Did you know that Moby-Dick was originally rejected for publication because it had the word "dick" in the title? No? Well, that's because we just made that up. But it turns out that some of the most-read books in the world were in fact rejected for similarly preposterous reasons over the years. Take, for example ...
#5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
The Harry Potter series is, quite simply, one of the most lucrative ideas in the history of human civilization. The movies alone have made nearly $8 billion worldwide. Add in book sales and merchandising, and it's probably around $25 billion, and that's not counting the theme park. The franchise will still be making money for someone 100 years from now as it gets repackaged for generation after generation.
So surely the first editor who opened a box and saw this manuscript called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone must have immediately started shitting dollar signs, right?
Not even close.
Author J.K. Rowling might have approximately all of the money now, but things didn't start out that way. Once upon a time, Rowling was living off of government assistance, retyping complete copies of the manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to send out to publishers because she was too broke to have photocopies made. So she sent off her precious slaved-over copies of the manuscript to publishing houses, where they promptly went into the trash.
"After careful consideration, we've decided to release the hounds."
The first several publishers she tried rejected it outright, all for the same reason: It was far too long for a children's book. Now, we feel it's important to interject here that, at 320 pages for the U.S. paperback edition, the first book is the shortest of the kajillions-sold series, with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix topping out at close to three times that length. So not only was 320 pages not too much for the fragile brains of modern children, but they read six other, longer episodes -- 4,224 pages to be exact.
Anyway, deciding that she needed an agent, Rowling thumbed through a directory and chose Christopher Little because the name sounded like a character in a children's book. She shipped her manuscript off to Little's office, where it met a familiar fate: An assistant tossed it straight into the rejection pile because Little thought that children's books didn't make any money. Again, it's understandable if maybe you don't anticipate that this child wizard story would ultimately make more money than the gross domestic product of Bolivia, but it seems like it would still occur to someone that it was worth putting the thing into print just to see what would happen.
"We've decided it would work better as part of a package deal."
Eventually fate (or possibly a curse on Rowling's part, we're not sure) intervened when Rowling's illustrations caught the eye of Little's assistant while she was sending out the rejections. She convinced Little, who signed Rowling on ... at which point publishers continued to reject Harry Potter. Finally, Little shipped it off to Bloomsbury Publishing, where chairman Nigel Newton agreed to look at it as a personal favor.
Newton then did something that apparently never occurred to other children's book publishers, which was to show it to an actual child. He offhandedly tossed the manuscript to his 8-year-old daughter, who devoured it in hours and came back to him demanding more. Only at that point did someone finally decide, "Eh, let's put some copies out there. Who knows, maybe this will make us all enough money that we can each live on an island made of gold."
"I just wanted to let you know that I now legally own all your organs. Cheers!"
#4. Animal Farm by George Orwell
Familiar to anyone who's ever taken a high school English class, George Orwell's Animal Farm is the allegorical story of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Stalin era in the Soviet Union in which (spoiler alert!) Stalin and company are filthy pigs who take over a farm for the supposed benefit of all its inhabitants, only to run it according to their own hoggish desires.
If you feel the need to justify your bacon addiction, read this book.
It was a scathing and revelatory view of Stalin's regime in a time when -- thanks to Russia being an important ally in the war against the Nazis -- people still held Stalin in high regard. All of it was ingeniously presented in the form of an easy-to-digest children's book starring adorable talking animals. It's no wonder that it's now considered one of the 100 greatest novels of the last century and included in collections of The Great Books of the Western World.
Nobody had the balls to publish it.
Orwell's situation is different from some of the other authors on this list -- he wasn't some nobody living in a van in England trying to get publishers to recognize his talents. He was already well-known by the time he wrote Animal Farm. But publishers in the U.K. weren't about to touch a manuscript that criticized their main man J-Stal. Orwell suffered through several outright refusals until publisher Jonathan Cape almost pulled the trigger, but then backed out of the deal.
"We've decided to go another direction. A blubbering, candy-ass direction, specifically."
Why? Well, they consulted the Ministry of Information (an agency set up in the U.K. during the war to manage propaganda), and the guy they talked to there advised them against it. By the way, that man was named Peter Smollett, and he was later confirmed to be a freaking Soviet spy. Is it any wonder Orwell would go on to write Nineteen Eighty-Four? The dude was already living it.
The manuscript then made its way to famed poet T.S. Eliot, who was director of the publishing company Faber and Faber at the time. Eliot wasn't big on it, either -- he sent Orwell a detailed letter explaining why he thought Animal Farm had totally missed the head of the ideological nail, admitting that the novella was very well-written but that Orwell was being a bit too hard on poor old Stalin, who maybe perhaps wasn't so bad of a guy after all, you know? Eliot wrote:
"After all, your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore are the best qualified to run the farm -- in fact there couldn't have been an Animal Farm without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs."
"Oh, a reply from George Orwell, I wonder what-"
These same public-spirited pigs represented the totalitarian communist party that eventually slaughtered an estimated 6 million civilians ... yay pigs!
Four publishers passed on Animal Farm before it finally got published in 1945 -- after the war was safely over and nobody cared about pissing off Stalin anymore. And just in case our U.S. readers are feeling superior about how nervous U.K. publishers were about Orwell's masterpiece, one American publisher supposedly rejected the book on the grounds that there was no market for "animal stories" in the USA.
#3. And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street by Dr. Seuss
Dr. Seuss is to children's books as gas station taquitos are to antacid -- you just can't have one without the other. Whether you got a Dr. Seuss book as your first book as a baby (as one in four American children do) or only know him from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, the odds are overwhelming that one way or another, you ran into one of Seuss' stories before you were even old enough to read.
But before he found literary success, Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Seuss Geisel) was a writer and illustrator of advertisements, polishing up his first book on the side while trying to convince your great-grandparents to buy way more beer and bug spray at his day job. And the world came damn close to condemning Seuss to a lifetime of writing ad copy, because his first children's book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected by everyone who saw it.
"Normally the editor who reads the book explains why it was rejected, but he set himself on fire after reading it."
Think about that for a second. Dr. Seuss was rejected by 27 children's book publishers for being too silly. We're picturing a grumpy, cigar-chomping editor skimming over the work of the soon-to-be undisputed master of the illustrated children's book and saying, "What is this bullshit? Why does everything rhyme, even when it doesn't? Also, what the hell is this thing? Is it a bird? Does this clown think we're playing fucking games over here?"
"CHILDHOOD IS A SERIOUS BUSINESS!"
Now picture 26 more editors having that same reaction. "What child could ever possibly enjoy this bullshit?"
Apparently constant rejection can turn even the most lovable of men into a pyromaniac, because after this barrage of rejections, Dr. Seuss vowed to torch the manuscript. But in a coincidence that might best be described as Seussian, he bumped into an old friend, Marshall McClintock, on the very same day that McClintock had become the children's book editor for Vanguard Press. He either liked the book or maybe just felt sorry for his old friend, and he agreed to publish it.
"OK, I'll publish your book. Now give me the pictures."
Dr. Seuss' children's books have gone on to sell a mind-boggling 600 million copies.