05 September 2006

Wrinkles in the Legend of A Wrinkle in Time

One of the legends in modern children's publishing--perhaps American publishing in general--is how Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by dozens of publishers before Farrar, Straus & Giroux took a chance on it. The number of publishers varies a bit with the telling: "forty-odd," according to L'Engle's "Special Message" in recent paperback copies; twenty-six, according to most webpages.

Whatever the numbers, the tale serves to fill authors with hope. It reassures us that ground-breaking work may have trouble from short-sighted gatekeepers, but will eventually find acclaim. All we have to do is persevere through those years of rejections.

But the details of the story, now more than forty years old, may not offer that much hope to today's writers. To begin with, L'Engle was a published novelist with a literary agent, Theron Raines. She wasn't an unknown sending her manuscript out herself, like most hopeful authors then and now.

Then there's the question of timing. L'Engle finished her manuscript in 1960. It was published in 1962. L'Engle has spoken and written of a frustrating "two years of rejections," though that was the same amount of time it took her agent to find a publisher for Meet the Austins (1960). I know a lot of writers who've been trying longer than two years to sell a book they believe in.

And let's divide the number of rejections by that time span. Twenty-six rejections in less about two years is approximately one a month. ("Forty-odd" rejections would come closer to one every two weeks.) Of course that stretch would be frustrating and painful for any writer, and I don't begrudge L'Engle an ounce of her pride at being vindicated. But with publishers' turnaround times at six months to a year these days, it's a rare writer who can expect to hear from so many publishers so fast, good news or bad.

Finally, here's how A Wrinkle in Time finally found a home at Farrar, Straus & Giroux in L'Engle's own words:

We gave up. Then my mother was visiting for Christmas, and I gave her a tea party for some of her old friends. One of them happened to belong to a small writing group run by John Farrar, of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which at that time did not have a juvenile list. She insisted that I meet John any how, and I went down with my battered manuscript. John had read my first novel and liked it, and read this book and loved it. That’s how it happened.
So an excellent manuscript is necessary--and any manuscript that causes a firm to expand the types of books it publishes must be excellent. But in the end the sale of A Wrinkle in Time depended on a visit from Mom, one of her friends, and a personal introduction to the co-owner of a publishing company.