From Rejection To Best-Sellers: Five Writings That Were Initially Turned Down

If you aspire to become a writer, then you must have thought about taking that courageous first step and sending your manuscript to a publishing house. Even though you probably nurture a sincere and intimate relationship with the written word and you dream of making it big, very often the publishing business is exactly that – a business. It’s hard to make it in a world of renowned authors, but there is always a place for you if you have a good story to tell. For this weekend’s reading, we have prepared for you a list of five best-selling books that were initially turned down (or repeatedly turned down!) by publishing houses. May they stand as a true inspiration and a reminder that you should never quit!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling
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Yes, the well-beloved Harry Potter was once rejected! Better say – not only once, but a total of twelve times! In 1995, J. K. Rowling turned to the literary agent Christopher Little, choosing him out of many others whose names she found on a list of agents she took from the Edinburgh public library. She thought his name sounded like it came from a children’s book. Little eventually accepted the offer to become Rowling’s agent, but it was not easy to get her first book published. Facing many rejections, Rowling started to lose faith, but never gave up. In the end, the Bloomsbury Publishing company decided to publish the book, although it did not predict the eventual success. The editor gave the manuscript to his 8-year-old daughter, probably thinking a children’s book should be tested through the eyes of a child. His daughter liked it so much that she wanted to read more of it. Encouraged by this response, Bloomsbury Publisher Barry Cunningham decided to publish the book. Rowling was thrilled, as she has said:

Finally, in August 1996, Christopher phoned to tell me that Bloomsbury had made an offer. I could not quite believe my ears. ‘You mean it’s going to be published?’ I asked, rather stupidly. ‘It’s definitely going to be published?! […] After Christopher had explained Barry’s proposal and I had hung up the phone, I screamed and jumped into the air. Jessica, who was sitting in her high-chair enjoying tea, looked thoroughly scared – but that was all right. You know what happened next…

At the time, Rowling was advised to keep her day job, since writing children’s books wouldn’t help her to make a living. Boy, were they wrong, eh? A beautiful and magical series of Harry Potter books made their eternal mark in the history of literature, offering tales of friendship, honor, magic, love, and adventures, giving incredible encouragement to all readers to stay strong and always evolve, learning about the boy who lived and that the context of “being normal” is nothing to be proud of:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Recently, the author shared her rejection letters for detective books she wrote under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, in order to encourage others who may be aspiring writers – not to give up.

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
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If you are familiar with the storyline of Lolita, the multiple rejections this novel received might not come as a big shock to you. It was rejected five times by American publishers, most probably because of the novel’s controversial obscenity. One of the rejection letters said that it was overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian… The whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream … I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years. Finally, the novel got published by Olympia Press in France, a publishing house that was prone to publishing this explicit type of literature and even pornographic writings, or as the author Brian Boyd said – pornographic trash. Once Lolita got published, in 1955, it sold out with a solid success and by the end of the year got its first positive review in The Sunday Times.

Lolita is a controversial love story between Humbert Humbert, a middle aged literary scholar, and 12-year-old Dolores (with a private nickname – Lolita), who later becomes his stepdaughter and then lover. The novel has sold over 50 million copies so far and is the subject of many debates today just as it was when it first appeared. Some consider it repulsive and obscene; others view it as a masterpiece. The novel opens with the famous sentence:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

What makes this novel worth reading is the way Nabokov leads his readers through the story: the sick love depicted here is not that simple and is not a one-way relationship. When Lolita initiates sex, it is hard for the readers to distinguish the roles in the storyline, as well as the motives of the characters. Lolita is dark; its story is deeply rooted in tragic things from the past; it indeed is tragic and sad, but also full of passion and with a dash of humor and absurdity. Nabokov does not make it easy for his readers: there is no such thing as a clear line between right and wrong, but rather a very blurry one. Reading this novel, you will face many situations that you have never encountered – which will leave you not knowing how to react or feeling anger, being speechless and puzzled. No matter what your aesthetic and moral values are, this book is daring as it crosses the line, telling a story that had never before been told.

Animal Farm, by George Orwell
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You may be thinking – Really, the famous Orwell’s novel was rejected, too?! Yes, it was. One of the greatest novels ever written was considered to be nothing special. Or was that the real reason?

