Sometimes publishers reject books for legitimate reasons, like if a book contains immature prose or an uninteresting concept, or if it bears too much similarity to a book the publisher has recently released. But other times, publishers reject books for simply ridiculous reasons, i.e. maybe The Great Gatsby would be better without Gatsby in it.
These five authors were met with outrageous rejections… sometimes with outrageous results.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Editors famously pitched a pretty serious revision: “you’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.” We’re lucky that F. Scott Fitzgerald decided to stick to his original plans—The Great Dissolution of the American Dream and the Harsh Reality of Class Divisions isn’t quite as catchy. Fitzgerald’s success story wasn’t a matter of delightful revenge. Critics lambasted The Great Gatsby during Fitzgerald’s lifetime: “one finishes The Great Gatsby with a feeling of regret, not for the fate of the people in the book but for Mr. Fitzgerald.” The critics were right about one thing—Fitzgerald’s fate was as tragic as Gatsby’s. He died from side effects of his alcoholism, destitute, at the age of forty-four. If not for the novel’s resurgence during WWII, the novel might have faded into obscurity. Thankfully, it didn’t. Today, half a million copies of The Great Gatsby are sold every single year.
The Thomas Berryman Number by James Patterson
James Patterson got thirty-one rejections for his debut novel before his dreams came true. Well, “came true” is a bit of an understatement—Patterson is the world’s highest-paid author and the world’s foremost bestselling author since 2001. He recently took his success to the next level (note: there wasn’t previously a higher level) with a $150 million dollar book deal—the most expensive deal of all time. The Thomas Berryman Number is the first book in Patterson’s bestselling Alex Cross series, which now has well over eighty million copies in print. As for the publishers who rejected him, Patterson is blunt: “I keep a list of all the editors who turned down my first novel. Sometimes they send me books and ask for blurbs. Mostly, though, they’re dead.”
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Herman Melville‘s initial rejection came with some unhelpful advice: “first, we must ask, does it have to be a whale?” If you don’t know—yes, the novel is about a whale (it’s also about an extended metaphor). The publisher followed that up with an equally unhelpful suggestion: “could not the Captain be struggling with a depravity towards young, perhaps voluptuous, maidens?” Probably not. The initial sales seemed to confirm skeptical publishers’ fears—the book sold only 500 copies. Today, critics view Moby Dick as one of the most accomplished novels of all time. The book’s enduring acclaim suggests that maidens just wouldn’t have cut it—even some particularly voluptuous ones.
Dubliners by James Joyce
James Joyce‘s Dubliners received a startling eighteen rejections, some of which are wild enough to spark their own novels. Joyce had an ongoing rivalry with publisher George Roberts, and their disagreements (read: their outrageous pettiness) lead to publication difficulties. When George Roberts asked that Joyce remove any references to the king in his short story, “Ivy,” Joyce wrote a letter directly to King George V and asked if the passages were offensive. (For some reason, the king was unable to comment.) When Roberts learned of Joyce’s financial desperation, he actively ghosted Joyce, ignoring all of his correspondence to increase Joyce’s panic. Though Dubliners finally earned publication, Joyce’s contract stipulated that he could earn no royalties until the book sold 500 copies. The book sold 499—and in typical outrageous Joyce fashion, the author himself bought 120 of those copies. Fortunately for Joyce, Dubliners is now an international classic and a staple of high school and university curriculums.
The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein
In perhaps the most passive-aggressive (or possibly just actually aggressive) rejection of all time, one publisher rejected Gertrude Stein‘s The Making of Americans by directly mocking Stein’s writing style. In reading his review, readers can imagine which stylistic choices he found unpleasant:
I am only one, only one, only one. Only one being, one at the same time. Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only sixty minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your M.S. three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.
Many thanks. I am returning the M.S. by registered post. Only one M.S. by one post.
While it’s true that Stein became famous for ignoring punctuation, capitalization, and many other writing conventions, the publisher was wrong about one thing—namely, that Stein became famous.
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