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Who Shows Authors Rejected Proposals, Anyway?

jessica-seinfeld-wsj.jpgAs I was ruminating yesterday on the controversy over Jessica Seinfeld‘s cookbook, particulaly since I was hearing some grumbles that whatever Perseus CEO David Steinberger is saying publicly about not considering legal action, some folks at Running Press don’t consider this dispute over yet, I realized that there was something that didn’t make sense to me in the argument that Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious might have taken a lot of cues from the proposal for The Sneaky Chef, which Missy Chase Lapine had unsuccessfully pitched to Collins before that publisher aggressively pursued Seinfeld and her book. How, I wondered, would Seinfeld have even seen the recipes from a proposal that had been considered by a different Collins editor? Which, in fact, she strenuously denies ever happened. “I’ve never held that book in my hands, and I swear that on my life,” she told Jeff Trachtenberg. “When I was told there was a book of a similar type, I told myself I would never go near it.”

So I asked a number of high-ranking book types if they’d ever heard of an editor showing his or her author a rejected proposal for a book on a similar subject with the suggestion or expectation that it might be useful for the author’s own project. “Never in my experience,” Spiegel & Grau co-publisher Julie Grau wrote back minutes later.

“Honest to goodness, this would just never happen,” an executive editor in another building emailed soon after. “For one thing, we just don’t have the time! Secondly, most editors are so buried in paper (or electronic files, same thing), that we can barely keep up with the books on our lists, never mind those that we’ve passed on. Most importantly, however, editors do subscribe to a code of ethics (no matter how informally), and they just wouldn’t cross that line.” A senior editor at another house agrees: “I can see why it looks fishy and I’m not saying we don’t ever get a proposal and think, this is a good idea but the wrong writer, or something like that, but it would just take so much organizational skill to remember the earlier proposal, find it, float it past your new author…” But, this editor concluded, “I’d like to think that we editors are not just chronically unorganized and haphazard, we’re also honorable.”

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