There was a time, back when Jill and I were new publishers, when we were innocent. We had a partner who was our investor. I had left my day job. We had a carpenter friend build desks and workspaces in our spare bedroom. We had bought a brand new fax machine, and I was on the road to building our new publishing company.
I thought my day would be full of conversations with authors, designing beautiful books, filling bookstore orders, making presentations to the sales staff of the distributor we didn’t have yet. And, of course, picking up the mail at our post office box.
I had listed our company with R.R. Bowker when we acquired our ISBNs, and wherever I could in other publishing trade references. We had sent out press releases and tried to launch our little company with some appropriate fanfare.
The Tip of the Iceberg Appears on the Horizon
We were already running direct-mail campaigns, so there was usually something rewarding in the mail. I was surprised when I pulled a large manila envelope out of the big box I had rented. (Ah, optimism!)
Back at the office I pored over a manuscript submission. I remember being a little excited by this. After all, an author had found us rather quickly, and thought enough to pack up a fresh copy of his manuscript and send it, with cover letter and outline, to us for consideration. To me, this was the proof: we were now a real publisher!
I spent some time looking through the package and the manuscript which, although it was competently written, wasn’t really in our specialty. I carefully packed it up and spent a while on a letter to the author explaining the situation and commenting on his manuscript, encouraging him to submit it to other publishers, mentioning one I thought might be interested.
After I mailed the package I felt really good. I had treated this author the way I would have liked to be treated and, although we rejected his submission, it had been done with dignity. No form letters for us!
The Pile Grows Higher
Soon we were busy with books and billing and selling rights. But the big manila envelopes just kept coming. At first I was amazed. How did all these people find us? Did they actually read the listings that described us as publishers of books about Gurdjieff and Eastern religions? Why did they keep sending me manuscripts about crop circles?
There just wasn’t time to read each one, to write a heartfelt letter of encouragement, to commiserate with the author, or to point out a more appropriate publisher. Instead we started a pile on the end of the long desk. I quickly realized that if we were going to survive, I had to spend time on the books we were publishing, not on ones we weren’t publishing.
As the weeks went by, the pile grew. Walking in and out of the office, I tried not to look at it, because visions of authors waiting by their mailboxes would besiege me with guilt.
Eventually I started to hate the pile, and the people who wouldn’t stop sending the big manila envelopes. The manuscripts on past life regression, satanic possession, the history of hieroglyphs, translations of epic poetry from the Romanian, the triumph of overcoming childhood abuse, the triumph of overcoming divorce, novels of spaceship-traveling super species secretly guiding human history. Why were they doing this to me?
It Will Only Hurt for a Moment
We had the smallest publishing company I could imagine, yet there was no stopping the deluge. Some trips to the post office brought 2, 3 or 4 big manila envelopes. I now felt like the steep granite cliffs on the Maine shoreline, wave upon wave of literary dreams crashing against me, to no effect.
Eventually the day of reckoning arrived. It had been clear for some time that taking the time to actually respond to this whole slippery pile of kraft paper and writers’ hopes was impossible. To do so would be to sink our own company, because there would be no time left for anything else.
I brought Andrea, our new intern, into the office and showed her the pile.
“Andrea, I want you to draw up a letter. A really, really nice letter that’s kind and gentle but firm. A letter we can send to … ” and I motioned to the pile.
“You mean, like a form letter?” she asked.
“Let’s call it our ‘submission reply letter,’ shall we?” I answered. We looked at each other.
“Okay,” Andrea said, with a smile. “But what about the ones with no return postage?”
The Last Hurdle
This was a problem. Usually, authors included a stamped, self-adressed manila envelope with their submission, and this is how they would get their manuscript back in the event it was rejected. But a percentage arrived without the envelope, or with an envelope, but with no stamps on it.
I often wondered if these authors imagined us in some office on the 37th floor of a building overlooking Times Squre, a place where there was certainly a mail room, a postage scale, a shipping clerk to take care of the details. Not in the spare bedroom upstairs in Yorktown, overlooking the driveway.
Andrea waited, pen in hand, for my instruction. Hmm, a thorny problem. I looked at the heavy manuscripts in the pile. Expensive to mail, certainly. What to do?
“Have I showed you where the recycling is?” I asked brightly, heading down the hall.
And so we solved the problem of rejection. In a few days I helped Andrea load cartons of neatly sealed return envelopes into her car. Would the recipients be surprised, after all this time, to see their wayward manuscripts coming back? I wasn’t sure, but I resolved, then and there, no matter what happened in later years, to never, ever, send an unsolicited manuscript to anyone.