The road to Booker Prize recognition isn’t always smooth. John Self explores some of the most famous titles that were initially turned down, and speaks to editors, authors and agents about why those books struggled to secure a publishing deal

Written by John Self

Publication date and time: Published

The Booker Prize is the ultimate accolade for English language fiction and winning it is a story of unalloyed success for any author and their book. Isn’t it?

In fact, what has become clear in recent years is that the path to winning the Booker Prize is often far from a smooth one, and a win can come at the end of a long and bumpy road of rejection and frustration.

The bumpiest of all might have been the road travelled by Douglas Stuart’s debut novel Shuggie Bain, which won the Booker Prize in 2020. Following its win, part of the story around the book was that it had been rejected more than 40 times before being accepted for publication.

Anna Stein and Lucy Luck, Douglas Stuart’s agents in the US and UK respectively, explain to me how it happened. Stein became Stuart’s agent after a friend of hers was ‘cornered’ by Stuart at a Christmas party, at which he told her: ‘I’ve written a novel.’ ‘She thought, “oh God, no,”’ laughs Stein, but then ‘she just took a peek at it and realised it was really something.’ She passed it to Stein, who ‘loved it – the emotional honesty on the page and the characterisations of the world.’

The reported figures for the number of rejections, they tell me, are correct: Shuggie Bain was rejected by 32 publishers in the US (‘I’m very certain, I checked,’ says Stein) and 12 in the UK. ‘A lot of people “don’t remember” passing on the book now,’ adds Luck. ‘But I have their emails!’ It was rejected, she says, ‘because it was too long, it was bleak; there was a general sort of admiration, but not love, which is a classic response’. 

Not everyone rejected it – Granta made a ‘very modest’ offer – but many just didn’t understand the appeal of the book. Stein took Stuart to meetings, including one with a leading American publisher. ‘It was excruciating. She brought the head of sales or marketing, and it was just tone deaf and awkward. It wasn’t a match!’

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It was, he recalls, a quadruple whammy of “who’s going to be the readership for this?” It’s gay, it’s Scottish, it’s partly written in dialect and it’s working class

— Ravi Mirchandani

But Stein and Luck, who work together for many authors, both had one publisher in mind as being perfect for Shuggie Bain: Ravi Mirchandani, who until last month was editor-in-chief at Picador. Stein had worked with Mirchandani before; he published Hanya Yanagihara’s Booker shortlisted A Little Life, and had been the only publisher to make an offer on Yanagihara’s debut novel The People in the Trees. ‘I do have a history of offering for books no one else wants,’ Mirchandani tells me.

Stein and Luck sent Shuggie to Mirchandani, but ‘he went a bit quiet’, recalls Luck. Mirchandani accepts the charge. He thought the book was ‘amazing’, but ‘my feeling was that my colleagues would not immediately find it an obvious commercial prospect’. It was, he recalls, ‘a quadruple whammy of “who’s going to be the readership for this?” It’s gay, it’s Scottish, it’s partly written in dialect and it’s working class’.

What Mirchandani had to do, was ‘find a small “coalition of the willing”, in-house’ to support his acquisition of the book. ‘An editor cannot publish a book on their own.’

The rest is modern history. Shuggie Bain won the Booker Prize and became a huge critical and commercial success, selling more than 1.5 million copies globally in the first 18 months after its win. ‘I did think it would hit the shortlist,’ says Luck. ‘I didn’t think it would win because Hilary Mantel [with The Mirror & the Light] was published that year.’

Two years after Shuggie Bain came another winner who had found it difficult to get published: Shehan Karunatilaka, who won the Booker Prize in 2022 with The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, a black comedy of civil war narrated by a ghost: like Shuggie Bain, not an obviously commercial prospect. Unlike Stuart, Karunatilaka was not a debut novelist. His first novel, Chinaman (2010), had won prizes but ‘didn’t really blow up’, he tells me, and anyway it felt like old news by the time he completed his second novel.

Shehan Karunatilaka winner of the Booker Prize 2022

In fact, this second novel, which went on to become Seven Moons, did have some initial success: it was published in an earlier form in India in 2020, under the title Chats with the Dead – but this didn’t help when it came to selling it in the UK. David Godwin, Karunatilaka’s agent, tells me how the process worked. ‘We went straight to Jonathan Cape’ who had published Chinaman, he says. They turned it down. ‘To be fair,’ he adds, ‘every single person turned it down. Probably 25 people said no to the book.’ 

