by Will Viharo
The history of literature is filled with unlikely success stories of major bestsellers and enduring classics that were rejected multiple times before finally connecting with both an intrepid publisher and a wide, adoring audience, against all odds.
While these rare tales of triumph have always provided inspiration to the aspiring author, today’s digital DIY tools have not only revolutionized the way books are consumed, but have greatly increased the writer’s chances of being discovered while circumventing the traditional gatekeepers altogether.
The litany of literary success stories seems endless, when in fact, they’re fairly few in number. But they still stand out as beacons to the ambitious amateur trying to break into these rarified ranks.
Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece Dune was rejected 23 times before finally being accepted by a small Philadelphia press called Chilton. Margaret Mitchell’s historical romance Gone with the Wind – which continues to influence one of the most popular genres for eBooks – was rejected 38 times. Perhaps most famously, Stephen King’s seminal horror classic Carrie was literally retrieved from the trash can by his wife Tabitha following 30 rejections. And we all know what happened next.
Of course, there are also examples of what not to do, like quit too soon, perhaps most infamously illustrated by poor John Kennedy Toole, whose cult classic A Confederacy of Dunces was finally published (with the aid of Walker Percy) eleven years after his suicide. It went on to win a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1981.
So what’s the lesson here? Faith in one’s own work and perseverance despite repeated failure eventually pays off? Maybe, maybe not. The point is you won’t know until and unless you try.
Self-publishing is not new, just easier
No matter how tenacious you are, there’s never any guarantee that your book will ever be accepted by a publisher no matter how many times you submit it to any number of presses large and small. The reasons for the rejections may vary, or, if you keep hearing the same criticism over and over again, you may want to consider revising your work one more time. Mostly, it depends on your own agenda, which now more than ever is completely under your control. As long as you follow some basic rules of the road.
James Joyce actually self-published the first edition of his celebrated cerebral epic Ulysses because mainstream publishers found it too obscene and incomprehensible (though it had been serialized in a magazine). He sold these copies privately before it was officially published for worldwide distribution and universal acclaim much later. Of course, he already had an established reputation and media network (the 1922 equivalent of an insanely popular social media platform) to support this unorthodox scheme. Edgar Allen Poe also self-published and personally distributed much of his early work.
Few of us are of the caliber of a Joyce or Poe, though. But we don’t all need to be quirky geniuses. All you need now, besides that crucial key ingredient of confidence, is:
You can easily target a global audience of potential readers within a few hours, as opposed to months and years of sending out typewritten manuscripts that will most likely wind up in the slush pile.
Consider the amazing but true story of Andy Weir, who decided to forego that route and self-published his one-man sci-fi saga The Martian in 2011. It was then republished by Crown in 2014, and subsequently turned into a major motion picture directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, being released this November.
Then there’s James Redfield, author of The Celestine Prophecy. In 1992, after suffering multiple rejections, he not only self-published his book, but actually gave away 1500 copies in order to generate a buzz. It was finally picked up by Warner in 1994, and went straight to #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list.
This was long before the Internet, too. Now it’s so much simpler to duplicate this same strategy and while you may not have the same results, these precedents prove it’s not only possible but with current technology, that much more probable.
Do you feel confident enough to market your own book? If not, what’s holding you back?