An Author Glares at Editors
by Ellis Parker Butler
All editors are numskulls part of the time, some editors are numskulls all of the time, and the majority of editors are numskulls most of the time.
That paraphrase may seem like wisecracking thunder to startle and challenge the attention, but it is a weighed, considered, literal and serious statement of opinion based on twenty-five years of professional contact with editors. If there is some rancor in the utterance, I hope to prove that it does not affect its essential verity.
That I broadcast from the privacy of THE BOOKMAN studio, instead of appearing in my own proper person, may impress you as discretion, cowardice, modesty or what you like. I think my reasons for anonymity are adequate, but whether they are or not doesn't affect the validity of the evidence. To coin a phrase, the facts speak for themselves.
But to spike possible discrediting of my testimony, I will offer this bit of negative information; my failure to identify myself is not due to failure in my profession. Periodically speaking (speaking of periodicals), I am a moderate success. I have also published a dozen books -- none at my own expense. I have been syndicated and featured in newspapers. I am in Who's Who. I sell 98% of my stuff at prices good enough to earn me a quarter-century average of better than ten thousand a year. Which means that while I am not a "big name" I am an established author -- or, if you prefer, a competent hack.
The Editor (who said he didn't mind being called a numskull, thus weakening my opening statement) will testify that I am not without honor in my own country.
I produce these few exhibits only to show that I'm not a "flop" blaming his own incapacity and futility on unsympathetic editors.
Why then bite the hands that feed me? I don't. The hands that feed me are my own, pounding a typewriter, and pounding stamps on to fresh envelopes for remailing rejected manuscripts. Editorial hands for twenty-five years have been hands that metaphorically pushed me on the chest, poked me in the eye, clouted me on the chin and proved to be the hands that feed me only when my persistence and my ability to take punishment wrested a check from their weary fingers. I have a public and it likes my stuff -- but the hammering I've had to do on editorial numskulls to break through to that public would erect a half-dozen skyscrapers.
I would write this rather in pity than in anger were editorial numskullity purely negative. Were they merely unresponsible to stimuli less delicate than the reiterated thump of a flat-wheeled trolley. But there is a form of numskullosity which is active, and which attacks the otherwise best of fellows the moment he sits behind an editorial desk. It's something like getting behind the steering wheel of a car. And you know what that does to manners.
Could I write a book!
Editors who send out word to aspiring young writers that they are too busy to see them -- their busyness consisting of a crap game! Editors who ask you to send in stuff and then return it with a rejection slip -- and often without even that printed regret. Editors of a new magazine, starving for material, trying to get first-rate stuff for third-rate prices -- returning with a rejection slip, a well-known author's manuscript (not mine) which had been submitted with a pleasant personal note. Editors who go "third person" on their intimate friends and have their secretaries write "Mr. Numskull is sorry, but --" instead of "Dear Bill: This stuff won't do". Editors who send out word to regular contributors to wait a little, and then after forty-five minutes tell the girl outside to say that Mr. Numskull is, after all, too occupied to grant an interview. Editors who fall on your neck at the Club and rave over a contribution you have sent them, saying it's what they've wanted for eons -- and send it back two days later with no explanation, and no attention whatever to your subsequent "How-comes?" Editors who tell you they will be in the office until twelve o'clock and will be glad to see you -- and then go out to lunch at 11.30 with no apology or excuse left behind to compensate for your forty-mile trip from Suburbia. Editors who write you to come in and discuss a proposed feature -- their proposal -- and keep you standing in a chairless cubby-hole of a "reception room" while they talk to you. (That one, however, was O. K. by me -- in resentment I doubled the price, and got it.)
These are not just casual discourtesies, they are constant -- like bad manners in the driver's seat. But far more unintelligent than motor-rudeness, which is directed at total strangers, while editorial bad manners slap the faces of those who make the magazines -- which is bad business. As anybody but a numskull would know.
"But authors are a sensitive race -- they make too much of these things." If authors really were a sensitive race they'd have been extinct long ago. But assume they are sensitive, wouldn't it be politic to smooth their antennae instead of breaking them off?
