As with any entertainment medium, what looks good to some might not necessarily appeal to others. And this certainly applies to book publishing, too. It’s a message to all of those writers who dream of writing a bestselling book not to be disheartened by rejection, because as this list shows, many literary classics were also rejected on more than one occasion.
Moreover, all of these titles have had a long shelf life, so it’s a shame that the publishers couldn’t see their potential at the time. Here are 20 bestselling books that were rejected by publishers before they became classics.
20. The Tale of Peter Rabbit (by Beatrix Potter)
Kicking off our merry little list of maligned classics is the beloved children’s book The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Now a bona fide staple of the kids’ literary canon, the book was initially cast aside, despite its adorable story of a mischievous rabbit. But frustrated by the constant flow of publisher rejections, author Beatrix Potter decided to self-publish the tale in 1901. And the rest, as they say, is history.
19. Frankenstein (by Mary Shelley)
Mary Shelley’s gothic/romance hybrid Frankenstein was first published in 1818, but before that the manuscript had particular trouble finding a publisher. Yes, one of the most successful novels ever written was rejected, presumably due to its author’s lack of experience – she was just 18 when she started it. However, Shelley would have the last laugh, with a book that’s still as influential now as it was 200 years ago.
18. Valley of the Dolls (by Jacqueline Susann)
The 1963 adult-centric novel Valley of the Dolls reached great heights due to the unwavering promotional methods of its writer, Jacqueline Susann. And Susann had to be persistent because publishers turned down the book in their droves. But it wasn’t just the publishers that had it in for the book either: critics hated it, too. In fact, criticisms leveled at the classic included scathing remarks like “painfully dull” and “thoroughly amateurish.” But despite all of this, the novel has since gone on to become one of the best selling books ever published.
17. The Ginger Man (by J.P. Donleavy)
Despite being lauded as one of the greatest novels of all time by the Modern Library, with sales totaling 45 million copies worldwide, J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man was rejected a whopping 35 times by publishers. Labeled as too obscene, the novel eventually wound up being published by Olympia Press as part of their pornography series. And what followed was a plethora of lengthy legal battles, with the book banned in both Ireland and the U.S.
16. Dune (by Frank Herbert)
Though it remains one of the most truly groundbreaking science fiction novels ever made, the much heralded Dune wasn’t nearly as loved by publishers first time around. Its story of a war being waged on a fictional planet fell on deaf ears 23 times, before finally seeing the light of day through Chilton Books in 1965. And author Frank Herbert consequently changed the sci-fi landscape in one fell swoop.
15. Lady Chatterley’s Lover (by D. H. Lawrence)
Another fantastic literary piece that found itself struggling to find a publisher was the explicit Lady Chatterley’s Lover – and it was the graphic use of words that put off most publishing houses. Indeed, the topic was so hotly debated that a famous 1960 British trial brought the issue of censorship to the forefront. But over 30 years after it was privately published, Penguin Books won the much-publicized case and published the thought-provoking book in its entirety.
14. Jonathan Livingston Seagull (by Richard Bach)
It would seem that the 19th time’s a charm if you’re author Richard Bach. His uplifting tale of a seagull seeking freedom in the skies didn’t initially pique publisher interests in the first 18 attempts, but it certainly piqued readers’ interests when it was finally published in 1970. And the novel has since gone from strength to strength, selling millions worldwide and remaining one of the most life-affirming books ever written.
13. Watership Down (by Richard Adams)
Another title that struggled to get picked up was the heartfelt children’s book Watership Down. In fact, author Richard Adams was so used to being disappointed by rejections that he would send his wife to pick up the copy from publishers. However, his luck changed on the eighth attempt when Rex Collins finally put the book out in 1972. And it’s now a classic bestseller.
12. The Catcher in the Rye (by J.D. Salinger)
Now a counterculture classic, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has sold over 65 million copies since its 1951 release. However, that’s not to say that the title hasn’t faced some hurdles. Quite the opposite, in fact. Indeed, Salinger faced rejections from several publishers at the start, with even his own employers at The New Yorker turning it down.