Why? Karunatilaka says, ‘I don’t revisit the rejection letters, because they’re always quite polite and you have to read the subtext. But I gathered it was just seen as a difficult book: “We don’t know how to sell this to a Western reader”.’ Godwin adds other explanations. ‘Publishing has become much more uniform. Ten years ago, Indian books and Asia were much more fashionable than they are now. Fashion is a very important part of publishing.’

The only publisher who expressed an interest in Karunatilaka’s novel was a tiny independent, Sort Of Books, run by husband and wife team Natania Jansz and Mark Ellingham. ‘Nat knew Shehan because she comes from Sri Lanka,’ says Godwin, and she saw the potential in the book. So ‘she picked it up, and made him rewrite it. Which I think he found very, very difficult and very stressful. She kept on at him to make it more accessible.’

Karunatilaka, at least now, is more sanguine about the process. Rejection is ‘quite demoralising’, he admits, ‘so when someone comes in and says “Yes, but it needs some work,” you’re willing to do it.’ And for this book, a small publisher was the right choice. ‘If one of the big houses had bought it in that form,’ Karunatilaka asks, ‘would they have spent two or three years revising it, with their publishing schedules and lots of other books coming out? Would they have submitted it for the Booker Prize? Probably not.’

This point – the attention a small publisher can give a book that a large house may not be able to – came up repeatedly in my conversations with authors and agents. With larger publishers, of course, the advances to authors can be higher, but, says Godwin, ‘the money is never a problem. I can solve those problems. It’s actually finding someone who believes in the books. Sometimes you have lots of money but no enthusiasm.’

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This search for enthusiasm and passionate belief in a book is not a new phenomenon. In 2002, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi had an uncertain route to publication. The Canadian author’s previous books – a novel and a collection of stories – had been published by Faber: ‘a storied publisher’, as Martel puts it to me. His first two books ‘had good reviews, but poor sales,’ he says, ‘which is fairly common for literary fiction. It’s an artistic product that’s so hard to label.’

When it came to his next novel, about a boy on a boat with a tiger, he knew it would be a tricky sell. ‘You can’t say, “Oh, it’s like this book.” It’s not like The Little Prince, he’s not like Mowgli, it’s not like Graham Greene… I can see if you’re a publisher, it’s hard to see how you’re going to market this book.’

When Martel’s agent, Derek Johns, submitted Life of Pi, ‘all the London publishers turned it down,’ says Martel. Or almost all: ‘Faber accepted it,’ he says, ‘but they were indifferent. They were happy to accept it, but they weren’t making any great noises about it.’ There was, in other words, an enthusiasm gap.

To fill that gap came an outsider – outside London and at that time outside mainstream publishing. It was ‘a publisher in Scotland, which until then was known for publishing mountaineering books’, Martel says. Canongate, run by the charismatic Jamie Byng, were ‘incredibly enthusiastic’ about Life of Pi.

Byng had been persuaded in turn by the enthusiasm of a junior editor at Canongate, Francis Bickmore. ‘I had only been working there six months or so and, as the most junior member of staff, Jamie asked me to read this manuscript,’ Bickmore tells me. He loved it. ‘I read it overnight, couldn’t stop reading until I was done.’ Bickmore ‘came into work the next day buzzing, and Jamie read it the next night, and he loved it too. Then we started getting even more excited, as did others in the office.’

Canongate put in an offer. ‘I think they were offering me the same amount as Faber,’ says Martel, ‘but with much more enthusiasm. I thought, you’ve got to go with your gut, so I decided to go with Canongate. Which felt a little bit like jumping off a cliff. But I had not many other options, frankly.’

He was glad he did. Byng published Pi enthusiastically, ‘as if his life depended on it’, as Bickmore puts it. His passion for the book enabled him to ‘recruit Alberto Manguel and Margaret Atwood to the fan club’, as well as Alasdair Gray. Life of Pi went on to win the Booker Prize in 2002, the plucky underdog in a strong field – not for the first or last time in the prize’s history.

