“No business being a writer”: Snapshots from the rejection letters of now-bestsellers
Rejection is a part of the publishing business. Most writers learn how necessary it is to grow a thick skin if they hope to be successful in the industry. No matter how crushing rejections can feel, modern publishers tend to be much less savage in their responses than they used to be. Nowadays, many rejections come in form letters. Back when everything was handwritten/typed, there was plenty of space to get personal...and not in a good way. How would you feel if someone told you to bury your book for a thousand years, or quit writing altogether? These are realities for many writers who later went on to become bestsellers. Here are a few of the funnier pull-quotes from rejection letters for books that have gone on to great success.
‘The Bell Jar’ (1963)//Sylvia Plath
Who hasn’t read ‘The Bell Jar’? Sylvia Plath is one of the most accomplished female writers, poets, and memoirists of her time, captivating her readers with her bold use of language, her stark honesty, and her ability to write confidently about uncomfortable topics. Although Sylvia Plath requested that much of her work be destroyed or go unpublished after her passing, the majority of her writings—including her series of diaries, compiled into The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath—were published posthumously. Still, Plath didn’t always enjoy showers of praise and reader support. Like any other accomplished author, she got plenty of rejections in her day, including this line from an editor about ‘The Bell Jar’: “There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.” Fortunately, Plath didn’t take these comments fully to heart. In fact, they became fuel for her to keep writing more. She was quoted saying: “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” Nowadays, ‘The Bell Jar’ is studied in classrooms and universities across the world, having been reprinted in approximately 18 languages.
Grab ahold of any of Sylvia’s incredible poetry collections or novels, here.
‘Carrie’ (1974)//Stephen King
This book is more than a horror novel—it’s also a cultural event. ‘Carrie’ is a book about a telekinetic teen seeking acceptance from her peers and her zealot of a mother. The novel was the first published book by Stephen King. The publication of the chilling narrative spurred his fruitful career in horror novel writing. The story of Carrie White has inspired everything from major motion pictures to a broadway musical of the same name (with an onstage blood-drop included, of course). Before Carrie became one of Stephen’s most renowned works, it was rejected by thirty different publishing houses.
One publisher said, “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” As it turns out, they were wrong. Publisher thirty-one had faith in the book, and fortunately, the electrifying characters and plot were met with great critical and reader acclaim. Like Plath, rejections only motivated the author. In his memoir, ‘On Writing,’ King wrote, “By the time I was fourteen... the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.”
Pick up a chilling Stephen King novel for the upcoming fall season, here.
‘Little Women’ (1868)//Louisa May Alcott
The romance, tragedy, and day-to-day miracles in ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott has made the novel Alcott’s most beloved work. The book has been reprinted with dozens of different covers and has inspired other novels, such as the romantic YA adult ‘Jo & Laurie’. It’s popularity resurged after a new film adaptation was released in late 2019, directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saorise Ronan, Timothee Chalamet, Laura Dern, and more.
This touching book based on Alcott’s own sisters wasn’t always a hit with publishers. Much like Jo, Alcott met difficulties as a female creator in the sexist world of 20th-century publishing. When she began to share her writing, publisher James. T. Fields wrote, “Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott. You can’t write.” The 1.78 million copies of ‘Little Women’ sold (and the fortune that Alcott found herself sitting on from the book’s royalties) might disagree. Alcott was a headstrong writer, and she continued to create without paying much regard to Fields’ dismissive words. ‘Little Women’ was eventually published, and, overnight, Alcott became a household name for readers. Incredibly, the novel is still in-print nearly 151 years later.
Grab a copy of ‘Little Women’ for yourself, here.
‘Moby Dick’ (1851)//Herman Melville
‘Moby Dick’ may be a lengthy stream-of-consciousness story about a sperm whale, but that hasn’t stopped the book from becoming a classic. While only 50 copies of the novel were sold in Melville’s life (much fewer than his four prior books), it has since sold over 50 million copies worldwide. A handful of publishers didn’t have faith that readers would ever enjoy the thick book. Bentley & Son Publishing House wrote, “First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale? While this is a rather delightful, if somewhat esoteric, plot device, we recommend an antagonist with a more popular visage among young readers.” Another bunch said, “Our united opinion is entirely against the book. It is very long, and rather old-fashioned.” While it is, indeed, very long, the novel managed to attract a large readership, and is now one of Melville’s most revered books.
See what all the hype about Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ is, here.
‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ (1969)//Ursula K. Le Guin
This breakthrough thriller is one of the best science fiction novels of the last century. ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ is the book that put Ursula K. Le Guin on the map, launching her incredible career as a bestselling intellectual sci-fi writer. Despite the fact that the book received immense critical acclaim, it didn’t please publishers from the start. One rejecting editor wrote, “Ursula K. Le Guin writes extremely well, but...The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information...that the very action of the story seems to be to become hopelessly bogged down and the book, eventually, unreadable. The whole is so dry and airless, so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated by...extraneous material.” Fortunately, fans of Le Guin’s book found it to be entirely readable, and then some. The book went on to win the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award, two of the highest literary achievements, and sell over a million copies.
Grab the gripping novel ‘The Left Hand of Darkness,’ here.
‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ (1900)//L. Frank Baum
This story of a cowardly lion, a brainless scarecrow, a heartless man of tin, a wicked witch, and a little girl named Dorothy is one of the single largest influences on pop culture. Not only has ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ inspired countless other novels and stories (such as “Wicked”, “The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls”, and “Dorothy Must Die”), but it has also informed television shows, movies, costumes, art, fashion, musicals, and more. What did the publisher who rejected Baum’s book have to say? “Too radical of a departure from traditional juvenile literature.” Fortunately, another publisher disagreed, picking up Baum’s book for mass publication (and cementing the wicked witch as nightmare fuel for the rest of eternity).
Get your hands on Baum’s Oz series, here.
“An endless nightmare. I think the verdict would be, ‘Oh, don’t read that horrid book.”—‘The War of The Worlds’ (1898), H.G. Wells
“Good God, I can’t publish this.”—‘Sanctuary’ (1931), William Faulkner
“I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”—‘Lolita’ (1955), Vladimir Nabovok
“It is so badly written.” -- ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (2003), Dan Brown
“An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”—‘Lord of the Rings’ (1954), J.R.R. Tolkein
“I rack my brains why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.”—‘Remembrance of Things Past’ (1913), Marcel Proust
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