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Bestselling Books That Were Rejected Or Banned Before They Became Classics

Long before the days of cancel culture, there were bans. And one of the biggest targets of those wielding the power was — and still is — books. Even the most seemingly benign stories have been preyed upon, from illustrated children’s tales to a fable about a seagull learning to fly. No author is safe from the harsh critics who seek to silence their words. And let this be a message to all authors who dream of writing a bestseller not to be disheartened by rejection. Because as this list shows, even literary classics fall prey to being banned or rejected — and some more than once, too. Read on to discover some of the world's most beloved books that were banished before they became bestsellers.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter

“There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they'll take you.”

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.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence

“There's lots of good fish in the sea...maybe...but the vast masses seem to be mackerel or herring, and if you're not mackerel or herring yourself, you are likely to find very few good fish in the sea.”

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, which lifted the ban. They went on to publish millions of copies of the thought-provoking book in its entirety.

Dune, Frank Herbert

“Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.”

Though it remains one of the most truly groundbreaking science fiction novels ever made, Dune wasn’t nearly as loved by publishers the first time around. Its story of a war being waged on a fictional planet fell on deaf ears a staggering 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.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”

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 over 200 years ago.

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

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 the title hasn’t faced some hurdles. Quite the opposite, in fact. Salinger faced rejections from several publishers at the start, with even his own employers at The New Yorker turning it down. Salinger’s classic has been banned in various places through the years, for reasons including its use of profanity, sexual themes, and a theory that it was part of “an overall communist plot.”

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

Sometimes it takes years for novels to fully captivate audiences, and The Great Gatsby was one of those books. 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.

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

“Until you’ve lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is.”

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 more than 30 million sales worldwide would suggest that the joke’s on them. Despite its success, Mitchell's beloved novel was still banned by a California school district for its representation of slavery.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K. Rowling

“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

Shockingly, J.K. Rowling’s record-breaking Harry Potter series almost never saw the light of day. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer'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 500 million copies worldwide — it’s probably fair to say that this rejection was the biggest publishing blunder ever made. What's more, hordes of people rallied against the book even after it had been published, stating “witchcraft, the occult, and anti-family themes” as the reasons for their distaste.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac

“A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.”

Turns out that the 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. That didn't stop the book from being challenged throughout the States, though.

Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann

“Never judge anyone by another's opinions. We all have different sides that we show to different people.”

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.

The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy

“I have caught my neck in a mangle and will be indisposed for eternity.”

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 the U.S., France, Ireland, and Australia

Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach

“Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly.”

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.

Watership Down, Richard Adams

“He fought because he actually felt safer fighting than running.”

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. Although never banned nationally in the U.S., individual schools have chosen not to include the book in their curriculum for its violence.

Animal Farm, George Orwell

“The only good human being is a dead one.”

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.

Lord of the Flies, William Golding

“I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they are far superior and always have been.”

“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. As for being banned, the novel has been avoided in schools. Namely for its anti-authoritarian messaging and violence. Today, however, millions of sales worldwide can easily rebut those early criticisms.

Catch-22, Joseph Heller

“Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.”

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. Still, the text has faced multiple problems with schools claiming that the misogyny, violence, and racism are not suitable for their shelves.

The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

“Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.”

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.

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”

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. In 2013, however, Frank's diary faced yet another hurdle — this time in the form of a heated censorship battle started by a furious Michigan mother. A passage in the "definitive" version includes a detailed description of the female anatomy that the mom felt wasn't suitable for seventh graders to be reading about.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

“Human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.”

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.” Given the subject matter, it's not a surprise to learn that the text was banned in countries the world over. Even so, bookworms couldn’t get enough of the frightening tale, rocketing the sales up to more than 50 million as of today.

Moby Dick, Herman Melville

“I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing.”

Changing a major plot device is something that publishers don’t mind putting forth, and Moby Dick author Herman Melville witnessed this firsthand 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.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

“But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow; even darkness must pass.”

In terms of literary contributions, J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy series is incredibly significant. In fact, it transcends “series” altogether; The Lord of the Rings is just one of a trilogy of novels that dared readers to enter another world entirely. So why did it take almost 20 years for the sequel to The Hobbit to reach shelves? In short, Tolkien’s publishers, George Allen & Unwin, weren't confident in publishing a book that was so long. Thankfully, after-sales kept rolling in for The Hobbit and Tolkien agreed to split his sequel into sections. The follow-up epic received the credit it deserved. That hasn't stopped critics seeking to ban it for its supposed Satanic and anti-Christian themes, however. 

