The Myth of the Big Book


Can Anyone Spare Publishing An Extra Brain

by Don Whittington



I have spent long hours trying to understand what is happening these days in publishing, and I have come to this conclusion:

There is but one brain.

One. Uno. Just the singleton.

It is a fine and muscular brain, alert, discerning, erudite, discriminating; a Ford M. Ford kind of brain that can spy a D.H.Lawrence hiding in a bed of chrysanthemums; a Maxwell Perkins kind of brain that nurtures and guides, succors and exalts. A very fine brain, indeed.

But there is just the one.

And in all of American publishing, only one editor at a time is allowed to use it.

My friend the western writer says, at least once in a career every writer should be allowed to shoot one editor with impunity. I say, please don’t shoot the one with the brain, else all is lost.

Horrors: Hunt For Red October couldn’t find a buyer in New York until after its success.

Watch the brainless:

So what do you think is a good response time for an unsolicited manuscript?

Well, I try, I mean I really try, to get back to the author within two years.

Just two? Are you crazy?

Assuming I’m getting an exclusive look, I think that’s only fair.

Oh, well, in that case…

Now watch the brain:

It hovers above New York City and then swoops to settle in some unsuspecting editor’s skull.

The editor swoons with sudden insight. Suddenly she knows how to do things.

I have messages, she thinks. Why, I can answer them. I know how to do that. And voila! All by herself she lifts a receiver and begins to dial. Other editors gather to watch.

What is she doing? they ask.

Returning a phone call, someone says.


Horrors: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected over a hundred times before finding a publisher.

See it work miracles:

Why, I owe my author, Joe Bubblejet, a check, she thinks. She calls accounts payable.

Welllllll, they drawl, we have a guy coming in next August, 2000 who we think might print a check. Maybe. Depends on that Y2K thing.

No, she says, print it now. This is our author. We love him. Pay him.

What, you mean this year?

No, today.

Accounts struggles with the concept of “today”, but because our editor has the brain, she tutors them and lo, a check is written! The heavens ring with music.

Watch the brain at the acquisition meeting:

Her boss says, “Saving Private Ryan” is the biggest thing in America. We need some World War II novels. What have we got?

Our editor explains how we have nothing because we in publishing have insisted for fifteen years that nobody gives a damn about WWII fiction so all the people who were good at writing about it have taken up new lines of work.

Well, do we have “anything” about WWII?

I’ve got a couple of really shitty novels about WWII in the slush pile, says another editor.

Good, buy them. Next subject?

But wait, our brainy editor says, if we flood the market with shitty novels about WWII people will figure it out and stop buying them.

Good says the boss. That would prove we’ve been right the last fifteen years and nobody cares about WWII. Next subject.

Horrors: Despondent over continued rejection, John Kennedy Toole killed himself. His mother eventually found a small university press publisher for A Confederacy of Dunces.

Meeting continues; Pulitzers fly:

I’ve got a lady detective who has herpes.

Simplex or duplex?

Quadratic, I think.

Buy it. Next?

I’ve got a lady detective who solves murders in an electrolysis clinic.

Good, buy it. Next.

I’ve got a lady detective with a little brown dog who solves murders at the dog show.

A dog? In a mystery? Can we make it a cat?

What’s a cat doing at a dog show?

Think of the opportunities for conflict. Buy it if the author agrees to make it a cat. Next?

I’ve got a detective who is brother to a sitting president who has to solve a murder during negotiations at Camp David in the middle of a hurricane between heads of state to avoid WWIII.

Lady detective?

Uhhh, no. He’s his brother. But we could make him a lawyer.

Lady lawyer?

No, I think the author is stuck on it being a guy.

Hmmmm, not really a “Big Book,” is it? We’ll pass. Next?

Then our brainy editor says, I have a novel about a family on a small farm coping during a drought. The characters are well drawn, and the story is compelling. It is a very uplifting story in that its underlying theme is about how families survive in the midst of adversity.

