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A publisher once told J.K. Rowling her books wouldn’t be a “commercial success"

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Even J.K. Rowling, one of the most successful authors in the world, gets rejected sometimes.

After she wrote all seven books in the Harry Potter series, Rowling began writing mysteries for adults set in contemporary London under a pseudonym: "Robert Galbraith." She said she wanted her writing to succeed on its own merits, not because of the name on the cover.

But using a pseudonym also meant that some publishers had no qualms about turning down her first manuscript in that series, The Cuckoo's Calling. She tweeted some of those rejection letters Friday:

The longer letter, from Constable and Robinson, said the publisher had decided the book "could not be published with commercial success," and went on to give three paragraphs of advice on navigating the publishing business to one of the most successful living writers: Figure out which publishers work in your genre, write a 200-word blurb to send along, consult The Writer's Handbook, and consider joining a writers group or taking a class if you want feedback.

One of the editors who rejected the book, although she didn't write either of the letters Rowling tweeted, later owned up to it, saying she liked the book but didn't love it, and that launching a new crime series is particularly difficult:

The Cuckoo's Calling was eventually published to good reviews in April 2013. But it wasn't a commercial success, selling only 1,500 copies in the first three months after publication. After an investigation by London's Sunday Times newspaper revealed that Rowling was the author, it became a best-seller.

One publisher even has the ignominious honor of having turned Rowling down — and missed the chance for millions of dollars of sales — twice.

Rowling wanted to offer some encouragement to aspiring writers: Rejection is a fact of life.

Go deeper:

  • Unmasking J.K. Rowling as the author of The Cuckoo's Calling began with an anonymous tweet, the New York Times wrote in 2013.
  • But it also involved computers analyzing the linguistic structure of the book and comparing it with other published works, a technique described in Smithsonian magazine.
  • Rowling didn't publish the Harry Potter series under her real name, either: Her publisher was afraid boys wouldn't read a book written by a woman, so they asked Rowling to use her initials.