Kerouac's first novel was sent around to a number of mainstream publishers including Scribner's, before eventually being accepted by Harcourt Brace. On the Road made the rounds of the New York publishers for nearly seven years. Ginsberg tried to place his early poetry with the prominent literary magazines Partisan Review, Commentary, and Hudson Review; his first book manuscript was sent to New Directions. Gary Snyder's early submissions to Poetry magazine all met with rejection. In his role as literary agent, Allen Ginsberg attempted to interest Ace Books in manuscripts by Burroughs and Kerouac in the late forties and early fifties. In 1955 Ferlinghetti sent his translations of French poet Jacques Prévert to New Directions for consideration. That these attempts met with resistance on the part of the publishing establishment is not surprising, for a number of reasons.
Avant-garde writing is, by definition, a deliberate departure from convention. Most established publishing houses have lists which have gradually evolved over many years and which, with some exceptions, will reflect past trends and interests. They are not generally receptive to new and innovative writing, saying with some justification that it "does not fit the list." Publishers such as Grove and New Directions will thus become the only outlet for such works, at least until the opinions voiced, or the material being written by the avant-garde, gains greater public acceptance.
The Beat writers were rejected by mainstream publishers for financial reasons as well. All unknown writers are a financial risk for a publisher, but with the Beats there was an additional significant risk: the risk of litigation due to obscenity charges. As the prosecution of Lady Chatterly's Lover, Howl, and Tropic of Cancer show, the risks were very real: Grove was almost bankrupted following its publication of Tropic of Cancer; City Lights Books was only able to defend Howl with the financial assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Charges of obscenity would hurt a mainstream publisher in other ways. Having its name splashed in headlines alongside words such as "obscenity" and "pornography" can tarnish the reputation of the house as a whole. Publishers such as Random House and Knopf, their lists solidly stocked with middle-of-the-road literature and best-selling fiction, would have refused to even consider such works as Naked Lunch, an excerpt of which had been called by a Chicago Daily News columnist "one of the foulest collections of printed filth I've seen publicly circulated." When A. A. Wyn of Ace Books decided to publish William S. Burroughs's first novel Junky (under the pseudonym "William Lee"), he was very careful to distance Ace Books from the material (Morgan 1988):
To cover himself, Wyn decided to publish Junky as an Ace paperback, coupled in the same volume with a book by a former agent of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Maurice Helbrant. This way the law enforcer and the law breaker would have equal time. The book came out in 1953 as a thirty-five-cent "two books in one." On one cover was Junky, [...] with the subtitle Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict. On the other side, upside down, was Narcotics Agent, by Maurice Helbrant, the reprint of a book first published in 1941.The alternative presses reacted differently from the more conservative mainstream houses. For Grove Press, with its reputation for scandalous literature, lawsuits in defence of censored or banned works were consistent with their image; press coverage of the trial was also publicity for the press and for the work in question. As noted above, Grove's lawsuits served to enhance their reputation as a staunch defender of freedom of expression. Litigation was thus good for business in such cases.
The Beat writers, indeed all writers emerging from the underground, were outside the publishing establishment. As Coser, Kadushin and Powell point out in their examination of American publishing (Coser 1982), it is very much who you know in the American publishing industry that determines how (and even whether) your works get published (Coser 1982):
Editors [...] preferred a personal approach - that is, having a manuscript referred by someone they knew or respected. Manuscripts submitted this way have a better chance of being published. [...] The message to authors should be clear: use whatever contacts you have.One of the few contacts for the Beat writers was Allen Ginsberg's friend Carl Solomon. In the early fifties Carl was working as an editor for his uncle A. A. Wyn, the owner of Ace Books. Even with an inside contact, publication of the Beats was not assured (Morgan 1988):
Allen hoped that Solomon could convince his uncle to publish the daring new work of his friends, and put him on to Jack Kerouac, who had not yet found a publisher for On the Road. But when Kerouac brought in the huge scroll the book was typed on in one uninterrupted paragraph, Solomon was horrified. He wanted "a James Michener-type box," something ready to got to the printer.Although Ace did eventually publish Burroughs's Junky, Allen's plans to use his contact there to get Burroughs, Kerouac, Alan Ansen, Jean Genet, and various others published, were upset when Carl had a nervous breakdown.
Allen Ginsberg took an active role in promoting the work of himself and his friends, acting as a literary agent on their behalf, courting the publishing establishment with mixed success (Miles 1989):
He had arrived in New York [in 1956] with manuscripts and books by Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, Philip Lamantia, Denise Levertov, Michael McClure, and Charles Olson, determined to extend the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance to New York. He threw himself into the task with enormous energy. [...] Allen approached Time, Life, Esquire, and the Hudson Review. Partisan Review and the Kenyon Review agreed to review some of the books he left with them. He persuaded James Laughlin, at New Directions, to include some San Francisco material in the upcoming New Directions Annual, and gave John Clellon Holmes's editor at Scribner's a big pile of books and manuscripts to look through. [...] Allen gave Louis Simpson an enormous selection of material to consider for the anthology he was editing with Donald Hall, New Poets of England and America. The fact that Simpson rejected them all is a measure of how conservative the New York establishment was.The publishing establishment began to take a greater interest in the Beat writers with the publication of Howl in 1956. The trial which eventually cleared City Lights of obscenity charges was a concrete sign that significant cultural changes were underway. The publication of On the Road in 1957 continued the momentum: the Beat Generation had entered a new stage.