December 20, 2007
For the Publisher Who Has Everything
Still shopping for the perfect Christmas gift for that special someone--the public face of your publishing house, the person who signs your checks, the person you have to cajole in order to get your pet projects approved, the person you have to answer to when your pet projects stain the carpet? Look no further than this spam e-mail I received today to find a gift for the publisher who has everything:
Hi David, a number of executives have engaged us to paint oil portraits of their CEO or Founders and I thought your company might like to have one too. It's a great way to recognize the CEO or Founder, it's a wonderful surprise, and always well received. It can be placed in your reception area, conference room or their home. We work discretely--photos are all we need. We can even paint the company's original location or existing building in the background.
My favorite part of this e-mail is the tag line at the end of the signature: "Mail back to decline further." I still haven't figured out what the company hopes to accomplish by encouraging people to more aggressively reject them (I suspect they're ultimately just trolling for live addresses to add to their database), but it's a phrase that resonates with me, since this week I've been putting the editorial equivalent of a lump of coal in the stockings of several would-be authors.
Part of the editorial gig is to review and often reject people's book proposals, and despite the spirit of the season, rejection waits for no man or woman. We reject proposals, for the most part, for very simple reasons: maybe it addresses a subject that's already been addressed, maybe the subject matter is too narrow a topic to justify the allocation of limited resources to produce and market it, maybe it doesn't dig deep enough into the issue, maybe the author doesn't have enough of a platform to draw an audience.
I'm always tempted to keep writing when I reject a proposal: to convince the author that I'm right, to minimize the emotional impact of the rejection. But generally a rejection from a publisher is mostly about the publisher, not about the author.
In a very real sense, every book proposal is like a gift for the publisher who has everything. InterVarsity Press, for example, has sixty years of publishing behind us, and our job is to acquire and publish books that make sense within that long tradition--not books that entrench us in some doctrinaire foxhole and not books that send us way out on a theological limb, but books that fit us as we continue to contribute to the evangelical conversation.
These are core questions of publishing identity: who we are, where we've come from, where we find ourselves in the current cultural context, where we see ourselves headed. To answer these questions is to say yes to some books but necessarily to say no to many. It's as simple as that; to decline further is often simply to belabor the point.
Still, I'm given pause by the language of publishing decisions: rejection is such a harsh word, and no matter how you slice it, declining to publish a book is a rejection. It's a little like unwrapping a gift from that special someone, harumphing and shouting derisively, "Pass!" I'm reminded of a Dilbert comic strip I saw early in my career: the evil Dogbert has taken on the job of evaluating manuscripts, and is taking considerable glee in writing rejection letters: "I hated your manuscript so much that I've now started to hate you." That's taking "decline further" to an inappropriate extreme, I think.
So please, if you've received a rejection letter from us this year, be assured that we don't hate you. It really is not you--it's us.
On the other hand, if you do find a book contract from us under your Christmas tree, please don't exchange it! Receive it with joy and the following benediction:
May your days be merry and bright