Never give up! Never surrender!

Zoë Sharp

Rejection is a constant part of life. And we writers have to face more of it than most. In fact, I read somewhere recently that authors take more criticism in a year than do most ‘normal’ people in a lifetime. And while that may be an exaggeration, so often it doesn’t feel like it.

As Bruce DeSilva pointed out in his Wildcard interview on Tuesday: “The great James Lee Burke’s first novel, THE LOST GET-BACK BOOGIE, was rejected 111 times before it was finally published—and then went on to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Rejections have more to do with whether agents and publishers think a book will sell than about whether they think it is good.”

I came across a recent article in the Huffington Post about famous rejections—or rejections of the famous. Because it’s not enough to be simply turned down, but sometimes an author receives such a damning comment about their work that they could be forgiven for throwing in the towel.

It’s only later, after their books have become prize-winning bestsellers, that these rejections stop stinging and become rather funny. So, here’s some of the best of the bunch:


Anne Frank’s diary only found a publisher successfully after being featured in a newspaper article. Before this, the famous memoir was rejected repeatedly, with one publisher saying, “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”



William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES

Presumably not foreseeing Golding’s classic novel becoming a schoolroom staple, 20 publishers rejected it. One with the damning comment, “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” Try writing that on a GCSE English paper.



Vladimir Nabokov’s LOLITA

Eventually published in Paris (where else?), LOLITA was rejected by Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Farrar, Straus, and Doubleday. Originally cast away as, “overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian … the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream … I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” The American version of the novel went on to be a bestseller, selling 100,000 copies in the first three weeks.



It’s not unusual for first novels to be rejected, but John le Carré’s went on to make TIME Magazine’s All-Time 100 Novels list. The publisher who passed on the author with the comment, “You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future,” presumably didn’t imagine this.



F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY

Fitzgerald’s principal character is arguably as famous as the novel he appears in, yet one publisher advised the author in a rejection letter, “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”

For myself, I had the usual run of rejections for the first novel in my series. One publisher told me that although they very much liked Charlie Fox, they “didn’t see where you can take this character to get more than one book out of her.” Book ten, DIE EASY, comes out in October (UK—Jan 2013 US).

And when I was contemplating bringing out my backlist last year in e-book format, I was strongly advised by one publisher against going the indie route. “She will sell 17 copies to friends, and that will be it.” The books sell more than that every hour of every day since.

So ‘Rati, want to share your best/worse pieces of criticism or rejection with us? And all the sweeter if they’ve subsequently been proved wrong!

This week’s Word of the Week is elocution, which when coupled with lessons is often taken to mean to learn to speak without an accent, or to mask one’s original accent, but it actually means the art of effective speaking, especially public speaking, in terms of enunciation and delivery; eloquence.

Oh, and if anybody is near The Gallery at Bank Quay, Warrington on Friday evening (7-9pm) I shall be giving a talk hosted by Wire Writers and the Warrington Writers’ Group. Hope to see you there!

19 thoughts on “Never give up! Never surrender!

  1. Allison Davis

    I can't wait to get my manuscript out there and have it rejected a few zillion times. Bring it on. (And I'm one of the many folks who downloaded your backlist).

    Isn't the best story the rejection of the Harry Potter books? That's the lotto ticket that got away.

  2. lil Gluckstern

    I think there is a Q.E.D. hidden in there, to keep on trying as long as you can. Great post. And in one form another, I have most of your Charlie books. I think I took out a couple from the library, and then proceeded to purchasing. I don't even read the so called best sellers on the lists. Quality trumps all.

  3. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison
    Firstly, thank you very much for downloading the backlist, and I hope you’ve enjoyed them 🙂

    I love the story about JK Rowling being rejected by twelve publishers. I understand, also, that her first advance was £400 (less than $650).

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi lil
    Thank you! And yes, sometimes you do just have to keep on bashing your head against that wall until either your head gives, or the wall does 🙂

    Oh, and libraries rule! I don’t know where I’d be without people taking a flyer on one of my books from a library before getting into the rest of the series.

  5. KDJames

    Zoë, your post made me recall this quote:

    "The penalty for success is to be bored by the people who used to snub you." -Nancy Astor

    I'm glad you didn't let anyone discourage you to the point of stopping.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, god, rejection was so constant in Hollywood I don't even remember specifics any more. I got bulletproof. I always just sat there and breathed in the screenwriters' mantra: "Yeah, but one year, five years, ten years from now, I'll still be a writer. Where will YOU be?"

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, KD
    Love the Nancy Astor quote. She came out with some belters. Another of hers I particularly like was supposedly one of her famous acidic exchanges with Winston Churchill:

    “Winston, if I were married to you, I’d put poison in your tea.”
    “Madam, if I were married to you, I’d drink it.”

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David
    LOL, erm, I could probably do someone a nasty with a towel―they make a handy garrote!

    And I’m hoping for improved sales as soon as the epub and print versions come on line this summer!

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex
    That sounds like a good mantra, although these days nobody can ever guarantee they WILL still be here five or ten years down the line. Reminds me of yet another exchange between Nancy Astor and Winston Churchill:

    “Winston, you’re drunk!”
    “Madam, you’re ugly. But in the morning, I shall be sober …”


  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, Z, I don't know. One year or ten years from now I could be dead but I STILL would have been a writer up till the end. I think that's more the point.

    (You are on a Churchill kick today, aren't you?)

  11. PD Martin

    Great post, Zoe. And the post and comment hit on two of my sayings! I always say trying to get published was a case of 'Never Surrender' (in Churchill voice). And Allison I think every book an author has out there is like a lottery ticket. Because if your 10th release hits the best seller lists, chances are your first nine will too.

    Thanks again, Zoe! And great to hear your backlist sales are doing so well. I'm not the proud owner of books 1 & 2 on Kindle. I've read and loved book 1 and I'm looking forward to book 2!

  12. Sarah W

    This reminds me of something Harlan Coben said on a panel he did at Bouchercon last year: “I don’t want to brag, but with the fourth novel, I was getting $6,000. Overnight–just like that.”

    On the same panel, I learned that Ridley Pearson wrote six or seven hours a day for eight and a half years before being published. He actually fell back on *songwriting* to survive, which isn’t the traditional way ‘round.

    On good days, this is both awe-inspiring and comforting. On tough days, it's like looking up at Mt. Everest from Lukla.

    I recently failed to make the short list for something and for an hour or two (and a pint of Talenti Belgian Milk Chocolate gelato), it didn't help much that I'd gained some necessary practice and some priceless how-tos along the way. But a few days later, after I could be philosophical about it, someone was kind enough to tell me I *had* made the top twenty.

    From where I'm standing, that isn't bad at all.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex
    I have plenty of Churchill quotes. I love his sense of humour―and Lady Astor’s as well, of course. In fact, the only downside I can find to the man is that he promised to support the women’s suffrage movement, and then failed to do so. Ah, well, can’t have everything.

    And you’re quite right―being a writer is what we ARE, not what we DO.

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Phillipa
    I confess that actually I had Mathesar from ‘Galaxy Quest’ firmly in mind when I came up with that title!

    Someone once told me that getting a publishing deal is like winning the lottery … only you discover that all you’ve won is a ticket to ANOTHER lottery.

    And thank you for giving my backlist a try. Much easier to spend less than the price of a fancy takeout coffee on an ebook than hundreds on an out-of-print collector’s edition, isn’t it?

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    I’m sorry you didn’t make your shortlist, but being longlisted is quite an honour too. And look at the rejection letters above. Ha, what do they know?

    Persistence is everything. You have talent―I know, I’ve read your stuff. Keep plugging away and you’ll get there 🙂

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