January 25, 2013

Selling Kerouac


An AP report by Hillel Italie zooms in on the life of agent Sterling Lord, whose memoir Lord of Publishing, is just out. One of Lord’s big coups, Italie writes, was finding a publisher for Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. 

The first problem: that Kerouac had written the book on “a 120-foot scroll that he was known to unfurl on a publisher’s floor.” And though he had already published a novel, The Town and the City, he had found no takers for the new book. Lord took the book on because he “found something fresh and dynamic, a jolt to the growing conformity of the times.”

So he took the book on and suffered the rejections, including one from a Knopf editor who thought On the Road was not “saleable” or “well-made.” Kerouac was ready to give up, but not Lord. By the mid-1950s, he had sold excerpts to The Paris Review and New World Writing. Viking Press agreed to publish the novel, for an advance of $1,000. On the Road was released in 1957, The New York Times raved and Kerouac became a hero for a generation of adventurers.

As Kerouac decended into alcoholism, Lord “tried to help him, but realized that he was a literary agent and not a ‘life agent.’ And he had rarely seen the author’s darker side, reasoning that he was a parental figure for whom Kerouac remained on his best behavior.”




Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.