The Best Books that Almost Weren't

Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Given the difficulty of the writing process (gut-wrenchingtime-consuming, and soul-destroying are some appropriate adjectives), and given how complicated the publishing process can be, it's a wonder anything ever gets printed.

When you hold a book in your hands, know that pressed between those covers is the sum total of thousands of hours on the part of the author, his agent, his editors and copy editors, graphic designers, and everyone else involved in the process of getting the book from concept to reality. 

It's a miracle, really. 

But with so many moving pieces involved, there's plenty of room for things to go wrong. And go wrong they do, often spectacularly so.

In fact, some of the best-loved books in the English language almost never were.

The Best-loved Books that Almost Never Were:

To Kill a Mockingbird 

Can you imagine the American literary landscape without Boo Radly? Without that endless Alabama summer, and Jem's broken arm, and Dill's visit, and Scout dressed as a ham? Without Atticus Finch

I certainly can't, but plenty of publishers in the 1960s could. 

After ten rejections, To Kill a Mockingbird finally found a publishing home; but even then, the editor still demanded two years' worth or re-writes and warned Harper Lee that her book was unlikely to sell well. The publisher predicted dismal sales and ordered only a small print run. 

The book, of course, went on to win Lee the Pulitzer Prize and sell 50 million copies worldwide.  

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

When Tolkien sought publication for The Hobbit in 1936, he handed his manuscript over to the firm of Allen & Unwin. After reading through what he considered to be a strange tale, Stanley Unwin couldn't decide whether or not the book would be worth his while to publish. As seemed to be somewhat of a habit with him when dealing with children's books, he let his ten-year-old son read the story. If his son liked it, the firm would publish it. 

And thus, says literary biographer Devin Brown (in a line that brings tears to the eyes of Tolkien lovers everywhere), "the literary fate of Middle-earth would depend on just one rather ordinary person."

After the reading public demanded more stories about Hobbits, Tolkien launched into what he found to be grim and frightening territory: writing a sequel. He spent nearly thirteen years writing a massive epic so different from the original that he worried nobody would like it. 

He called it The War of the Ring. 

Even under pressure from readers and his publisher to finish the story, Tolkien almost quit writing several times, certain that nobody would ever want to read the book. In fact, if not for the constant encouragement of his friend C.S. Lewis, he most certainly would have given up entirely. 

Tolkien's long-suffering publisher, upon finally receiving a massive tome in quite a different style from what he'd anticipated, promptly chopped the door-stopper into three parts and re-titled it The Lord of the Rings. 

One thing seemed certain: there would be no more "Hobbit books." In a note to his publisher regarding his difficulties in writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien said, "It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; I can no other." 
The Once and Future King

Although T.H. White completed his King Arthur epic in 1941, publishers wouldn't touch it. Apparently the pacifist nature of the book's final section would be at odds with public opinion, therefore making the book unsalable. 

Fortunately, after the dust of the Second World War finally settled, White finally secured a publisher. In 1958, a full seventeen years after the manuscript's completion, it was finally made available to the public.  

The Sackett Saga and everything else by Louis L'Amour

L'Amour received over two hundred publication rejections before he landed his first book deal. 

Think about that. L'Amour faced literary rejection over two hundred times and still found the fortitude to keep submitting

While it's true that L'Amour's novels are perhaps not the greatest literary works of all time, it should be noted that his books have sold somewhere in the range of 330 million copies, providing countless hours of adventure to readers across generations.  

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

JK Rowling's agent received twelve rejections for the first in the Harry Potter series before finally landing a publishing deal, and then only because Bloomsbury's acquisition's editor's eight-year-old demanded to know what happened next (score another win for the world's literary tots). Even so, Rowling was advised to keep her day job, since her cute little book about a boy wizard had little chance of making much money.  


* * *

If I have any point here at all, it's that rejections don't always mean what they seem. 

So if you're working on something that you're passionate about, keep after it. 

Sure, you'll fail and get rejected (and in my case, occasionally want to take a flame-thrower to your computer). But that's okay! It's all part of the process.

Get rejected.

Get over it.

Get better.


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  1. The good old "If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again!" or "fry, fry, fry a hen", whichever you prefer.


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