40 Famous Manuscripts That Were Rejected At First

It is one of the weird quirks of literature that people who don’t necessarily have the skills to write epic masterpieces themselves are put in charge of deciding what gets published and what gets canned. No doubt they have a difficult job and they correctly weed out much material that does not need to be inflicted on the public. And yet, from time to time, editors make some of the absolute worst decisions that future generations look back on and say, “What on earth were they thinking?” Persistence paid off for the authors of these 40 manuscripts who refused to take no for an answer and were rewarded in the end.

  1. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole: The Pulitzer Prize-winning, cult classic novel was rejected by multiple publishing companies, including, famously, Simon & Schuster. In despair of ever getting it printed, Toole (New Orleans, LA) committed suicide.
  2. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling: The first Harry Potter book was turned down by multiple publishers, including Penguin and HarperCollins.
  3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig: This incredibly well-known book only exists thanks to the persistence of its Minneapolis-born author, who endured more than 120 rejections before finding a publisher.
  4. Watership Down by Richard Adams: Now Penguin Books’ best-selling novel ever, Richard Adams’ classic story was rejected by 13 publishers, some of whom later sent him “groveling letters.”
  5. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter: Upon seven publishers declining to give her a book deal, Ms. Potter published her book herself. More than 150 million copies have been sold since.
  6. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer: Of the 15 manuscript copies Meyer sent out, nine were rejected and five had no response. Only one (wise) company wanted to meet with the young author from Hartford, Connecticut.
  7. Animal Farm by George Orwell: If T.S. Eliot had had his way, Animal Farm would never have seen the light of day. As the head of publisher Faber and Faber, Eliot called the manuscript “unconvincing.”
  8. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: Twenty-six publishers wish they could travel back in time and not reject this beloved children’s book that has sold 10 million copies in the U.S. alone.
  9. The Help by Kathryn Stockett: Kathryn Stockett, born in Mississippi, was fanatical about getting an agent to represent her and her book The Help, even working on her manuscript while in labor with her daughter. Finally, after 60 no’s, she got her “yes.”
  10. Carrie by Stephen King: The prolific Maine writer got so many no’s (30) for his first attempt at a novel he threw it in the trash. Luckily his wife fished it out.
  11. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: One publisher’s rejection letter said this book was “not funny on any intellectual level.” Today the book is recognized as one of the best novels of all time and the title itself is a household phrase.
  12. Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach: This short fable about a seagull by a retired Air Force pilot was rejected 40 times before an editor at Macmillan took it under her wing and helped it become a classic.
  13. Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen: Canfield and Hansen heard from 123 publishers that their book had a stupid title, had no sex or violence, and no one would read it.
  14. The Shack by William P. Young: Publishers either found this book too Christian or not Christian enough. So 15 photocopied editions led to a self-publishing company and eventually 15 million copies sold.
  15. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell: Nearly 40 publishers wished they had given a damn about Mitchell’s Civil War drama when it grossed more than $1 million and won a Pulitzer in its first year.
  16. MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker: We never would have had one of the greatest TV shows in history if Richard Hooker had been deterred by the 21 publishers who turned down his book.
  17. Dune by Frank Herbert: More than 20 foolish publishers turned down Frank Herbert’s classic that would become the highest-selling science fiction novel of all time, at more than 12 million copies sold worldwide.
  18. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein: Stein’s only bestseller received a famous, rude rejection letter from a publisher who turned her down by mocking her trademark style of repetition of simple sentences.
  19. A Time to Kill by John Grisham: On his way to becoming a master novelist, Grisham’s, an Arkansas native, first book racked up rejections from 16 literary agents and 12 publishers before landing a deal.
  20. Lord of the Flies by William Golding: Although Faber & Faber would eventually publish the book, the first reviewer called this book “rubbish and dull” and “pointless.”
  21. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: Rand was already a successful writer when her publisher, who had first rights to her new book, declared it “unsaleable and unpublishable.” The book has since been called the second most influential book ever, behind only the Bible.
  22. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank: As crazy as it sounds, 16 publishers declined to buy the story of Anne Frank’s experiences in World War II. Doubleday’s risk paid off as the book has sold more than 30 million copies to date.
  23. Moby Dick by Herman Melville: Publishers initially told Melville his long book about whaling was “not at all suitable for the juvenile market.” Ninth-graders everywhere wish he had listened.
  24. Dubliners by James Joyce: Because of the edgy content, this classic by James Joyce was not an easy sell. He was shot down 22 times before landing a deal with Grant Richards Ltd.
  25. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le CarrĂ©: Now known as one of the finest novels of the genre, one publisher rejected the book while saying of le CarrĂ©, “He hasn’t got any future.”
  26. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: One publisher said of this book, “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” If it had been, one of the best books of all time would have been lost.
  27. The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy: Alec Baldwin should thank Tom Clancy for being persistent. Without Clancy believing in his book through 12 rejections, there never would have been the bestseller or the great movie.
  28. On the Road by Jack Kerouac: The book that defined a generation went through a seven-year gauntlet of rejection from publishers who were put off by the book’s talk of sex and drugs.
  29. Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl: Twenty rejections from publishers didn’t stop this true account of men adrift at sea from making it into book form in 66 different languages.
  30. Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis: Auntie Mame was on the receiving end of 15 rejection letters for being too outrageous, but it became a bestseller, selling 2 million copies in its first run.
  31. The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling: Kipling’s timeless story was rejected multiple times, with one publisher commenting that Kipling did not even understand the English language.
  32. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel: It would later rack up awards like the Booker Prize, but The Life of Pi met with unbelievers at five publishing houses before breaking through.
  33. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs: At first, publisher Olympia Press turned down Burroughs’, from Missouri, book as too controversial. However, when excerpts were sent through the mail and the postmaster general called it obscene material, all the attention got Olympia interested again and they agreed to print the book.
  34. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein: In a classic case of getting it exactly wrong, editor William Cole rejected this beloved children’s book because he thought it fell in between the interests of kids and adults and wouldn’t sell.
  35. Dances with Wolves by Michael Blake: Michael Blake, born in North Carolina, lived out of his car while struggling to finish Wolves, and then every major publisher rejected it. Of course, lucky for him, a young man named Kevin Costner found a copy and the rest is history.
  36. Lust for Life by Irving Stone: On its winding road to selling 25 million copies, Lust for Life was denied 16 times by publishers, with one calling it “a long, dull novel about an artist.”
  37. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery: Countless girls read this book or watched the made-for-TV movie based on it. But Montgomery was turned down by five publishers before securing a book deal.
  38. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende: On the advice of a receptionist at a publishing house, whose company she told Allende would never publish the book, Allende found an agent who helped her sell it despite “nobody” wanting to read it.
  39. Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes: This moving short story that has been made into movies, plays, and TV shows almost never saw book form. It was rejected by five publishers over the course of a year.
  40. The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot: Cabot, from Indiana, says her novel was rejected by “almost every publishing house in America.” But she persevered and the book and its sequels have sold millions of copies and been translated to the silver screen.

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