10 real rejection letters successful people have received

JK Rowling

REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

British author J.K. Rowling poses with a copy of her book “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”

Even the most successful people have to deal with rejection from time to time.

Best-selling author J.K. Rowling recently tweeted that she pinned her first rejection letter to her kitchen wall because it gave her something in common with her favorite writers.

Before her Harry Potter series sold more than 450 million copies, won innumerable awards, was made into a hit movie franchise, and transformed Rowling’s life, she lived in a cramped apartment with her daughter, jobless and penniless, and felt like the biggest failure she knew.

She has said she received “loads” of rejections from book publishers when she first sent out her Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” manuscript. “I wasn’t going to give up until every single publisher turned me down, but I often feared that would happen,” she recently tweeted.

In 1997, Bloomsbury, a publishing house in London, finally gave her book the green light. She added the “K” to her pen name (for Kathleen, her paternal grandmother) at the publisher’s request, since women’s names were found to be less appealing to the target audience of young boys — and three days after the Harry Potter book was published in the UK, Scholastic bid $100,000 for the American publishing rights, an unprecedented amount for a children’s book at the time.

She is now one of the world’s top-earning authors.

Rowling isn’t the only successful person to receive heart-wrenching rejection letters. C.S. Lewis received 800 rejections before he sold his first piece of writing, and Mary Higgins Clark spent six years trying to get her first novel published, which she sold for $100. Forty years after that first novel, Clark accepted a $64 million book deal with Simon Schuster in the 1990s.

Below are 10 rejection letters that now-famous people once received:

Vivian Giang contributed to an earlier version of this story.

Even after publishing the best-selling book series in history, the rejection letters didn’t stop coming for Rowling.

Under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, she submitted her 2013 novel “The Cuckoo’s Calling” to several publishing houses, some of which sent her rejection letters that she recently tweeted.

In a letter from publisher Constable & Robinson, a representative wrote that the company couldn’t publish the crime novel “with commercial success” and suggested the author attend writing school.

Her novel was eventually accepted by Sphere Books, an imprint of Little, Brown & Company, and the other publishing houses are likely kicking themselves for passing on the series. After Rowling’s identity as the author was leaked on Twitter, book sales immediately soared and topped the charts.

Famed fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin posted a rejection letter that calls her book ‘unreadable’ on her web site to remind others to ‘hang in there.’

Comic book artist Jim Lee says then Marvel Comics submissions editor Eliot Brown was ‘dead on’ for rejecting his page samples submission.

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After receiving many more rejection letter, Lee finally received a “yes” (and an assignment) from Marvel. He is now considered one of the comic book greats.

When David Foster Wallace submitted his work to literary quarterly The Massachusetts Review, an editor wrote that it ‘would be good to publish such an obviously up-and-coming writer,’ but he felt his work lacking a story.

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The publication now considers its rejection a “missed opportunity.”

Before he became famous for masterpieces such as ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘The Nightmare before Christmas,’ Tim Burton was rejected by Disney.

A Disney representative wrote that the rejection came partly because Burton’s submission may have been “too derivative of the Seuss works to be marketable.”

In 1956, MoMA declined to accept Andy Warhol’s drawing titled ‘Shoe,’ which he gave the museum as a gift.

MoMA now owns 168 pieces by the artist.

After mailing The Atlantic three samples of his work, Kurt Vonnegut received this rejection letter from editor Edward Weeks in 1949.

Weeks writes, “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.”

The letter now hangs in the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis.

Author Gertrude Stein was probably fuming when she got this letter from publisher Arthur C. Fifield mocking her manuscript of ‘Three Lives.’

Alice Munro received this 1968 rejection letter from Knopf editor Judith Jones for her book ‘Dance of the Happy Shades.’

Jones writes there is “nothing particularly new and exciting” about Munro’s short stories, calls her work”easily overlooked” and “forgotten,” and comments that Munro is “not that young.”

Today, Munro is the first Canadian and 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature.

Aerospace engineer Clayton Anderson was rejected by NASA 15 times before finally going to space.

According to the book “Other People’s Rejection Letters,” Anderson didn’t feel depressed after receiving rejection letters from NASA. He said he actually felt “hope” whenever he received one: “Most applicants receive postcards; a letter sent on stationary meant something.” 

After getting selected to train as a mission specialist by NASA in 1998, he spent finally shot into space in 2007 to spend five months aboard the International Space Station.


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