighting for.
The publication story of the first edition of my biography of Negro Leagues team owner Effa Manley isn't all that grim; it's pretty much a "sometimes you get lucky" story. I completed the manuscript in 1992, and started shopping it around. Since Mrs. Manley's team was from Newark, N.J., I targeted regional houses there, in addition to publishers who’d put out Black baseball books. The early results were not promising. I even got one semi-hysterical letter back from an editor who explained at length what an awful book it would be. (Geez, man, all you really had to say was, "No, thanks.")
One of my targets was Scarecrow Press, a moderate-sized house in N.J. I got a call from an editor there, Dave Biesel, who had pitched his boss about the need for a sports history series just before my proposal ended up on his desk. "Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles" became No. 1 in his series.
Scarecrow was subsequently acquired by the larger publisher Rowman & Littlefield, which put out a trade paperback edition of the book in 1998, retitled "Queen of the Negro Leagues." (Scarecrow was good at a lot of things, but picking titles wasn't one of them.) Dave left the new company to open his own house, and I thought that was that for "Queen."
In the ensuing years, though, an effort to increase Negro League membership in the Hall of Fame resulted in Mrs. Manley's election in 2006. Besides being among 35 Black baseball figures with plaques, she is the only woman so enshrined. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues' founding, and last September I got a call from Christen Karniski, the sports acquisition editor at Rowman & Littlefield, suggesting a revised edition of Effa's story, including the Hall election and other things. That sounded like a good idea, and the new edition came out in April. Sometimes you get lucky twice.
I don't have a book rejection story. The Hall Ball was actually picked up pretty quickly. But The Hall Ball itself — the baseball at the center of my story — was rejected. I had intended for it to spend eternity at The Hall of Fame, but instead it found a home all the way across the country in Pasadena, at the Baseball Reliquary. The tale makes up the entire final chapter of the book, and the important takeaway is that even though I spent almost nine years with a single intention for the project, in the end, the path it took was an even better one. It is now in a place that will appreciate it far more than I think would have ever been possible in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.
As a writer without much of a platform at the time, I sought the advice of a literary agent about the viability of my idea for "Mets in 10s." He told me that the idea had no chance. My initial reaction was not to pack it in and give up. Instead, I intended to prove the agent wrong, which just so happens to be a good quality in an author. Within a month or so I was typing out a full proposal for The History Press. A month after that, the process began to get "Mets in 10s" to publication. Goes to show how one agent's opinion isn't necessarily gospel.