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3 Bad Moments in Publishing History… or were they?

October 8, 2013
If I were one of the publishers that had rejected this book, I'm not sure I'd be able to sleep at night.

If I were one of the publishers that had rejected this book, I’m not sure I’d be able to sleep at night.

Writers are known for stealing (or borrowing) ideas from other writers, so I might as well be up front about this.  I got this idea from a blog post  about the ten worst publishing moments in history.  I liked the idea, but I also think that sometimes bad judgment is only bad judgment in hindsight.  Maybe there was no (or little) evidence at the time that the bad publishing decisions were actually going to turn out bad. 

Since I’m not an expert in the publishing business (I’ve never been published, but I have lots of opinions on things I know nothing about), I took the only two bad moments that I was familiar with and then added a third bad moment that wasn’t on the original list.  Then I tried to justify the bad decisions that the publishers made at the time.

I might be (and probably am) wrong in my analysis, so if you think I’m off a little bit (or even embarrassingly wrong), I’d like to know. 


1.  Book publishers rejected JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book. 

Why it was a bad moment: 

I pity the fools who tossed JK Rowling’s original manuscripts into the trash (in a figurative way).  I wonder if they can sleep at night.  It all could have theirs if only they could have recognized the genius of JK Rowling before she was JK Rowling.  In hindsight, rejecting Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone might have been a bad decision.

Why it might not have been such a bad moment: 

Who knew?  At that time in the mid-1990s, what indicators were out there that a novel like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone would be a gigantic (or even modest) hit?  Probably none.  Everybody is a revolutionary in hindsight, but it’s tough to pick a trend before it happens. 

I wouldn’t have recognized Harry Potter as a potential icon, and I’m the kind of person who should be into Harry Potter but isn’t.  I read comic books.  I read fantasy.  I even read YA fiction sometimes (but most of it is the worst of dreck nowadays, but that’s a different topic).  I’ve tried to read The Sorcerer’s Stone several times and couldn’t get past page nine.  If I had been a publisher in 1995(?), I would have been one of those getting mocked today. 

2.  Jonah Lehrer’s plagiarism in Imagine 

Why it was a bad moment: 

Jonah Lehrer was a big name author who got caught plagiarizing.  Publishers yanked a couple of his books from the shelves (you can’t even buy them on Amazon the last time I checked) and that had to cost publishers a lot of money (the physical part, not the digital part).  It was embarrassing. 

Why it might not have been such a bad moment. 

Personally, I don’t blame the publisher when an author plagiarizes.  I even think the publishers may have overreacted by pulling the plagiarized books.  The publishers should have left them there and put a new cover with PLAGIARIZED VERSION on the top so readers would know what they were getting.  I might have even bought the PLAGIARIZED VERSION out of curiosity.  The publisher could have highlighted all the plagiarized phrases and sentences and then provided footnotes with background information for all the lifted text.  That might have been a book worth buying. 

3.  U.S. Justice Department sues Apple and a bunch of book publishers (this one wasn’t in the original blog list) 

Why it was a bad moment: 

Several major publishers were accused of collusion with Apple to raise ebook prices in an (alleged) attempt to compete with Amazon (or drive Amazon out of business).  Collusion looks bad.  Getting sued by the Justice Department looks bad.  Settling with the Justice Department looks bad.  A lot of book buyers already believe that publishers set artificially high prices anyway, and this didn’t help their image. 

Why it might not have been such a bad moment: 

What were book publishers supposed to do?  Amazon was cutting into their business with artificially low prices (meaning that Amazon was taking a loss every year) and then didn’t have to pay taxes.  Talk about unfair competition!  The only way Amazon can survive is with support from stockholders (who at some point will want a profit) and the federal government (who wants either taxes or kickbacks).  If Amazon wasn’t playing fair, why should the traditional book publishers? 


Good decision making is very important in life.  Successful people analyze the evidence they have in front of them and make clear, rational choices.  That’s not easy.  If it were easy, more people would make good decisions.  And when it comes to bad publishing moments in history, maybe, just maybe, I can understand why publishers made the decisions that they did, even if those decisions turned out to be bad. 

But enough about me!  What do you think?  Should the publishers at the time have known their decisions sucked?  What other bad publishing decisions have been made recently?  And what ideas have you borrowed/stolen from other writers?

  1. If a book about the great mistakes of publishers is what you’re planning to write, you might also have trouble finding a publisher.

  2. ‘I have lots of opinions on things I know nothing about’ – I couldn’t agree more

  3. LOVED ‘but I have lots of opinions on things I know nothing about’.

    And I’ll just say that I love Harry Potter, but that first one was even difficult for me to get through (and caused me to not read the rest of them for a VERY long time).

    • I’ve toned down my having opinions of things I know nothing about, though. Life is a lot easier when I don’t have opinions about everything, but I still have my moments. Did you read all of the Harry Potter books? What made the other ones better than the first one? I’m curious because I read only nine pages.

      • I don’t find anything wrong with having opinions, and hey if you don’t share opinions you have on things you know nothing about . . . no one can tell you you’re wrong. XD
        I’ll spare you of me getting into a big debate with myself on your comments about ‘Is one ever REALLY wrong in their opinions?’

        Yes, I read all of them. The last few in the series are some of my favorite books ever, so they do definitely get better. As for what MAKES them better . . . eep, that’s a toughie. I feel the writing was better (it’s a progression), then you get into the story development and the increasingly more serious tone as they go along (hence why 6 and 7 are my favorites). I’m trying to choose my words carefully . . .
        Actually, I’m not even going to get into it past saying I didn’t particularly enjoy the first one or the second and that, when I re-read the series, I mostly read the sixth and seventh books over. I’ve re-read from the third on a few times. But you really can’t appreciate all the small things without going through all of them at least once. :/

  4. I get ideas from other writers’ books, but usually mangle the idea around that it’s mostly unrecognizable, which I guess is the point. I read a blog story about a woman in a bomb shelter with a chemical attack outside, trying to communicate with someone outside. I liked the idea, so I thought of two people communicating between bomb shelters. Then I changed it to two islands next to each other. Then I made one of them a ghost… It ended up as my story, Isabelle’s Island ( So, yeah, that’s how I borrow, I guess.

    On a side note, I think J.K. Rowling is such a Cinderella story that it has inspired a generation of writers to try to make that big score.

  5. I think another bad publishing idea was taking erotica mainstream. Of course, it’s making a lot of people very rich, so who cares…

    The first Harry Potter does start a bit slow and only really becomes interesting once Harry gets to Hogwarts, which is quite a few pages beyond nine, so I can understand you not getting into it. Others also have pacing issues, particularly five and seven. Still, I’ve read the entire series twice already and enjoyed it both times. You just have to push through the boring bits.

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