This list at Cracked.com reveals a bit of the arbitrariness of the publishing industry. Of course, no one can predict the future, and no doubt most of the books rejected for publication are rightly rejected.
But the reasons given here — that the first Harry Potter book was too long, that Seuss’s first book was too silly — seem to reflect the idea that part of what audiences love is novelty. And it seems difficult for industries to break from the formula of offering more of what is already popular and take a risk with huge upside potential.
Of course, I’m sure there’s more to the stories of these books than just what is revealed in how they came to be published. Possibly these books also got good publicity or lucky breaks that allowed them to sell well when other books didn’t. But it’s interesting to consider what it is that promotes any particular book to success — Robert Pirsig says in his afterword to “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” that his book struck a chord that resonated with the public at the particular cultural moment of its publication.
I’m not nearly enough of an expert to offer actual insight into the publishing world, but my impression of publishing success is that it’s not something that an author can take too seriously — I’m not sure that good sales mean the book was good, or that poor sales mean the book was bad. I’m not sure a book’s reception means much of anything to an author. The book being written, the author moves on.