The great allegory of society brought through a dystopian novel reflected on Stalinism and the political climate of the Soviet Union. This novel shows just how animalistic humans can be, especially in their thirst for power and wealth. The need to regulate a certain system in one society transforms into the need to rule over another and to become the one who is a bit more equal among all the equals. That is why the pigs which stood up in their clothes and grabbed their whips – are such a clear allusion to humans of this sort. There is a perverted reality in this novel, which has its roots in the reality of the mid-twentieth century. Animals are at war with humans, and they have agreed upon seven commandments so they can ensure order:


  1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
  2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
  3. No animal shall wear clothes.
  4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.
  5. No animal shall drink alcohol.
  6. No animal shall kill any other animal.
  7. All animals are equal.

Given the fact that the pigs started resembling humans too much, the difference between them becomes very subtle. This makes Orwell’s allusions quite readable.

Animal farm was rejected by many British and American publishing houses, of which the most popular one was by T.S. Eliot. This year, the rejection letter written by T.S. Eliot on behalf of the publishing house Faber&Faber was digitized and published online by the British Library for the first time, so you can read it. What do you think: was Orwell’s allegory fully understood by this publishing house? Nevertheless, due to the historical circumstances (Britain was in an alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany), publishers were not so keen on releasing Orwell’s novel. After it finally got published, Orwell said that the publishers were frightened of public opinion and he labeled it as intellectual cowardice, which according to him – was the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
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Richard Bach is a descendant of the great composer J.S. Bach and is an author of books that are mainly spiritual, with autobiographic elements. He was one of the most popular authors during the ‘70s but is a well read author today, too. Can you believe that Bach got rejected a total of 18 times for Jonathan Livingston Seagull? Some of the rejections included explanations that a seagull with a story like that would never find an audience; or that it will never make it as a paperback; or that simply nobody in Manhattan can stand it.

The allegory of the story is clear and simple: flying stands for reaching new heights in life through persistence and strength that lead us to feeling free. In his own manner, Bach tends to create a community and truly reach out to his readers. On the official website, you can read stories of readers who feel connected to this book, and you can explore how they changed themselves after reading it, or even leave your own story. Bach’s books, although simple and not voluminous by nature, turned out to be great by providing new perspectives and offering support in becoming the best person you can. Acknowledging just how special you are is an essential part of this reading experience:

But Jonathan Livingston Seagull, unashamed, stretching his wings again in that trembling hard curve – slowing, slowing, and stalling once more – was no ordinary bird. Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight — how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight. More than anything else, Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly.

A story of the seagull Jonathan Livingston revolves around the desire to want more from life and to break out of the chains of monotony and profanity that come with everyday life. Lack of meaning is overcome by chasing knowledge and staying on that quest.

Sanctuary, by William Faulkner
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This Faulkner novel was rejected several times, with comments reflecting on the lack of a plot and structure or the absence of a real story. It was also called unpublishable. And, my personal favorite: Good God, I can’t publish this. We’d both be in jail. The controversial story in this novel revolves around a topic that was (and unfortunately – still is) taboo: rape. In the core of the story are the events that lead to the abduction, abuse, and rape of a college girl named Temple Drake, from a fictional county in Mississippi, towards the end of the 1920s. Many plot twists, many characters, as well as Faulkner’s style – might make it hard for you as a reader to follow the story. But the vivid dialogue makes the book very modern and dynamic.

Temple Drake is a student at the University of Mississippi, a girl from a well-known and respected family, but with a reputation for being promiscuous. Her troubles begin when she gets involved with Gowan, a young man with an obvious drinking problem. Since the novel is set in the period of Prohibition, that fact leads to many further complications. Temple becomes a victim of criminals and is forced to serve them as a sex slave. The novel starts with a scene featuring Popeye (one of the main criminals, with a harsh temper), as he watches a professor suspiciously:

From beyond the screen of bushes which surrounded the spring, Popeye watched the man drinking. A faint path led from the road to the spring. Popeye watched the man, a tall, thin man, hatless, in worn gray flannel trousers and carrying a tweed coat over his arm – emerge from the path and kneel to drink from the spring.

Faulkner was highly self-critical and thought Sanctuary was one of his poorest works. He admitted that he aimed for the novel to be a commercial success, because he needed the money. Whatever his original motives for writing Sanctuary were, it is definitely worth your time as it will direct your attention towards a problem we all tend to look away from.

These five books have proven that publishing houses can be very wrong. There is also an interesting story about the famous journalist and writer Doris Lessing, who wrote under a pseudonym in order to prove her point: she wrote a book titled The Diary of a Good Neighbour under the name Jane Somers. The book was not that popular and received little attention, but then Lessing revealed her identity! She wanted to show how hard it is for new authors to break into the field of literature, since reputation is so important for success. This was also a way to appeal to publishing houses to be more committed and responsible when considering the works of new authors. One thing’s for certain: many publishing houses are regretting they turned down these best-sellers!

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