If you can’t handle rejection, then writing is definitely not your game. It takes a certain kind of resilience to persist with your work when everyone you send it to rejects it outright. This week, I reviewed The Martian; Andy Weir was rejected by so many literary agents that he took his destiny into his own hands and self-published his book, making it available (for free!) through his website. Now, just a few years later, he’s a best-selling author, with a film adaptation starring Matt Damon that has taken over $600 million at the box office. This is the type of “overnight success” story that was years in the making, and gives hope to struggling writers everywhere. Let’s take a look at some of the other brave souls that persisted with their rejected books and went on to be ridiculously successful.
Carrie by Stephen King
Stephen King – now a household name – received thirty rejections from publishers for his first offering, Carrie. One rejection letter read: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” King was so disheartened, he reportedly threw the manuscript in the bin… but his wife, the story goes, fished it back out and harangued him into giving it another go. Shortly after, King received a telegram that read: “CONGRATULATIONS. CARRIE OFFICIALLY A DOUBLEDAY BOOK. IS $2500 ADVANCE OKAY? THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD. LOVE, BILL.” King went on to sell the paperback rights for $40,000, and Carrie sold over a million copies in its first year… and thus launched one of the most successful literary careers of our time. It just goes to show!
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Lisa Genova sent out the manuscript for Still Alice about 100 times, by her own calculation, and often she didn’t even receive the validation of an actual rejection – many literary agents just didn’t reply to her at all. Fed up, she self-published, and eventually attracted the attention of Gallery Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster). Still Alice hit the New York Times best-seller list, and stayed there for forty weeks. Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her starring role in the film adaptation. Genova is laughing all the way to the bank! Read my full review of Still Alice here.
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
We don’t know exactly how many times The Great Gatsby was rejected by publishers, but we do know that one called it “an absurd story”, and another (bafflingly) suggested that he’d “have a decent book if [he’d] get rid of that Gatsby character”. When publishers are saying that your titular character needs to get in the bin, you’d be forgiven for thinking a career change might be in order! Still, Fitzgerald didn’t have the good sense to give up. Today, The Great Gatsby has sold over 25 million copies, been translated into 42 languages, and adapted to six successful films… not to mention being the subject of countless high-school book reports. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.
A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Madeleine L’Engle has spoken publicly about the rejections (26, count ’em!) that she received for A Wrinkle In Time. Apparently, publishers thought that the children’s book dealt “too overtly” with the problem of evil, and that it would be “too difficult” for the juvenile target market. She was 40 years old by the time a publisher finally gave her a shot. A Wrinkle In Time ended up winning the Newbery Medal, the Sequoyah Book Award, and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, as well as selling over eight million copies. It was adapted for television in 2001, and as a film in 2018.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Speaking of children’s books, J.K. Rowling has to have the best told-you-so rejection story of all time. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone actually found a literary agent relatively quickly – and it was a ray of hope for Rowling, who had written the story sitting in Edinburgh cafes while she and her daughter lived on public benefits. But despite the agent’s best efforts, the first book in the Harry Potter series was rejected twelve times back-to-back. A last-ditch effort saw them send it to an editor at Bloomsbury – and he might never have taken it on if his eight-year-old daughter hadn’t found the first chapters in his office, and nagged him for a copy of the book so that she could read it all. The rest, as they say…
… actually, that’s not all! Despite his daughter’s enthusiasm, the Bloomsbury editor recommended that Rowling “get a day job”, because the sales of Harry Potter were unlikely to pay the bills. She received an advance of just £1,500. That was in 1996; now, 22 years later, the books have sold over 450 million copies worldwide, broken records for fastest-selling books in history, and the film adaptations have grossed over seven billion dollars. Rowling’s “day job” is now roasting trolls on Twitter.