"Editors are very busy people, they can't see everybody." I don't know whether there is a word called "hooey" in the dictionary, but I know there is one called "buncombe".
Let me quote the late and beloved Fat Bill Johnstone, sometime Sunday Editor of the New York World in its days of greatest power and prosperity, and author of the Limpy stories of considerable renown a decade ago.
Said Bill: "An editor who is too busy to see any and everybody who may have something on the ball is falling down on his job. If seeing ninety-nine would-be writers and artists is a waste of time, the hundredth leaves you with a profit. I see 'em all -- and I do my other work too without undue strain. Any fool can keep the wrong people out of his paper, my job is to get the right ones in".
He got them, too. The list of those he gave a start is pretty near the table of contents of any magazine that specializes in big names. Furthermore, so long as Bill held down that chair he could have the best from any of those big names -- at space rates. For authors are grateful. If Bill had time to be courteous, so have other editors.
But there is a much more serious charge against editorial ethics. And one to which authors never become inured, because it violates ordinary business rules. The average editor does not keep his word. True, he seldom gives it -- wangling speculative stuff out of authors with no definite agreement being regarded as brilliant editorial achievement. But when he does give it, you can't count on it.
In the writing trade I'm known as a dependable performer. Yet, time after time, after definite verbal agreement that if a scenario was satisfactory the material would be considered as on order -- I have had the final stuff turned down. And never on the ground that the work itself wasn't my usual. Always with the regretful explanation that the ideas didn't seem so good as on their submission, or the material wasn't timely, now (though delivered when ordered). "You could sue me."
Once, at the suggestion of one of the editorial prima donnas, I did some stuff as outlined by him for his particular magazine for that immediate time. It would have no market elsewhere. Two weeks later it was returned with the information that Mr. Numskull had decided his own idea wasn't so hot, after all. And no offer to pay me even for my time.
Yet that editor wouldn't dream of telling his tailor he wanted a suit of a certain fabric, cut and style which nobody else could wear -- and then reject and refuse to pay for the suit because he'd decided he didn't want that kind of suit after all. For tailors, unlike authors, are a sensitive race.
Lest these examples of numskullduggery might be considered personal peevishness I refer you to the files of the Authors' League or to Mr. William Hamilton Osborne, attorney for the League, and an author himself, for proofs of the prevalence of editorial instability in the spoken and the written word.
One of the most successful article writers in the country -- you'd know his name instantly if I used it, which I won't -- said to me recently, "I've quit. I've been thrifty and I had a little luck in the market, too. I've an income of $7,500 a year and I'm satisfied. I made thirty to forty thousand a year out of article writing, but I'd rather have my seventy-five hundred and not have to deal with editorial so-and-sos any longer. They don't keep their word, they don't keep their contracts and their ethics -- well, they ain't got no ethics. And no manners. I was treated better when I used to be a book agent than I have been in editorial offices".
Extreme and harsh language -- but any freelance article writer will echo it.
However, bad manners and bad ethics, though numskullish in their ultimate effect, are not sufficient proofs of incompetence. Difficult as they make the author's already thorny way he might still respect the perpetrators if they were otherwise adequate to their jobs. But they aren't. Editors are numskulls in their judgment of the material they publish. Their magazines succeed -- where they do succeed -- in spite of them, not because of them. Of course this isn't 100% true, any more than most of my other accusations are 100% true. But it is more than 50% true, and what I'm proving is that my opening statement is sound and not mere fury.
If editors were not numskulls they ought to know approximately what they want for their magazines, and they ought to recognize it when they get it. Do they?
I have just been going over the record of my sold and published manuscripts for the past two years. I took them as they came -- A to Z. Stories, sketches, articles, essays, novelettes -- both commissioned material and purely speculative. I found that out of one hundred and twenty-five manuscripts, twelve had been to more than thirty markets apiece -- and then sold. Of this twelve, nine were sold to magazines which had formerly rejected them. One was sold to a market that had rejected it three times. Three had been rejected twice by the final buyer. The total number of manuscripts sold to editors who had tossed them back at me at least once was eighteen. Two manuscripts had made forty-two trips each and sold on the third round to a former rejecter. Two had been to thirty-eight markets -- and sold the second round. And one had been sold -- and profitably -- to the seventy-fourth market attacked. The average number of submissions of these manuscripts was just over ten.
