“We Know You’re Great…”

Photo by Jarkko Arjatsalo/The Leonard Cohen Files

I have an odd relationship with the songs of the late Leonard Cohen. If I am depressed I can usually put his music on shuffle and feel better after a while, such as two or three months. If I’m feeling fine and happen to hear one of his songs — and they are all over the place, in movies and television series and commercials — I go so deep into the gloom cave that I think I’m never going to crawl out. 

So it is that I recently came across a quotation that instantly became my all-time favorite, in part because it so perfectly describes, however indirectly, the desk-to-market process of bringing art — and that would most definitely include your book, my friend — to the masses, even in this age of do-it-yourself. 

Cohen was initially signed to Columbia/CBS  Records (“CBS”) in the mid-1960s and remained with it right up to his death in 2016. He spent a great deal of his early career acquiring a cult following (and almost universal critical acclaim) based upon a series of album releases that to this day sound either compelling, unique, unusual, or unlistenable, depending on whose ears are being used. CBS, to its credit, never dropped Cohen, even when the sales of his new releases — which were not huge until much later in his career —declined for several years in the run-up to the point when he became a household name. CBS nonetheless at one point declined (initially) to release one of his albums. Cohen in 1984 presented to CBS a collection of songs which was ultimately released by a small label — and somewhat later by CBS — under the title Various Positions. Walter Yetnikoff was President and CEO of CBS Records at the time. Yetiknoff, as a preamble to telling Cohen that his label would not be releasing Various Positions, famously said: 

“Leonard, we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good.” 

Various Positions contains a little four and one-half minute tune titled “Hallelujah,” that — like Cohen’s “Suzanne” a few decades before — eventually became to megachurch youth services (with a couple of the verses edited) and to funerals what “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival was and is to weddings. The song became so popular as a licensed property that Cohen at one point somewhat meekly asked that a moratorium be observed on placing the song in commercials, movies, and television. Various Positions also includes a deceptively jaunty little number named “Dance Me to the Edge of Love,” which is considered to be a modern standard. 

Let’s consider that again…“Leonard, we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good.”  

So what does that mean, exactly?

Trust me on this. Every stranger who looks at your work with an eye toward becoming part of the publishing process on your behalf — be it agent, editor, and publisher —  may personally be in awe of your work. They might well think that you’re great. The issue is whether you’re “any good.” That term is another way of asking/guessing whether your creation will sell enough to make whatever might and majesty the prospective agent, editor, or publisher can throw behind it be worth their while, “while” being their time, effort, and money. 

Such a conclusion is often — actually, almost always — a guess. The odd thing is that most of the time whoever makes the decision is wrong in all of the ways it can possibly be. Great books are turned down. Books that are worthy, or “great,”  are published and then ignored by the reading public. They are great books, possibly, but by the objective standard of sales numbers they are not “any good.” The “right” choices pay for the “wrong” ones which is how the whole industry, whatever it may be, keeps rolling along until it doesn’t.

This state of affairs doesn’t exist only in the arts. There are all sorts of products that seem like great ideas but never make it out of the design room for one reason or another. The ones that do aren’t always successful, either. I used to think that if I liked a particular product — Rice Chex cereal bars? —my preference almost certainly spelled its doom. I don’t think that anymore. I am totally convinced of it. 

So how do you get around it? You ignore it. You cannot really control it.  Focus on being great. Write your own story, instead of a variation of your favorite author’s, or what is “hot” right now. Shine it up nicely.  Get yourself an editing program to go through your work. This past Wednesday our very own Terry Odell discussed an editing program named Smart Edit that seems to fill the bill. Don’t rely entirely on that, however. Go through it yourself and then have two other literate, nitpicking people review your review for you to find what you missed. When you think that everything is as perfect as you can make it send it to a prospective agent or editor Then sit back and say the short form of the Serenity Prayer, which is “(Expletive deleted) it. Just (expletive deleted).” Keep sending it out. You will know soon whether someone thinks that you are any good. Just don’t stop. Remember Mr. Yetnikoff, who wasn’t sure if Mr. Cohen was any good after listening to an album with two songs on it that are still popular almost three decades later. While you’re waiting, remember what Audrey Hepburn said: “Nothing is impossible, the word itself says ‘I’m possible’!” Just so. Illegitimi non carborundum.

