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In publishing, you never know. Such was the case with Richard Hooker’s MASH, the novel that spawned an award-winning movie and a TV series that seemed to run forever. It took the author eleven years to write and the literary agent eight years to sell it. When the novel was submitted to me I was an editor at William Morrow. I later learned it had been shown to something like 32 publishers. I did not know there were that many publishing houses and that I was so low on the publishing food chain.
I read it over a weekend and roared and gave it to a colleague who had served as a Marine during the war (WW II) and had landed and invaded several islands in the Pacific and managed to survive. He laughed too. Instead of having a committee of readers consider it, which I believe had been the novel’s undoing, I decided to make a princely offer of $5,000. It was eagerly accepted, considering the novel’s history.
I sent it to Ring Lardner Jr. who read it, loved it and gave the book a great quote although he said he is not in the business of writing blurbs for a living – but he did write for the movies and eventually wrote the movie script. The novel was then sent by the William Morris Agency to Ingo Preminger who decided it was high time for him to compete with his brother Otto, a successful movie director, who hired Robert Altman to direct it. The TV series followed with Alan Alda playing Hawkeye Pierce, a character based on the author’s experiences in Korea. I always wanted to meet Alda and tell him he owed me one.
The novel’s timing went against all the rules of sensible publishing. It appeared at the tail end of the Vietnam war, which had become an immensely unpopular conflict and was set during the Korean War, which everyone wanted to forget. The author, a thoracic surgeon, received relatively little money for the movie rights. However, when it was made into a TV series, each time it was aired he received a residual equivalent to the money he earned for a surgical operation. The author’s actual name was H. Richard Hornberger, MD. His pseudonym, Richard Hooker, was named after his prowess as a golfer.
The moral: More often than not book publishing is totally unpredictable, like participating in a lottery. So keep pounding those computer keys if you are a writer. You never know.
Tip submitted by Hillel Black, free lance editor of over 20 NY Times best sellers and member of the Consulting Editors Alliance. Visit http://www.hillelblack.com/.