Almost everyone around the world is familiar with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. As of June 2011, the series was named the best-selling book series in history with 450 million copies sold in 67 different languages. These novels inspired a series of films that in total grossed over seven billion dollars.
It is hard to imagine any publisher passing up the opportunity to work with such a successful series. Yet J.K. Rowling was rejected repeatedly by publishers who complained that her first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was too long for a children’s book. This obviously was not the case — children continued on to read the even longer books in the series.
Evidently, publishers get it wrong. And in honor of J.K. Rowling’s (and Harry's) birthday on Wednesday, we would like to let her know she is not alone — seven other now-famous books faced their share of rejection too.
An American classic, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby was initially rejected by a publisher claiming, “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.” Last time I checked, a character whose name appears in the title of the novel is pretty critical to the plot. In fact, some of the most important themes of the novel — those themes that make this novel one of the most widely-read novels in high schools across the nation — center on Gatsby’s interactions with Daisy.
Plus, Gatsby knows how to party.
According to USA Today, 25 million copies of Gatsby have been sold world-wide and the novel has been translated into 42 different languages. It has been the subject of six movies that have each inspired a revival of the ostentatious 1920s style and attitude embodied by Gatsby. Needless to say, Gatsby is still making money and is still being read.
Melville’s Moby Dick, which draws thematically on the American ideal of exploration, is right up there with Gatsby as a timeless piece of American literature. But perhaps the novel should have instead begun, “They call me ‘very long, rather old-fashioned’,” because that is precisely why publishers rejected the novel for the youth market. Moby Dick is ubiquitous among high-school and college students who belong to, you guessed it, the youth market. "Long" is a relative term, but Moby Dick explores many themes, such as revenge, that resonate with its readers of all ages and will continue to do so for many years to come.
When asked about African literature, many people think of Chinua Achebe and Things Fall Apart. One of the most renowned figures in the African literary scene, Achebe wrote striking tales of family and its destruction by colonial influences. But some publishers did not even read these stories, woven together in Things Fall Apart. The novel was immediately rejected because the publishers believed African literature had no market value. That certainly explains why eight million copies of the novel have been sold since its initial release, and why Things Fall Apart is required reading in high schools throughout the country.
Easily one of the most touching and personal accounts of life during the Holocaust, The Diary of a Young Girl chronicles the struggles of young Anne Frank not only as she deals with the horrors of the time period, but also as she deals with the universal process of growing up. In most cases, this contrast – a worldwide tragedy and a simple human process – provides more than enough to make a great book. However, some publishers did not think so, claiming “The girl doesn’t… have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”
While Anne Frank’s Diary has been banned on various occasions due to allegations of pornography (click here for some other famous books wrongly accused of pornography), it still remains on reading lists across schools and has been translated into over 70 different languages.
I remember first watching the film based on Golding’s Lord of the Flies in my Government class, when my teacher would stop the film every 20 minutes to explain how a concept we learned manifests itself in the film. Lord of the Flies brims with lessons on human nature, individual welfare, and the common good. The publisher must have missed all that when he described the novel as “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”
Lord of the Flies went on to be named by TIME as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923-2005. In a survival-of-the-fittest world, that publisher lost big-time.
Think “historical romance,” and the majority of the time you think of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Critics and readers agreed that Mitchell was on to something with this novel – she won a Pulitzer Prize for it in 1937, and the film adaptation was extremely well-received. Publishers, however, seemed to have missed something because they rejected Gone with the Wind. Thirty-eight times.
With the recent release of the film, Life of Pi has been a hot topic in the past year. The novel explores the idea of spirituality as Pi and the tiger, Richard, are stranded at sea for over 200 days. Martel earned the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2002 for this novel, and since its release it has sold over 10 million copies around the world. But even Pi suffered from serial rejection, being turned down by five publishers.
In an interview with the Guardian, Martel explains how he dealt with this rejection: “I only heard of the ones who accepted my book. That's the good thing about agents: they sometimes keep you blissfully ignorant.” So kids, the moral of the story? Get someone else to deal with rejection for you so you can focus on the good things.