In the 8/16/10 issue of PW, I read a brief obituary of agent Elaine Koster, which noted, among other accomplishments, that "in 2002, she took on Khaled Hosseini, who had been previously turned down by 30 other agents. She sold his book, The Kite Runner, to Riverhead Books in a pre-empt; it went on to sell more than 21 million copies." This is a beloved publishing trope (see J.K. Rowling, who found an agent easily enough but was rejected by twelve publishers before being signed by Bloomsbury), meant to cheer on the discouraged and to allow the enlightened to shake their superior heads sadly at the many, many ignorant people unfortunately making publishing decisions.
But, really, how do we know? Would a different agent have had the same success with Hosseini? Had Harry Potter been published by some other house, might it have flopped? (Wow, imagine what publishing today might look like had that happened.) I'm sure I've talked here before about my discussion with an editor who turned down a book that would go on to win the Caldecott Medal. She expressed no regret, saying "had I been the editor, it wouldn't have won."
Has anyone read the late Olivia Goldsmith's The Bestseller (which I don't think it was)? It was about the fortunes of five books on a publisher's list--what hit, what flopped, what surprised-- and the attendant personal drama among the authors and editors. Pulpy but engrossing, it showed me how much luck goes into the whole business. Or am I naive?