I love hearing about surprise best-sellers. Those books that no one thought would sell, that the pros in publishing turned down, and that then went on to become bestsellers. Even classics.
Anyone who has been in publishing for a considerable time has his or her story. The book we turned down. The one that went on to take the best-seller list by storm. Some surprise hits were published to fill an obvious need, but weren’t expected to do much (see #1 below). Others gathered an impressive pile of rejections from the pros, the folks who “know the market.” And indeed, these folks do know the market. But what they/we can’t do is predict it. Readers always have, and always will, surprise us.
- Guess what title was the best-selling book of 2012 in the oh-so-secular country of Norway? The Bible. A new Norwegian translation, to be exact. How’s that for a surprise hit?
- Everyone who’s read Chicken Soup for the Soul, raise your hand. That book was rejected 150 times. But authors Canfield and Hansen didn’t quit—and the book has now sold over 125 million copies. (That’s a LOT of hands!)
- Surprises are happening right now. The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep—an indie Children’s picture book by Carl-Johan Forssén Ehrlin, which promises it can send any child off to sweet slumber, sold 800 copies the week of August 16, 2015. The week of August 23, 2015? It sold 29K print copies! According to Publisher’s Weekly, it’s “rumored that world English rights to the book…were acquired by Random House for seven figures.”
- Twenty-Six publishers told Madeline L’Engle A Wrinkle in Time was a loser. When she finally found a publisher, her book was honored with the 1963 Newbery Medal and now boasts over 8 million sales worldwide. (I love this book and it’s sequels. Seems to me the real losers were those 26 publishers…)
- The biggest surprise so far of 2015, though, has been Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf by Catherine Storr. This children’s book was written…wait for it…in the 1950s! Puffin Books rereleased it at the beginning of July, and the book has not only topped the children’s best-seller list, but it has outsold popular adult titles, including The Girl On The Train, the acclaimed thriller by Paula Hawkins.
- Back in 1996, not even author Dava Sobel expected her book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, to accomplish much in sales. After all, it was a book about…well, longitude. But when it released in 1996, it took off, hitting The New York Times best-seller list, and staying there for at least 6 months. (Just goes to show you that if you find a great story and tell it well, readers will respond.)
- Last but not least, the international publishing world is enamored of a Dutch novel, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old, which has stayed on the Dutch bestseller lists since it released last summer. The topic, that the way we treat the elderly speaks volumes about what we value as a society, has captured headlines—and readers–for a year. As has the fact that no one knows who really wrote it. The only author listed is the titular Hendrik.
So there you have it. Books that were rejected went on to succeed. In big ways. Titles no one expected to do much…did. MUCH. In the situations where books were rejected, the authors had a choice: listen to the naysayers and give up or keep trying. Many of those listed above heard the voice of rejection over and over and over–and didn’t listen. They held onto their passion and belief in what they were doing.
May we all listen to the One Voice that gave us this task of writing, of using words to share His truths. May we seek His direction, and if He says keep going, may we ever be obedient. No matter how many rejections we receive. And if He whispers a passion deep into our hearts, may we do all we can to fulfill his call, no matter what others say. Keep your hand to the plow, folks, until the Master sets you free.
I’m so encouraged by this. This line especially speaks to me: “Keep your hand to the plow, folks, until the Master sets you free.” I’ve always been a strong starter and a weak finisher (if I finish at all), but He has been dealing with this area of my life, reminding me several times that it’s the time to finish strong.
Perseverance. Faithfulness. Discipline. Endurance. Never giving up. Going from glory to glory, from strength to strength.
Thank you for this post!
Have the rules of writing changed? In this post, point #3 – it’s rumored – a contraction, done correctly. But, point #4 – it’s sequels. I am finding this so much lately. But according to my old Webster’s New World Dictionary, what is really wanted is its (no apostrophe): pronoun, written it’s until early 19th century … that or those belonging to it. Well, my dictionary is from 1986. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned.
Nothing has changed. It is simply a matter of typos and the vicissitudes of spell checkers. You should see some of the creative grammatical constructs made in my text messages by my cell phone. When I’m trying to text while riding (never driving!) on an unpaved road, it sometimes approaches hilarious.
Thank you for these reminders. This week I have chalked up rejection 4 for my current submission. 4 doesn’t sound so bad in light of what has been said here. Unless you consider it is 4 out of 7 attempts. I am tired just thinking of how many it might take.
