The Writers Who Didn’t Give Up

I belong to an online group that is part of a nationwide writing contest. The prize is pretty hefty and the winners have likely already been contacted (despite this Saturday being the announcement day) but hope springs eternal. For some, the loss can bring on worries about whether to go forward as an author.

Don’t you worry. There are so many successful writers who never gave up. If you give up, you’re only hurting yourself and your dream. Never the less, here are some big name authors who took the hits and kept on truckin’.


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The Shack isn’t my cup of tea but its author, William P. Young, sure is inspiring to writers who can’t get a publisher’s attention. He had a lot of backup, too. After self-publishing this book for his kids he was encouraged to try to find a big audience but it wasn’t happening even with the help of pastors and media consultants. Finally, he and his buddies formed a media company in order to publish his book with one friend maxing out 12 personal credit cards to get the job done. Holy shit.

Legally Blonde was originally a print-on-demand book written by Amanda Brown.

John Grisham‘s first work, A Time to Kill, was rejected by 30 agents and 15 publishers until small company, Wynwood Press, gave it a measly 5,000 copy print. Grisham is one of the most humble people you will meet, convinced his books are just lucky to be sold in airport bookstores.


Self published mega hits include:

The Joy of Cooking

The Bridges of Madison County (Look it up, Millennials. It’s awesome.)

What Color is Your Parachute?

Ulysses…by James Joyce


Most good bibliophiles know J.K. Rowling‘s origin tale. In the wake of a divorce and depending on welfare to take care of her and her baby, she fell into despair. After writing the first Harry Potter book in local coffeehouses she caught the eye of literary agency, Christopher Little Literary Agents. However, the book was rejected by 12 publishers until the daughter of Bloombury editor,  Barry Cunningham, demanded the next chapter.

Beatrix Potter is my spirit animal. Everything she did, she did it her way but as politely as possible. Beatrix couldn’t find anyone to publish her beautiful, self illustrated books and it may have been because she didn’t know how to sell them. At that time The Tale of Peter Rabbit was being marketed as an adult picture book/whimsical oddity. She used her own money to publish her books and the rest is history. Fun fact? She had a rabbit that she walked on a leash, inspiring her future famous character.


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Bestselling author, Scott Turow, wrote three to four books that did not get sold before he finally found an agent for Presumed Innocent (1987).

Publishers tried to control The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but nobody tells Mark Twain what to do. He said, “screw it” and published the book, himself. Fun Fact? He used some of the money earned from Huck Finn to invest in one of the first typewriters.

I remember the moment a customer in the bookstore first mentioned the book, 50 Shades of Grey. An aged man came in and told me he heard about it on the radio and really needed it. Blech. We booksellers had no idea what was about to hit. E.L. James had just gone from self-publishing her Twilight fan fiction books through a print-on-demand service to getting a book deal with awesome publisher, Random House. This was after Amazon’s old publishing house passed on the saucy novels because of the poor quality of the writing. Ms. James is laughing all of the way to the bank.

Mary Higgins Clark’s first short story was rejected 40 times by publishers.

L. Frank Baum was 44 years old when he wrote, The Emerald City. Later called, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it was not an instant hit and the publisher went bankrupt two years after publishing it.

Super sad story. It goes against the theme of this peppy, don’t-give-up article but it’s an important one to know.  John Kennedy Toole killed himself after he couldn’t find anyone to publish his novel. After his suicide his mother made it her mission to get it published and succeeded. A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize 12 years after his death.

Edgar Allan Poe‘s fellow cadets at West Point donated 75 cents each to help him publish his third volume of poems after his first two didn’t get any attention.

Even when published…

Did you know Moby Dick was one of the biggest literary failures of all time? It was only during the mid 20th century, when schools started putting it on book lists, did it claim its fame as the classic we know. During Herman Melville’s lifetime Moby Dick only sold 3,715 copies. It was first promoted as a book for kids.

James Redfield sold his self-published novel, The Celestine Prophecy, out of the trunk of his car. Years later, after getting picked up by Warner Books, it sold twenty million copies.

Desperate for money after finding out his wife was pregnant, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks. He still ended up having to pay his publisher (Chapman and Hall) to publish it and only made £137 from the first printing.

Before Hugh Howey got a whopping six figure deal with Simon and Schuster and sold the film rights, his Wool Trilogy was humbly self published on Amazon. When I worked at Barnes & Noble we couldn’t keep up with the demand for his books.

Lisa Genova wrote one of the greatest novels about Alzheimer’s: Still Alice. She self-published Still Alice with iUniverse and two years later it was published by big dogs, Simon & Schuster. It spent 40 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.

Did you know?

Roots by Alex Haley was rejected by publishers 200 times? Catch-22 was rejected 22 times (snarf), Kathryn Sockett’s The Help was rejected 60 times, and Dr. Seuss, 24 times. Louis L’Amour dealt with 200 rejections. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected by publishers 121 times.

But winner for The Greatest Literary Rejection Survivor of all time is…Jack London. Rejected 600 times.

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ORIGINALLY POSTED MAY 5, 2017. Something awesome happened to me today so I thought this was timely. 

This article was originally written to make one particular group member feel better. It contained a quote they posted publicly on this group’s Facebook page and I had left the member anonymous in this article. This has been removed.

Nicolina Torres
Nicolina Torres

Nikki worked for Barnes & Noble for 15 years, in seven stores. She is the author of This Red Fire, Young Nation, and Girls Who Wear Glasses. She prefers to live in the country and is a new aunt to a potential bookworm.

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