Anyone who has ever wanted to work in a creative field, be it writing, painting or playing music has been told they’d better develop thick skin. After all, it doesn’t matter how good you are, someone will always be there to tear you down. It’s hard to think of a better example of this than to look at some rejected books that would later become some of the best-selling titles in the world. From the Twilight saga to Anne Frank’s Diary, the success of these books shows that even people paid to evaluate the commercial potential of a work of art sometimes underestimate the most valuable titles.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita is one of the best-selling novels of all time, with over 50 million copies sold since its debut in 1955. When Nabokov was shopping the title around though, he had a hard time finding anyone willing to publish it because so many publishers were worried about getting tried for obscenity as soon as they touched it.
One rejection letter even went so far as to inform the author, “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.” Ahem.
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maude Montgomery
Sure, this classic tale has now sold over 50 million copies, but Montgomery received four rejection letters before getting her first novel accepted for publication in 1908. Of course, the publishing industry has only gotten more competitive since. Can you imagine a childhood without everyone’s favorite Anne with “e” or her “bosom friend” Diana?
The Ginger Man by James Patrick Donleavy
Donleavy’s first novel was considered so risqué that he was rejected by over 35 publishers before Olympia Press finally agreed to publish the story in 1955. Unfortunately, this was hardly the end of the author’s struggles, as Olympia originally published the novel as part of a pornographic line of books. The author ended his agreement with the company, but when he published a less offensive version of the book with another publisher a year later, Olympia sued and the resulting legal battles lasted until 1979, when Donleavy finally bought the company after it went into bankruptcy.
The author’s dedication to his work paid off though. In the end, the novel has sold over 45 million copies and since it was first published in its entirety in 1965, it has never gone out of print despite being banned in Ireland and the US for obscenity.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
Despite its having sold 40 million copies since 1970, publishers originally thought that the concept of a book being told from the point of view of a seagull was simply ridiculous. As a result, Jonathan Livingston Seagull was rejected a total of eighteen times.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
These days, Anne Frank has one of the best-known holocaust stories and the book has sold 30 million copies around the world. Surprisingly, the tale wasn’t too popular with publishers though, and was rejected sixteen times. One publisher even noted the story was barely worth reading because, “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
Before it sold over 30 million copies and was made into a blockbuster film, Sussan’s most famous work was rejected by ten different publishers, largely due to its taboo themes of sex, drugs, and alcohol abuse. Of course, the rejections didn’t only deal with the subject matter, one editor who looked at the manuscript critiqued, “She is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer whose every sentence, paragraph and scene cries for the hand of a pro.”
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Sure, it launched an empire that resulted in the sale of 450 million books and some of the highest grossing films of all time, but if Rowling wasn’t so dedicated to the book’s first installment, none of that would have happened. That’s because she received eight rejection letters before Bloomsbury agreed to print the story. Really though, the true credit in this tale goes to Alice Newton, the eight-year-old daughter of the publisher’s chairman, who read the first chapter and insisted her father get a hold of the rest of the story as soon as possible.
Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen
These days, everyone is familiar with the Chicken Soup series. In fact, it seems there is a chicken soup title for just about everyone’s soul, from prisoners to preteens to golfers. In a little under three decades, the title has become the best-selling non-fiction series in the world, selling over 130 million copies.
Before the series launched though, Canfield and Hansen were rejected by over 100 publishers. Canfield once reminisced on these not-so-good times, noting, “The first time we went to New York, we visited with about a dozen publishers in a two day period with our agent, and nobody wanted it. They all said it was a stupid title, that nobody bought collections of short stories, that there was no edge — no sex, no violence. Why would anyone read it?”
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Say what you will about the Twilight books, the fact is that they are some of the most popular books of the millennium, selling over 116 million in a little over five years. Meyer and her novel were rejected by a fourteen literary agents before Jodi Reamer of Writers House took on the unknown author. Luckily for the author, that was the end of her publication problems as eight different publishers competed for the rights to the story in a 2003 auction.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Orwell’s second best-selling novel behind 1984 was rejected four times before going on to sell 20 million copies. The main problem Orwell faced was the simple fact that his book critiqued communism while the USSR was a critical ally of the UK during WWII. What is truly interesting about this novel’s rejection though is the fact that author T.S. Eliot wrote one of the rejection letters himself, explaining “We have no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticize the political situation at the current time.”
It wasn’t until a few months after the war ended that Orwell was able to secure a publisher for the story. The rest is literary history.