Rejection Letters: The Publishers Who Got It Embarrassingly Wrong…

Posted on May 18, 2012


J.K Rowling was famously rejected by a mighty 12 publishers before Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone was accepted by Bloomsbury – and even then only at the insistence of the chairman’s eight-year-old daughter.

Judy Blume, Gertrude Stein and D.H Lawrence all got a lot of ‘no’s from publishers before any said yes.

But while some were chucked quietly in the publishers’ bin of doom, others recieved an additional slap in the face in the form of some frankly hilarious criticism.

It probably wasn’t fun to receive at the time, but now these writers have found their place on bookshelves worldwide, we imagine they quite enjoy reflecting on those publishers who got it embarrassingly wrong…

  • Oscar Wilde’s ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’

    <em>Lady Windermere’s Fan</em> was a hugely successful play from Wilde, but one publisher rejected it, with the rather polite, and shocked comment: "My dear sir, I have read your manuscript. Oh, my dear sir."

  • Anne Frank’s ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’

    Anne Frank’s diary only found a publisher successfully after being featured in a newspaper article. Before this, the famous memoir was rejected repeatedly, with one publisher saying, "The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level."

  • Irving Stone’s ‘Lust For Life’

    Irving Stone’s novel about Vincent Van Gogh went on to sell 25 million copies globally, but not before it was rejected 16 times, once with the announcement that it was "a long, dull novel about an artist."

  • D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’

    Lawrence’s controversial novel was a bit of a publishing nightmare. One publisher warned: "for your own sake do not publish this book". It was published eventually, but it took until 1960 for the full version to be published by Penguin in the UK – over 30 years after it was first published in Italy in 1928.

  • Anthony Trollope’s ‘Barchester Towers’

    One publisher commented: "The grand defect of the work, I think, as a work of art is the low-mindedness and vulgarity of the chief actors. There is hardly a lady or a gentleman amongst them" when rejecting Trollope’s <em>Barchester Towers</em>, before it was published in 1857.

  • William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’

    Presumably not foreseeing Golding’s classic novel becoming a schoolroom staple, 20 publishers rejected it. One with the damning comment, "an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull." Try writing that on a GCSE English paper.

  • Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch-22’

    Heller may have been trained in rejection from an early age; as a teen his short story was rejected by the New York Times. However, it probably still hurt when one publisher denounced <em>Catch-22</em>, saying: "I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say…Apparently the author intends it to be funny – possibly even satire – but it is really not funny on any intellectual level."

  • J.G. Ballard’s ‘Crash’

    One publisher rejected Ballard’s dystopian novel with the note, "the author of this book is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish." How did the author react? By regarding it as a sign of "complete artistic success."

  • Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’

    Eventually published in Paris (where else?), <em>Lolita</em> was rejected by Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Farrar, Straus, and Doubleday. Originally cast away as, "overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian…the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream…I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.", the American version of the novel went on to be a bestseller, selling 100,000 copies in the first three weeks.

  • Anita Loos’ ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’

    Loos’ comical novel was initially rejected, with this curt comment from a publisher: "Do you realize, young woman, that you’re the first American writer ever to poke fun at sex." It subsequently because the second best selling title of 1926, a year after it was published, and was dubbed "The great American novel" by Edith Wharton. A musical and two film versions followed after. Poking fun at sex has never been so successful.

  • Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’

    Kerouac’s famous journey novel was rejected repeatedly. While some publishers thought it "pornographic", another thought it would never catch on: "his frenetic and scrambled prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so."

  • Sylvia Plath

    Tragic poet Plath suffered rejection a number of times, including from one publisher who said, "there certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice." We think she took it rather well, saying, "I love my rejection slips. They show me I try." IMAGE: PA

  • Rudyard Kipling

    The <em>San Francisco Examiner</em> told Kipling, frankly, "I’m sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language." IMAGE: PA

  • Jorge Luis Borges

    One publisher claimed Borges was "utterly untranslatable". His global success would suggest otherwise. IMAGE: PA

  • Isaac Bashevis Singer

    A submission of Singer’s was done so with the comment, "it’s Poland and the rich Jews again." The author went on to win a Nobel Prize. IMAGE: AP

  • William Faulkner’s ‘Sanctuary’

    One editor exclaimed, of Faulkner’s <em>Sanctuary</em>: "Good God, I can’t publish this! We’d both be in jail." Nobody ended up in prison, but Faulkner’s literary reputation was established as a result of it.

  • John le Carré’s ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’

    It’s not unusual for first novels to be rejected, but John le Carré’s went on to make <em>TIME</em> Magazine’s All-Time 100 Novels list. The publisher who passed on the author with the comment, "You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future", presumably didn’t imagine this.

  • Stephen King’s ‘Carrie’

    "We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell." These were the words of one publisher who passed over <em>Carrie</em>, which King submitted when he was 20. By this point, he was fairly used to rejection, having sent off stories since the age of 16. He kept track of the rejection slips by sticking them on a nail, until he got so many he "replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing."

  • Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’

    <em>The Wind in the Willows</em> very nearly didn’t get published. After several rejections, one of which claimed it "An irresponsible holiday story", and a positive campaign from President Roosevelt himself, the much-loved story was published in 1908. Over 100 years later, it’s still going strong.

  • Richard Adams’ ‘Watership Down’

    On a ratio of rejections to rabbits associated with Watership Down, the rejections would probably win. Adams received 17 ‘no’s before being accepted by Rex Collings Ltd. One of whom claimed "older children wouldn’t like it because its language was too difficult." It’s since never been out of print, and is Penguin’s best-selling novel of all time.

  • Norman Mailer’s ‘The Deer Park’

    The Deer Park was nearly at the centre of a court case, after Mailer’s publisher, Rinehard & Company rejected it for obscenity, saying "this will set publishing back 25 years." Eventually, the matter was settled and Mailer kept the advance.

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Great Gatsby’

    Fitzgerald’s principle character is arguably as famous as the novel he appears in, yet one publisher advised the author in a rejection letter, "You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character."

  • James Joyce

    Joyce encountered many rejections – <em>Dubliners</em> was rejected over 20 times, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was only published after he re-wrote it several times.

  • J.D. Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’

    Before Salinger gained success with coming-of-age masterpiece The Catcher in the Rye, he struggled to get a collection of short stories published. After the publisher suggested the book would be published and offered a $1000 advance, Story Press’ Lippincott Imprint refused to print. All of which, ironically, made the debut an even more brilliant first novel.

  • Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Fight Club’

    <em>Fight Club</em> was published twice – but only once as the novel we know it as today. Initially, Palahnuik’s work existed as a seven-page short story, which then became chapter six in the full-length novel. It was a double success for the author, who managed to publish the previously rejected <em>Invisible Monsters</em> off the back of it.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article claimed Gone With The Wind author Margaret Mitchell was also turned down by several publishers. This was not case.


According to the publishers who rejected them Sylvia Plath had no talent, and Borges was untranslatable. An editor who rejected Nabokov’s Lolita wrote, “overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian…the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy.” Replace “unsure” with “brilliant” and subtract the adverb “overwhelmingly” and the adjectives “hideous” and “improbable” and his comment would be not far from the mark and an argument for why it should have been published.

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