At first glance this may seem proof that I am a numskull author not to know my market better. Why didn't I send this stuff to the last place in the first place? In eighteen instances I did just that -- and was turned down. The rest of the answer is that editors are so uncertain of their judgment and so unpredictable in their sudden enthusiasms and equally mercurial antipathies that the first place your experience tells you to send a manuscript is just at that particular moment the last place you can sell it.
How can you figure them when an editor will turn down a story and then write you letters asking for "something like that" when the contribution appears somewhere else?
If it's their own ideas which govern them, why do they decline stuff on grounds of policy? If it's magazine policy that guides them, why will one editor be a steady buyer from a contributor, his successor never buy from that contributor, and his successor become a buyer again?
How can an author calculate on such a market?
Recently I made a laboratory test. I wrote ten manuscripts definitely designed for the particular policies, leanings, and prejudices of ten different periodicals.
Well, they're all sold now. Not one of them to the original editor I selected. Average number of submissions -- nine. Should it take nine editors to make a man who knows his manuscripts?
If they know their business why was I four years in selling a certain manuscript which was bought by an editor who had turned it down three times -- when its publication not only made a hit but altered the entire policy of the magazine? If they know their business why was my idea for a series of sketches pooh-poohed by an editor for three years -- only to have him suggest such a series as his own idea at the end of the three years?
If they know their business why do they so often write "we had a rip-roaring time reading your story in this office, but we're afraid the average reader --"? If they didn't cultivate a superior attitude it might occur to them that if they had a rip-roaring time maybe the readers would too. If they know their business why did a friend of mine get back a manuscript from one of the editors of a magazine saying he was sorry but it was too highbrow for their readers, and get it back again a year later from another of that same staff saying he was sorry, but it was too lowbrow for their readers?
Once on a time I wrote a twenty-thousand word tale called Adventure, Steady Boarder. It began its travels, and continued them always accompanied by this brief note of explanation:
"Dear Mr. Numskull: The enclosed is a series of stories about the characters in a boarding house to show that the dullest of them have had their adventures. It must be considered wholly on its entertainment value and not as a conventional novelette." It went to twenty-six places before it landed. And at least half the editors informed me that my opus was "entertaining, but not a novelette".
After about the fifteenth rejection I happened to tell an editor of this experience. "I'd like to see that story," he said. "All right," sez I, "but remember it is a series of related incidents bound together only by the idea of adventure, and in no sense a conventional novelette." "That doesn't matter if it's sufficiently entertaining," he replied. "Let me read it."
Ripley me or not, ladies and gentlemen, he sent it back with this note: "Dear Anon: This is a nice thing you've done and enormously interesting, but you see it isn't a novelette and thus must go back to you".
(Oh yes, I sold it eventually -- as a series of short stories!)
Once an editor wrote. "Dear Anon: -- We're glad to take Gobs of Gold and check is enclosed. Slews of Silver which is also enclosed I think we have seen before".
My reply: "Dear Numskull: Thanks for the check. But why the pained surprise at seeing Slews of Silver again? You saw Gobs of Gold before, too -- six months before you bought it!"
Once more let's shift from the particular to the general. I ask you to believe that I cite my own experiences only when they seem to me interesting illuminations of my general indictment.
Kenneth Roberts tells in the Saturdav Evening Post how Tarkington's Monsieur Beancaire -- one of the greatest if not the greatest romance ever written -- was numskulled from one editor to another until Tarkington's sister fairly thrust it down the throat of the old McClure's. "The moron public", of which editors talk so much, knew it was great stuff the minute it appeared -- any numskull but an editor can feel genius even if he can't pass a Binet test.
When one thinks of the immediate response of that same "moron public" to authors whom the editors take years to recognize, one is convinced that editors who try out stuff on the office boy and the telephone girl are guilty of the exercise of more than numskull intelligence.
