5 Hilarious Reasons Publishers Rejected Classic Best-Sellers
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 ...
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!"
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.
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.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
A Confederacy of Dunces is a Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy considered by many to be the funniest goddamn book ever written. There have been attempts to make it into a film for decades, with the project passing from John Belushi, to John Candy, to Chris Farley, to Will Ferrell (the latest attempt has Zach Galifianakis rumored to star, and looking at that list, it makes us worry for his life).
But the story behind how A Confederacy of Dunces got published is almost as insane as the story itself (almost). It's a shining example of how, through hard work and unyielding perseverance, anyone can make their lifelong dreams come true.
A heartwarming tale of soul-crushing rejection.
Wait, no. It's actually sort of the exact opposite of that.
In contrast to the other entries on this list, when young struggling writer John Kennedy Toole shipped his precious manuscript off to Simon & Schuster, it immediately garnered the attention of the senior editor. That senior editor was Robert Gottlieb, and while he saw the novel's potential, he also thought it wasn't quite where it needed to be. So he embarked on a string of successive requests for revisions, which Toole readily complied with because, hey, if a big-time publisher shows interest in your manuscript, you damn well do as he says. But Gottlieb eventually lost interest in the book, writing:
"With all its wonderfulness ... [the book] does not have a reason. It isn't really about anything. And that's something no one can do anything about."
"Just imagine if it were a TV show. Who would watch a TV show about nothing?"
Again, it's feedback that in retrospect probably looks silly (starting from around the time it won the Pulitzer), but the point is, Simon & Schuster didn't want A Confederacy of Dunces, and nobody else did, either.
Five years later, the author killed himself.
And thus, Toole's ingenious, future prize-winning tragicomedy that wasn't about anything was relegated to a dusty dresser drawer in his mom's house. Toole's mother then set out on a seven-year mission to get her son's work published and prove to the world that he was the genius she believed him to be. When her submissions to publishers (pretty much all of them, with the exception of Simon & Schuster) resulted in rejection, she set her sights on esteemed author Walker Percy and (quite literally) stalked the man until he agreed to read the manuscript. Percy later admitted that he'd hoped that it was so bad that he could discard it after reading a couple of pages, but he found quite the opposite to be true -- after finishing the manuscript, he penned a letter to Toole's mother filled with basically every synonym for "extraordinary."
"I'd go on, but my carpal tunnel is flaring up, so I've enclosed a grad student to pick up where I left off."
Walker became the biggest proponent for getting the novel published, and he succeeded -- 11 freaking years after Toole's suicide. The world pretty much agreed that the book was fucking fabulous and tossed Toole the posthumous Pulitzer Prize for fiction as a consolation prize. Yay.
Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen
The little book of inspirational stories Chicken Soup for the Soul launched a ubiquitous brand -- the title has not only become one of the world's best-known phrases, but also spawned an entire series of over 200 books ranging from Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul, to Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul, to Chicken Soup for the Aspiring Meth Addict's Soul, with total worldwide sales of half a billion freaking copies.
Statistically, 2 out of every 3 written words are in a Chicken Soup book.
And what's not to like? They're thin little feel-good books that anyone can buy for their sister or grandma. That shit is like printing free money. Right?
The duo behind the book, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, shopped it around to over 140 publishers, and not a single one of them wanted anything to do with it. According to Canfield:
"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?"
"The tits, man! Where are the tits?"
At one point, Hansen went so far as to collect preorders from people saying that they would buy the books. He'd walk into pitch meetings with a briefcase full of little coupons signed by guaranteed customers -- 20,000 of them -- and publishers still said no. Hey, do you know another industry in which you can present a distributor with tens of thousands of guaranteed sales and still get turned down? You probably thought we were setting up a joke there, but it's a legitimate question: Seriously, if you know, tell us.
In the end, the fate of the book came down to finding a publisher who was desperate enough. That publisher was Health Communications, a small company specializing in recovery books on subjects like alcoholism and drug addiction, and they were seriously hurting financially, because apparently no one wants to read about that stuff. When they saw Chicken Soup for the Soul, they immediately loved it and snapped it right up for a hefty advance of zero dollars. Then they watched as approximately every English-speaking person on Earth bought a copy.
"No, it's cool, we don't mind being murdered by the thousands. As long as you feel a little bit better about yourself."
And thus Health Communications was pulled back from the brink of bankruptcy, Canfield and Hansen became bajillionaires, and no one's grandmother ever had to go hurting for reading material ever again. The end.
For more fortunes found in the trash, check out 5 Pieces of Junk That Turned Out to be Invaluable Artifacts and 13 Things That Changed the World (by Getting Thrown Away).
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out The Ballsiest Living Cheater (Who Never Broke a Rule).
And stop by LinkSTORM to see why Daniel's book started out as a Teddy Roosevelt/Abraham Lincoln fanfic.
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