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If you have a normal publishing schedule and another 20 books that are clamouring for attention, things have to be done in certain ways. A thousand-page book feels like a risk, and if it fails it’s a real weight round your neck

— Sam Jordison

Perhaps the reason Canongate could make a success of Life of Pi was to do with how publishing was changing. Larger publishers were finding, as Ravi Mirchandani knew from Shuggie Bain, that they could not publish based on an editor’s enthusiasm alone. Before he became an agent in 1995, David Godwin had been an editor at Jonathan Cape. ‘And I decided what we published. It was just me. And then they changed the meetings so that everyone was involved: publicity, marketing, sales. At that point, I said, “I’m not doing this any more,” and left.’

As well as Shehan Karunatilaka, Godwin also represents Lucy Ellmann, whose novel Ducks, Newburyport was one of the sensations of its year and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019 against stiff competition. The book is an unusual read: one thousand pages long, a single sentence following the thoughts of an American woman (with occasional interventions from a mountain lion). Godwin acknowledges that ‘as a publishing prospect, it’s crazy. It’s far too long. She doesn’t have much of an audience. There’s no story there.’

Ellmann’s novels before Ducks had been published by Bloomsbury, and like Martel’s and Karunatilaka’s earlier books, had enjoyed good reviews but modest sales. When she produced Ducks, Newburyport, Godwin sent it to Bloomsbury as her long-time publisher. ‘They were absolutely horrified,’ says Godwin. Bloomsbury’s fiction division was run by Alexandra Pringle, who had published Ellmann for her whole career and had championed her work from the beginning. But, says Godwin, ‘she couldn’t believe it when I sent it to her. She didn’t get it at all.’ 

Alexandra Pringle, who retired from Bloomsbury last year, tells the story differently. ‘I thought it was an extraordinary piece of work,’ she tells me of Ducks. ‘I thought it was mystifying in lots of ways. I thought it was difficult. But I admired it enormously.’ But, she says, ‘I knew I couldn’t publish it, it wouldn’t be right for her.’ The reason is because, as noted by Mirchandani and Godwin, ‘life in publishing had changed. Years ago I would have just published willy-nilly. But it’s not possible to do that now, because you can’t do right by an author if you don’t have enough people in other departments gunning for the book.’ By this time Bloomsbury had grown into ‘a much bigger, more corporate environment than the one I joined 20 years before’.

And so, Pringle continues, ‘I had to say, “Lucy, we can’t do it. Because no one knows what to do with it. It completely mystified everyone.”’ Making this call to Ellmann was ‘agony’ for Pringle. ‘We had grown up together, we had done everything together.’ Pringle had commissioned Ellmann’s first novel Sweet Desserts. ‘It was the first novel I ever published, so it was my debut as well as hers,’ and Ellmann followed Pringle as she moved from publisher to publisher, so their careers ran in parallel.

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Once Bloomsbury rejected Ducks, Newburyport, Godwin knew what to do. ‘I felt absolutely that Elly Millar would love this book. I picked up the phone straight away.’ Eloise Millar set up Galley Beggar Press in 2012 with her husband Sam Jordison, a small independent house which, according to its website, ‘supports writers of great literary talent writing outside the norm, who push the boundaries of form and language’. Jordison recalls: ‘We’ve worked with David before, he knows our tastes.’

As well as the unusual nature of Ducks, Jordison thinks that Bloomsbury’s rejection also highlighted logistical issues for a big publisher with challenging books. ‘If you have a normal publishing schedule and another 20 books that are clamouring for attention, things have to be done in certain ways. A thousand-page book feels like a risk, and if it fails it’s a real weight round your neck. But it didn’t feel like much of a risk to us because we are in the world to put out books like Lucy’s.’

‘It was the best thing for Ducks, Newburyport that it went to Galley Beggar,’ says Pringle. Though Godwin adds that ‘the more successful the book became, the more Bloomsbury started to panic. But they hadn’t made a mistake, because if they had published it, it would never have been entered for the Booker.’ 

A book can only succeed if it is published by a publisher who believes in it. ‘Passion is the most important thing,’ says Godwin. But for large publishers at least, passion cannot override a lack of support from sales and marketing teams whose input is more powerful today.

