Books

What No One Has Noticed About JK Rowling's Rejection Letters

Female and diverse writers have too few opportunities in a shrinking book publishing industry that has been prejudiced against diversity for a long time—and it's only getting worse.

Photo Credit: Executive Office of the President / Wikimedia

JK Rowling is just like you, aspiring author. She wrote a great story, pushed it out to publishers despite initial rejection and got a series of movies and a theme park. Then she did it all over again under a different name (Robert Galbraith) and got a book deal on her crime novel The Cuckoo's Calling without her editor knowing she had those movies and that theme park. When it was revealed that Galbraith was actually the hugely successful author of the Harry Potter series, there was interest in the meaning of the male-gendered pseudonym from people who cared about such things.

This is a story of a woman's talent and persistence paying off despite the adversity of being a woman writer in a sea of successful men, right?

Not exactly. Take a closer look at the tweet she sent Friday about publishers who rejected the proposal sent by “Mr. Robert Galbraith,” which has gone viral thanks to bibliophiles:

There's nothing scathing in those letters, nothing saying, “Well, if you had a sales history of writing Harry Potter, maybe we'd give you a shot.” No editor said, “Sorry, Robert, but your writing is too feminine-sounding, and you know that just doesn't fly off the shelves in the airport bookstores.” As far as rejection letters go, these are actually pretty tame and generic.

What no one seems to have picked up on yet is that the letter on the right is more of an announcement of a publishing company's being absorbed by a larger company, and as a result, being full up to its ears in quality proposals to publish. Sorry, every writer not already working with us, but we must have a blanket policy not to seek new writers. Without naming any specifics about Rowling's submission, it's possible they may not even have read the proposal before rejecting it.

That's nothing against the publisher, which is actually publishing some really cool books. This happens all the time at publishing houses and literary agencies. In fact, it is a credit to publisher Crème de la Crime that they had a template rejection and may not have read the proposal, for they may have recognized the talent and offered a book deal then and there.

But the larger issue here is that it's so hard for female and diverse voices to be heard in an industry that is a publisher's market. There are fewer publishers, and they have no motivation to shake their industry's long history of exclusivity and favoring of white male voices for their projected award-winners or bestsellers.

Rowling/Galbraith's website addresses the sexism openly and without judgment:

When I "unmasked" myself to my editor David Shelley who had read and enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling without realising I wrote it, one of the first things he said was "I never would have thought a woman wrote that." Apparently I had successfully channeled my inner bloke!

Some feminists may take offense at this. First she went from Joanne to JK. Now she's Robert? Isn't this the age where readers won't put down a book when they see it was written by a woman? After all, this is why Mary Ann Evans took up the pen name George Eliot and Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupon went by George Sand. Today, a woman is the frontrunner in a presidential election, and Gloria Steinem is in commercials for a most excellent late-night talk show host who is a woman (shout out to Samantha Bee). Rowling should not be a Bronte sisterAren't we beyond this, JK, asked outlets such as Bustle.

But the issue isn't just the perception of sexism in the tightly guarded gates of publishing houses. It is tied to that very same history that caused those women to publish with male pseudonyms, and even further back when slave memoirs were not given authority without front matter penned by white abolitionists. (See: Frederick Douglass' memoir prefaced by William Lloyd Garrison to disprove those who doubted a slave was capable of such a literary feat as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.)

Publishing has a bad history of not giving minority writers their due, and today's market is making it hard for publishers to act on promises to give more book deals to writers of color (see the We Need Diverse Books campaign for a look into that commendable intention). Publishers have rejected plenty of writers from the white male canon of conservative American English literature classes and the New York Times bestseller list alike: Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville (“First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale?”). They are a hoot to read, and one of the biggest fears of any intern going through the slush pile to end up in an article by a triumphant EL James or Stephanie Meyers. Kindly, when Rowling tweeted Galbraith's rejection letters, she covered up the names of the editors who signed them since her intention was “inspiration, not revenge.”

But the time for kindness is over. Publishers have no fire-under-the-pants motivation to make sure their lists represent a diverse range of voices each season. The biggest motivator is competition among other publishers, and that just hasn't showed up in a tangible way yet. Rowling is fair to hide the signatures of the letters, because editors aren't always the ones responsible—Publishers Weekly found a likely culprit in the fact that lip service to increase diversity in the industry by individual editors or publishers' press releases isn't translating into hiring decisions, and diverse editors and managers are the ones who guard the doors and (with some admittedly wonderful exceptions) may not feel empathetic or qualified to edit work written by a writer of another race, gender or orientation.

Back to the history of publishing: white writers and editors prefaced the stories of slaves, and now a field of editors that is 82 percent white picks who gets a book deal. The publishing market is shrinking (the “Big Six” of the six largest publishers became the “Big Five” after a merger between Penguin and Random House). The field is smaller, and word from some literary agents is that the game is so rigged they have felt discouraged as publishers merge or die. So there's more competition, and the people making decisions look like the audience at a Coldplay concert.

It used to be hard for women to move up in publishing (still a problem at the bottom of the corporate ladder with women making up “85 percent of employees with fewer than three years of experience” in publishing), but now it's just hard for women to get equal pay for the upper spots they have achieved. With fewer publishing houses, competition is fierce, and Madeleine Albright would be disappointed to see that many female careerists may be destined for that “special place in hell” for women who don't support other women.

So you are not like JK Rowling, dear aspiring writer. You have to work harder. It's likely that you have no book deal, no movie deal, no theme park. And if your skin or gender or religion or orientation doesn't match that of the majority of the decision-makers in book publishing, your job is much harder. Unfortunately, assuming a name that aligns with these decision-makers could tarnish your reputation if you do land a book deal—you are betraying the minority you could have lifted up by claiming your identity from the get-go, rather than hiding behind the mask of the majority.

But some agents, editors, hiring managers, and small independent publishers are actively seeking work that may not come with a pricy agent's packaging or a comfortable author platform. It's the job of those who have been successful to show the old guard that the next trend to jump on is here to stay: representing more unique voices, and breaking the precedent about which gender sells crime novels better. More competition in publishing is so good for our culture.

Jenny Pierson is a managing editor and assistant publisher at AlterNet.

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