Welcome To The Biggest Collection Of Literary Rejection Letters On The Web!
We spent weeks scouring the web collecting one publisher rejection letter here, another manuscript rejection letter there. The result? One-stop shopping for outrage. Enjoy your soup!
The Color Purple
This letter from The Viking Press Inc. turns down Alice Walker‘s The Color Purple. In an interview by The Guardian Alice Walker explains how she came up with the idea for The Color Purple, “I think I was longing, really, to know my ancestors better – the immediate ancestors. My parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and I just started thinking . . . that I could write a story about them that I would enjoy, because it would mean spending time with them . . . with people I hadn’t had a chance to spend time with, growing up.” The novel would later sell 10 million copies and win The Pulitzer Prize.
The Sound and the Fury
In Harcourt, Brace and Company’s letter to William Faulkner, David Fairfield declined to publish The Sound and the Fury. Harold Bloom notes in his book William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury that Faulkner replied to this rejection letter in 1929 by saying, “That is all right. I did not believe that anyone would publish it; I had no definite plan to submit it to anyone.” The Sound and the Fury was Faulkner’s 4th novel and was eventually published in 1929. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Sound and the Fury sixth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
The Giant Zlig
In this letter from Walt Disney Productions The Giant Zlig, an illustrated children’s book, by Tim Burton was rejected in 1976. At the time, Tim Burton was 18 years old and in high school. Burton went on to become a film director, producer, artist, writer and animator. He went on to win Emmy Awards, Academy Awards, BAFTA Awards, Golden Globe Awards, and many more.
The Left Hand of Darkness
This letter from an unknown publisher was sent to Ursula K. Le Guin‘s literary agent. In it the editor describes The Left Hand of Darkness as being “unreadable.” In The New Yorker’s FIRST CONTACT: A TALK WITH URSULA K. LE GUIN, Le Guin talks about how her novel was published the same year as the moon landing, “I was in England that year, so the publication of the book was a slightly remote event to me, though a happy one. While Apollo was on its way to the moon, I was on a Russian ocean liner with my husband and three kids on our way home to America. The Captain came on the ship’s sound system one morning and told us (in Russian and English) that Americans had walked on the moon, and ruefully but politely congratulated us. The kids, not really knowing what a blow it was to the Russians, put up a little cheer—and the Russian passengers on deck were kind or unprejudiced enough to cheer with them.” The Left Hand of Darkness became an instant best-seller and is now regarded as the second best fantasy novel of all time, next to The Lord of the Rings.
Oy Vey! More Examples Of Rejection Letters
Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson
This is Hunter S. Thompson‘s letter to his biographer, William McKeen, following the publication of his biography in 1991. “McKeen, you shit-eating freak, I warned you not to write that vicious trash about me — Now you better get fitted for a black eyepatch in case one of yours gets gouged out by a bushy-haired stranger in a dimly-lit parking lot. How fast can you learn Braille? You are scum.” Thompson’s wife, Sandy, is quoted in the biography: “He was a tortured tragic figure. I do not think that he was a great writer. I think he clearly had great potential, both as a writer and a leader. However, he fell — dramatically and a very, very long time ago. Hunter wanted to be a great writer and he had the genius, the talent, and, early on, the will and the means. He was horrified by whom [sic] he had become and ashamed — or I really should say tortured. He knew he had failed. He knew that his writing was absolutely not great. This was part of the torture. And yet, he could never climb back. The image, the power, the drugs, the alcohol, the money . . . all of it . . . he never became that great American writer he had wanted to be. Nowhere close. And he knew it.” William McKeen framed the letter and has it proudly displayed on his wall.
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The Grapes of Wrath
In the following letter, Penguin Books rejected John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck Now states, “In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck taught Americans how to feel empathy for the downtrodden, the despised, and the dispossessed. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other books by author-activists from an earlier era, Steinbeck’s proletarian novel—and its popular movie adaptation—mobilized public opinion as few books by other modern American writers succeeded in doing.” It was published in 1939 and won a Pulitzer Prize. Steinbeck’s book sold 14 million copies in the first 75 years after it was published.
