I know, it’s that tired old advice your mom has always given you: quitters never prosper; if you fall off the horse, get back on; finish what you started. But these authors are proof that just because you get rejected by a publisher or two (or three or 27) doesn’t mean you don’t have a classic on your hands.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is now studied in schools across the world. Time magazine ranked it as one of the top 100 English-language novels ever written. The book has sold more than 14.5 million copies since it was first published in 1954. And Golding won a Nobel Prize for Literature largely based on this particular work. So I bet the guy who read the original manuscript for it and declared it, “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull” spent much of his career regretting his words.
The same could be said about George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It also made Time’s list of best English-language books ever written, ranked in at #31 on the Modern Library’s List of Best 20th-Century Novels, and won retrospective Hugo award in 1996. But not only was Orwell’s classic written off (and completely misunderstood) by a publisher who noted, “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA,” Orwell’s peer and good friend T.S. Eliot was also less than impressed. Orwell sent a draft to Eliot, who responded that the writing was good, but the view was “not convincing” and that publishers would only accept the book if they had personal sympathy for the “Trotskyite” viewpoint.
Moving on to a modern classic, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Plenty of publishers took a gander at the Chosen One and decided not to choose him, including bigwigs like Penguin and HarperCollins. Jo Rowling finally decided to try a small London firm called Bloomsbury, who accepted only after the CEO’s eight-year-old daughter read the book and declared it a winner. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about all of the accolades and great commercial success that followed nearly immediately.
I’m not a big fan of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books myself, but there’s obviously an audience out there - there are now more than 105 titles under the Chicken Soup heading (including Chicken Soup for the Chiropractic Soul), they’ve been translated into 54 languages and there are more than 100 million copies in print. Who would have ever guessed that the book was turned down 33 times in a row before it found a willing publisher? Among the 33 rejections included gems like, “anthologies don’t sell,” and “too positive.”
Some authors like to get their digs in at the publishers who told them they were not marketable. e.e. Cummings, for example, couldn’t find a publisher for 70 Poems, so he borrowed $300 from his mom and printed it himself. But he got his digs in when he wrote a “poem” called “No Thanks,” arranged it to look like a funerary urn, and put it on the dedication page of 70 Poems. The “poem” consisted entirely of the publishers that had rejected him, including Simon & Schuster, Harcourt, Random House, Viking Press and Scribner.
Gone With the Wind - one of the most enduring novels and movies of all time, of course. There aren’t too many people who haven’t heard the phrase, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” But it was 38 publishers who didn’t give a damn originally. When Margaret Mitchell finally found a publisher in Macmillan (Macmillan also published White Fang and Call of the Wild), the book sold in stores for $3 apiece - quite a sum for 1936. Even at this rather high price point, the book sold more than one million copies by the end of the year. It won the Pulitzer Prize the following year, and of course became an Academy Award-winning film in 1939.
“His frenetic and scrambled prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so,” is what one publisher said about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. After it came out in 1957, The New York Times wrote a review that basically stated the exact opposite opinion: “The most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance” of the generation. At least one author agreed with the rejector’s assessment of the novel, though: Truman Capote, who said of Kerouac’s work, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
It was actually thanks to a critic that Norman Bridwell finally got published. The author of Clifford the Big Red Dog had tried multiple publishers and was told repeatedly that his dog pictures were boring and unoriginal. One editor finally told him to create a story to go along with his illustrations in hopes that the story might spark a little more interest. So he did, and less than a month later, Scholastic Books sent Bridwell a contract to publish everyone’s favorite house-sized dog.
There aren’t many teenage girls who haven’t read at least one or two Judy Blume books. But according to Blume herself, she received nothing but rejections for about two years straight. Remember Highlights for Children magazine? She repeatedly tried to get pieces published with them; they liked to send back a form letter with all of the reasons checked as to why she was rejected. “Does not win in competition with others,” was always one of the reasons. Blume says she still can’t look at Highlights without wincing.