A stunned silence fills the room. All heads turn to stare at the brainy editor.

What the hell kind of crap is that?

It’s a very fine novel. Simply told. Elegant. Beautiful.

How many characters?

Just the family, really. Four.

Now that’s not a Big Book at all, is it? You know, I’ve told you and told you, we want a “Big Book.” That’s what people buy.

What exactly is a Big Book by your definition? asks the brainy one.

Why…why it’s Big! Enormous. You know, huge. Big themes.

You mean like a Ludlum novel. International intrigue? A planet in peril?

No, nobody’s interested in overseas stuff. Or spy stuff. Or planet stuff.

You mean deep and profound like Faulkner?


Spiritual? Grappling with God?

Don’t make me ill.

Then what?

The boss pouts a moment, then spreads his arm. Big! Like this! Lots of characters. Lots of action. Lots of neat stuff. Lots of characters. I mean Big.

Bridges of Madison County only had two characters. As I recall, it did okay.

The others look at each other, confused.

Never heard of it.

Bridges of what?

I think I remember that. I was in Junior High.

The boss says. Quit kidding around. What’s the gag? Did a celebrity write your book?


A big writer? Somebody with automatic best seller power?


You heard from Oprah on this?


Then why the hell do you want us to publish it?

Because it’s a terrific story.

“Story?” What the hell does story have to do with anything?

This goes on. But our brainy editor continues to fight until at last, just to shut her up, they let her buy the book for a tiny advance.

Okay, next subject?

I got a lady detective who solves a murder as the Titanic sinks.

Brilliant. Get that book, no matter what it costs!

Horrors: Tony Hillerman was once rejected by an editor who said he might get somewhere if he’d lose all that crap about Indians.


The brain knows all. It looks around publishing and says, these things are true:

Editors are not allowed (or have too little time) to edit


Marketing majors with swell haircuts and the taste and sensibility of a horny twelve-year-old punk are driving acquisition strategies Hysterical sums are paid to a few writers while most receive less in real dollars than writers received in the 1930’s. New writers who commit the cardinal sin of simply writing stories instead of “Big Books” (It’s a prehistoric Jaws, they said, and we all know how well that did) will be left to their own devices while promotional budgets go to the writers who don’t need promotion, or whose work is so simple you could print the synopsis on a condom wrapper. Readers turn to back-lists and re-sale stores in ever growing numbers for the stories that please them since publishing increasingly ignores them in favor of Hollywood Publishers claim to want things that are new and exciting when what they really want is whatever was selling well yesterday. The next big thing will be Fiction for Dummies


And so our brainy editor publishes her little novel and because it is a good story, it does well. Word of mouth leads to huge sales and our editor is exalted above measure. Papers are filled with articles about this breakaway book, this maverick of literary work, this Beloved, this Angela’s Ashes, this Kitchen God’s Wife, this Accidental Tourist. (Some of these got terrific advances because of that rarest of all publishing phenomena: the brain/clout cusp.)

And publishing in its wisdom will thankfully take the profits and declare that this is an aberration, an exception, the rare work of genius that surpasses expectation.

And it will continue to look for the “Big Book” that doesn’t exist. It never existed. There are only stories. Stories told well or badly. Taste might steer publishing in the right direction here, but there is no cell entry for “taste” on a spread sheet.

Horrors: A friend of mine had a contracted book rejected because it didn’t have enough “plot”. He took thirty pages out of the novel, re-submitted it, and was accepted by the same editor. He made no other changes.

Meanwhile, Beyond the Valley of the Doll-Brained:

Here we go as if nothing ever happened.

What have you got for me today?

I found another McCourt brother!

Be still my heart. Buy him. Next?

Watch and pray:

The brain, having done its work, moves on, departs our heroine to return to the skies of New York looking for its next editor. It soars and swoops and strikes again.

We can but hope it found the one that has your manuscript. And mine.

–Don Whittington

Don Whittington is a published adult and children's author. We welcome your comments on this article. Email: