Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” was rejected by at least 40 publishers. It became popular later and was turned into a successful film. The New York Times (July 21, 1985) writes, “Stephen King has become so much the reigning monarch of the horror novel that it is surprising to learn that he had 60 stories and four novels turned down on his way to the top.” His novel “Carrie” was rejected by 30 publishers before Doubleday accepted it. It became a sensation and was made into a film. “Dune” by Frank Herbert was not well
regarded by 20 publishers. This science-fiction book is today a cult novel; a film and a mini-series are based on it. “Life of Pi” was adapted into a film but the book was initially rejected. The book not only sold over 10 million copies worldwide, it also won Yann Martel the Man Booker Prize.
J.K.Rowling is today a publishing phenomenon but she did not achieve success immediately. Her first novel “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was rejected 12 times. Many people like reading Stephenie Meyer’s novels but it’s interesting to note that “Twilight” was rejected 14 times. Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” became popular but not before being rejected 22 times. John Le Carré’s “The Spy who came in from the Cold” was not well looked upon at first by publishers. It subsequently became an international best-seller. “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov did not find a publisher at the beginning. It later became a smash hit.
D.H.Lawrence is a respected figure in academic circles today. “The Rainbow”, “Sons and Lovers” and his short stories are studied in colleges and universities. But he had a hard time getting “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” published. And once it was published, it achieved acclaim. Ernest Hemingway is a widely known writer but “The Sun also Rises” was rejected before finding acceptance with one publisher. “Animal Farm” by George Orwell is admired by adults and teenagers alike. It is on the syllabus of various examining bodies. “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others” has become a memorable (and topical in the local context) maxim. It’s a delightful satire with profound topics. Yet it was rejected. Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” was filmed later but it did not find a publisher at the start. Today it is a classic about the indomitable spirit of Man.
John Grisham’s books are sold by millions. This writer, presented by Robert Laffont in the French translation of “The Chamber” (Le Couloir de la Mort) as “un phénomène de l’édition” had received rejection slips for “A Time to Kill” on 28 occasions. James Patterson is a popular name but “The Thomas Berryman Number” was rejected 31 times. “Murphy” by Samuel Beckett (well-known for “Waiting for Godot”, was turned down at first. He won the Nobel Prize in 1969. James Joyce’s “Dubliners” was rejected 18 times. Today the writer is regarded as an influential literary figure. They rejected Alice Walker’s “The Colour Purple”. Millions of copies were later sold. It even won the Pulitzer Prize. Steven Spielberg made a film adaptation of it.
We can understand how Richard Bach must have felt on hearing from his agent, “They’re not interested in a talking seagull.” He received some 20 refusals. But “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” sold remarkably well. “Da Vinci Code” was considered a badly written book and was rejected. It was published by another publisher. Dan Brown is now household name. Certain titles and authors have achieved immense success: “The Godfather” (Mario Puzo), “The War of the Worlds” (H.G.Wells), “Lord of the Flies” (William Golding), “Things Fall Apart” (Chinua Achebe) but it is worth noting that they did not find favour with publishers at first.
Canada’s eminent novelist and poet Margaret Atwood has a number of best sellers. Her books are critically acclaimed. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is studied at HSC level. In an interview she said that in 1963 when she submitted her first poetry book and her first novel, both got rejected.
What are we to retain from all this? One thing is that these authors never gave up. They persevered. They never stopped believing in themselves and in their talents. They never doubted their ability as storytellers. They never let themselves be victims of despair. It’s a formidable lesson for young writers. When a publisher rejects a manuscript, it does not necessarily follow that the book is bad. A different publisher may find in a manuscript what a previous one may not have found.
The publishing industry has its own highs and lows. Rejection forms part of the game. Margaret Atwood says one way to deal with it is just to ignore it. For other writers, it may be an opportunity to take it as a challenge and to look elsewhere. Writers live with the principle: When one door closes, another one opens.
Rejection highlights the point that writing (novels, short stories, poetry, and plays) comes with a number of difficulties. These writers had the good sense of never blaming the publishers who rejected their works. They took rejection not on a personal level but with understanding. The rejected book may not be the kind of work the publishing house publishes; there may be a lack of funds; the manuscript submitted may not be up to the mark; the publisher may already have other books to publish.
A rejection does create a moment of self-doubt and saps your confidence but do not abandon. The path a writer has chosen is difficult and he must live with this reality. Mary Higgins Clark (known as the “Queen of Suspense”) is a top-selling author. Her novels have been translated into 35 languages and quite a few have been adapted for television and cinema (I am currently reading “On the Street Where You Live”). However, she received 40 rejections for her short stories. Before “When the Bough Breaks” was published, Jonathan Kellerman had 9 novels rejected. Today his psychological thrillers are on the shelves of numerous libraries.
A rejection may be heartbreaking but it must not destroy the writer’s creative power. Good authors take it as an occupational hazard. Never let a rejection or criticism demoralize you. “Lord of the Flies” was rejected as an “absurd and uninteresting fantasy”. But I have immensely enjoyed teaching it. The author is a Nobel Prize Winner.
The Indian mythological writer Amish Tripathi says, “Every publisher rejected The Immortals of Meluha”. He stopped counting after 20 rejections regarding his debut novel. They said his book was “a guaranteed failure”; it had a religious theme and would not interest the youth. This self-published book became a hit. Interestingly, he bears no grudge. In an interview to a newspaper, he said, “As writing is a high risk, high gain process, I do not blame the publishers for not choosing to back my work.”
J.K.Rowling’s 12 rejection letters have not stopped her from continuing to work hard at her craft and to take life constructively. If she is a billionaire author today, it is also because she kept telling herself: “It is impossible to live without failing at something.”
Failures are our best teachers.