8 Badass Books That Were Rejected by Publishers

The first (and perhaps) best piece of advice you’ll ever get when you decide to become a published author is this: Get ready to be rejected. A lot. Like, a way lot. And then, just when you think things are about to turn around and some obscure nobody publisher is really super pumped up about your awesome, mind-destroyingly brilliant work of epic modern literature, they’ll turn around and reject you again. 

Ben is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Yolanda won.)

 

  


Guest column by Ben Thompson, who runs the website
badassoftheweek.com since 2004, and has written
humorous history-related columns for outlets such as
Cracked, Fangoria, and the American Mustache Institute.
His first book, BADASS: A Relentless Onslaught of the
Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters,
and Military Commanders to Ever Live was published in
October 2009. A second book, titled BADASS: Birth of
a Legend, was released in March 2011.

 

Basically, what I’m trying to say here is that you’re going to get shot down like a one-armed biplane pilot staring down a squadron of F-15E Strike Eagles, and every time you hop back in the cockpit and resolve to succeed or die trying, you’re staring down a phalanx of jackasses who are determined to make sure the end result is the latter.

I don’t know if this is just personal delusions or whatever, but I make myself feel better by telling myself that any time you’re some obscure writer trying to do some crazy crap nobody’s ever done before, publishers are going to be a little freaked out. I mean, look at the track record here:  J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was rejected 12 times. The pubs were like, “Who the hell wants to read some housewife’s cracked-out story about a boy who goes to some insane magic academy?” not realizing that the correct answer to that question was EVERYBODY IN THE WORLD. The Diary of Anne Frank was rejected 15 times. It took Gertrude Stein 22 years to get her works published. The brutal groin-kick of rejection was also felt (repeatedly) by Stephen King, Rudyard Kipling, James Patterson, Isaac Asimov, Judy Blume, and pretty much every other author who ever published a book. Hell, even friggin’ Dr. Seuss was rejected by publishers for being “too different form existing juvenile lit.”

But the one thing about being badass is that you never let anything stop you—you never give up, never back down, and never surrender, no matter how badly the odds are stacked against you. So, now that a good 50 percent of the readers of this column are tentatively holding broken glass shards above the major veins in their wrists, here’s something uplifting to pump you up about your awesome project—six people who appreciated badass things, and applied these credentials of badassitude to their dream of seeing their name in print on the cover of a well-worn paperback on the dusty shelves of some second-hand book store.

MOBY-DICK, BY HERMAN MELVILLE

Maybe they were turned off the flagrant usage of the word “dick” in the title, but for some reason publishers in England though that Melville’s classic about a gigantic asskicking evil white whale who despises humanity and demolishes ship hulls with his face was “unsuitable for the juvenile market.”

Nowadays it’s required reading in pretty much every high school in the English-speaking world.

CATCH-22, BY JOSEPH HELLER

In a good example of publishers not really even bothering to read submissions sometimes, Heller’s classic story was rejected for being “not funny on any intellectual level”—a conclusion the reviewer probably arrived at because of the fact that Heller didn’t intend for the book to be a comedy in any way whatsoever, but rather a book about moral dilemmas among soldiers during wartime. But perhaps that’s only a minor detail?

ANIMAL FARM, BY GEORGE ORWELL

In another tale of clueless acquisition editing, one American publisher rejected Orwell’s allegorical tale of Stalinist atrocities by helpfully informing the author that “it is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.” Uh, thanks, jackass, but I think you’re missing the point here.

Famous British poet/publisher T.S. Eliot did get the point, but still rejected it anyways, saying that it was too hard on the Ruskies and he didn’t want to publish a book so awesome that it was going to cause an international incident. Orwell, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who was once shot through the neck by a sniper while chasing a Fascist soldier down with his bayonet, eventually found some Trotskyist Socialist house that was willing to publish it. They both made a metric crapload of money.

LORD OF THE FLIES, BY WILLIAM GOLDING

Golding’s tale of pissed-off schoolchildren clubbing each other to death on a remote island was described in one rejection letter as “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” It went on to sell 14 million copies and win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I hope that Golding had the good sense to fax a copy of the Nobel Prize paperwork to that douchebag publisher, presumably paperclipped to a photocopied image of his own ass cheeks.

DUNE, BY FRANK HERBERT

Herbert was rejected 20 times while trying to publish a book that would become the best-selling science fiction story in history. The book did so well that Herbert was signed to write five sequels, and nowadays there are an additional ten “Dune Universe” novels, plus a ton of video games, board games, comic books, short stories, and a full-length motion picture featuring rock icon Sting.

LOLITA, BY VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Now, I’m not saying that a story about a dude who hooks up with a 12-year-old is badass, but Nabokov was such a colossal eccentric badassand his book was so successful—that I can’t leave it off this list. I’m also so OCD that I couldn’t in good conscience leave this list hanging on an odd number.  

Nabokov, a former boxing instructor who had fled Russia to escape the Bolshevik Revolution, unsuccessfully pitched his book to five different U.S. publishers before going overseas. To the Americans, it was deemed “overwhelmingly nauseating,” which is actually kind of an awesome line in a rejection letter. Nabokov was later able to find a French publisher (of course) who wasn’t quite so turned off by that whole statutory rape thing, and nowadays Lolita routinely finds itself on lists of the top 10 greatest novels in the English language.

Ben is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Yolanda won.)


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33 thoughts on “8 Badass Books That Were Rejected by Publishers

  1. Richard Mabry

    Let’s don’t forget Tony Hillerman, award-winning author of the novels featuring Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, who received a rejection letter that said something like, “If you insist on rewriting and resubmitting, at least take all the Indian stuff out.”

  2. Renea Dauntes

    As a writer who has never submitted, due solely to the impending stack of rejection letters, I can say this may be the most exciting thing I’ve read in a while, if not ever. Tonight I have decided to become a badass. You are all on notice. 😉

  3. Marja McGraw

    Who knew? Those of us with names that aren’t household words yet are in pretty good company. Thanks for cheering up so many writers, and doing it in a way that makes us all feel better about ourselves.

  4. Michele Ivy Davis

    Great post! Sometimes the writing business can be so discouraging, but it’s nice to know others who are more famous have felt the pain before us.

    And for those who wonder if it’s still going on, my YA novel was rejected by 25 agents before I submitted it directly to a publishing contest where it went on to win a national award, was published by a major publisher, and was given another award for the German translation. Did I want to write a nah-nah-nah-nah letter to the agent who told me that if I cut 40 pages, THEN he might consider reading it? You betcha!

  5. Chloë

    I’ve read a whack of posts recently about rejection, and how it’s "all part of the process". I concur. And yet I’m sick of reading about it. I’m not complaining; it’s just that I already know all that stuff. WE already know that stuff. Expect rejection; it’s part of the game.

    And yet I didn’t stop reading this post. It must have been the hilarious turns of phrase that kept me going ("metric crapload"!), or maybe the tone of solidarity with authors? No surrender! In any case, thanks.

  6. Sunny Frazier

    As an acquisitions editor for an indie publishing house, you have put the fear of god in me. What if I reject the next great novel? I forwarded the piece to a group of college students to give them hope. If they get rejected in the future, they will perhaps feel in good company. Very bad-ass post!

  7. C.K.Crigger

    Great Badass post! I knew about the struggles of some of these fabulously successful writers and their books, but some were new. I once received a rejection that told me my story didn’t fit in the publisher’s western line. NO duh! That could be because it was a contemporary mystery.

  8. Stephanie Jones (@StepSoSteady)

    EXCELLENT POST! A good friend is a new author and I’m trying to assist him in any way I can. When I read this post, I emailed it to him immediately because of your valuable insight and expressed passion. Rejections are part of life be it professional or personal you just need to move forward. This "Badass" post was needed and much appreciated. Thank you very much!

  9. Abraham Jarque

    Damn. How many books were rejected, but were absolute gold, but were unable to eventually find a publisher? Interesting to think about.

  10. Matthew Bellizzi

    Ohhh I want a book my table is all wobbly…. See I thought your so used to rejection that maybe you’d give me a book if I dis’d ya a little

  11. Corsair1756

    Ohhh, to one day make a metric crapload of money on our own story and be able to fax Putlizer paperwork to a short-sighted non-publisher (I have little trouble believing my partner would do it, too). Thanks for helping us keep the dream alive, and congrats on your own success, Ben (too bad I missed your stop here in Portland!) 🙂

  12. Lisa Lane

    Yes–I whole-heartedly agree, Ben! Great list, by the way. I also write beyond the mainstream, my works having a level of depth and literary value that most publishers seem terrified to take a chance on. Still, many of my idols are among your list (H. G. Wells, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Isaac Asimov, and Olaf Stapledon are at the top of my personal list; I’m not sure how they were first received). Thanks for sharing!

  13. CD Coffelt

    I am torn between what is worse,the famous (now) author who received multiple rejections and the newbie commenting ‘…and I queried a whole three weeks before I got an agent…’

    Both are disheartening.

  14. Malisea Gardner

    YES! I agree with Wyatt….THIS IS A BADASS POST! I won’t even begin to tell you the shameful amount of times I’ve been rejected. Luckily, I put down my shard of glass to read this post. I’ve thought about self-publishing but I keep hearing that it is a pitfall. Nevertheless, great post!

  15. Wyatt

    That may be the most badass post I’ve read on this site! Let’s not forget a few others. A Wrinkle In Time: Madeleine L’Engle’s novel was rejected 26 times. And let’s face it–tesseracts=badass! Also Ursula K. Leguin must have smote somebody with her Left Hand of Darkness when it was rejected. And correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Jack London rejected more times than any man alive?

    However, I just might have been on the side of the publisher who said, "Good God! I can’t publish this!" about William Faulkner’s Sanctuary.

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