These well-known Bestselling Authors amazingly struggled to get the following blockbusters published:
1. Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis
Based on his party-throwing, out-of-control aunt, Patrick Dennis's story defined in 1955 what Americans now know as "camp." However, before Vanguard Press picked it up, 15 other publishers rejected it. Within years, Auntie Mame would not only become a hit on Broadway but a popular film as well. Dennis became a millionaire and, in 1956, was the first author in history to have three books simultaneously ranked on The New York Times best-seller list.
2. Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
Richard Bach has always said that this story, told from the point of view of a young seagull, wasn't written but channeled. When he sent out the story, Bach received 18 rejection letters. Nobody thought a story about a seagull that flew not for survival but for the joy of flying itself would have an audience. Boy, were they wrong! Macmillan Publishers finally picked up Jonathan Livingston Seagull in 1972, and that year the book sold more than a million copies. A movie followed in 1973, with a sound track by Neil Diamond.
3. Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen
Within a month of submitting the first manuscript to publishing houses, the creative team behind this multimillion dollar series got turned down 33 consecutive times. Publishers claimed that "anthologies don't sell" and the book was "too positive." Total number of rejections? 140. Then, in 1993, the president of Health Communications took a chance on the collection of poems, stories, and tidbits of encouragement. Today, the 65-title series has sold more than 80 million copies in 37 languages.
4. Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
With a name like Thor, adventure on the high seas is sort of a given, isn't it? In 1947, Heyerdahl took a crew of six men on a 4,300-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean. But not on a cruise ship -- their vessel was a reproduction of a prehistoric balsa wood raft, and the only modern equipment they carried was a radio. Heyerdahl wrote the true story of his journey from Peru to Polynesia, but when he tried to get it published, he couldn't. One publisher asked him if anyone had drowned. When Heyerdahl said no, they rejected him on the grounds that the story wouldn't be very interesting. In 1953, after 20 rejections, Kon-Tiki finally found a publisher -- and an audience. The book is now available in 66 languages.
5. The Peter Principle by Laurence Peter
In 1969, after 16 reported rejections, Canadian professor Laurence Peter's business book about bad management finally got a green light from Bantam Books. Within one year, the hardcover version of The Peter Principle was in its 15th reprint. Peter went on to write The Peter Prescription, The Peter Plan, and the unintentionally amusing The Peter Pyramid: Will We Ever Get to the Point? None of Peter's follow-up books did as well as the original, but no one can deny the book's impact on business publishing.
6. Dubliners by James Joyce
It took 22 rejections before a publisher took a chance on a young James Joyce in 1914. They didn't take too big of a chance -- only 1,250 copies of Dubliners were initially published. Joyce's popularity didn't hit right away; out of the 379 copies that sold in the first year, Joyce himself purchased 120 of them. Joyce would go on to be regarded as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Dubliners, a collection of short stories, is among the most popular of Joyce's titles, which include A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Finnegans Wake, and Ulysses.
7. Lorna Doone by Richard Doddridge Blackmore
You know you've done well when you've got a cookie named after your novel's heroine. Not only does Nabisco's Lorna Doone cookie remind us of Blackmore's classic, but there are nearly a dozen big-screen or TV versions of the story as well. This Devonshire-set romance of rivalry and revenge was turned down 18 times before being published in 1889. Today, Blackmore is considered one of the greatest British authors of the 19th century, though his popularity has waned over time.
8. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
Pirsig's manuscript attempts to understand the true meaning of life. By the time it was finally published in 1974, the book had been turned down 121 times. The editor who finally published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance said of Pirsig's book, "It forced me to decide what I was in publishing for." Indeed, Zen has given millions of readers an accessible, enjoyable book for seeking insight into their own lives.
9. M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker
Before the television series, there was the film. Before the film, there was the novel. Richard Hooker's unforgettable book about a medical unit serving in the Korean War was rejected by 21 publishers before eventually seeing the light of day. It remains a story of courage and friendship that connects with audiences around the world in times of war and peace.
10. Carrie by Stephen King
If it hadn't been for Stephen King's wife, Tabitha, the iconic image of a young girl in a prom dress covered in pig's blood would not exist. King received 30 rejections for his story of a tormented girl with telekinetic powers, and then he threw it in the trash. Tabitha fished it out. King sent his story around again and, eventually, Carrie was published. The novel became a classic in the horror genre and has enjoyed film and TV adaptations as well. Sometimes all it takes is a little encouragement from someone who believes in you.
11. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The only book that Margaret Mitchell ever published, Gone With the Wind won her a Pulitzer Prize in 1937. The story of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, set in the South during the Civil War, was rejected by 38 publishers before it was printed. The 1939 movie made of Mitchell's love story, which starred Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, is the highest grossing Hollywood film of all time (adjusted for inflation).
12. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
The publishing house of Farrar, Straus and Giroux was smart enough to recognize the genius in L'Engle's tale for people of all ages. Published in 1962, the story was awarded the prestigious Newbery Medal the following year. Wrinkle remains one of the best-selling children's books of all time, and the story of precocious children and the magical world they discover was adapted for television in 2001. Still, L'Engle amassed 26 rejections before this success came her way.
13. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison by Charles Shaw
In 1952, Crown Publishing Group in New York took a chance on the story of a shipwreck in the South Pacific. Shaw, an Australian author, was rejected by dozens of publishers on his own continent and by an estimated 20 British publishing firms, too. By 1957, this humorous tale was made into a movie starring Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum. The story and the movie are considered war classics and garnered several Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Writing.
14. Dune by Frank Herbert
This epic science-fiction story was rejected by 23 publishers before being accepted by Chilton, a small Philadelphia publisher. Dune quickly became a success, winning awards such as the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1966. Dune was followed by five sequels, and though none did as well as the original, a film version of the book starring rock star Sting did quite well and remains a cult favorite.
Return to Top
High school English assignments aside, Americans have always loved to read. A good book can be a lesson, an adventure, and an escape rolled into one. The authors on this list have soothed, instructed and entertained generations of Americans with their stories of romance, horror, success, and adventure. Some may be familiar, some may not, but one or two may have already changed your life. Exact sales figures are impossible to verify, but according to various sources, here are the top 10 best-selling American authors of all time.
10. Louis L'Amour
When he was young, Louis L'Amour wanted to be a poet, but poetry doesn't pay the bills. So he decided to become one of America's most prolific novelists instead. L'Amour wrote Western novels, drawing on the experiences of his travels as a young man in the American West, where he met a surreal collection of colorful characters while working odd jobs. He published his first short story in 1937. By the time of his death in 1988 at age 80, L’Amour had written more than 100 novels. His novels have now sold more than 300 million copies and have been translated into 20 languages.
9. Sidney Sheldon
Sidney Sheldon was a prolific and popular novelist, but that was only part of his legacy. He spent much of his writing career in Hollywood, where he wrote 25 major screenplays, including Annie Get Your Gun and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, for which he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1947. He wrote hundreds of television scripts for TV programs and was the creator of shows such as The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie and Hart to Hart.
Although Sheldon didn't write his first novel until he was in his 50s, he eventually produced 18 novels and a memoir, The Other Side of Me, detailing his struggle with bipolar disorder. Sheldon's heroines were always beautiful, his heroes handsome, and his plots action-packed. His books have been translated into 51 languages and have sold more than 300 million copies.
8. Stephen King
In 1973, Stephen King was working as an English teacher in Hampden, Maine, and selling short stories on the side to make ends meet. Later that year, he accepted a $2,500 advance for his first novel, Carrie, to Doubleday — but only after his wife, Tabitha, fished the manuscript out of the trash and insisted he submit it to publishers. Within weeks, Doubleday had sold the reprint rights to Carrie, netting King an unheard-of $200,000 royalty check. By decade’s end, he had written several other horror novels that remain among his most popular works: Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Dead Zone and The Stand. He hasn’t slowed down since, publishing almost 50 novels and over 200 short stories, including several works under the pen name Richard Bachman. As of 2011, total sales for King’s books were estimated to be between 300 and 350 million copies.
7. Dean Koontz
Like most of the authors on this list, Dean Koontz gives the word “prolific” a whole new meaning. He has written more than 100 books, and sold more than 400 million copies. According to Koontz’s website , his books sell an estimated 17 million copies per year. Koontz endured an unhappy childhood at the mercy of his violent, alcoholic father. His characters typically struggle with pasts marred by abuse and face forces of unspeakable evil. Some critics knock the formulaic approach, but his fans don’t care. Koontz's plots mimic his own life, however, in that they always have a happy ending.