Alexandra Pringle had ‘the same thing with Deborah Levy’, whose novel Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2011. As with Ellmann, Pringle had a relationship with Levy, having been her agent before going to Bloomsbury. ‘Her agent sent me Swimming Home, which I absolutely loved. I rang her and said, “I think I’ll be making you an offer next week”.’ But when Pringle ‘waltzed into the editorial meeting all happy and excited’, she found that ‘the entire room looked at me and said, “We hate it. We hate it. We hate it.” And I said, “What’s the problem?” They said, “We don’t like the people in it”.’ At this memory, Pringle laughs. ‘You don’t have to like the characters! What about the writing?’ 

She concludes: ‘I have occasionally taken on books in the teeth of all opposition, but I couldn’t do that to her, and I was sure that somebody else would buy it.’ Somebody else did: Sheffield-based independent And Other Stories published Swimming Home to great success, Booker and otherwise.

Is there something wrong with the publishing world, we might ask, when novels like Swimming Home or Ducks, Newburyport can’t get published by mainstream houses, or when a book like Shuggie Bain struggles to find a home? One new novel has something to say about this. Choice, by Neel Mukherjee – who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2014 for The Lives of Others – has a character who’s a publisher, with very funny and cynical views about his world. In acquisition meetings, nobody talks about ‘the meaning of the work (this would be embarrassing to bring up)’, and the character concludes that ‘no industry is run more by herd behaviour than publishing’.

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A book can only succeed if it is published by a publisher who believes in it. Passion is the most important thing

— David Godwin

Is there any truth in this? Does it explain why so many Booker winners and shortlisted books – often representing new types of fiction – have struggled to find mainstream publishers? ‘Herd mentality,’ says Ravi Mirchandani, ‘is not an inappropriate term. It does not operate all the time, though it does operate some of the time. But it would be ludicrous if we didn’t have some respect for the opinions of our competitors.’

Publishers are businesses, after all, and large ones need big hits in a way that small ones don’t; a replica of last year’s big hit is a surer bet than something entirely new and unexpected. Anna Stein and Lucy Luck understand that it’s different for agents and publishers. ‘We don’t have to publish the book, we don’t have to have a vision for it, we don’t have to find an audience for it,’ says Stein.

Of course, this isn’t a phenomenon unique to the Booker Prize, or to modern times. Even in the days when editors were all-powerful, many now-celebrated books struggled to find that green light. Audrey Niffenegger couldn’t even get an agent to represent The Time Traveller’s Wife, and after 25 rejections, found a publisher herself. Stephen King’s debut Carrie had a stuttering start, with 30 rejections, and Booker-winner Marlon James destroyed the typescript of his debut novel John Crow’s Devil after 78 rejections. (Luckily, he found it again in an email.)

Mirchandani regrets the influence that sales of an author’s previous books will have on acquisition decisions. Prize judges, by comparison, have much more freedom when it comes to making decisions; a writer’s previous books are of no importance.

‘I’m not sure all the information we have is a good thing. Prize judges don’t take Nielsen [BookScan, the industry standard for recording book sales] into account. The fact that the author has written four commercially unsuccessful books is irrelevant.’ 

Of course, there is no shame in an editor turning down a book if that rejection is for the right reasons. Mirchandani admits he has turned down books he really didn’t like that went on to great success. ‘I have no regrets about turning down Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. I didn’t like it. I wanted to throw the manuscript across the room.’ But its subsequent success is surely partly down to the fact that it was then published by an editor who did believe in it.

‘The word I hate the most,’ says Pringle, ‘is “comp”. “What’s the comp?” you’re asked in meetings, as in “What is the comparative title?”’ For books with no obvious ‘comp’ – like Shuggie Bain, or The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, or Ducks, Newburyport – the road to publication will continue to be uphill. And yet, once successful, these books then become a model – or ‘comp’ – for future acquisitions. 

The same irony applies when a Booker Prize winner has been adapted for the screen. Douglas Stuart is currently adapting Shuggie Bain into a BBC TV series, and Ang Lee’s 2012 film version of Life of Pi became a box-office smash and won four Academy Awards. As a result both novels, rejected for their lack of commercial potential, have become more commercially successful than most publishers could ever dream of.

And so great, unclassifiable, unfashionable novels will continue to be published – by someone – and will continue to be rewarded by prizes like the Booker, no matter how hard they fought to see the light of day in the first place.

Douglas Stuart