'I'm sorry Mr Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language'
Adam Bielenberg on the publishers who turned away bestsellers
Published 19/11/2010 | 05:00
With the appearance of The Deathly Hallows Part One in the cinema, we will finally start to say goodbye to Harry Potter.
When Part Two is screened next year the series will be over, but that will not stop up to nine publishing executives quietly kicking themselves.
These are the industry gurus, as yet unnamed by JK Rowling, who turned down the story of the most famous boy wizard ever. They are the book world's equivalent of the genius at Decca Records who rejected the Beatles with the immortal line "guitar groups are on the way out''.
And were it not for a persistent eight-year-old girl, we may never have said hello to Harry Potter at all.
Rowling wrote her debut, The Philosopher's Stone, as a divorced, single mother, and received feedback from several publishing houses that the novel was too lengthy to be a successful children's book.
She sent a manuscript to Bloomsbury Publishing. The company's chief-executive, Nigel Newton, handed the book to his eight-year-old daughter, Alice.
She came down from her room saying: "Dad, this is so much better than anything else.''
Newton quickly fired off a cheque to Rowling of £2,500. This proved to be one of the most successful investments in recent history. The Potter series went on to sell 400 million copies.
The publishing executives who turned their noses up at JK Rowling can at least console themselves that they were not alone. Gems are routinely lost in the vast amount of verbiage that comes their way.
Stephen King was informed he should try something else other than writing when he submitted his first book. He was told: "We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell."
His classic horror thriller, Carrie, rapidly notched up sales of more than one million copies. It also kicked off a hugely successful career for King.
Irish author Sarah Webb, who has had nine bestselling novels, says a writer has to have a thick skin to get by. "My first book, Kids Can Cook, was rejected six times before it was finally published by Children's Press. I knew it was a good idea, so I just kept trying. It taught me never to give up.''
Clearly some of the best-known literary figures have also shown this persistence. Otherwise they would have disappeared into obscurity.
Fortunately George Orwell was not too disheartened when a publisher rejected the manuscript of Animal Farm as if it were a cute kids' fairy tale. He was told by a book executive: "It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.''
And Rudyard Kipling just kept on scribbling after being informed by an editor at the San Francisco Examiner newspaper that he could not publish one of his stories.
"I'm sorry, Mr Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language.''
James Joyce's collection of short stories Dubliners was turned down by 22 publishers before it was published by Grant Richards.
And not everyone was impressed by the most famous journal of the 20th century, The Diary of Anne Frank. The publisher noted: "The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift the book above the curiosity level.''
When William Golding tried to publish Lord of the Flies, a reader from Faber & Faber famously branded it as "an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull".
Twenty publishers had rejected the contemporary classic. Thankfully, a separate reader from Faber & Faber saw its potential and gave it the go-ahead.
Golding went on to receive a Nobel Prize.
One has to feel a certain sympathy for the 18 publishers who threw out Richard Bach's sentimental yarn Jonathan Livingston Seagull in the early '70s. How were they to guess that a story told from the point of view of a seagull would fly to the top of the American bestseller list and stay there for 38 weeks?
The Harry Potter era may be nearing its end, but publishers will still lay awake at night sweating, fearing that they have missed the diamond in the slush pile that could make their firm a fortune.