That’s not to say her journey with rejection was over. She penned The Cuckoo’s Calling, a novel for adults, under the pen name Robert Galbraith, and found herself once again on the receiving end of a bunch of rejection letters. Most editors seemed to think it was “good”, but the market too saturated to take a risk on an “unknown”. When it did get picked up, The Cuckoo’s Calling only sold about 500 copies domestically… until the true identity of the author was revealed, propelling it to the top of the amazon.co.uk best-seller list overnight.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
A popular myth suggests that Joseph Heller decided to name his satirical WWII novel after the twenty-two rejections he received from publishers. That’s not quite true, but it’s accurate in one respect – Heller did, indeed, cop twenty-two rejection letters, one of which actually said: “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” Ouch! Heller remained bitter about Catch-22’s reception for the rest of his life, because the zingers didn’t stop once it was accepted for publication. A review in The New Yorker said that Catch-22 “doesn’t even seem to have been written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper. What remains is a debris of sour jokes.” Never mind that it went on to sell over ten million copies… I guess you can’t please everyone! Read my full review of Catch-22 here.
Lord Of The Flies by William Golding
William Golding copped a respectable twenty rejections for Lord Of The Flies. One called it “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” I’m sure there’s plenty of high-school students, forced to read it for English classes, who would agree, but that’s beside the point: the book has sold over fifteen million copies worldwide, it has been adapted into four different films, and it is frequently features on lists of the best books ever written. Read my full review of Lord Of The Flies here.
Dubliners by James Joyce
Now, I can’t say I blame publishers for taking their time to warm up to James Joyce’s writing. He is, after all, notoriously difficult to read… but it would seem that they more often took issue with his “obscenity” than with his obfuscating prose. He received twenty-two rejections for Dubliners over the course of nine years, but he stuck to his guns. He wrote to one editor (in response to charges of obscenity): “I have written my book with considerable care, in spite of a hundred difficulties, and in accordance with what I understand to be the classical tradition of my art.” (Oh, yeah, he was also super humble.) When a publisher did eventually take the bait, his troubles weren’t over. They told him that he wouldn’t receive any royalties for his work unless it sold more than 500 copies. It sold 379 in the first year – Joyce having failed to game the system, even though he bought 120 copies himself. In the vein of that old unappreciated-in-his-time cliche, Joyce is now one of the most influential and regarded writers of the 20th century.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
It’s equally unsurprising that Vladimir Nabokov had a hard time finding a publisher for Lolita; after all, it’s a dark and disturbing story of obsessive love, kidnapping, and sexual abuse. One editor said of the manuscript: “It is overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian. To the public, it will be revolting. It will not sell, and will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation… I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” (Emphasis mine – I added it because damn, that’s cold!) Lolita was passed over at least five times by major publishers, forcing Nabokov and his agents to look outside the U.S. for publishing partners. Eventually, it was published (in 1955, not even a decade into that thousand years the editor demanded), and went on to sell over 55 million copies. It turns out when revolting stories are beautifully written, the public can forgive a little nausea.
Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
I’ve saved the best for last: Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance literally holds the record (the Guinness Book of World Records record, to be precise) for the most-often rejected best-seller: knocked back 121 times. Can you imagine the kind of determination it takes to persist through that storm of rejection? The editor that eventually accepted the story was quite melodramatic about it all: “It forced me to decide what I was in publishing for,” he said, and “the book is brilliant beyond belief… it is probably a work of genius and will, I’ll wager, attain classic status.” So, it would seem that wading through that sea of rejections was worth it! I’m sure Pirsig is eternally grateful to have finally found an editor that believes in his work that way.
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October 26, 2018 at 11:45 AM
I always love hearing that story about J.K. Rowling but I had no idea about the others!
October 26, 2018 at 2:05 PM
I think her story is the best-known (because, well, SHE’S so well known, haha!), but there are a lot of other authors who have been through very similar (even worse!) circumstances. Thanks so much for coming by! ❤️
October 26, 2018 at 12:01 PM
It’s great to hear these stories about authors who persevered and went on to literary success. It makes me wonder how many authors just give up too soon. Aussie author Matthew Reilly is another author who was rejected by many publishers, self-published his first novel and it was then discovered by a publisher in a bookstore who signed him up to a two book deal. Now he has gone on to mega success. I love J.K. Rowling’s story the best!