6. R.L. Stine
Robert Lawrence Stine has written more than 300 books for children and young adults. His best-selling Goosebumps series has sold more than 300 million copies. Stine’s other series include Fear Street and Dangerous Girls. Stine doesn't just scare kids; he also makes them laugh. Before he published his first young-adult horror novel, Blind Date, in 1986, Stine made his living writing children's humor. When not writing, Stine actively promotes children's literacy at special events across the United States.
5. Horatio Alger Jr.
Unless you're a literary scholar, you've probably never read any of the books Horatio Alger Jr. wrote in the late 19th century. Alger’s works went out of vogue in the 1920s, but his name remains synonymous with rags-to-riches stories in which the hero overcomes poverty through sheer strength of character and will. Alger's most popular novel was also one of his first; Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks, which was published in 1868. Alger’s estimated book sales range between 100 million and 400 million copies.
4. Gilbert Patten
Like Horatio Alger Jr., Gilbert Patten (1886-1945) is mostly unknown to readers today, as his best work came early in the 20th century. And like Alger, Patten wrote popular pulp-fiction novels for young men and boys. Patten, who often wrote under the pseudonym Burt L. Standish, liked to write about upstanding, athletic young men. His most famous character was Frank Merriwell, who was handsome, intelligent, virtuous and solidly middle class. Patten's Frank Merriwell stories are believed to have sold more than 500,000 copies a week during their heyday. Scholars estimate that Patten's total sales range between 125 and 500 million copies.
3. Dr. Seuss
Theodor Seuss Geisel wasn't really a doctor. He dropped out of his doctorate program at Oxford and went on a tour of Europe, much to his father's consternation. But everything turned out OK, because he could be the reason you're able to read these words at all. In the 1950s, the United States faced a literacy crisis, as American children weren't learning to read. Contemporary authors, editors and publishers blamed the spread of childhood illiteracy on the low quality of children's reading primers at the time. These were the days of Dick and Jane books. Dick saw Jane. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run.
The Cat in the Hat , published in 1957, changed all that. Using only 250 words deemed suitable for first-graders, Dr. Seuss crafted a thrilling tale of feline mayhem and absentee parenting that — and here was the revolutionary part — made reading fun for young children. Before he died in 1991, Dr. Seuss published 44 children's books, translated into 21 languages. His total sales are estimated at well above 500 million copies.
2. Danielle Steel
Danielle Steel mostly writes romance novels, a subject she ought to know pretty well, since she's been married five times. She published her first book, Going Home, when she was 26. She has since published more than 100 others, including some children's books and at least two nonfiction efforts. More than 20 of Steel's books have been adapted for the small screen. Depending upon the source, Steel’s novels have sold between 600 million and 800 million copies. She holds the Guinness World Record for most consecutive weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List.
1. Harold Robbins
Legend has it that Harold Robbins was an orphan who escaped from the foster-care system at 15 and worked a series of odd jobs before becoming a shipping clerk at Universal Studios and working his way up. He also supposedly became a self-made millionaire as a teen by playing the stock market. Though the part about the shipping-clerk job is true, the rest isn't. Harold Robbins was born Harold Rubin, and he was raised by his parents. His father was a pharmacist who made a good living. Robbins himself was the source of those legendary tales, showing that he had a vivid imagination even at a young age.
Robbins published his first book in 1948 and was able to write full time by 1957. Though some critics have compared his work to the graffiti found in public toilets, with their graphic sex and decadent lifestyles, Robbins always brushed off the criticism and pressed on at a prolific pace, writing more than 30 novels. His personal life mirrored that of his characters, as he was a larger-than-life figure who owned luxury homes around the world, an expensive art collection, yachts and a fleet of Rolls Royces. Robbins’ estimated book sales top 750 million copies, making him one of the top five best-selling authors in the world.
Article First Published June 11, 2011 – Marjorie McAtee in: www.Listosaur.com
Marjorie McAtee is a graduate of Hollins University, where she studied English and French. Her creative work appears in publications including Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Amarillo Bay, and Flashquake. She blogs about stuff and things at Don't Call Me Marge. You can email her at email@example.com, follow her on Twitter @marjoriemcatee or find her on Facebook.
Return to Top