Tempering Steel

The Four Phases of Authorship: the thinking process, the writing process, the agenting process, the publishing process. (We will save platform building, and the burning or framing of reviews, for a later entry).

Currently completed: the first three. Agent now peddling book #2.

Current Action: steeling oneself for reply.

In the Toolbox: The List of Thirty Most Famous Authors Who Were Rejected—Repeatedly. Originally compiled by Michelle Kerns

This list is tacked to the wall next to my keyboard, above the desk where my computer sits beckoning me to open any and all emails from my agent. I see this list everyday, and everyday I am reminded that rejection to an writer is what temperature is to steel. I makes those who can stand the plunges much stronger, more resolute, and, at some point, bound to be published.

I am also reminded that every publisher has regrets.

And it is the job of a good writer to make sure they do!


1. Stephen King

Mr. King received dozens of rejections for his first novel, Carrie; he kept them tidily nailed to a spike under a timber in his bedroom.

One of the publishers sent Mr. King’s rejection with these words:

We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.

2. William Golding

Mr. Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected by 20 publishers.  One denounced the future classic with these words (which should be inscribed on the hapless publisher’s tomb):

an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.
3. John le Carré  
After Mr. le Carré submitted his first novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, one of the publishers sent it along to a colleague, with this message:
You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.
4. Anne Frank
According to one publisher, The Diary of Anne Frank was scarcely worth reading:
The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.
15 publishers (other than this dope) also rejected The Diary of Anne Frank.

5. Joseph Heller

In an act of almost unparalled stupidity, one publisher wrote of Mr. Heller’s Catch-22:

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.

6. J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (laterSorceror’sStone was rejected by a dozen publishers, including biggies like Penguin and HarperCollins. Bloomsbury, a small London publisher, only took it on at the behest of the CEO’s eight-year old daughter, who begged her father to print the book. God bless you, sweetheart.

7. Ursula K. Le Guin

One publisher sent this helpful little missive to Ms. Le Guin regarding her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness:

The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information, the interim legends become so much of a nuisance despite their relevance, 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 what does seem, a great deal of the time, to be extraneous material. My thanks nonetheless for having thought of us. The manuscript of The Left Hand of Darkness is returned herewith.
The Left Hand of Darkness went on to win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards.
8. George Orwell
One publisher rejected Mr. Orwell’s submission, Animal Farm, with these words:
It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.
9. Tony Hillerman
Mr. Hillerman, now famous for his Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels, was initially told by publishers to
Get rid of all that Indian stuff.
10. William Faulkner
One publisher exclaimed in the rejection letter for Mr. Faulkner’s book, Sanctuary:
Good God, I can’t publish this!

Vladimir Nabokov: Publisher reject

Lord of the Flies was rejected by publishers 20 times? John le Carré was referred to as a writer with no future?  All the rest of you, get ready for another helping of deliciously cold revenge.

11. John Grisham

Mr. Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, was rejected by a dozen publishers and 16 agents before breaking into print and launching Mr. Grisham’s best-selling career.

12. Vladimir Nabokov

Mr. Nabokov’s Lolita was greeted by one publisher with these words:

…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.
13. Sylvia Plath
According to one publisher, Ms. Plath’s ability as a poet was nothing special:
There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.

14. ee cummings

Mr. Cummings’ first work, The Enormous Room, was rejected by 15 publishers. He eventually self-published the book and it went on to become considered a masterpiece of modern poetry. The kicker? He dedicated the book to the 15 publishers who rejected him. Ouch.

15. Irving Stone

Mr. Stone’s Lust for Life was rejected 16 times, once with this helpful synopsis:

A long, dull novel about an artist.
The book went on to sell over 25 million copies.

Rudyard Kipling didn’t know how to write?

16. Rudyard Kipling

I’m sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.

These were the words used by one of the editors of the San Francisco Examiner newspaper when rejecting one of Mr. Kipling’s short stories. Mr. Kipling is now a revered author and the San Francisco Examiner is….

17. Frank Herbert
Dune was rejected 20 times before successfully reaching print – and becoming one of the most beloved science fiction novels of all time.

18. Richard Adams

Mr. Adams’ Watership Down was rejected since

Older children wouldn’t like it because its language was too difficult.
19. Madeleine L’Engle
Ms. L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by 26 publishers before finally breaking into print. It went on to win the 1963 Newbery Medal.
20. Jack Kerouac
This was one publisher’s take on Mr. Kerouac’s On the Road:
His frenetic and scrambled prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation.  But is that enough?  I don’t think so.

Margaret Mitchell

21. Margaret Mitchell

Ms. Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was rejected 38 times before finally finding a publisher.

22. Judy Blume

Ms. Blume received “nothing but rejections” for two years.

According to Ms. Blume:

I would go to sleep at night feeling that I’d never be published. But I’d wake up in the morning convinced I would be. Each time I sent a story or book off to a publisher, I would sit down and begin something new. I was learning more with each effort. I was determined. Determination and hard work are as important as talent.

Determination and hard work certainly did the trick for Ms. Blume, who is now considered to be one of the most influential children’s literature writers of her generation.

23. Kenneth Grahame

Mr. Grahame’s Wind in the Willows was refused by a publisher because it was an

Irresponsible holiday story
24. Isaac Bashevis Singer
One jaded publisher rejected a submission of Mr. Singer’s with the words:
It’s Poland and the rich Jews again.

The long-winded Marcel Proust

25. Marcel Proust

Mr. Proust’s behemoth Remembrance of Things Past received this delightfully plain-spoken critique from one publisher:

My dear fellow, I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can’t see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.
26. Jasper Fforde
Mr. Fforde received 76 rejection letters before finally seeing his first novel, The Eyre Affair, in print. The Eyre Affair is now considered a classic of the modern fantasy genre.
27. Meg Cabot
The Princess Diaries slipped through the hands of 17 publishers before finally being accepted for publication.
28. Thor Heyderdahl
Mr. Heyerdahl’s classic adventure narrative, The Kon Tiki Expedition, was rejected 20 times before finding a publisher.
29. Jorge Luis Borges
One publisher rejected Mr. Borges’ work because it was:
utterly untranslatable.
30. D.H. Lawrence
After reading Mr. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, one publisher warned:
for your own sake do not publish this book.