One postscript to this: I had the good fortune to see and hear Cohen perform in the early 1970s at a small club named The Smiling Dog Saloon in west Cleveland. I went to the men’s room between what turned out to be the two best sets of live music I’ve ever attended and was taking care of things when the urinals on either side of me simultaneously became occupied. I glanced  — yes, at eye level! — to my left and there stood Dave Mason (of Traffic), dressed entirely in bright red, grinning beerily back at me. I nodded, somewhat embarrassed for whatever reason, then glanced away to my right. There stood Leonard effing Cohen. A few seconds later we went to the sinks and, after washing up, somewhat uneasily introduced ourselves — not that the company I was in needed any introduction — and shook hands all around. 

I stumbled back to my table, bumping into chairs and people all the way there. The lady I was with looked at me when I finally sat down, smiled, and said, “Wow. What happened to you? You look like you got hit on the head. Did you, like, run into Leonard Cohen or something?” She laughed, took a sip of her beer, and said, “Oh. I heard someone say that Dave Mason is here…we should try to find him.” Done. And done. 

Thanks for being here once again. If you’d like to share your best acceptance or worst rejection, please do. It doesn’t have to be book- or even art-related. Let the games begin!


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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

33 thoughts on ““We Know You’re Great…”

  1. There are not a lot of cool bathroom stories, Joe, but yours is one of them. Most of the time a bathroom tale is of the embarrassing sort. It may be apocryphal, but an editor was supposedly on the throne when someone in the next stall slipped a manuscript to him. He tore off the first page then slipped the MS back with the note: “Thank you. Your manuscript has met my needs at this time.”

    About the biz being a “guess,” it’s so true that the guesstimators miss much of the time. Like the agent who rejected Tony Hillerman’s first Navajo police novel, with the note: “If you insist on re-writing this, cut out all that Indian stuff.”

    Fortunately, today, enough hitting of the brick wall leaves today’s artist with the option of going directly to market. Self publishing, Patreon, Substack, YouTube, Amazon Prime, etc. The ultimate decider of who is “good” is the audience and their discretionary income. As Mickey Spillane once said, “If the public likes you, you’re good. Shakespeare was a common, down-to-earth writer in his day.”

    • Jim, apocryphal or otherwise, your bathroom story tops mine. The Hillerman story is a favorite of mine, right up there with the label A&R guy who rejected The Beatles because, he said, guitar bands were on their way out. Thanks!

  2. My husband met CJ Box in the men’s room before his talk at a signing. That still scores points with the readers in our hood. “I’ve met XX” is usually good, but “Met in the men’s room” is better. Heck, I didn’t know guys talked in there. But my husband clarified. “It was at the sinks afterward.”
    I don’t know what my “worst” rejection was. One was simply NO! scrawled at the top of the ms (back when we submitted paper copies). But this is the one I saved: “We did review your proposal, and for some reason we don’t feel we can represent it. Some of them come close, and yours may well be one of those, but we do have our reasons for declining.”

    • Terry, that’s a great story about your husband. And thanks for sharing your rejection story. Talk about being damned with faint praise. Take comfort in the fact that whoever wrote that may now be engaging in honorable, honest work at a drive-through window.

    • Indeed, Sir! I don’t know if sinks were available back then, but whatever they had, I would be there. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Great post, Joe. I love your story and analysis.

