Writing About a Frustrated Writer
The “Boy Naturalist,” Ernest T. Morris, strove for many years to be a naturalist-explorer-travel writer, but met with limited success. Although his New York World newspaper columns on life in the Amazon Valley were read by thousands, his book detailing his most thrilling journey was rejected by C. Scribner and others. He had high hopes for publication, and the failure to see his text in print demoralized him. He died eight years after completing it. Morris’s wife came to believe that the manuscript was under a curse placed by South American Indians.
When I embarked on researching Morris’s life and writing about him, I had no idea that the project would face its own publishing struggle. One of my first inquiries went out to the leading expert on Amazon exploration, who replied that: 1) he had never heard of Morris; 2) that Morris could not have collected Munduruku trophy heads, because they had stopped taking heads in the 1790s; and 3) that I was wasting my time on some sort of circus sideshow promoter. This response didn’t daunt me in the least, because even at that early point, I knew this expert was wrong.
After working on a biography of Morris for nearly two years, I felt vindicated when my book proposal was accepted by a major university press; the acquisitions editor immediately understood that I wasn’t just writing about one obscure man–I was evoking a unique period in the history of science. That editor left his position about a month later. I submitted my final draft and all graphics to his replacement. Instead of receiving back suggested edits, what I got in the mail was a notice that the press had changed their editorial direction and were canceling my contract.
So, like Ernest Morris, I learned the sting of rejection (though all my previous books had been accepted on first submission). Two other academic publishers indicated that they did not think a biography of Morris was marketable enough to make a profit. I have little ammunition to argue that they are wrong, especially because I believe the text requires copious illustrations, many in color; what is disappointing is that none of these presses seemed concerned about whether Morris’s story was worthwhile.
Unlike Ernest, the Internet has made self-publishing a viable alternative. While losing out on library approval plan sales is regrettable, I think I can reap just as much in royalties (if not more) from self-publishing than academic presses offer (which is next to nothing).
A Boy Naturalist in the Amazon: the Travels of Ernest T. Morris by Jerry Kuntz