Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The man who turned rejection into a career

By Bob Greene, CNN contributor
updated 12:31 PM EDT, Sun August 4, 2013
Chuck Ross gained notice when he submitted the manuscript of an acclaimed novel to publishers, who all turned it down.
Chuck Ross gained notice when he submitted the manuscript of an acclaimed novel to publishers, who all turned it down.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chuck Ross became famous for stunt he pulled on publishing industry
  • He submitted famous novel as manuscript; it got turned down by all
  • Bob Greene: Ross turned tale of his experience into the beginning of a successful career
  • Ross managed to make a living from writing, editing, despite challenges

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Rejection -- even repeated rejection -- doesn't have to mean defeat.

That, it turns out, is the lasting lesson of the Chuck Ross story.

You may recognize the name; two Sundays ago, I wrote about J.K. Rowling, the spectacularly successful author of the Harry Potter books, and about how she has published a detective novel under the name Robert Galbraith. In the column, I recalled what a young and frustrated writer -- Chuck Ross -- did in the 1970s.

To briefly recap: Ross had written a mystery novel that had been turned down everywhere he sent it. So, as an experiment to see how the publishing business really worked, he retyped a National Book Award-winning novel -- "Steps," by Jerzy Kosinski -- and submitted it to 14 major publishers and 13 top agents. But he didn't put a title on it, and he didn't put Kosinski's name on it.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

Every publisher and every agent turned it down. None recognized that they were rejecting a book that had already been a bestseller and had already won the National Book Award. So much for talent being judged on its own merit.

A fine and funny tale, some 35 years ago.

But what happened to Chuck Ross?

"When I was in my 20s, I had been selling cable television subscriptions door-to-door in Santa Monica, California," Ross told me the other day. He is 61 now.

He had written his mystery novel in his spare time. "I taught myself to touch-type," he said.

What really bothered him about his mystery novel being turned down by every publisher to whom he sent it was not just that the various editors claimed not to like it -- but that they hadn't bothered to give it a thorough reading.

How did he know that?

He was a highly creative young writer; to set his manuscript apart from all the others that authors send in, he had thought up a gimmick. He had put a little seal on the last few pages of the manuscript -- the pages that were the payoff to his story. It was intended to be a clever enticement; when the editors at the publishing houses got to the end, they would remove the little seal to read the climax of the book.

But when every publisher sent the manuscript back to him, with letters telling him why they didn't want his story, he noticed something:

The seals on the last few pages had not been broken. Not on any of the manuscripts.

No one at the publishing houses had read the book all the way through, or even flipped to the end to see how Ross had wrapped up the story.

"Rather depressing," he told me the other day.

That's when he got the idea to send Kosinski's prize-winning book in without Kosinski's name on it. He wanted to see if even a proven bestseller, without a well-known byline, would get a fair shake.

He found out.

The repeated rejection of that book, he said, didn't depress him the way the rejections of the mystery novel had: "With the Kosinski book, it wasn't my work they were rejecting -- it was his." (J.K. Rowling, in her younger days, probably could have identified with all of this. Her first Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by a number of publishers -- some reports say it was as many as a dozen -- before one house decided to take a chance on it.)

I asked Chuck Ross: When the news of his Kosinski ploy got out and was widely publicized back in the '70s, did any of the publishers and agents salute his ingenuity, and offer to take another look at his own mystery novel?

"No."

Did they encourage him to send them future work?

"No."

But, despite that, Ross triumphed. "I'm an optimistic guy," he said. "I wake up on the sunny side of the bed."

He wrote a terrific piece about the Kosinski stunt for New West magazine, which at the time was very popular in California. The story got a good reception, and he received more assignments from the magazine.

On the strength of that, he realized that he might be able to make a living as a writer. He was able to quit the door-to-door cable-subscription-selling job, and went on to staff writing and editing jobs at a series of publications. He worked for the Hollywood Reporter, served as a reporter on the television beat for the San Francisco Chronicle, went to Inside Media, became an editor and reporter for Advertising Age, was named editor of the trade publication Electronic Media, became that magazine's editor and publisher when it was renamed TV Week, and, when it went online-only, was named its managing director, the job he has today.

In short, after those initial rejections -- both of his mystery novel and of the retyped Kosinski book -- he has managed to make a lifelong career out of the written word. Along the way, he got married and has four children.

"I have no regrets at all," he said.

He never did have a book published; he's certain that the mystery novel he wrote in the '70s is stored in a box or trunk somewhere -- "I don't throw things away" -- but he hasn't seen it in years.

It doesn't matter. He wanted to find a good life as a writer, and he did.

And the initial turn-downs are what, in their own unexpected way, helped him to find it.

"Sometimes," he said, "it takes a little luck."

And sometimes, things have a way of working out.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT