Science fiction's greatest authors have brilliant ideas, storytelling mojo... and plenty of stubbornness. Many of the field's greatest writers were buried in rejection slips, before they finally broke in. Here are 15 classic novels that publishers didn't want to touch.
When we were doing our list of 10 science fiction classics that the publishers originally considered a failure last week, we came across tons of examples of authors whose most well-known and beloved books were rejected over and over. So we decided to do a separate list of those.
1) The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1897)
This alien invasion classic was rejected by publishers before it was serialized in Pearson's Magazine in 1897. One publisher's rejection letter described the book as "An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would 'take'...I think the verdict would be 'Oh, don't read that horrid book.'" Also, Wells' The Time Machine was rejected by one publisher with the note that it was "not interesting enough for the general reader and not thorough enough for the scientific reader."
2) Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)
This rejection story's got everything: a crusader against censorship being censored, a Soviet spy, and famous poet T.S. Elliot. When Orwell first shopped the book around in 1944, everyone viewed it as excessively critical of the USSR, while the USSR was helping Britain defeat Nazi Germany. Four publishers rejected Animal Farm, including Orwell's regular publisher. Another publisher accepted the novel, but then rejected it at the request of Peter Smollett, an official working in the British Ministry of Information. Smollett was later revealed as a Soviet spy. Faber and Faber also rejected the book, with T.S. Eliot penning the letter himself. Refusing the book for being "generally Trotskyite," he added, "We have no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the current time." In fact, the book would not be published until WWII was over.
After finding a publisher, Orwell wrote a preface to Animal Farm, "Freedom of the Press," about self-censorship during the war. In it he stated that, "Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness." The preface was not published. Source: Taylor, David John (2003). Orwell: The Life. H. Holt. p. 197. (Animal Farm cover by Shepard Fairey.)
3) Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
The short story version, and even the original novel, had little trouble getting published. But back in the early 1950s, if you wanted eyeballs on your words or to get readers interested in your book you got it serialized. Not to mention that serialization rights sales meant you got paid again (sometimes more) for the same book. But nobody was willing to serialize Fahrenheit 451. Except Hugh Hefner. When no one else would serialize it, Fahrenheit 451 was published in Playboy magazine. Hefner and Bradbury recently appeared on stage together to discuss the history of this novel (video here) and Hefner explained that he'd just started Playboy in late 1953, and Bradbury's novel was already out in book form, but nobody had serialized it. "You have to realize what the 1950s were like. A story about book-burning in the future seemed so perfect for its time, and so perfect for the magazine that I was planning on publishing, that all I could do was contact Mr. Bradbury," says Hef. The novel appeared in the third, fourth and fifth issues of the magazine. Adds Bradbury in this other video, "So all of you young men who have stacks of Playboy under your bed, I put them there!"
4) The Once and Future King by T. H. White (1958)
White finished his masterpiece about King Arthur in 1941, only to have it rejected because the final section was considered too pacifist — and therefore against the British war effort. Various sections appeared in print thereafter, like The Sword In The Stone. White waited out the war and the publishers, and the book was finally published in its complete form in 1958. Source: Clute, John, and John Grant. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1999. Pg 1010.
5) A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle (1962)
This classic children's novel of time travel was rejected 26 times by publishers. Not only did it win the Newberry Award, it helped lure in a new generation of science fiction lovers (especially girls). And it sold some eight million copies.
6) Dune by Frank Herbert (1966)
Every book publisher — 23 of them — rejected Herbert's masterpiece before it was accepted, for almost no money, by Chilton, a small Philadelphia publisher of business magazines and automotive manuals. Writes Dune's friend Frederik Pohl:
No book publisher was interested in acquiring the hardcover rights to this rapidly expanding mass of manuscript, however, until an editor at the quite small publishing house of Chilton Books managed to stitch the several existing stories into a single huge novel. He called it Dune, and when he published the result, it became a runaway bestseller, said to be the most profitable sf book ever written.
Dune won the Hugo Award and the first ever Nebula Award. And it has gone on to sell some 40 million copies. (Dune cover by Tony Easley)
7) Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)
John W. Campbell rejected the serialization rights to Nova, Delany's ninth book. Delany had already won his first Nebula Award, and was nominated for two more that year. Campbell's reason for rejecting Nova? American readers weren't ready to read science-fiction with a black main character. And yet American readers turned Nova into a bestseller. It was also nominated for the Hugo. Delany writes about this rejection, as well as other race-related experiences in the science-fiction world in this fantastic essay.
