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10 Bestselling Books That Almost Weren’t Printed20

By Chris Littler

10 Bestselling Books That Almost Weren’t Printed

Books have been around for thousands of years, and though they’ve been eclipsed by other forms of entertainment in recent years, three-hundred tightly bound pages of it are still just as capable of capturing the public’s imagination as any movie or TV show – perhaps even more so, since you’re actually required to use your imagination to enjoy them. The naysayers can say that print is dead all they want, because a quick check of the New York Times bestsellers list tells a different story.

Like a nomination for a Grammy or an Emmy, earning a spot on a bestsellers list is a great accomplishment. More often than not, a bestselling book is a bestseller because the good word spread, not because of some million dollar advertising campaign. It was handed off in coffee shops with gushing praise, passed on in dorm hallways, or discussed in living rooms over tea. It was a slow burn.

But you have to make it to print in order to be discovered by the masses, and sometimes the people in charge of choosing and printing the right manuscripts nearly miss out on something amazing – as is the story of the mysterious manuscript in the series Verse. Walking around a Barnes and Noble, it’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone out there saying “No” to budding young authors. But there are. And they’re notoriously picky since they’re obligated to buy back and turn to pulp anything that sells poorly.

This is the story of ten books that fought tooth and nail to get published. Their authors dreamed big and had confidence that their work was worthy of the public’s attention. If you’re ever feeling like no one appreciates what you do, read on, and see real-life proof that persistence pays off.

Verse – Chapter 1

1. Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

It took 18 rejection letters before Richard Bach finally found a publisher brave enough to publish his novel about a seagull searching for happiness in a materialistic society. It was a tough sell: a book about a bird that most people consider as filthy as pigeons and three times as loud. But, it turned out to be the perfect parable for a nation suffering through a recession.

The book sold more than a million copies when it was published in 1972 and was quickly optioned and turned into a movie in 1973. As is often the case, the movie was horrible. But this one was so bad that Bach actually sued the film company that made it for negligence.

2. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

On Monday, July 6th 1942, Anne Frank and her family moved into a small hiding space behind a bookshelf in an Amsterdam apartment building. They moved there to escape persecution from the Nazis, who’d invaded the country two years earlier and were deporting Jews, among others, to concentrations camps on a regular basis. While in hiding, Anne wrote a personal diary documenting her day-to-day life with her family (and another family who joined them later on). They were eventually discovered when an anonymous tipster outed the hideout in August 1944, sending The Franks to their deaths. The only surviving member of the family, Anne’s father Otto, was handed Anne’s papers by family friend Miep Gies after the end of the war and quickly discovered his daughter’s innate talent for writing. Otto hesitated in publishing the work, going so far as to censor out disparaging comments Anne made about himself and his wife between rejections from publishers. But after an article about the diary, called “A Child’s Voice,” appeared in the newspaper Het Parool in 1946 and attracted attention from publishers, Otto decided his daughter’s work should be read by as many people as possible. Diary of a Young Girl is beloved worldwide, has been made into a stage play and film, and has been translated into over 60 different languages.

3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

It took Robert Pirsig four years to write Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a manuscript in which the author attempts to understand the true meaning of life while on a motorcycle journey from Minnesota to California. For two of these years, he was working as a writer of computer manuals. To be able to finish the book and still pay the rent, Pirsig, who was in his forties at the time, woke up at 2:00 am, wrote until 6:00 am, then packed up his sack lunch and left for work. After groggily writing out a few pages of instructions, he’d retreat to the break room and sleep through his lunch break. He’d then finish out the day, go home, and hit the hay around 6:00 pm. It was as much a non-life as a man can live, but he was committed fastidiously to finish what he started. When the book was finally finished, it was rejected by publishers a whopping 121 times before it was picked up by an editor at William Morrow & Company, who said of the book, “It forced me to decide what I was in publishing for.”

4. Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen

Motivational speakers Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen chose the name Chicken Soup for the Soul for their collection of uplifting stories because chicken soup is typically used as a home remedy for the sick. Reading the book is definitely like having someone serve your soul a warm heaping of broth on a cold day, which is why it’s so shocking that publishers turned down Canfield and Hansen 33 times before someone agreed to take the book on. Reasons varied for why the publishers didn’t want to slurp down what Canfield and Hansen were serving up: anthologies were typically not big sellers in the market; the book was a little too positive to work. Those 33 publishers are probably feeling a little ill today, seeing as how the 65-title series has sold more than 80 million copies in 37 languages and has spread more joy and comfort in the world than any publication since The Bible.

5. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Author Madeleine L’Engle struggled getting A Wrinkle in Time, her first novel, published. She completed the book in early 1960 after about a year of writing. It was rejected by 26 different publishers because, in L’Engle’s words, it was “too different.” Also working against the book, according to L’Engle, is the fact that it was a science fiction novel that featured a female protagonist, which just “wasn’t done.” Her agents returned the manuscript to L’Engle, who randomly happened to meet a guest at her mother’s tea party who knew John Farrar of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Farrar loved the book and it’s strange sense of humor and signed L’Engle on immediately. The book has been in publication ever since, which goes to show you that even the most absurd concepts can have a place in popular culture.

6. Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison

Unimpressed editors and self-destructive writers are two major hurdles a book must overcome on the way to being published, but both are relatively minor compared to house fires. In 1967, Invisible Man penner Ralph Ellison lost the entirety of his novel to fire. At least that’s what Ellison said at first. Later, Ellison admitted that he used the house fire to cover up the fact that he’d made little to no progress on the book in recent months and had a full copy of the piece safely hidden away. After Ellison’s death, his biographer and close friend Arnold Rampersad combed through the 2000-plus page manuscript and edited it down to nearly one-tenth its size for publication. The book initially sold well based on the curiosity factor. Because of its continued success, his estate agreed to release the manuscript, as is, this past year, under the name Three Days Before the Shooting.

7. Carrie by Stephen King

Stephen King was living in a trailer in Hermon, Maine with his wife, Tabitha, when he wrote the first three pages of Carrie. He’d written for Cavalier magazine but hated the idea so much that he threw them in the garbage. Tabitha fished the pages out and urged her husband to finish the novel, which ended up being his fourth finished, first published. At the time, King was working as a high school teacher at Hampdem Academy, a job that he culled a great deal of the novel out of and then quit immediately after hearing word of the book’s publication. King had canceled his phone service because he was so poor during the writing of the book and received word of his first success as a writer via telegram. Since Carrie’s publication, King has worked steadily becoming one of the leading authors of the horror genre. His books have altogether sold more than 350 million copies.

READ: 10 Life Lessons Learned from Stephen King’s The Shining

8. Maurice by E.M. Forester

Forester is widely known for having written such masterpieces as Howard’s End and A Room With a View. And while those books are unflinchingly honest in their portrayals of British society, Maurice might be the bravest piece he ever wrote. The book, which details the life of a young homosexual living in Britain and his attempts to conform and ultimately escape persecution, would have been the first to explore a gay relationship without a hint of condemnation. This would have been unheard of if Forester had put the book up for publication in 1913, when only two countries had laws that allowed homosexual behavior. The manuscript was found after Forrester’s death in 1971 with the note: “Publishable, but worth it?” It’d be interesting to imagine what would have happened to Forester if he had followed through with the book in his lifetime, and if it might have given a persecuted class something beautiful to rally behind.

9. The Aeneid by Virgil

Virgil’s epic poem ends abruptly, as if the author didn’t know what should happen next. This is because Virgil simply didn’t have enough time to complete the Aeneid as he wished to before he died. In fact, according to history, he made his friends (one of whom was the current emperor, Augustus) promise that if he died before the poem could be properly edited, they would burn the entirety of it. Virgil contracted a fever while visiting a town near Megara, Greece and died shortly thereafter. Augustus, a great fan of Virgil’s work, disregarded his dead friend’s wishes and ordered that the Aeneid be published as is. The result is an imperfect classic piece, one that, if you believe the story, Virgil may have wanted destroyed.

10. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is a giant, sprawling book about a slothful 30-year-old in search of employment in New Orleans. He believed it to be a masterpiece, (rightfully so) but the publishers he sent it to seemed to think otherwise. Unable to handle the rejection, Toole committed suicide at the age of 31. The book would never have seen the light of day if Toole’s mother, Thelma, had not fastidiously championed the novel after her son’s untimely death, tracking down a smeared carbon copy of the book – possibly the only in existence at the time – and walking it in to various publishing houses. Nothing seemed to work until Thelma trapped New Orleans author Walker Percy in his office and forced him to read it. To his surprise, Percy enjoyed the book immensely. Toole posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.

Verse – Chapter 2

Verse – Chapter 3

Watch more episodes of VERSE

Chris Littler lives in Hollywood. He has a degree in Dramatic Writing from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, one of the most prestigious writing programs in America, which he totally plans to hang on the wall when he has a Study. Chris currently covers video games at UGO.com when he’s not performing improv at iO, and is currently writing a one-hour TV pilot with his friend Wes. Like everyone else you know, he has an album available to purchase on iTunes and has lots of things to say on his blog: chrislittler[dot]com.

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Must Reads 4/16/2014