This letter written to Gertrude Stein by Arthur C. Fifield mocks her Three Lives manuscript. Stein received rejection letters for a year before her work was published. In The World We Imagine Mark Schorer wrote that Three Lives “attempts to trace the curve of a passion, its rise, its climax, its collapse, with all the shifts and modulations between dissension and reconciliation along the way.”
The Fire Next Time
This is a Random House rejection letter to James Baldwin’s work. The Fire Next Time became a national bestseller in 1963 and gave passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement. When asked by the Paris Review if writing had been a type of salvation Baldwin replied, “I’m not so sure! I’m not sure I’ve escaped anything. One still lives with it, in many ways. It’s happening all around us, every day. It’s not happening to me in the same way, because I’m James Baldwin; I’m not riding the subways and I’m not looking for a place to live. But it’s still happening. So salvation is a difficult word to use in such a context. I’ve been compelled in some ways by describing my circumstances to learn to live with them. It’s not the same thing as accepting them.”
Best Rejection Letters
(a little like saying “best heartbreaks” but hey…)
John Updike‘s Rabbit Run is rejected by Random House Inc. in 1959 because his character did not get the hiccups. How ridiculous! Time magazine listed Rabbit Run as one of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923. In 1970 the book was adapted into a film. In The Art of Fiction Updike states, “In Rabbit, Run, I liked writing in the present tense. You can move between minds, between thoughts and objects and events with a curious ease not available to the past tense. I don’t know if it is clear to the reader as it is to the person writing, but there are kinds of poetry, kinds of music you can strike off in the present tense.”
Lord Of The Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord Of The Rings was rejected in this 1953 letter from Random House Inc. The Lord Of The Rings is one of the best-selling novels ever written, with over 150 million copies sold. Tolkien’s work has been adapted into radio, movies, and theater. In 2003, Lord Of The Rings was named Britain’s best-loved novel of all time in the BBC’s The Big Read.
More Publisher Rejection Letters
(Because you’re a masochist)
Tarzan of the Apes
The All-Story Magazine initially rejected Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Tarzan of the Apes manuscript. Burroughs did not give up and the magazine later agreed to print the first installment. In 1914 Tarzan of the Apes was published and it went on to sell 50 million copies. Burroughs’ novel has been the basis of several movies, comic books, and radio series. Burroughs offers some advice in a 1926 article of The Writers’ Monthly. He states, “If you’ve written a good story, don’t lose faith in it if it does not sell — but first be positive that it really is a good story. ‘Tarzan of the Apes’ was turned down by nearly every reputable publisher in the United States as a book manuscript, and refused by thirteen publishers in England, although I had no trouble selling it to a magazine. Now the Tarzan books have sold over a million copies.”
Kurt Vonnegut collected his rejection letters and this one from The Atlantic Monthly in 1949 stated:
Dear Mr. Vonnegut,
We have been carrying out our usual summer house-cleaning of the manuscripts on our anxious bench and in the file, and among them I find the three papers which you have shown me as samples of your work. I am sincerely sorry that no one of them seems to us well adapted for our purpose. Both the account of the bombing of Dresden and your article, “What’s a Fair Price for Golden Eggs?” have drawn commendation although neither one is quite compelling enough for final acceptance. Our staff continues fully manned so I cannot hold out the hope of an editorial assignment, but I shall be glad to know that you have found a promising opening elsewhere.
From one of the rejected writing samples (‘account of the bombing in Dresden”), Vonnegut developed Slaughterhouse-Five. Modern Library has ranked the book as the 18th greatest novel of the 20th century.