October 26, 2018 at 2:06 PM
Well, it’s like the old saying, right? The difference between an author who publishes with great success and one who doesn’t is that the former never gave up. It would surely be so easy to get discouraged and I could totally forgive any of these authors for just chucking it all after the third, fourth, fifth rejection… but I am SO glad they didn’t! ❤️
October 27, 2018 at 8:27 PM
This is s very interesting list. Many if not all of these books are great. With that, it must be a very different experience to evaluate books in a vacuum with no one else’s opinion around. I wonder how the folks who rejected these books felt after the works became a success.
October 28, 2018 at 11:42 AM
I wonder the same thing too, Brian – surely at least one or two of the people who knocked back Harry Potter got fired 😉 hahahaha.
October 27, 2018 at 10:03 PM
I love this list, some of them I was very surprised at as I had no idea the authors went through so much to get published (like Still Alice and The Great Gatsby which are two of my favourites)! It’s a wonderful dose of inspiration for budding writers too 😊
October 28, 2018 at 11:43 AM
Yes, I know! It’s hard to imagine an editor telling Fitzgerald to write out the main character, isn’t it?? 😂 Glad you enjoyed it!! ❤️
October 29, 2018 at 3:13 PM
I love that Lisa Genova self-published. I haven’t heard of many self-published books that made it big, but now I’m curious about others. Still Alice is sitting on my shelf but I haven’t read it yet–I definitely need to get to it!
October 29, 2018 at 4:06 PM
I feel like there’s one or two every couple of years. The Martian was another one, and The Joy Of Cooking, and What Colour is Your Parachute… even (gulp) 50 Shades of Grey 😉 You should definitely give Still Alice a go, I’d love to hear what you think!! (If you’re a crier, bring tissues – I’m not, but even I got a bit sniffly!)
October 31, 2018 at 6:47 PM
Some of them I know but some didn’t- like Carrie! Wow!
October 31, 2018 at 6:54 PM
I know! Can you imagine where we’d be if Stephen King had given up?!
November 5, 2018 at 1:17 PM
J.K. Rowling spends her day roasting people on Twitter. I DIED. BUT IT IS SO TRUE, AND I LOVE HER FOR IT. Her favorite target is our crappy Prez here in the U.S. I think I love that legacy more than HP. Just sayin.’
Madeline Engel was a Smithie (like me), and I find it so refreshing that her title starred OPRAH in it sooooo many years later after sooooo many rejections. That is the ultimate up yours.
I didn’t know that Still Alice was self-published (jaw dropped!), and I vaguely knew that Stephen King sold the rights for Carrie. Not that he needed the extra cash. Carrie is just brilliant. He went downhill later in life.
November 6, 2018 at 11:10 AM
LOL agreed re: JK’s tweets on Trump – her publishers should definitely put an archive of them in book form once his presidency is done, I’d buy it (heck, I’d buy a dozen of them).
November 6, 2018 at 1:31 PM
This is awesome! Goes to show how much of a pulse publishers have on the general reading public. Don’t think all that much has changed…
November 7, 2018 at 9:46 AM
Hahahaha cheers, Sarah! The more I learn about the world of publishing, the more I realise it’s all kind of a crapshoot – no one ever knows for sure (clearly!). 😀
November 19, 2018 at 8:35 PM
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, truly lovely book, every time I think about it I remember a different part.
The problem for any aspiring writers (and who isn’t) is knowing whether you’re the dross creating no hoper or the jewel whose just waiting for some understanding. And it would be feasible to waste a lot of life if you believed yourself to be the latter but turned out to be the former.
November 21, 2018 at 11:31 AM
Well I would hope that the no-hopers (ha!), if they rigorously and constantly apply themselves to learning and practicing the craft, could eventually produce something that someone, somewhere, wants to read. It’s the beauty of living on a planet of 7 billion odd people: not everyone’s going to love you, but statistically at least some of them must…! 😜😆
October 6, 2021 at 11:32 AM
The Great Gatsby was reported to have been rejected 121 times, and F. Scott Fitzgerald had them all pinned to the wall.
October 9, 2021 at 7:15 PM
Hahahaha good on him!