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12 Iconic Books That Almost Didn’t Get Published

It's hard to imagine a world without Harry Potter, Peter Rabbit, and Anne Frank, but these stories almost didn't see the light of day!

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The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells

A book of rejection letters titled Rotten Rejections claimed that one publisher who declined The War of the Worlds said it was “an endless nightmare. I do not believe it would take….I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.'” The Martian-themed classic would find a home though, first serialized in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897 before taking on a cultural life of its own. When Orson Welles read it over the radio in 1938, he caused a nationwide panic. Some speculate that nearly one million people freaked out and jammed highways to escape the alien invaders! Check out the best thrillers to read now.

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Chicken Soup for the Soul, by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hanson

Authors Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hanson’s Chicken Soup for the Soul anthology, an inspirational collection of essays about everything ranging from gardening to parenting, was rejected nearly 150 times before someone gave it the green light. Since then, the series has sold over 100 million books and counting.

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A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle completed A Wrinkle in Time in 1960, but the manuscript was rejected by 26 publishers before being picked up by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The book draws on the quantum physics that L’Engle was reading at the time of writing, as well as Christian themes similar to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series.

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Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig

Robert Pirsig had to endure a whopping 121 rejections before his cult-novel Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was published. It was picked up by the publisher William Morrow and released in 1974. It’s been translated into nearly 30 languages, and has sold over five million copies. Being compared to Herman Melville by The New Yorker wasn’t too shabby, either!

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Roots, by Alex Haley

According to the website, Alex Haley was writing for eight years—and received 200 rejections—before publishing the blockbuster historical slave narrative, Roots in 1976. The book landed him on the New York Times bestseller list for months and went on to sell millions of copies. In 1978, Haley settled a plagiarism suit, essentially acknowledging that his book contained material that had been previously published in a book called The African, also about slavery, by Harold Courlander.

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The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter

The naughty Peter Rabbit has been a fixture in our collective imagination for over a century, but the nursery favorite almost didn’t come to pass. Beatrix Potter, rejected by several publishers, decided to take matters into her own skilled hands and self-publish 250 copies in 1901. The very next year, one of the original naysayers changed their minds and took on the series, with The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester soon to follow.

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Dune, by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert’s Dune was inspired by psychedelic mushrooms, the menacing sand dunes of coastal Oregon, and the moons of Saturn. Despite its otherworldliness, the manuscript was rejected by 23 publishers before finding a home. The prescient publisher, Chilton, based in Philadelphia, was actually a publisher of automotive manuals!

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling

It’s a good thing that one publisher’s eight-year-old daughter got her mitts on the original manuscript’s Chapter 1 and begged her father to get the rest of the story. Twelve publishers had rejected the manuscript before Bloomsbury picked it up for a song. Considering the franchise has sold 450 million copies and counting, the measly advance of 1,500 pounds was a pittance. Next up for Harry Potter is the Broadway play! Check out this hidden message you never noticed in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

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Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

The anarchistic classic Lord of the Flies of boys gone wild was rejected a whopping 20-plus times before being published. One especially stinging rejection letter aimed at William Golding said it was “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”

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The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank

It’s unimaginable that Anne Frank‘s seminal World War II diaries almost didn’t see the light of day. It’s been widely reported that one publisher who rejected the classic had this to say about it: “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.” Let’s see if that publisher could pass any high school English class today!

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Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery

For many, their favorite childhood tome is Anne of Green Gables. Most of the Anne fans wouldn’t guess that the author, L.M. Montgomery, had gotten so fed up with rejection that she tucked her manuscript away in a hatbox for two years! Fortunately, she picked it up again and sent it out again, and in 1908 it became a runaway bestseller.

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Dubliners, by James Joyce

James Joyce’s writing career was initially troubled because publishers faced rampant obscenity charges. It took nine years—and a lot of determination by both Joyce and his publisher—to get his Dubliners short story collection into the world. One of the early objections was found in the story “Grace,” which featured the word bloody: “Then he has a bloody big bowl of cabbage before him on the table and a bloody big spoon like a shovel.”

Rachel Aydt
Rachel Aydt is a part-time Assistant Professor of writing and literature at the New School University. Her writing has appeared in publications that include Time, Prevention, Redbook, the New York Post, and the New York Times' Motherlode blog. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Find her on Twitter at @Rachelrooo.