How Can I Become More Persistent? Insights From the Chuck Ross Experiment

Every day publishers get a big pile of unasked-for manuscripts sent to them by writers and their agents. What happens to all these manuscripts? You hear about people who eventually became famous authors, like Danielle Steel or Stephen King, getting lots of rejection letters when they first started out. Why?

Chuck Ross thought he would experiment to see what he could find out. So he typed up a manuscript that had already been published and won a National Book Award, and had already sold 400,000 copies. The book was Jerzy Kosinski’s book, Steps.

Ross typed it up as a manuscript, word for word, and mailed it to publishers as an unsolicited manuscript to see what they would do with it. Would they recognize its merit? Would they see its sales potential?

The results are amusing and illuminating, especially if you have ever tried to submit a manuscript or sell an idea or get financial backing for proposal. If you’ve been rejected or denied, it doesn’t necessarily mean the idea or manuscript lacked merit. It may be that the rejector was the wrong person, or looked at it on the wrong day.

So what happened to this award winning manuscript? It was rejected by Random House, and they were the ones who originally published it! Three other publishing houses who had previously published Kosinski rejected it, including Doubleday and Houghton Mifflin. It was rejected by ten other major publishing companies and rejected by twenty-six literary agents. Nobody accepted it.

Oddly enough, one comment came back from Houghton Mifflin that the style of the manuscript was similar to Kosinski, but the author was not in the same league as Kosinski!

Chuck Ross’s experiment demonstrates a principle of reality’s negative bias. In a sense, in more ways than one, reality seems to be in a conspiracy to make you a negative, pessimistic, defeatist cynic.

I'm not talking about the negative bias of your own brain. That's another story. I'm talking about the natural way of things and how in certain circumstances, the cards seem to be stacked against you, no matter what you do.

But the other side of this story is that the manuscript was not rejected because the writing was bad. It had already proven its merit in the marketplace and in the reviews. That is actually a positive underpinning to the whole event. In other words, if you have a manuscript that has been rejected by publishers, it doesn't necessarily mean your manuscript is no good.

Another lesson to derive out of the Chuck Ross experiment is that the existence of the naturally-occurring negative biases is a reason to stay persistent. People give up because they believe what reality seems to be telling them — that their work is not good. But that might be a misunderstanding. The only way you'll be able to tell for sure is by persisting. And many times in history something was rejected over and over until it was finally accepted, only to then surprise the world at its merit and success.

Maybe your project will be one of those. Unless you persist in the face of the setbacks, nobody will ever know.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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