It’s vital for authors to grasp the context in which editors and publishers write acceptance letters. Explicitly, having a text accepted and then published does not necessary change one’s life; receiving a request for a rewrite is more valuable that receiving a straightforward acceptance; gatekeepers abide by vocational tempos when responding to manuscripts; authors known to publishers often, but not always, are able to navigate past slush piles; and quality is not always an adequate trigger for an acceptance.
Given that receiving a contract authorized by a commissioner is no guarantee that any composition, specified therein, will actually get published, it’s mistaken to believe that invitations for publication are unreservedly meaningful. There are many ways in which deals between creatives and producers can fall apart from the interval when two parties cosign a legal document to the interval when the designated literature is scheduled to be broadcast.
In my limited experience of a few dozen published books, and a few thousand published short pieces, I’ve seen some of the ways in which publication comings and goings can get stymied.
Consider cases in which a publisher lacks actual contractual powers. Consider cases in which a publisher has contractual powers, but not dissemination powers. Consider cases in which a publisher has both contractual and dissemination powers, but also has corrupt intentions. Consider cases in which a publisher possesses both contractual and dissemination powers, and has reliable intentions, but proves fickle. Finally, consider cases in which a publisher possesses both contractual and dissemination powers, has reliable intentions, does not prove fickle, but runs out of money.
First, mull over cases in which a publisher doesn’t have actual contractual powers. For example, an editor-in-chief, who tops a masthead, but who does only a portion of his magazine’s maintenance, of late solicited the use of six sets of my poems and images. I was surprised and pleased by his wish because I had shared those sets with him, a long-term publishing industry associate of mine, as part of an appeal for his opinion on one of my larger projects. My friend liked that sample of work so much that he invited me to preview it in his publication.
I electronically shrugged and then gave him permission to transmit them. Weeks later, I received an email from a lesser editor from the same publication. That underling wrote that two sets among those six of poetry and images didn’t fit the publication’s mission and that two sets were below the publication’s threshold of excellence. To wit, I was being advised that the publication would only publicize two of the six sets and that I ought to be glad of that “generosity.” Sigh.
I was not delighted, but mystified. I hadn’t officially proffered those sets for publication, but had merely asked my friend for off-the-record feedback on them. Yet, he had invited me to publish them with him, anyway. Thereafter, one of his subordinates emailed me that only a portion of the formally sought goods would go to print.
Decades ago, when I was a full-time professor, I learned that between department administrative assistants and reference librarians, I could arrive at quick and satisfying answers to most of my teaching and research questions. More recently, I’ve learned that quick and satisfying answers to most of my publishing questions need to come from “ships’ crew,” not from their “captains.”
That is to say, second, think about circumstances in which a publisher retains contractual powers, but not dissemination powers. While I was an academic, an editor for a series of books, whose subject matter included my area of scholarship, offered me a contract. After my book was nearly finished and after the investigation that undergirded that book had already been funded by a prestigious agency, the publisher, to whom the series editor reported, and who authorized the press’ many series, decided to block my project.
At the time, I was an idealistic twenty-something year-old; I had no idea that a contract was not necessarily an assurance of publication or that a series editor’s negotiations could be vetoed by a higher-up. What’s more, I had no idea that an instance of scholastic writing, which had been funded by an esteemed organization, might never go to print. I learned otherwise.
Third, ponder that there are passages when an originator receives an unsavory proposal. For reasons of integrity, I’ve walked away from several such projects. On one occasion, I was offered lots of money to write a user manual for software, which, in turn, had been developed to aid the army of one of Israel’s enemies. In another incident, I was asked to illustrate a story for a publication whose editor had already used my art. The trouble with his request was that the image that I was bid to develop was meant to emphasize a short story touting the Holocaust as instigated by European Jewry. I walked away from that “opportunity,” too.
Next, cogitate over the idea that, now and then, publishing officials are not disempowered or malign, but fickle. Many years ago, after I had finished reviewing page proofs for one of my novels, the publisher involved asked me to nullify our contract. She wanted to move her business into audio and digital books and my contract specified traditional production. That gal insisted that my project “deserved” a tangible form, and as such, urged me to allow her to slip out of our contract.
Since I was still fairly new to the world of publishing, instead of demanding that she sign for the audio and electronic rights for that book, and release the print rights to me, I allowed her to break our contract. Years later, I sold all of that book’s rights to someone else. Today, I would have handled the situation differently.
Fifth, chew over that, sometimes, publishers are not disempowered, are not morally wrong, and are not capricious; sometimes, they're just gone broke. Less than two years ago, I held the papers, from a small press, for publishing an essay collection. Not only had that press and I concluded proofing, and had signed off on cover design, but the press was likewise in the process of dispensing ISBN numbers for my book. Essentially, that assemblage was all but published
At that juncture, nonetheless, I received an email informing me that the establishment was going bankrupt. Although the publisher generously signed agreements that allowed me to keep all of the completed edits, including the print-ready formatting, she had to close her press as she was in horrible debt.
Basically, despite the fact that it’s wonderful and necessary to have writing go to contract to get it published, having writing go to contract is not always sufficient to move it forward through the entirety of book or magazine fabrication. Lots of variables can come into play that can ultimately prevent accepted work from being issued.
Behind every count of produced titles is a larger count of titles that went to contract, but did not get disseminated. The book industry, like most other trades, is not a place of sure outcomes