5 Famous Bestsellers That Were Rejected (And 50 More)

Receiving rejection slips is a pretty disheartening process, so being upbeat I thought I’d write an entire column on the matter. But instead of providing tips on how to deal with rejection (spoiler: keep on writing, keep on submitting) I’m highlighting a group of famous bestsellers that were rejected. Then, just because I know it strikes fear into LitReactor’s editorial team when they see titles like ‘and 50 more’ (don’t believe me check out Managing Editor, Joshua Chaplinsky’s comments in episode 23 of the Unprintable Podcast), I’m listing another 50 titles that were rejected. My hope is that you’ll rejoice in the despair of others and find yourselves reignited with hope. That or you’ll become a nihilist, but let’s not even contemplate that scenario…  


'Carrie' by Stephen King 

Stephen King’s first published novel, Carrie, hit the shelves on 5 April, 1974, but King’s journey to publication wasn’t as easy as you may have imagined. It was the fourth novel he had written (the first three: Rage, The Long Walk and Blaze) and even King himself rejected Carrie initially. At first Carrie was to be a short story, but after just three pages King threw it into the trash. Luckily, King’s wife Tabitha rescued the story and advised King to expand it into a novel. But that wasn’t the end of King’s misery (get it… I’m sorry, I’ll get my coat) as Carrie was rejected by thirty publishers. Amongst his rejections was the note, “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” When Doubleday Publishing agreed to publish the hardback, King was overjoyed, using his $2500 advance to move his family out of the trailer they lived in and buy a new car, but the setbacks weren’t over. Carrie only sold 13,000 copies as a hardback and King felt that sales had dried up and the book had run its course. But King was wrong, the paperback rights were soon sold to Signet Books, landing King $200,000. Carrie went on to sell over a million copies in its first year. Today King has sold more than 350 million copies of his books.

Buy Carrie from Amazon.com

 

'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley 

Although Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is now considered a classic in both literature and genre, Shelley’s journey to publication was filled with obstacles. Completed in 1817, many leading publishers were reluctant to take a chance on the twenty-year-old and rejected Frankenstein. Fortunately in March 1818 a small publishers – Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mayor, & Jones – agreed to publish Shelley’s debut, although part of the terms of publication were that Shelley’s name would not grace the cover. As with King’s Carrie, Frankenstein’s reception was initially underwhelming. Its first print run was limited to just 500 copies of which booksellers only bought twenty-five. It wasn’t until thirteen years later, in 1831, that Shelley began to enjoy commercial success. The 1831 edition is the most widely read version of the book and was heavily edited after pressure to make the story more conservative. Today Frankenstein’s Monster is one of the most iconic figures in horror history, perhaps second only to Dracula.   

Buy Frankenstein from Amazon.com

 

'Lolita' by Vladimir Nabokov 

Despite its controversies, Nabokov’s Lolita is widely considered one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Since its release in 1955 it has sold over 50 million copies, making it one of the best-selling novels of all time. It was Lolita’s taboo subject matter that made it such a tough sell to potential publishers, worried they might receive legal ramifications and public outrage. Some of the rejection letters Nabokov initially received were especially unforgiving in their criticism. Case in point: “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.” 

After receiving rejections from all of the major publishing houses, Nabokov travelled to France where he secured a deal with Olympia Press, receiving a print run of 500. Over the course of Lolita’s history it’s been published by all the major publishing houses that initially rejected Nabokov’s tale. Guess it’s good they never did find a rock big enough to bury it. 

Buy Lolita from Amazon.com

 

'Animal Farm' by George Orwell 

From one best-selling novel to another, let’s turn our attention to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Such is its popularity it is often taught in English Literature high school classes around the world. Indeed it was a key text when I was studying English Literature at GCSE well over a decade ago. As might have been anticipated the anti-Soviet material proved problematic, several publishers rejected Animal Farm for fear of upsetting relations between Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. T.S. Eliot, a director of Faber & Faber, rejected it because of its “Trotskyite politics”. Whilst Eliot applauded its "good writing" and "fundamental integrity" he contended that the Trotskyite viewpoint was unconvincing, suggesting critics might argue, "What was needed.. was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs". Orwell sent the manuscript to André Deutsch, convinced he could persuade Nicholson & Watson – who André was working for – to publish it. Unfortunately Nicholson & Watson lectured Orwell on the perceived errors in the text. Orwell received short-lived joy when Jonathan Cape agreed to publish Animal Farm, although he went on to reject it on the advice of a British Ministry of Information official. Interestingly it was revealed later that the official was a Soviet spy! It was only months after the War that Secker and Warburg agreed to publish Animal Farm. Despite many positive responses, Orwell wasn’t immune to criticism. George Soule – in New Republic magazine – said it “puzzled and saddened me. It seemed on the whole dull. The allegory turned out to be a creaking machine for saying in a clumsy way things that have been said better directly.”

Buy Animal farm: A Fairy Story from Amazon.com

 

'Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone' by J. K. Rowling 

J. K. Rowling’s debut novel has sold over 107 million copies to date, but success didn’t always appear likely. After 12 publishing rejections, it was only when Alice Newton, the eight-year-old daughter of Bloomsbury founder, Nigel Newton, demanded to read the rest of the book that Bloomsbury agreed to publish Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Unfortunately, the publishers were concerned that Rowling’s tome was a ‘boy’s book’ and persuaded her to adopt the nom de plume J. K. Rowling rather than Joanne Rowling, as per her original submission. Rowling was also advised to get a day job rather than rely on writing as a career, and given just £2,500 as an advance. We all know what happened next, the Harry Potter series has sold 450 million books, had some of the highest grossing films of all-time and has a huge following worldwide. For a ‘boy’s book’ it sure is universally enjoyed by people of all ages, genders, social classes and cultures. 


And 50 More 

  1. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
  2. A Time to Kill by John Grisham
  3. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  4. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  5. Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis
  6. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  7. Chicken Soup for Soul by Jack Canfield & Mark Victor Hansen
  8. Dances with Wolves by Michael Blake
  9. Dubliners by James Joyce
  10. Dune by Frank Herbert
  11. Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  12. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
  13. Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell 
  14. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison by Charles Shaw
  15. Jaws by Peter Benchley
  16. Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
  17. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
  18. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  19. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  20. Lorna Doone by Richard Doddridge Blackmore
  21. Lust For Life by Irving Stone
  22. MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker
  23. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  24. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
  25. On The Road by Jack Kerouac
  26. Sanctuary by William Faulkner
  27. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho 
  28. The Bell Jar by Victoria Lucas (pseudonym of Sylvia Plath)
  29. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
  30. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis 
  31. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  32. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
  33. The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank 
  34. The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck
  35. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  36. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  37. The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
  38. The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
  39. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  40. The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo by Judy Blume
  41. The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
  42. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré
  43. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  44. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  45. The War of The Worlds by H.G. Wells 
  46. The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  47. The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  48. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  49. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  50. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

Now it’s over to you. How many rejection letters have you received before publication? What’s the most brutal rejection you’ve received? How do you cope with rejection? Let’s get a conversation going in the comments section. 

Michael David Wilson

Column by Michael David Wilson

Michael David Wilson is a professional writer and editor. He is the Managing Editor and Owner of the popular UK horror website, podcast and small press, This Is Horror. He is the founder of the ancestral health website and podcast, Paleo Minds. A qualified ESL Teacher and graduate of The University of Warwick’s English Literature and Creative Writing Programme, you can connect with Michael on Twitter @WilsonTheWriter.

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