Flavorwire lists Famous Authors’ Harshest Rejection Letters. While we couldn’t find photos of the actual rejection letters, they live in the treasure troves in Alfred A. Knopf archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin. Here are a few of the transcribed letters:
Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita was rejected by Mrs. Blanche Knopf in 1956. The subject matter was considered too taboo for Knopf and she wondered “if any publisher will buy it.” The novel later went on to sell 50 million copies and become a timeless, esteemed classic. Blanche Knopf’s 1956 rejection letter, from the Knopf archives, reads:
This office has taken a long time to say no to Nabokov’s Lolita which you and I both know was impossible at least for us. Do you want the books back? I don’t imagine so in which case we will keep it for our blank department. But let me know. I wonder if any publisher will buy it.
Will you please tell Renée that I had her charming letter. I have no news except that the Coco is holding his own. As soon as I know more, I will write. But it was enchanting of her to send me a line, and I am very grateful. We have all been upset about this affair.
Bless. And all the best.
Mrs. W.A. Bradley
18 Quai de Bethune
Paris 4, FRANCE
The novel was adapted into film in 1962 and 1997. It has also been adapted for the stage, opera, and ballet. Its assimilation into popular culture is such that the name “Lolita” has been used to imply that a young girl is sexually precocious. Lolita is included on TIME magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.
Signs of Water
Peter Matthiessen collaborated with life-long editor George Plimpton to found The Paris Review. As it turns out, Matthiessen was a CIA agent at the time and has since explained The Paris Review away as his cover. While Signs of Water never got published, Matthiessen’s other work did. The two Knopf editors who rejected him, identified on the reader report as Fox (JMF) and Vandrin (PV), have probably since regretted their harsh remarks.
PV and JMF read this quickly over the weekend. It is a very bad novel, its cast of characters drawn from the same class as J.P. Marquand, Jr. portrayed recently. The action takes place over a weekend in a New England village by the sea. There are a great many flashbacks and the thoughts of every character are reported faithfully ad nauseum. But since these people and their thoughts are adolescent, banal, self-pitying, trivial and totally unsympathetic, this conscientiousness merely adds to our dislike of “Signs of Winter.” We had great hopes for this guy on the basis of a few short stories but Matthiessen is still a painfully immature writer who needs to write a great deal more and a very patient editor. Even so this does not seem salvageable to us—let someone else struggle if they will. REJECT.
I concur. PV 3/16/53
Peter Matthiessen was the author of more than 30 nonfiction books and novels. In 1999 he told The Paris Review, “Nonfiction at its best is like fashioning a cabinet. It can never be sculpture. It can be elegant and very beautiful, but it can never be sculpture. Captive to facts — or predetermined forms — it cannot fly.”
More Manuscript Rejection Letters
(Because we’re sadists)
On the Road
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was rejected in 1951, due to its provocative content and untraditional style. In 2007, NPR interviewed Richard Oram, associate director of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, where the Knopf archives are stored, and he shared a bit of On the Road‘s bleak review. Listen to it here, where Oram reads out part of a Mr. Parks’ review:
“…this is a badly misdirected talent and … this huge sprawling and inconclusive novel would probably have small sales and sardonic indignant reviews from every side.”
Followed by the even nastier, pithy review of another editor:
“I don’t dig this one at all.”
The idea for On the Road, Kerouac’s second novel, was formed during the late 1940s in a series of notebooks, and then typed out on a continuous reel of paper during three weeks in April 1951. It was finally published by Viking Press in 1957. When the book was originally released, The New York Times hailed it as “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is.”
The Manor and The Estate
Isaac Bashevis Singer’s manuscript, titled in its Knopf rejection slip as written above, The Estate (?) (The Healer of All Flesh??), later went on to become two of his novels, The Estate and The Manor. Singer went on to become one of the foremost Yiddish writers of his time and win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. His stories really aren’t as bad as Knopf editor Herbert Weinstock would have you think. Weinstock writes:
This is a partial rough translation of the same novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer which I saw in January 1955. It’s Poland and the rich Jews again.
With endless editorial work and endless serpentine dealings with Moshe Spiegel, the willing translator-adapter, this might be turned into an English novel nearly as good and nearly as salable as The Family Moskat. I honestly do not think it worth Knopf’s time and effort, though I do think that Spiegel will persist until he gets someone to publish. Personally, I’d reject.