You may think O. Henry was a great writer or a mere trickster -- but he brought a fresh note into American literature and almost revolutionized the short story. Yet his early stories -- and the early ones were among his best -- got dog-eared traveling from big mag to big mag and were engulfed in the maw of the pulpwoods, which have to buy nearly everything that has plot and action to feed their presses. That's why editors of pulpwoods are always "discovering" authors. If they fill their mags they have to discover them. But they wouldn't have the chance if the "big" editors were as big as they're supposed to be, because every new author tries the big leagues first.
If editors weren't numskulls why did Joseph Hergesheimer have to wait twelve years for recognition -- or even acceptance? Do you believe for one minute that everything he did in those twelve years was unworthy of publication?
If editors aren't numskulls why did Jack London have to struggle and starve for years to stir editors, when his stuff stirred the "moron public" the instant it began to appear? And if you believe none of his early stuff worth publication, read Martin Eden and learn how he sold it later at top Jack London prices. Did you know also that Jack -- not when he was struggling, but when he had arrived -- said that "Most editors are writers who have failed"?
Did you know that George Allan England, a first-rate craftsman if there ever was one, worked for ten or twelve years for the two-cent-a-word magazines before he had a glimmer of encouragement from the big mags? And that a cub reporter's story -- which wasn't true -- that England was going to quit writing in disgust and run a chicken farm -- won him more offers from editors than all his honest work had ever accomplished?
Did you know that Sam Merwin, co-author with H. K. Webster of Calumet K which took the country by storm, and author thereafter of many successful short stories, was told, after but two years' absence from the writing field as an editor, "We don't know you. Go get a reputation".
He went and got it, all over again, and the same scornful editors paid him fat prices, while Sam smiled his benign smile.
Did you know that the late C. E. Van Loan -- best of sports-story writers -- Arthur Somers Roche, and Leonard Nason -- among many, were pulpwood slaves for years before they got even a nibble from the high-and-mighties, and that not one author in twenty gets a break from the "big" editors who are "searching always for material", until he has pounded his fingers flat for the little mags and the daily short-story syndicates?
Of course an author must serve an apprenticeship -- and God knows most of us do. But that apprenticeship is on the average at least four years longer than it would be if editors half knew their business, if they weren't numskulls, and sheep-minded ones at that. They wait for the other fellow to make a discovery, and the other fellow waits for them. They'd rather keep ninety-nine lambs out of the fold than let one in. They are afraid of the advertiser, afraid of the publisher, afraid of taking a chance, afraid of ideas, and afraid of the public which they despise. They lunch with each other for fear they might be contaminated by some of that public, and hence they know nothing about it. They huddle in conferences over stories for fear they might publish one that somebody would dislike.
Once in a while one of them inadvertently lets something different and unusual into his magazine -- and it scores a success. Then he goes on trying to repeat that exact kind of success and all the others tail after him. An editor moves from one magazine to another -- and duplicates number one.
They have more taboos than a South African savage. Taboos on sex, or taboos on anything but sex. Taboos on religion, politics and sociology. Taboos, in fact, on anything which elicits three indignant letters from a circulation of a million. And taboos on taboos which some rarely courageous editor has demonstrated ain't so.
If they were really competed they would hold their jobs. So far as I recall, there is just one editor of one nationally circulated magazine who still sits where he sat twenty-five years ago. A number of them are dead. Some of them have stepped to bigger editorial jobs -- but not many. The mortality of jobs among editors is higher than in any profession or business with which I am familiar -- including even actors.
This may prove that publishers are difficult to work for, but to me it proves that most editors fall down on their jobs. And we authors suffer because of the everlasting shifts in personalities and policies due to that incompetence. The public suffers, too, because originality, freshness and vitality have to break through so much editorial incapacity to reach the reader.
There are splendid exceptions- -- but not many of them. There are editors whose courtesy and eagerness to give the beginner a chance are limitless. There are editors whose word is their bond -- and it's a gilt-edged bond. There are editors with courage, initiative, imagination and true sensitiveness. And these noble exceptions are the manna in the author's desert. Without them we'd all be chicken farmers.