Here is a challenge for you. Think of five writers that inspired you in your lifetime, and then look at the 23 writers below. How many of the ones you named—and think to this day are the most awesome literary geniuses ever—or at least the great reads of our day were rejected? Most were rejected not just multiple times, but dozens of times. Take heart in this fact – success won’t happen overnight, and rejection is a reflection of current market trends and publisher’s workloads as much as anything else. Stay true to your craft and be persistent! Envision the day you are at your own book signing with all this hard work and uncertainty behind you.
- 1. Chinua Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart, was rejected by several London publishers on the argument that books from African writers wouldn’t sell. Heinemann took it on after some initial hesitation, and the novel has now sold more than 8 million copies in 50 languages.
- 2. Richard Adams’ Watership Down received 17 rejections before it was picked up by a one-man publishing firm. “Do you think I’m mad?” Rex Collings wrote to a friend before taking a risk that paid off big for both him and Adams.
- 3. Judy Blume got nothing but rejections for the first two years of her writing career. She says the rejections from Highlights for Children were so embarrassing that the sight of a copy of Highlights still makes her wince.
- 4. John le Carré had published two novels before The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, but the editor who rejected his latest manuscript believed the writer hadn’t “got any future.” The novel became a bestseller and one of his most famous works, along with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
- 5. E.E. Cummings not only had difficulty getting his first book published but also, after several publications, self-published six volumes of his work in the 1930s when he was unable to get them published any other way.
- 6. William Golding published his first novel, Lord of the Flies, after 21 rejections.
- 7. Zane Grey’s first experience getting paid for what he scribbled came when he sold a short story for ten dollars in 1902. His first novel, written the following winter, was not as successful, and when every publisher he submitted to rejected the work, his wife paid to have it published. The book did not turn a profit. If Grey was discouraged by this, he luckily got over the discouragement enough to become a prolific and widely-read author. The sales of his 90 or so books have exceeded 40 million copies.
- 8. Frank Herbert first published his seminal work Dune in installments in Analog magazine, but when he tried to sell it as a novel he received twenty or so rejections from major publishers. One editor wrote prophetically in his rejection, “I may be making the mistake of the decade, but…”
- 9. Tony Hillerman, an award-winning and bestselling author known for his Navajo Tribal Police series of mystery novels, was advised “to get rid of all that Indian stuff” by an editor who rejected The Blessing Way. That editor may have missed the point, but an editor at Harper & Row didn’t make the same mistake.
- 10. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road became the defining novel of the Beat generation, but an editor who rejected the manuscript wrote, “I don’t dig this one at all.”
- 11. Stephen King sounds downright proud of the number of times he was rejected as a young writer. In his On Writing, he says he pinned every rejection letter he received to his wall with a nail. “By the time I was fourteen,” he continues, “the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”
- 12. Ursula K. Le Guin has preserved for posterity a rejection letter in which an editor calls The Left Hand of Darkness “unreadable.” Being kind, she has withheld the editor’s name, and presumably this unnamed editor was already pretty embarrassed when the novel went on to win a Nebula Award in 1969 and a Hugo in 1970.
- 13. Jack London, rather like Stephen King, kept his rejection letters impaled on a sort of spindle. The impaled letters eventually reached a height of four feet.
- 14. L.M. Montgomery was so discouraged by a string of rejections that she put the manuscript of Anne of Green Gables, her first novel, away in a hat box for two years. When she took it out again, she found a publisher within a year and a little later her novel was a bestseller.
- 15. George Orwell was rejected by no less than T.S. Eliot, then editorial director at Faber & Faber, who wrote in a letter in 1944 that Animal Farm could “keep one’s interest” but as political allegory it was “not convincing.”
- 16. Robert M. Pirsig weathered an amazing 121 rejections before selling Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book now considered an American cultural icon.
- 17. Sylvia Plath was an established poet when she sent The Bell Jar out under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. An editor Knopf rejected it twice: once with no knowledge of who the author actually was, and once with the knowledge of her identity. The editor wrote that Plath’s name “added considerably to [The Bell Jar’s] interest,” but “it still is not much of a novel.”
- 18. Beatrix Potter decided to self-publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit after rejection letters started to pile up. The original run was 250 copies; the book has now sold over 45 million copies.
- 19. J.K. Rowling, the great literary success story, failed to sell Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to 12 different publishers until the daughter of an editor at Bloomsbury Publishing took an interest in it. Harry Potter is now worth at least $15 billion.
- 20. Dr. Seuss suffered through 27 rejections when trying to sell his first story. He gave the credit for finally selling And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street to the sheer dumb luck of running into a friend who worked in publishing on the street.
- 21. Gertrude Stein’s poetry may be famously idiosyncratic, not to say esoteric, but it didn’t stop her from becoming a pioneering Modernist writer and a central figure of the “Lost Generation.” Neither was she apparently hindered by the editor who parodied her style in his rejection letter, telling her that “hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.”
- 22. Kathryn Stockett was turned down by 60 literary agents before she found someone willing to represent The Help. “Three weeks later,” she says, “we sold the book.” The Help later spent 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
- 23. H.G. Wells received a note in which the editor predicted, “I think the verdict would be, ‘Oh, don’t read that horrid book.’” Nevertheless, The War of the Worlds was published in 1898 and has not since gone out of print.
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