J.K. Rowling’s latest movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, comes to American theaters on the 18th, and Hollywood is expecting a massive success. Before it even started filming, Warner Bros. agreed to produce four more films in the series — movies so hotly anticipated that some analysts claim they were the catalyst for AT&T’s recent bid to buy Time Warner.
They have plenty of reason to be hopeful: Rowling’s first franchise, Harry Potter — ever heard of it? —raked in a record-setting $7.7 billion. Today, Rowling has more money than the queen — much more — but it wasn’t always that way. Just 20 years ago she was a single mother living on welfare, her manuscripts rejected by more than a dozen publishers.
With Rowling’s next big hit upon us, we thought we’d take a look back at the years of frustration she went through to get here — and the many publishers who missed their chance at making history.
Rowling still remembers her very first rejection. The agent didn’t even send a proper letter — just a slip of paper — and instead of critiquing the manuscript, he went after her stationery, saying, “The folder you sent wouldn’t fit in the envelope.”
Later Rowling recalled that she “really minded about the folder, because I had almost no money and had to buy another one.”
Eventually, Bloomsbury agreed to publish Harry Potter, though they were less than enthusiastic. Her editor, Barry Cunningham, even advised her to get a day job because she would never make any money in children’s books.
Rowling never did need another day job — but she wasn’t quite done with rejection. After the massive success of Harry Potter, she tried her hand at a new genre, writing crime-mysteries under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Editors turned down Galbraith in droves, sometimes rudely.
One publisher wrote:
At the risk of ‘teaching my grandmother to suck eggs’, may I respectfully suggest the following:
Double check in a a helpful bookshop, on Amazon or in the twice yearly ‘Buyer’s Guide’ of the Bookseller magazine (order via newsagents, or available in your local reference library) precisely who are the publishers now of your fiction category/genre. [Note: it said on this publisher’s website that they specialized in crime fiction]
Call the publishers to obtain the name of the relevant editor; it is rarely productive to speak to her/him in person. Nowadays it is perfectly acceptable to approach numerous publishers at once and even several imprints within the same group (imprints tend to be compartmentalised).
Then send to each editor an alluring 200-word blurb (as on book jackets; don’t give away the ending!), the first chapter plus perhaps two others, and an S.A.E.
The covering letter should state as precisely as you can the category/genre of fiction you are submitting - cite successful authors in your genre, especially those published by the particular imprint you are contacting. Again a helpful bookshop may be able to advise you.
Much vital information can be found in The Writer’s Handbook and The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, but remember that details of an imprint’s publishing policy may be out of date, and acquiring a literary agent is even harder than finding a publisher! Owing to pressure of submissions, I regret we cannot reply individually or provide constructive criticism. (A writers’ group/writing course may help with the latter.) May I wish you every success in placing your work elsewhere.
It must have been some consolation to Rowling that though this publisher tried to be helpful, in the end, one of the most successful authors in history was told to take a writing course.
Even the publisher who first rejected Harry Potter leapt at the opportunity to make the same mistake again.
Despite her success now, Rowling has always been open about her difficult path to authordom. The only reason we even have her rejection letters today is because she posted them to Twitter as an inspiration to struggling young writers.
And, when one Twitter user followed up about that first rejection slip by asking, “How many folders do you have now JK?” …
Rowling had the perfect reply: