Some writers continually submit the same manuscript until it is accepted. Others chose to do a more polished draft before sending it out again. A select few learn from the lessons of submissions, to write a completely new book.
What they all have in common is a persistence to never give up on their dream; a dream that has elevated them from writer, to best-selling author.
They have written some of the most critically praised and commercially successful books of all time. In some cases their enormous sales were so consistent that they even kept their publishers afloat.
Yet in spite of this phenomenal success, every single one of these best-selling authors was initially rejected. Literary agents and publishers informed them in an endless stream of rejection letters that nobody would be interested in reading their book.
Here is an extenstive collection of the some of the biggest errors of judgement in publishing history.
After 500 rejections spanning just 4 years, the writer finally lands a publishing deal: Agatha Christie. Her book sales are now in excess of $2 billion. Only William Shakespeare has sold more.
The Christopher Little Literary Agency receives 12 publishing rejections in a row for their new client, until the eight-year-old daughter of a Bloomsbury editor demands to read the rest of the book. The editor agrees to publish but advises the writer to get a day job since she has little chance of making money in children’s books. Yet Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling spawns a series where the last four novels consecutively set records as the fastest-selling books in history, on both sides of the Atlantic, with combined sales of 450 million.
“Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.” A rejection letter sent to Dr Seuss. 300 million sales and the 9th best-selling fiction author of all time.
“You have no business being a writer and should give up.” Zane Grey ignores the advice. There are believed to be over 250 million copies of his books in print.
140 rejections stating “Anthologies don’t sell” until the Chicken Soup for the Soul series by Jack Canfield & Mark Victor Hansen sells 125 million copies.
After collecting 800 rejection slips, the author eventually lands a publishing deal. Such is the demand for his fiction that it is translated into over 47 languages, as The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis goes on to sell over 100 million copies.
“It is so badly written.” The author tries Doubleday instead and his little book makes an impression. The Da Vinci Code sells 80 million.
After two years of rejections stating that her fiction would have no readership, Reilly and Lee agree to publish The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo, launching the career of the best-selling author Judy Blume. Combined sales: 80 million.
Having sold only 800 copies on its limited first release, the author finds a new publisher and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho sells 75 million.
“We feel that we don’t know the central character well enough.” The author does a rewrite and his protagonist becomes an icon for a generation as The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger sells 65 million.
5 publishers reject L.M. Montgomery‘s debut novel. Two years after this rejection, she removes it from a hat box and resubmits. L.C. Page & Company agree to publish Anne of Green Gables and it goes on to sell 50 million copies.
“I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” Shunned by all the major publishers, the author goes to France and lands a deal with Olympia Press. The first 5000 copies quickly sell out. But the author Vladimir Nabokov now sees his novel, Lolita, published by all those that initially turned it down, with combined sales of 50 million.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter was rejected so many times she decided to self-publish 250 copies. It has now sold 45 million.
“Nobody will want to read a book about a seagull.” Richard Bach‘s Jonathan Livingston Seagull goes on to sell 44 million copies.
“Undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer.” But Jacqueline Susann refuses to give up and her book the Valley of the Dolls sells 30 million.
Margaret Mitchell gets 38 rejections from publishers before finding one to publish her novel Gone With The Wind. It sells 30 million copies.
“The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.” Perhaps the most misguided literary critique in history. With a further 15 rejections, there remained little hope her personal thoughts would see the light of day. Eventually, Doubleday, bring the translation to the world, and The Diary of Anne Frank sells 25 million.
“A long, dull novel about an artist.” Publisher rejects Lust For Life by Irving Stone. 25 million sales.
“An irresponsible holiday story that will never sell.” Rejection of The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame. The novel did sell: 25 million copies worldwide.
Thor Heyerdahl believes his book Kon-Tiki: Across The Pacific is unique. 20 publishers disagree. The 21st takes it on and sells 20 million: one for each rejection.
Despite 14 consecutive agency rejections Stephenie Meyer‘s Twilight goes on to sell 17 million copies and spends 91 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
“An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” Rejection letter sent to William Golding for The Lord Of The Flies. 15 million sales.
After 20 rejection letters, WM Paul Young self-publishes his novel The Shack. 15 million sales and a cultural phenomenon.
Three years of rejection letters are kept in a bag under her bed. The bag becomes so heavy that she is unable to lift it. But Meg Cabot does not dwell on the failure. Instead she keeps sending her manuscript out. It gets taken on and The Princess Diaries sells 15 million copies.
“Too radical of a departure from traditional juvenile literature.” L. Frank Baum persists and The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz sells 15 million.
26 publishers reject A Wrinkle in Time. It wins the 1963 Newbery Medal and becomes an international best-seller. 8 million sales and counting.
After 25 literary agents reject her debut manuscript, she mails it unsolicited to a small publisher in San Francisco, MacAdam/Cage. They believe it is a classic. Upon publication, the world agrees. Translated into over 33 languages and adapted into a movie, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger sells 7 million copies.
To deal with publisher rejections, Hugh Prather decides to write a book about them in his early struggles and Notes To Myself sells 5 million.
To prove how hard it is for new writers to break in, Jerzy Kosinski uses a pen name to submit his bestseller Steps to 13 literary agents and 14 publishers. All of them reject it, including Random House, who had published it.
“It was rejected 60 times. But letter number 61 was the one that accepted me. Three weeks later we sold the book to Amy Einhorn Books.” Kathryn Stockett on the worldwide best-seller: The Help.
Rejected by publishers, Ruth Saberton leaves her 400 page manuscript Katy Carter Wants a Hero on the holiday home doormat of Richard and Judy in Cornwall. They love the book so much that their recommendation secures a publishing deal with Orion.
“Frenetic and scrambled prose.” Viking Press disagree, and publish one of the most influential novels of all time. Since 1957 it has regularly sold at least 60,000 copies every year. Which has seen On The Road by Jack Kerouac, become a multi-million best-seller.
“An endless nightmare. I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.” Publisher rejects The War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells. It is soon published in 1898, and has been in print ever since.
“Our united opinion is entirely against the book. It is very long, and rather old-fashioned.” Publisher rejects Moby Dick by Herman Melville. It is later published by Harper & Brothers, who release a first print run of 3000 copies. Only 50 of these sell during the author’s lifetime.
After 22 rejections, Dubliners is finally published. But it only sells 379 copies in the first year. James Joyce bought 120 of them.
“An absurd story as romance, melodrama or record of New York high life.” Yet publication sees The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald become a best-selling classic.
“Stick to teaching.” Louisa May Alcott refuses to give up on her dream. Little Women sells millions, and is still in print 140 years later. Unlike the name of the publisher who told her to give up.
Rejected by leading publishers, the 21-year-old finally persuades a small publishing company Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, to take a chance on her debut. They agree, but do not put her name on the cover, and only print 500 copies in 1818. Booksellers only bought 25 of them. Despite a named credit in 1822, sales did not improve, until a 3rd edition was published by Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley in 1831. Word of mouth combined with some of the finest prose ever written in the genre, quickly sees Frankenstein by Mary Shelley become a best-seller.
“I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” Publisher rejects Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, a novel believed to have been given its name because it was the 22nd publisher, Simon and Schuster, who agreed to take it on. To date: 10 million sales.
“Older children will not like it because its language is too difficult.” On Watership Down by Richard Adams, one of the fastest-selling books in history.
“We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” Stephen King’s Carrie sells 1 million in the first year alone.
With 23 rejections, Frank Herbert finally lands a publisher, and Dune becomes the best-selling science-fiction novel of all time.
31 publishers in a row turn down The Thomas Berryman Number. It wins the Edgar for Best Novel becoming a best-seller for James Patterson. An author with 19 consecutive number #1′s on the New York Times best-seller list and sales of 220 million.
