First Novels That Made It Big

Christina Knight | September 10, 2018

First novels that were a huge success, all on The Great American Read list.

If success stems from experience, it seems highly unlikely that a person’s first novel could become a bestseller, let alone a classic in the literary canon. But aspiring writers can take inspiration from the 100 titles on The Great American Read’s list of best-loved books: many are the first book a writer ever published. Here we reveal the back stories of six first novels that became hits:  The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, The Joy Luck Clubby Amy Tan, The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks and The Martian by Andy Weir.

Of course, these are not the first words the celebrated rookies ever penned or typed. Each spent countless hours and pages on their craft before their first novel was published. Most wrote about what they knew best – including characters based on people in their lives and hometown settings (The Martian is a notable exception).

These authors were not aspiring writers: they were writing all the time, and needed only to be discovered. All writers in deed – who also aspire to be published – take hope!

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The publication of The Catcher in the Rye in 1951 was driven by the author’s dogged determination. Salinger even had six chapters of it in his pocket when he landed at Normandy as a young soldier in World War II.

The book’s beloved anti-hero, Holden Caulfield, had been making appearances in Salinger’s writing since 1941. Although he realized a life dream in 1947 when The New Yorker published a short story of his – featuring Holden –  the same magazine rejected his novella version of Catcher in the Rye in 1950. After a book publisher accepted it that same year but asked for a re-write, Salinger withdrew it and instead published it with Little, Brown and Co. in July 1951. It launched the genre of young adult fiction and within two weeks was on the bestseller list.  More than 65 million copies have been sold.

Gig prior to Salinger’s first novel: Short story writer for magazines.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

With the publication of Go Set a Watchman in 2015, millions of Harper Lee fans were both thrilled and a little confused to learn that although the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) was the first novel she published, it was not the first one she wrote. In the 1950s, author Truman Capote, Lee’s childhood friend, connected her to a literary agent who got the Go Set a Watchman manuscript into the hands of editor Tay Hohoff. Hohoff felt Lee would do better to mine the past of the contemporary characters.

Writing To Kill a Mockingbird took three more years – including a solid year of focus when friends’ financial support let Lee quit her job. Reflecting Lee’s life growing up in a small town in Alabama, the novel offers a child’s perspective of adults and racial inequality, and of the gentle and heroic lawyer and father, Atticus Finch. The book has sold nearly 40 million copies.

Gig prior to Lee’s first novel: Airline ticket agent.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

The clashes of the have and have-not gangs in S. E. Hinton’s high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma inspired the novel she began at age 15. Hinton had been writing for years even at that point, and this novel was her third. As she said of The Outsiders in an interview, “It’s just the first one that I ever tried to get published.”  

Hinton’s friend’s mother was the one who sent the manuscript to a literary agent in New York. The book, published by Viking Press in 1967, was not an instant success – Hinton’s first royalty check was $10. But the book gained traction as a young-adult novel over the years, especially once the Francis Ford Coppola film adaptation in 1983 made characters like Ponyboy household names. The book has sold more than 14 million copies as of 2018. Lena Dunham recently wrote about the enduring appeal of The Outsiders for The New York Times.

Gig at the time of Hinton’s first novel: High school student.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck ClubWhile in her 30s, Amy Tan began writing fiction in an attempt to curb her freelance work – she had a problem saying “no” to business writing assignments that took up way too many hours. The first story she wrote in a writing workshop was about the tensions between a Chinese-American girl and her mother in San Francisco. It was published in two magazines, including Seventeen, and caught literary agent Sandra Dijkstra’s attention. Dijkstra’s encouraged Tan to write a book proposal based on her short stories. After Tan returned from her first trip to China with her mother, she was shocked to hear from Dijkstra that her proposal for The Joy Luck Club had received three competing offers. She took the $50,000 advance from Putnam, quit her freelance work and completed the novel in four months. Publishers Weekly provides an extensive account of the book’s bidding and publication process in its July 1989 issue.

Gig prior to Tan’s first novel: Overworked freelance business writer.

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

While this love story set in North Carolina was Sparks’ first novel in print, he had already written two unsold manuscripts before this one was discovered. Drawing on the true love story of his in-laws, The Notebook was pulled from a “slush pile” by literary agent Theresa Park – a Cinderella-like story in the world of publishing. She liked what she read and asked to represent him.

Though it wasn’t his first attempt at a novel, it’s this one that famously received a $1 million advance by Warner Books, and it became a bestseller the week it was released. It seems like it was just a matter of time before Sparks’ writing would find a publisher. The prolific author has published nearly 20 novels since The Notebook’s debut in 1996 – nearly one novel a year! See Sparks’ notes on writing The Notebook, which took him six months to write.

Gig prior to Sparks’ first novel: Pharmaceuticals sales person.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Like a computer programmer would, Weir started writing his novel about an astronaut left behind on Mars in steps, user-testing it as he went.

“I posted a chapter at a time to my website, and I could get feedback from the readers right on the spot,” Weir said about writing The Martian. He assumed science geeks like him would like the book, but he never thought it would have mass appeal.

Responding to readers requests, in 2011 he self-published a .99 Amazon Kindle version of The Martian, which sold 35,000 copies in three months. Crown Publishing noticed and purchased the rights to re-release it in 2014, when it debuted on the bestseller list. With the same good humor he shares with his protagonist Mark Watney, Weir tells The Writing Cooperative, “I spent 20 years failing before I got my first success.”

Gigs prior to Weir’s first novel: Coding for AOL and the video game Warcraft II.

Watch The Great American Read on Tuesdays at 8pm on THIRTEEN from September 11 through October 23 and vote for your favorite novel through October 19; America’s best-loved novel will be revealed in the finale.

The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Outsiders will be discussed in the episode, “Who Am I?” on September 18.

The Notebook and The Joy Luck Club will be featured in the episode “What We Do For Love” on October 9.

The Martian is part of the episode “Other Worlds” on October 16.