First, this post was so interesting I didn’t even notice any possible grammatical inconsistencies. Ah hem. Second, who could actually pass up A Wrinkle in Time!!?? Now that’s encouraging, and I’m so glad there is always a thread of hope for any well written manuscript. Writers need to write what they feel they should and publishers have to do their job. Neither are perfect in their choices. Listening to The Voice certainly would help both sides. Good prep for ACFW! Thanks!
A useful maxim for any creative endeavor (engineering, literary, or otherwise) is “You haven’t truly failed until you give up trying.” It’s the bulldogs among us who ultimately succeed in research and engineering at the forefront, but each temporary failure brings about a change in approach. My first drafts of my novels were written in the omniscient POV, which is now passé. I’m rewriting everything in limited third person POV. I must admit it’s not only more exciting to read; it’s much more fun to write from that POV. Rejection can be a blessing when it includes information on what to change.
Just wanted to say thank you, Karen. You’ve seen the unpublished, talked with them and shared your meals with them – so you get their perspective. I am that person. And I am encouraged (to my toes!) by your blog today.
As my Grandpa would say, “Keep on keeping on.”
Wendy L Macdonald
Thank you, Karen, for these ultra encouraging words. My verse for today goes perfectly with this post (Proverbs 16:1). It’s all in God’s hands.
Blessings ~ Wendy
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Great reminder, Karen! I need to process this and integrate it with the advice Dan Balow imparted at a recent conference: focus on your strengths. I’ve had articles published in the academic press and Christian popular press, and I’m a newspaper columnist–all non-fiction. God has given me different passions to pursue at different stages of my life, and I always wrote in or about them; but now that I’m finally attempting to have some of my fiction published, everything in that process been “a whole different ballgame.” Would you advise persevering in submitting proposals in more than one genre/ target age group as a way to determine what agents think is most marketable, or choose only one myself, and submit exclusively in that one (150 times)? 😉 I keep wondering if an agent who didn’t want to represent my contemporary YA fiction or women’s Bible study might have been enthusiastic about my historical novel, if only I had sent a proposal for that, instead. (Is that weak faith? Or maybe rationalization? ;-D) Would you ever skim a proposal and think, “‘Love this voice, but she should stick to non-fiction”? If you did, would you tell that writer that? Thanks!
Thank you! I needed that.
This is so encouraging, Karen! At a recent conference, I was discouraged by the feedback I received during my appointments. Since then, I’ve allowed this to bring the work on my book to a standstill. Your words remind me that He has a purpose for the words He calls us to write and His voice is the only one that matters.
I loved the Dava Sobel book on longitude–informative and suspenseful at the same time. What an encouraging thought that it was first rejected. Thanks for the note.
Late, but here.
Well, darn. Now I have to find other excuses not to try to float “Emerald Isle” in all its violent Catholic glory.
Andrew, speaking of the “right voice”, I’m not sure this article accomplishes that, but a friend posted it on Facebook, and I immediately thought of you. As you walk along your own journey, I hope somehow it encourages you to persevere in God’s strength. God bless.
Thank you so much, Tammy! It’s a wonderful article. While I can’t walk much any more, I can go along in spirit.
Funny thing – I lived in Santa Barbara for awhile when I was young – and I immediately recognized the rock in the picture! All of those place-names are very familiar, and I did walk San Marcos Pass.
Glad you enjoyed the article. You are in my prayers today.
Tammy, thank you again, and especially for the prayers.
Today was ugly, and it was hard to be brave, but the prayers of my friends strengthened my arms, and hope is still resident here.
Susan Mary Malone
Great post, Karen! I speak at a lot of literary conferences, and always weave this in. Writing for publication is such a daunting task, and I’ve watched far too many beautiful writers give up.
So I tell my writers this every day (literally).
No one really knows what’s going to sell. Or why. We give our best educated guesses, and like you, I’m often quite surprised!
Thanks for this!
The most encouraging post ever! Thank you.
Heather Day Gilbert
Great post, Karen. I know we’ve probably all heard how The Help was rejected 70-something times, as well. For Christian authors, I think the bottom line is that God will give us the tenacity and courage we need to keep going, if He wants us to write. Then He’ll do with our books what He wants. 🙂
Thank you for that word of encouragement!
I appreciate the article on rejections. Have 8 out of 26 so far (haven’t heard back from Steve yet!:) But I did get an offer from Deep River Books. I’m wary of that because they want money of front. How does the author NOT run to the first agent or publisher that says yes? How do we know it’s the right time?