16 literary agencies and 12 publishers reject A Time To Kill. Its modest print run of 5000 quickly sells out, as it goes on to become a best-seller for its author: John Grisham. Combined sales of 250 million.
Despite 17 rejections Patrick Dennis in 1956 becomes the first author in history to have 3 books ranked on the New York Times best-seller list at the same time. He had worked through publishers in alphabetical order. The one that finally agreed to take him on: Vanguard Press.
“It’s Poland and the rich Jews again.” Editor at Alfred A. Knopf publishing house rejects Isaac Singer. His book Satan in Goray becomes a best-seller, and the author himself later wins the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.
30 publishers tell Laurence Peter that his book The Peter Principle will never sell. In 1969, a mere 18 months later it is a number #1 best-seller.
Alex Haley writes for eight years and receives 200 consecutive rejections. His novel Roots becomes a publishing sensation, selling 1.5 million copies in its first seven months of release, and going on to sell 8 million. Such is the success that The Pulitzer Prize award the novel a Special Citation in 1977.
Taking on the advice of his 76 rejections Jasper Fforde writes a new book The Eyre Affair and it becomes an instant New York Times best-seller.
“Utterly untranslatable.” Jorge Luis Borges tries a different publisher. He wins 50 Literary Prizes and dies with his books in many languages.
“We suggest you get rid of all that Indian stuff.” Publisher to Tony Hillerman, on his best-selling Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels.
Rejected by all publishers in the UK and US, the author self-publishes his novel in Florence, Italy, using his own press in 1928. After being banned for nearly 30 years, Grove Press publish the controversial work in 1959. A year later Penguin finally launch the UK edition. The book quickly sells millions, as Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence becomes a worldwide best-seller.
Her literary agent believes in her. The publishers of New York do not. So Emily Giffin flies to London to write Something Borrowed and it becomes a New York Times best-seller.
“Rejection slips could wallpaper my room.” Dennis Kimbro on Think and Grow Rich: A Black Choice used in seminars throughout the US.
Despite initial rejections, E.C.Osondu persists with his book Waiting and it wins the 2009 African Booker.
Rejected by everyone except Heinemann. Chinua Achebe‘s Things Fall Apart becomes the most widely-read book in modern African literature.
“I rack my brains why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.” French editor rejects Remembrance of Things Pasts by Marcel Proust. Now regarded as a literary classic, its word count would be a challenge for any editor: 1.5 million – making it the longest novel in the history of literature.
“We found the heroine boring.” Mary Higgins Clark switches genre to suspense and her second book gets a $1.5 million advance. She is now on a $60 million book deal.
“This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.” Publisher rejects Crash by J.G. Ballard. The author immediately declares this as sign of “complete artistic success.” The novel goes on to inspire countless songs, and the film adaptation wins the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996.
The E.E. Cummings best-seller The Enormous Room has a dedication page ‘With No Thanks To’ all 15 publishers who turned it down.
“He hasn’t got any future.” Yet, publication of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold leads to its author, John le Carré, having one of the most distinguished careers in literary history.
“Hopelessly bogged down and unreadable.” The 1968 letter from an editor did not deter the author, Ursula K. Le Guin, as her book The Left Hand of Darkness goes on to become just the first of her many best-sellers, and is now regularly voted as the second best fantasy novel of all time, next to The Lord of the Rings.
After 21 rejections, Richard Hornberger switches to the pseudonym, Richard Hooker, and his debut novel becomes a phenomenal publishing success, spawning an Oscar-Winning Film Adaptation, and one of the most watched Television shows in history: M*A*S*H.
“Good God, I can’t publish this.” So it finds itself at the offices of publishers Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith instead, who immediately spot the talent of its author, and in 1931 propel him and his controversial debut, Sanctuary, into the literary limelight. The author, William Faulkner, goes on to become one of the most critically praised novelists of all time.