    My best acceptance and worst rejection came back to back. I pitched a book to an agent at a faith-based convention. She ripped my story up one side and down the other, and told me she wasn’t interested. I walked into the hallway in a daze where I was immediately (like right outside the door) met by a volunteer. She stated my name and her face lit up. She began telling me excitedly how much she liked my short stories that had been finalists and published in her writer group’s contest anthologies over the past three years. I wanted to point over my shoulder and say, “Tell her that.” Actually, I think “her” heard our conversation. The next morning the agent ran into me in the hotel lobby. She approached me and apologized for the previous afternoon, stating that it had been the end of the day and she was tired. I quietly accepted her apology. She then gave me a list of things I “needed to work on,” a list of things that were for beginning beginners. I quietly nodded and we went our separate ways.

    Several months later, a number of the agents associated with that faith-based organization were discovered to have been involved in sexual impropriety, including the process of accepting or rejecting authors to work with. It was at that point I decided to take a break from the genre I had been writing and write stories for my grandchildren. And to Indie publish.

    Thanks for a great post, Joe. Have a great weekend.

    • Good morning, Steve. Thank you as always for your kind words which always brighten my alternate Saturdays.

      Your rejection story left me stunned. I hope that you wore and continue to wear that rejection as a badge of honor. Obviously the problem wasn’t whether you were good enough, but rather, in a sense, whether you were bad enough. I think you made the right choice.

      I hope you have a good weekend as well, Steve. I am hosting my granddaughter and two of her friends for a sleepover and wondering why. They are sleeping the sleep of the innocent and clear of conscience at the moment which permits me to answer without interruption you and the other fine folks commenting here. Be well!

  4. What are the odds? Today we hear your meet in the bathroom experience, and just yesterday, someone was telling me about meeting a well known actor in the men’s locker room of a gym–totally in the buff. I won’t offer details because I don’t have their permission. I just think it’s funny that on 2 consecutive days I learn “meeting in odd places” stories. 😎

    • That’s interesting, BK. Who knows what you might hear tomorrow? Maybe it will be better yet. Thanks for sharing to the extent permissible!

  5. Hi Joe,

    Leonard Cohen evokes the same reaction in me–probably b/c I associate his songs a painful first-love breakup in college. In retrospect, I dodged a bullet big time.

    The best and worst rejection I received came a couple of years ago in the same email from a Penguin/RH editor in Toronto. She said my book was a “fresh, exciting take on a thriller,” with “striking scenes seared in my memory,” and had developed an unlikely relationship with “great sensitivity and nuance.”

    But…several editors felt distant from the main character and “despite our admiration for your writing and the compelling and dynamic world you’ve created, we don’t think we’re the right publisher for your book.”

    Essentially: we love you, we just don’t want to marry you.

    That rave rejection was heartening. It gave me much-needed confidence that the book was worthy of serious consideration. I’m truly grateful for that.

    • Hi Debbie! We have something in common with respect to the songs of Leonard Cohen! It wasn’t a first love in my case, but it was painful nonetheless. Remember the immortal words of Winston Churchill: “There is nothing in life so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.

      Thanks for sharing those acceptance and rejection letters. I interpret that rejection letter as saying that they loved your book but wouldn’t know what to do with it. I’ve always thought that it would be nice if such letters would include a recommendation for the author as to where to go. Alas…

  6. Morning, Joe! You’re hosting your granddaughter and her two friends because you’re a good Grandpa…

    I haven’t been around long enough to have acceptance/rejection stories (hope to share some someday…I’ll be pitching to an agent in March), but I sure as heck enjoyed these! All I have right now are my small group of peeps who tell me they’re anxiously awaiting my next release. But they’re the only ones I listen to, anyway. 🙂

    Especially liked the Hepburn quote-tucked it away in my Famous Quotes file; and Illegitimi non carborundum…looked it up and dang! Great quote!

    Great Saturday to y’all!

    • Thank you, Deb. As I’ve said before in many forums, grandparents and grandchildren have a special relationship because they have a common enemy.