11. The Great Gatsby (by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Sometimes it takes years for novels to fully captivate audiences, and The Great Gatsby was one of those novels. The cautionary story of decadence and capturing the “American dream” was rejected by publishers like Collins and received little fanfare when it finally was published in 1925. However, the book would quickly build a reputation during the World War II era, before selling millions and becoming the focus of numerous adaptations.
10. Animal Farm (by George Orwell)
There’s no doubt about it – George Orwell was incredibly ahead of his time. So much so, in fact, that his 1945 satirical classic Animal Farm was rejected outright by top publishing outfit Faber & Faber. In a rejection letter recently brought to light, they stated, “What was needed was not communism but more public-spirited pigs.” Unsurprisingly, this didn’t stop the novel from becoming one of the most important literary pieces of the 20th century.
9. On the Road (by Jack Kerouac)
Turns out that pioneering novel On the Road was also subjected to early scrutiny from publishers. The novel would become an important landmark for the Beat Generation, but not before it was lambasted for “frenetic and scrambled prose.” Author Jack Kerouac had the last laugh, of course: the book was finally published by Viking Press in 1957 after seven long years of rejection and became a bestseller thereafter.
8. Lord of the Flies (by William Golding)
“Absurd,” “uninteresting,” “rubbish” and “dull” were some of the scathing comments made by publishers after reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. And only when it was retrieved from a bin and sold for a measly £60 did the book finally hit the shelves in 1954. Today, however, millions of sales worldwide can easily rebut those ridiculous criticisms.
7. Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller)
Few rejection letters are as hurtful as the one Joseph Heller received for his book, Catch-22. It read, “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” And so it was probably a great feeling of retribution for Heller when the book eventually got its release in 1961, eight years after he had started writing it.
6. Gone with the Wind (by Margaret Mitchell)
Gone with the Wind is another classic that you’ll be surprised to learn encountered roadblocks in the publishing process. Margaret Mitchell’s award-winning book is not without its fair share of controversy, which could be why publishers turned it down 38 times. But 30 million sales worldwide would suggest that the joke’s on them.
5. The Wind in the Willows (by Kenneth Grahame)
Labeled by one publisher as “an irresponsible holiday story that will never sell,” the now legendary The Wind in the Willows certainly wasn’t given the red carpet in the beginning. But, rather ingeniously, the book’s writer Kenneth Grahame sent a copy to President Theodore Roosevelt, who thoroughly enjoyed it. And this endorsement helped to give the work some validation at a time when it most needed it. Fast-forward to today, then, and it’s one of the most recognizable novels ever constructed.
4. The Diary of a Young Girl (by Anne Frank)
Few would disagree that Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl is one of the most painful and emotive autobiographies ever written. However, 15 publishers didn’t find it all that appealing. In fact, one even said, “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.” Millions disagreed, of course, making the 1952-published piece a monumental bestseller.
3. Lolita (by Vladimir Nabokov)
Those pioneering publishers at Olympia Press are at it again, this time for publishing the highly controversial Lolita. But with a plot revolving around a middle-aged man falling in love with a 12-year-old girl, the novel was always going to be a hard sell. As a result, it was rejected by the top publishing houses, with one even quipping, “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” Despite this, however, bookworms couldn’t get enough of the frightening tale, rocketing the sales up to 50 million as of today.
2. Moby Dick (by Herman Melville)
Changing a major plot device is something that publishers don’t mind putting forth, and Moby Dick author Herman Melville witnessed this first hand when the 1851 novel was initially rejected. Publisher Bentley & Son did themselves no favors by saying, “First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale?” That’s like saying Lord of the Rings would have been better if it wasn’t about a ring. Regardless, the book became a classic during the years that followed.
1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (by J.K. Rowling)
Shockingly, J.K. Rowling’s record-breaking Harry Potter series almost never saw the light of day. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was turned down by no fewer than 12 publishers before going on to take the literary world by storm. And judging by the franchise’s unheard-of success – it’s since sold over 450 million copies sold worldwide – it’s probably fair to say that this rejection was the biggest publishing blunder ever made.