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

A dystopian classic that focuses on a world that has succumbed to fear, violence, and perpetual surveillance. Rather ironically, Orwell was also under surveillance from the U.K. government whilst writing the book because of his political beliefs. And despite being prohibited in The Soviet Union for almost 40 years after it was first published, once the ban was lifted it became one of the most popular books there. As for the rest of the world, the revolutionary text shocked readers back in 1949, and the ways some details seemed to eerily come true still take readers aback today. 

29. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

“There is no story that is not true.”

One of the greatest works to come from Africa, this novel deals with the effects of imperialism in 1890s-era Nigeria. Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel has become mainstream despite worldwide bias, and it’s all down to his captivating telling of an overlooked group. And if the title sounds a little familiar, then that may be because you read it somewhere else first. Achebe took inspiration from none other than W.B. Yeats — more specifically, Yeats' poem “The Second Coming.”

21. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

“Isn't there something in living dangerously?”

Dystopian novels are a dime a dozen nowadays, but back in the 1930s, Huxley’s novel was a real game-changer. It anticipated a highly technological world with a “hive” mind, a theory that has become a dystopian standard. Huxley's novel has endured the decades and still makes it onto syllabuses around the world, which is all the more surprising when you learn that he finished the whole thing in just four months. And even more surprising for fans of the novel may be that it became one of the 2010s most disputed books — even making it onto a list of the top ten books Americans wanted banned.

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

“Up ahead they's a thousan' lives we might live, but when it comes it'll on'y be one.”

The iconic 1939 novel puts the Great Depression on stark display, and with one stunning result: a classic story that relates to millions of people. It won Steinbeck a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Even so, Steinbeck faced such harsh criticism after the book's release that the Monterey County Sheriff reportedly advised him to start carrying a gun for his safety following the book's immediate ban in the city.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”

In a dystopian future where fertility rates have plummeted almost beyond repair, Margaret Atwood's novel tells the horrifyingly believable tale of Offred as she battles against the confines of a world that sees women as nothing more than breeding vessels for the infertile elite. Given the dystopian themes, it's little wonder many have called for the text to be banned. Is Atwood worried, though? Absolutely not! In a self-penned article for The Atlantic, Atwood stated that forbidding the book would do very little to stem readers' interest in her novel. "To those who seek to stop young people from reading The Handmaid’s Tale: Good luck with that. It’ll only make them want to read it more," she wrote.

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

“The more I wonder, the more I love.”

Author Alice Walker was the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983, and it’s because of the heart-wrenching story of her novel’s protagonist, Celie, which stretches over decades in rural 1900s-era Georgia. The 1985 film adaptation starred a whole cast of acting greats, including Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Danny Glover. Despite success in print and on screen, the novel has been consistently banned ever since as far back as the '80s.

Beloved, Toni Morrison

“Sweet, crazy conversations full of half sentences, daydreams, and misunderstandings more thrilling than understanding could ever be.”

One of the more recently published novels on this list, Morrison’s haunting novel Beloved is considered one of the 20th century's greatest works. It tells the story of escaped slave Sethe and her mysterious daughter, Beloved. It won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey, in the late '90s. Still, between 2021 and 2022 alone it was banned in at least eleven schools in the U.S.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

“I do not wish any reward but to know I have done the right thing.”

One of the first American novels written in “vernacular English,” Mark Twain’s classic novel about Huckleberry Finn and his journey with escaped slave Jim down the Mississippi has been garnering praise and criticism since 1884. The book may never have been published, though, if Twain had followed his instincts. It took Twain seven years to write the novel, and after writing the first 400 pages in 1876, he wrote to a friend to report on his progress, "may possibly pigeonhole or burn,” he lamented. Thankfully, after a short hiatus to write other novels, he finished what he'd started and wrote what would go on to be a true classic. Still, some Americans refused to engage with the book, stating that it set a bad example for young readers.

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

“It was a vicious cycle, though. The more gratification we found in our own geniuses, the more isolated we grew.”

Released in 2006, Alison Bechdel’s warts-and-all graphic memoir Fun Home is a compelling but sad read. And the challenging text has been banned in schools and public libraries alike. The title comes from Bechdel’s nickname for the funeral home that her father was the director of. The book charts her own queer coming-of-age story tangled up with her complicated relationship with her father, who she discovered was also gay — just weeks before he died. In this darkly funny memoir, Bechdel works to unravel the mystery of her closeted father’s life. It won several prizes, including the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book and the Stonewall Book Award for Nonfiction.