Monday, May 19, 2008

Q: How many times was Gone with the Wind rejected?

A: Zero.

That's right, zero. Yet twice in the past few days, I have seen writers in online forums tell others that Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind was rejected "over 50 times" before a publishing contract was offered. Ever skeptical, I Googled "Gone with the Wind" with "rejected" and found several more claims in that vein. Here's one from HowStuffWorks:
The story of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, set in the South during the Civil War, was rejected by 38 publishers before it was printed.

This factoid and others like it are often trotted out in writers' forums by people who hope to console themselves and other writers whose manuscripts have been rejected by publishers and literary agents. While I understand the desire to share that pain and give each other pep talks, I squirm at any suggestion that writers should be patient because there is a magic number of years or submissions for each of us, a point at which we will have worked hard enough and waited long enough and submitted enough times to earn publication.

It just isn't true that every talented writer will eventually be published if she works hard enough and waits long enough and believes. Novels don't get published because their authors have faithfully paid their dues and waited their turn. Publication isn't a bus that anyone can catch as long as they have the correct fare and show up at the right stop at the scheduled time.

A novel is accepted only when some publishing house believes it can make money on the book. Period. So the difference between a published author and an unpublished one does not always boil down to talent and experience. Sometimes the difference is, quite simply, marketability.

Am I saying that unpublished writers should give up after a flurry of rejections? Of course not. Who can say whether a writer's next submission will bring her the success she longs for? I imagine there must be a lot of great books that were rejected fifty times before they were published. I'd just like to see more writers behaving like grown-ups instead of latching onto any publishing myth that makes them feel good. Believing in ourselves accomplishes nothing if we're not also facing reality and doggedly confronting the obstacles before us.

So how many times was Gone with the Wind rejected? According to Margaret Mitchell, it was never rejected. Here's an excerpt from her June 22, 1936 letter to a book dealer who had written to say she loved the novel:
I wrote the book between 1926 and 1929 and never even tried to sell it. I never dreamed it would sell so I never had it neatly typed and submitted for rejection slips. Then when Mr. Latham of the Macmillan Company was in Atlanta last year, he dug out the very dirty and messy copy and bought it and my surprise was considerable. I thought, because of the purely Southern scene, character, handling, psychology that the book would have an appeal, if any, only in the South.

Scratch one myth.

Gone with the Wind was a great book, but Margaret Mitchell didn't appear to know that. If Mr. Latham hadn't gone south to hunt for buried treasure, things might have ended quite differently.

I was charmed by what the newly-published Mitchell wrote near the end of her letter:

I never before realized what a gracious courtesy it is to write to an author. This is my first book and I never before realized how you send out a book and never know whether people like it or utterly detest it unless they write you about it. And so I must thank you again for your courtesy and for the happiness it has given me.

I'm all for writers encouraging each other. But I think we can find ways to do that without spreading false rumors and telling outright lies.


eliza said...

I actually find that somewhat encouraging, in a way. It suggests that good work will be recognized, and that we're not playing the lottery. Perhaps that's because I'm in the rewriting stage right now of my own manuscript; the thought that all the work I'm doing now is making everything better is greatly appealing.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

I especially like the last line.

Thanks for this.

Brenda Coulter said...

Amy Jane, whenever I blog something like this, I invariably get a couple of private e-mails from "concerned" writers who think I'm "discouraging" unpublished writers. (I don't know why people send that stuff privately instead of leaving public comments here on the blog, but never mind. I do answer all e-mail sent to me.) I just believe plain speaking is more helpful than pretty lies, so I'll keep beating this little drum.

Eliza, isn't rewriting fun? It's my favorite part of writing.

Kristin said...

I'm confused...if she never typed it up or submitted it, how did this publisher 'find' it? Was he in her house rooting around? Where was he and where was the only, dirty copy? And why would this copy be just lying around, if the intention wasn't to publish it?

Am I not understanding something here?

As for the whole idea that your book will someday get published because you are a stellar writer or the story is good...NOPE. The book you write could be perfect in every way...grammar, storytelling, character. But unless an agent or editor thinks it has sales potential, you are out of luck.

The sad thing is that you may have to alter you baby in order for it to be something marketable. Add more sex, take out sex, add more action, take out action, etc. Publishers are looking for certain key things that, with their experience, have sold well. Period.

Brenda Coulter said...

...if she never typed it up or submitted it, how did this publisher 'find' it? Was he in her house rooting around? Where was he and where was the only, dirty copy?

Sorry, Kristin. I did read about this, but neglected to mention it in my post. According to a Wikipedia article:

Mitchell lived as a modest Atlanta newspaperwoman until a visit from MacMillan editor Harold Latham, who visited Atlanta in 1935. Latham was scouring the South for promising writers, and Mitchell agreed to escort him around Atlanta at the request of her friend, Lois Cole, who worked for Latham. Latham was enchanted with Mitchell, and asked her if she had ever written a book. Mitchell demurred. "Well, if you ever do write a book, please show it to me first!" Latham implored. Later that day, a friend of Mitchell, having heard this conversation laughed. "Imagine, anyone as silly as Peggy writing a book!" she said. Mitchell stewed over this comment, went home, and found most of the old, crumbling envelopes containing her disjointed manuscript. She arrived at The Georgian Terrace Hotel, just as Latham prepared to depart Atlanta. "Here," she said, "take this before I change my mind!

You can read more here:

Amy said...

I realize this is an older post, so I'm a bit late coming in to the conversation, but I just came across this after doing some research on whether Gone With the Wind really was rejected 38 times. I'm so glad I finally came across the truth. Thank you for doing the research and posting your insight!