      Good luck with that March meeting. If you get what you want, terrific. If not, you just have to keep looking to find someone worthy of you.

  7. Good morning, Joe. “We know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good” is a classic example of how subjective art can be on one level, even though one can readily recognize ability and talent. One of my first fiction writing mentors used to tell his classes to keep their creative process separate from the business side. As you advised here, he would urge us to give full reign to our creativity. Only when we were finished with the story or novel were we to then go into business mode.

    As an indie author, I have more freedom and power over my own creativity, but, as Uncle Ben said in Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility. I’m responsible for making it as good as I can, and also responsible for understand that readers make their own value judgements based on their own preferences and expectations. I can work with that to a certain extent, but, I’m still writing books of my heart.

    So, I have to live with the answer to the question, “but is he any good” being out of my control, beyond my doing my best to craft a compelling story, getting feedback and editing and proofing, because readers each have their own understanding of good. I’ve had glowing reader reviews on books that others have viewed, shall we say, in much less glowing fashion.

    My coolest acceptance was my most recent, and a very unusual one. A friend of mine, Dr. Susan Kaye Quinn, a former NASA engineer and successful indie author of science fiction, came up with the idea last summer to create a digital time capsule to be placed aboard the upcoming Astrobotics Peregrine Lunar Lander. She called this project “Writers On the Moon. The literary time capsule will be included in one of a series of “Moon boxes” that Astrobotics and DHL (yup, that DHL, the package delivery service) will be deploying to the Moon. Sue wanted to leave a sampling of indie published fiction from 2021 for posterity and as a record of this time for the future.

    I applied, and won a slot via a lottery. Like I said, a very unusual acceptance. So, I spent the past week putting together my digital payload, which includes seven of my novels, a few short stories, editorial letters from my first editor, the wonderful Mary Rosenblum, herself an award winning SF and mystery author, as well as photos from my life, including my time in library land, and a song for my novel Gremlin Night composed and written for me by Portland’s own nerd music trio, The PDX Broadsides. All in under 20 megabytes, too.

    I remember looking up at the Moon as a young child during the Apollo program and dreaming of going there. I won’t but my fiction will, and that’s more cool than I can say.

    Thanks for brightening another Saturday for all of us here. I loved your bathroom encounter. That’s one of a kind, a very cool encounter.

    • Good morning, Dale! I am…stunned speechless. You are The Man! Very, very few people will ever have an honor like that. Congratulations!

      Thanks so much for sharing that. Next time I see a full moon I’ll think to myself, “Yeah. I know that guy.”

      Re: Uncle Ben/Spider-Man…I have a post coming in March 2021 about Peter Parker.

  8. Cheers with you to Leonard the Great, Joe. I gave up agent-seeking after my first attempt at a novel. It was long, I’ll admit, at 115K words but I still think it was my best effort yet. One agent replied that my technical writing was great (I had paid an editor to work it) but my prose was too lengthy for commercial acceptance, therefore not good. Her advice was “Remember, more is less.” I still think she was drunk when she wrote it.

    • Thanks for sharing, Garry. I agree. She probably was drunk. Not to mention mistaken.

  9. Great post, Joe!
    I scored Dave Mason dinner concert tickets in small (?100 people), excellent acoustics venue in Mpls a couple/few years back. Dave as older rock virtuouso and truly hadn’t lost a thing from his solo days or his collaborations with Clapton, Hendrix and others. Hall of fame song writer, singer and guitar master…both great and ‘any good’.
    Your posts are often powerfully evocative, Joe.
    Thanks for triggering a wonderful memory!

    • Thanks so much, Tom, for your kind words and particularly for sharing your own experience. That was surely a terrific concert by a true legend. I’m sure that you remember the setlist better than what you ate that night!

  10. “Hallelujah” has become a megahit, mainly to people who don’t understand that it’s a gloomy, misogynistic reaction to a divorce and has absolutely nothing to do with religion except for the imagery. Then there are fans who get it.

