Essential Books That Almost Never Saw The Light Of Day

Until quite recently, Great American Novelist Harper Lee was assumed to be, like Margaret Mitchell, the mother of a literary only child. She was one and done. Now we hear from Lee’s publisher, HarperCollins, that To Kill a Mockingbird has a sibling after all: Go Set A Watchman, which will hit bookshelves this summer.

Apparently Lee wrote Watchman, the story of Scout Finch as an adult, first, and was encouraged to go back and write a story about Scout as a child. That second novel became a prize-winning and beloved literary sensation. Now, decades later, Watchman—Mockingbird’s predecessor and progenitor, if not quite its prequelwill at last get to stand side by side with Mockingbird on your bookshelves. Here are nine more essential books that very nearly never saw the light of day.

The Trial, by Franz Kafka
Even Kafka, apparently, thought his writing was too Kafkaesque. Though he published some material during his life, he left clear instructions to his good friend and literary executor Max Brod that, after his death, Brod destroy everything. Brod cheerfully agreed and then cheerfully did the opposite as soon as he was free to, even finishing up certain manuscripts before releasing them into the world. Only once Brod did so did Kafka receive the praise and attention he deserved.

The First Wives Club, by Olivia Goldsmith
Olivia Goldsmith wrote her first novel, The First Wives Club, after her own bitter divorce, then couldn’t sell it. Only once Hollywood producer Sherry Lansing found and bought the unpublished manuscript—to make it into the exuberant 1996 film version starring Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, and Bette Midler—did Goldsmith’s book make it into stores. Then, like the movie it inspired, it became a hit.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
Would you believe publishers thought the first book in the so-popular-it-defies-adverbs Harry Potter series was too long? Scores of agents refused to represent JK (then “Jo”) Rowling, who had so little money she couldn’t even pay for photocopying. Even once she managed to secure representation, scores of publishers turned her down. Thankfully, the wise and assertive eight-year-old daughter of an editor at Bloomsbury UK got her hands on Chapter One: The Boy Who Lived and would not stop bothering her father to let her read more until he gave in and made the best decision of his life (and ours). Bless that child. She deserves some sort of Nobel Prize.

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
American publishers in the 1950s were unanimously opposed to Nabokov’s now classic novel. One rejection letter read, “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” He sought—and found—better luck in Paris.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter
Perhaps it was the same fools who continually rejected the first Dr. Seuss book, And To Think That It Happened on Mulberry Street, who also tried to shut down the dreams of one Beatrix Potter. (If those children’s book editors liked neither Seuss nor Potter, one must ask, what on earth did they like?) Lucky for all of us, she persevered, self-publishing 250 black-and-white copies in 1901 of what has since become a children’s classic.

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
After five years of rejection, prospective author John Kennedy Toole committed suicide, at which point his mother labored for another seven years to get his manuscript published. She finally succeeded and, thanks to her determination as much as his talent, her son eventually won a (posthumous) Pulitzer Prize.

The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, by Emily Dickinson
Unlike most authors, Dickinson was not driven by a desire to be widely read, let alone famous. What poems of hers appeared in print during her life did so anonymously and/or, scholars suspect, without her consent: “Dickinson evidently valued her privacy too much to risk the fate of a nineteenth-century literary celebrity.” Her family and executors began publishing her work after her death, and poems continued trickling into the public consciousness until the mid 20th century.

Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer
Stephenie Meyer’s vampire romances have sold over 120 million copies worldwide. Without Twilight, millions of girls born in the past few years would not have been named Bella; more dire still, without Twilight, there would be no Fifty Shades of Grey. Yet Twilight made it as a result of a fluke: a young assistant at the Writer’s House literary agency happened to pick Meyer’s query letter out of the slush pile.

Chicken Soup for the Soul, by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen
A whopping 140 editors passed on what seems in retrospect to be one of the biggest no-brainers in publishing history. What were wire racks in drug stores invented for if not to showcase these catchy, feel-good paperback anthologies? As Cracked put it:

 The fate of the book came down to finding a publisher who was desperate enough. That publisher was Health Communications, a small company specializing in recovery books on subjects like alcoholism and drug addiction…. When they saw Chicken Soup for the Soul, they immediately loved it and snapped it right up for a hefty advance of zero dollars. Then they watched as approximately every English-speaking person on Earth bought a copy.

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