In a 1969 New York Times book review of The Estate the reviewer writes, “If Singer’s work can be said to have a single unifying theme, it may be something like this: Don’t understand the world, or yourself, or anyone else, too quickly. No matter how much you think you know, there is more, always more.”
The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath originally submitted her novel under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, whose work received the original, terse in-house review printed below. When it was revealed that Victoria Lucas was in fact Sylvia Plath, an embarrassed jbj took a greater interest in the work, although he ultimately still rejected it. Plath’s only novel eventually became an American classic and staple of every high school curriculum, but before that, the rest of the Knopf staff seem to have agreed with jbj that the novel was unpublishable. Jbj’s reviews read:
 Reject recommended
I’m not sure what Heinemann’s sees in this first novel unless it is a kind of youthful American female brashnaess. But there certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.
 I have now re-read—or rather read more thoroughly—“The Bell Jar” with the knowledge that it is by Sylva Plath which has added considerably to its interest for it is obviously flagrantly autobiographical. But it still is not much of a novel. The trouble is that she has not succeeded in using her material in a novelistic way; there is no viewpoint, no sifting out o the experiences of being a Mademoiselle contest winner with the month in New York, the subsequent mental breakdown and suicide attempts, the brash loss of virginity at the end. One feels simply that Miss Plat is writing of them because [these] things did happen to her and the incidents are in themselves good for a story, but throw them together and they don’t necessarily add up to a novel. One never feels, for instance, the deep-rooted anguish that would drive this girl to suicide. It is too bad because Miss Play has a way with words and a sharp eye or unusual and vivid detail. But maybe now that this book is out of her system she will use her talent more effectively next time. I doubt if anyone over here will pick this novel up, so we might well have a second chance.
A second Knopf reader, Patrick Gregory, though, was not as starstruck by the revelation of Plath’s true identity as jbj was, though, adding to the review:
This is an ill-conceived, poorly written novel, and we would be doing neither ourselves nor the late Miss Play any good service by offering it to the American public…I don’t doubt that certain elements of the British press will puff the book nicely, but Mrs. Jones’s original four-line report strikes me as the only honest and responsible critical reaction to the work.
The Bell Jar was Sylvia Plath’s only published novel. She committed suicide in 1963. Plath described the book as “an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past.”
Dance of the Happy Shades
Alice Munro received this 1968 rejection letter from Knopf editor Judith Jones for her book Dance of the Happy Shades. Jones stated, “I suppose there is nothing particularly new and exciting here and it could be so easily overlooked, or sampled quickly and forgotten.” Munro is the first Canadian and 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature.
The Cuckoo’s Calling
J.K. Rowling recently posted these two rejection letters for The Cuckoo’s Calling on Twitter. This first novel under the pen name Robert Galbraith was rejected by a few publishers and one even suggested that she take a writing course. Rowling erased the signatures when she posted the letters online, saying her motive was “inspiration not revenge”. When a fan asked how she kept motivated, she tweeted: “I had nothing to lose and sometimes that makes you brave enough to try.” The Cuckoo’s Calling eventually found a publisher in 2013 and it achieved respectable sales. When the secret of its authorship broke the novel shot to the top of the bestseller lists.
The Broom of the System
In 1987 David Foster Wallace submitted his work to literary quarterly The Massachusetts Review. The response to his query is handwritten and states:
It would be good to publish such an obviously up-and-coming writer and an Amherst man to boot but his stuff–this included–seems so ersatz to me. There’s no story except a sort of cartoon surrealism, so what we get are effects: some striking (description of buzzards), some indifferent or [lame?], some simply unnecessary. N.B. They shouldn’t be drinking Rolling Rock in Oklahoma–but then, this must be an Oklahoma of the (adolescent) mind. Anyway, could you read before Friday and then, if you think better of it, we could lay it on [?] – Fred
Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest was cited by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels. Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin has called Wallace “one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years.”
