Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Re-post of a note to a superior student hassling a paper through the scientific journal process

(NOTE: this post was originally put up in 2012 on my other blog,, which I have not used for quite a while.)

B______ -

By way of perspective:

(1) KEITH COUNTY JOURNAL - rejected 22 times (by 22 different publishers, one of whom wrote “Why do you waste your postage sending us things that don’t turn us on?”) before being picked up by St. Martin's Press; eventually sold thousands of copies, got my picture in TIME Magazine, and is still in print after 34 years.

(2) YELLOWLEGS - rejected several times (through my agent but not by my agent) before Norman Mailer's editor said, in essence, "throw away the crap and keep the story." After cutting the book in half, St. Martin's picked it up on a two-book deal. Later, a film deal on YELLOWLEGS paid for one of our children’s education at Berkeley, but ended in an out-of-court settlement, deposited in a University of Nebraska Foundation account, that paid for my research for several years.

(3) TEACHING IN EDEN: THE CEDAR POINT LESSONS – rejected, through my agent (but not by my agent), by the University of Nebraska Press, in fact by return mail. Eventually sold and published by RoutledgeFalmer, a Taylor and Francis company. The University of Nebraska Press editor who rejected it, without even reading the proposal or sample chapters, was the same editor who left UNP and convinced the John Neihardt heirs to transfer the rights to all Neihardt’s books to this editor’s new company. (The Neihardt property was a major income producer for UNP).

(4) VERMILION SEA – rejected, through my agent, by the University of Nebraska Press, without review. Eventually sold and published by Houghton-Mifflin. VS was a heavily, and I do mean heavily, edited book, both by the H-M senior editor and the copy editor, the former simply writing “rew!” (= “re-write”) on paragraph after paragraph, and the copy editor letting me get by with the most embarrassing mistake I’ve ever published (won’t tell you what it is.)

(5) TUSKERS – rejected 23 times, through my agent, by various publishers. After the 23rd rejection, my agent said “everybody in the agency loves this book but we simply cannot sell it. I’ll be happy to write the contract if you can sell it.” I tried a couple of more times, unsuccessfully, with Jena (the ESPN child) hassling me constantly to get it into print. Eventually, when and the e-book business got up and running, I did self-publish it.

(6) THE GINKGO – My agent rejected this one, declining to handle it, calling it “an evocative book about ideas, exactly the kind of thing the American book-buying public is getting increasingly impatient with.” (I re-wrote the prologue and added that quote, plus some narrative to put it into perspective.) It was subsequently rejected by about 40 different publishers. I eventually self-published it and still consider it my finest piece of creative work.

(7) ON BECOMING A BIOLOGIST – At the opposite end of the author-publisher-agent spectrum is OBAB, which my agent negotiated and sold, then told me I was going to write it. The editor at Harper and Row was gentleman named Rick Kot, one of the most professional people I’ve ever worked with. For two years I worked on both the manuscript and the outline; he edited the latter, which eventually got up to about 50 pages, at least a dozen times, until he finally took it to the H&R editorial board for approval. After that, I re-wrote the whole book at least three times, all as a result of his editing and commentary, after which he asked “are you now ready for me to edit it?” I answered “yes,” and ended up doing as much creative work in the next six months as I’d done in the previous 2-3 years. This book is still in print after nearly 30 years.

(8) The intro biology textbook project – As a result of KEITH COUNTY JOURNAL, an editor from one of the major textbook publishers showed up in my office to talk about a BIOS 101 textbook. I signed the contract. The manuscript eventually got to 1200 pages of typing and graphic design (all by me), reviewed and re-written three times, before we came to a mutual agreement that this project was not going to be successful. This all took place in the early 1980s.

(9) BERNICE AND JOHN: FINALLY MEETING YOUR PARENTS WHO DIED A LONG TIME AGO – a current book project, the so-called “Oklahoma book.” The University of Oklahoma Press rejected this one by return mail with a smart-ass crack something like “we get a manuscript once a week about Depression-era parents who made good.” They missed the whole point. University of Nebraska Press had it, or a version of it, three years ago, lost it, then contacted me about a year ago to ask if I was still interested in having them review it. I sent them a pdf (their preferred format) but have heard nothing from them in that past year. Once this parasit textbook project is finished, I’ll self-publish B&J.

(10) OUTWITTING COLLEGE PROFESSORS – I originally gave this one away as a pdf file to my BIOS 101 class, then self-published with That worked pretty well. Pearson picked up the book as a second edition but didn’t really make it part of their success in college package like I thought they would, so I got all the rights back from them and have since done the third and fourth editions, also through createspace, as well as kindle, nook, smashwords, etc. I’m not getting rich off it but it does sell copies fairly regularly.

I won’t even mention the many other book projects, fiction and otherwise, that have not come to fruition for several reasons. In my opinion, if that daily hour of creative writing over in the Union, and the writer-agent-publisher business that comes from it, have any value at all, it’s been to put the scientific manuscript publication experience into perspective.

Hang in there.


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