8) The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
Yes, this book won both the Nebula and the Hugo, but at least one editor didn't think it was worth publishing. Le Guin has the letter up on her website. The highlight?
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.
9) The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974)
The Forever War wasn't just a best seller — it also won both the Hugo and the Nebula. And 18 publishers regret that they turned it down. Writes Haldeman in the foreword to one edition:
It was rejected by eighteen publishers before St. Martin's Press decided to take a chance on it. "Pretty good book," was the usual reaction, "but nobody wants to read a science fiction novel about Vietnam."
The book wasn't just rejected by book publishers, though — John W. Campbell rejected serializing the novel for Analog, because it had women fighting alongside men. His successor, Ben Bova, had no such qualms and agreed to serialize the book — but wouldn't publish the middle section, "You Can Never Go Back," because it was too grim. (That middle section first appeared in print, in a new edition of the book in 1991.)
10) Carrie by Stephen King (1974)
Stephen King's first published novel sold four million copies in paperback. And garnered 30 rejections from publishers. One of them wrote, "'We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell." Tired of rejection slips, King reportedly threw the manuscript into the garbage — but his wife fished it out again, and he decided to try one more time.
11) The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1975)
Russ wrote her second novel in 1970, but it took five years to find a publisher. Publishers rejected this classic of New Wave science fiction, writing things like: "We've already published our feminist novel this year, so we don't want another," and "I'm sick and tired of these kinds of women's novels that are just one long whiny complaint." Source: Larry McCaffery, ed., Across the Wounded Galaxies, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 194-195.
12) Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)
Butler writes that she had "years of rejection slips" before her first novel saw print. According to her obituary in the Seattle Post Intelligencer:
Kindred was repeatedly rejected by publishers, many of whom could not understand how a science fiction novel could be set on a plantation in the antebellum South. Butler stuck to her social justice vision - "I think people really need to think what it's like to have all of society arrayed against you" - and finally found a publisher who paid her a $5,000 advance for Kindred.
Kindred became the most popular book by the MacArthur Genius award winner.
13) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997)
The number bandied around the internet is that 12 major publishers rejected the first Harry Potter book, before someone was willing to take a chance. Rowling recently told Oprah Winfrey,
My agent knows better than I do... It was a lot of people. A lot of people just sent it back, virtually by return post. It was like a boomerang. I did really believe in it. I just though, This is a good story.... For some reason, I can even remember being quite pleased with the rejection letters. "F. Scott Fitzgerald got these. It's all part of being a writer!"
One publisher held onto it for six months before finally rejecting it — and then when Bloomsbury decided to take it on, this other publisher suddenly decided they wanted it too. But Rowling decided that she should go with the publisher that wanted the book right away, rather than the one that kept her waiting and then turned her down. According to the BBC, the entire series has sold more than 400 million books worldwide.
14) Farthing by Jo Walton (2008)
Even after this book was published in the US, Jo Walton had trouble finding a publisher. At least 10 UK publishers rejected this alternate history classic, which is set in a Britain that entered a peace treaty with Nazi Germany. Wrote Walton, "'Slipstream' and 'Interstitial' clearly aren't as in as people tell you they are, at least not in Britain." The book was nominated for a Nebula Award, the Locus Award, John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction novel, a Quill Award and the Sidewise Award for Alternate History.
15 This Immortal by Roger Zelazny (1966)
This book tied with Frank Herbert's Dune for the Hugo Award for best novel in 1966, but it had a slightly rough road to publication — although not as hard as Dune's. Piers Anthony writes in his book How Precious Was That While that an editor at Doubleday had rejected this book, originally titled And Call Me Conrad. And then after someone else published the book and it won the Hugo, this same editor wrote to Zelazny to chide him for not showing the Doubleday editor the book before sending it elsewhere. Writes Anthony:
Zelazny looked from one hand to the other, as if comparing the two letters from that editor: what was he to make of that?
Source: Anthony, How Precious Was That While, p. 275.