In this letter the New Yorker requested that Sylvia Plath cut the entire first half of Amnesiac. While they did not reject her work, the New Yorker asked Plath to make significant changes to her poetry. NYMAG notes The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath in which the poet stated, “What if our work isn’t good enough? We get rejections. Isn’t this the world’s telling us we shouldn’t bother to be writers? How can we know if we work now hard and develop ourselves we will be more than mediocre? Isn’t this the world’s revenge on us for sticking our neck out? We can never know until we’ve worked, written. We have no guarantee we’ll get a Writer’s Degree. Weren’t the mothers and businessmen right after all? Shouldn’t we have avoided these disquieting questions and taken steady jobs and secured a good future for the kiddies?” The Poetry Foundation calls Plath one of the most dynamic and admired poets of the 20th century. The Collected Poems posthumously won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982.
In this letter from Marvel Comics Group, Jim Lee was told to reapply “when he had learned to draw hands.” Jim Lee is one of the most famous figures in the comic book industry. DC Comics states, “Jim Lee, a world-renowned comic book artist, writer, editor and publisher, is now currently the Co-Publisher of DC Entertainment (DCE) alongside Dan DiDio. Known for his incredibly detailed and dynamic artistic style, Lee is one of the most revered and respected artists in American comics. A veritable legend in the industry, he has received numerous accolades and recognition for his work, including the Harvey Special Award for New Talent in 1990, the Inkpot Award in 1992, and the Wizard Fan Award in 1996, 2002 and 2003.”
A Note About Receiving Literary Rejection Letters
You’ve probably noticed that many of your rejection letters sound almost as complimentary as acceptance memos. I personally have received rejection letters that read like starred reviews from Publishers Weekly–until the last “thanks but it’s not right for us” line. What’s up with that? Why not just decline politely without the excessive compliments?
First, it’s a way editors cover their asses against the potential embarrassment of passing on a book that later becomes a blockbuster best seller. Yes, she rejected the book but look at that rejection letter! Clearly, she recognized the talent! It’s a way of softening the perception of a bad decision.
Second, it would be a self-destructive move to alienate an agent with a stinging critique, no matter how legitimate, because that agent may bring them a best seller in the future.
You’re The Exception To The Rule…In Your Imagination.
We cannot truly move forward without addressing a hope that will not die—that you’ll be an instant hit if you’re a beginner, a latent hit if you’re a mid-luster or a bigger hit if you’re a best seller. Admit it, you feel that way. I know I did when I first started out. Still do and I’ve been writing full time for twelve years. I constantly fantasize that whatever book I’m currently working on, THAT’S the one that hits the New York Times bestseller list and catapults me into a life of champagne and cocaine.
Almost everybody believes that they will be “The One” –the author that hits a homer the first time at bat, or every time he’s at bat. And even when you mouth the platitudes of hard work and acknowledge how difficult it is or will be, you still hang on, in the dark crevices of your longing, to the idea that the Gods will smile upon you and elevate you above the great unwashed.
And why shouldn’t you feel that way? Everywhere you look there are massively successful authors. In fact, you almost never see failed authors. Part of your delusion (and mine) is backed up by your sensory intake. The only writers you see or read about are the successful ones. There is no New York Times Best Seller List Of Failed Books. Publishers Weekly does not review unimportant or poorly written books. The New Yorker doesn’t profile unpublished authors. Amazon doesn’t list books ranked #101-1.8 million in any of their bestseller lists.
Our victories are public; our losses are private.
In other words, there is MASSIVE FAILURE out there. A COLOSSAL amount of writers whose books don’t sell, get reviewed or get listed on any Amazon list. But you don’t see them. The only thing you see are successful writers, writers who ARE on the top 100 lists, authors who do get profiled, and writers who bathe in starred reviews.
You never see struggling authors unless you’re having lunch with them.
And that’s why we compiled the biggest list of literary rejections–to remind everybody that rejection is the norm–even among the most talented. Now, go. Submit your manuscripts. And the rejection letters you’re sure to get? Know you’re in good company and keep plugging away.