January 15 2015

Failure. Rejection. Success: The J. K. Rowling Story

The Harry Potter series has earned over $400 million dollars in book sales, but getting there was a long and difficult road for author J.K. Rowling. Her experiences with grief, failed relationships, and unemployment only inspired her to keep going after the thing she wanted most in life- to be a writer.


“By every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”

Those are the words of J.K. Rowling – the author whose book series has been translated into 73 languages, sold millions of copies and accrued over $20 billion through movie adaptations and sponsorships. So why does she admit to being such a failure?

Creating her book series wasn’t as easy as scribbling down notes on a few dinner napkins. It wasn’t a one, two or even three step process. It would take years of perseverance to become the success she is today.

Soon after conceiving the idea for Harry Potter, Rowling began writing, but was immediately pulled away from her work by the devastating death of her mother. Rowling ceased working on the book and sank into a deep, grieving depression, getting little to nothing accomplished in that time.

In the hopes of digging herself out of grievance, she took a job teaching English in Portugal for a year. Her goal in venturing abroad was to get away from her troubles and more importantly, use her time off to continue working on her book. She set the goal of having the first Harry Potter book done by the time she returned from Portugal.

Things did not go as planned.

Not only did she fail to make progress on her first book, but after falling in, and then out of, love, she ended up with a failed marriage and a baby daughter she now had to raise alone. She came back to nothing. She had no job, no finished product and two mouths to feed. She had hit rock bottom. As she struggled with depression, raising a child on her own and living off meager unemployment benefits, she resumed work on her book in cafes while her daughter was asleep.

Despite numerous setbacks, she found solace in doing what she loved – writing. In fact, she found that the little she had was enough to be moderately happy. She had ended up in exactly the position she had feared most and found that it wasn’t that bad. There wasn’t anything left to be afraid of and her worked showcased that mindset.

When Rowling finally finished the first three chapters, she sent the manuscript off to a publisher – They quickly passed on the project.

She sent it to another publisher. Again, the answer was no. Her mailbox filled up with rejection letters, but she didn’t let it stop her.

“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.” --- J.K. Rowling

After sending her manuscript to 12 different publishers and getting rejected by every single one, Rowling began losing confidence in her book. Finally, the editor at Bloomsbury Publishing company sat down to read the manuscript. And so did the editor’s 8 year-old daughter. The little girl loved the opening chapters, and begged to read the whole thing. This made the publisher agree to publish Rowling’s novel. But Rowling was left with a warning: that she should get a day job, because she wouldn’t make any money writing children’s books. Once Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published, though, she proved everyone wrong.

J.K. Rowling went from being a jobless single mother living off unemployment benefits to one of the best selling authors of all time. But it didn’t happen over night. She faced rejection and constantly strived for success. She worked hard at her craft before anyone noticed her. That practice, along with strengthening herself against rejection, was what made her work unforgettable. Looking back, the Harry Potter series has earned over $400 million in book sales, and the last movie alone earned $476 million dollars in ticket sales... on opening weekend. She was the first female to become a billionaire author, not that many authors make it that far in the first place.

If you have a dream or a passion and you keep getting rejected or running into failure, don’t let that stop you. If you’re going through a tough time in your life, but working on something you really believe in, don’t give up. If you do, you’ll never know what could have been. Who knows, you might end up breaking records.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default.” --- J.K. Rowling 

For more inspiration, check out our fellows page to read about what the amazing people in our community have done.

Written by Morgan Ostrowsky