    My own career pretty well fits the great but not good quotation. My NY traditional publishing rejections read like glowing reviews most writers dream of yet ended with “but we won’t buy it.” Small publishing was a good fit because what NY considered my weakness of not fitting their mold proved to be my selling point with readers who were bored with that mold. Talented writers who don’t fit that ever smaller NY mold are lucky to writing right now because of self-publishing.

    • A great number of people were unaware of “Hallelujah,” Marilynn, under JeffBuckley recorded it in a fashion more accessible (commercial) to people. I remember the first time I heard my younger daughter sing it in an ensemble. That was my first clue that it had reached another generation.

      I don’t know the answer, but some people question whether there is going to be a NY mold on the other side of what many are calling the pandemic. Things may look quite different, for better or worse. Thanks for sharing your own experiences.

  11. Thanks for the Cohen references, Joe. He was a familiar companion during some of my down-funk times in the ‘60s-70s.

    Regarding men’s rooms… I have a running art project photographing *empty* men’s rooms around the world. I love the stark beauty and design of their architectures and decors. I do get some strange looks, though.

    My best traditional book acceptance was after everyone else had rejected my pitch for a nonfiction How-To book about the digital imaging and printing revolution in the art and photography worlds just getting started in the early ‘00s. A tiny publisher in Cincinnati who wanted to expand finally agreed. That book ended up going through multiple printings and editions and earning the #1 spot in several top-level categories for many months. I knew I was right from the get-go, and someone finally agreed with me. Now, as an Indie, I don’t need another “someone.”

    • Harald, thanks for telling us about your work-in-progress (so YOU’RE that guy!) and your hard-won and well-earned success! That’s an inspiration for all of us!

  12. An entertaining and illuminating read! Thanks, Joe. (Leonard Cohen songs like “Suzanne” transport me back to my university days at UBC in Vancouver. So nostalgic.)

    • Thanks, Jodie! That nostalgic thing runs through a lot of us via the Cohen highway. That’s true even with the songs he released during his last days!

  13. I love Leonard Cohen! I first learned about his music as a teen in the early 90s because I read in a rock magazine that Kurt Cobain was a huge Cohen fan. As an impressionable kid, I figured Cohen was worth listening to if Cobain said so. Now, more years later than I care to admit, my ratio of listening to Cohen vs. Nirvana is easily 20-1.

    As for the great vs. good, I spend a lot of time reading brilliant books that I know didn’t and don’t sell well but, like those teen years, I found them because a mega bestseller recommended them.

    • Philip, I remember exactly where I was when I heard that Cobain died. I was in San Francisco with my teenaged at the time) sons and we were standing on Stockton Street. It was quite a shock. I seriously wonder to this day if he was listening to a Leonard Cohen album at the time.

      It has been my experience that in music and literature the best of it is that which does not sell well but still sells over time. Music? Astral Weeks by Van Morrison? Literature? The Favorite Game and Beautiful Losers by, um, Leonard Cohen.

      Thanks for sharing, Philip!

  14. Great story, Joe. The only famous person I ever met was a guy I dated in my 20’s…Jimmy “Superfly” Snuker (sic), and I had no idea who he was till a raving fan steamrolled over me to get to him. ?

    • Thank you, Sue! I remember your Snuka encounter…one question about that fan who steamrolled you… do you (or your husband) (or both) send her a thank you card every year? From Dollar Tree?

  15. Good to know we have another Leonard Cohen fan on TKZ. And lucky you for meeting him in person. What about Agatha Christie’s “Mysterious Affair at Styles” which was written in 1916 and didn’t find a publisher for FOUR YEARS. It’s still in print.

    • Thanks, Elaine. I am lucky me. For so many reasons.

      Can you imagine being the editor who rejected Agatha Christie? Or Rudyard Kipling? Or Oscar Wilde? Or James Lee Burke? Talk about having a bad day! Thanks for the reminder, Elaine!

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