You know the story of Vincent Van Gogh, and how he only sold one painting during his lifetime. So too will you recognize most of the names on this list, authors and poets whose fame arrived only after they shuffled off this mortal coil. (Note: while it may be argued that any writer can sell more books during the century after their death than during the few decades of their career, look at the middling legacies of former bestsellers Edgar Wallace and Anthony Trolloppe. It's not hard to argue that current novelists such as Tom Clancy and Stephenie Meyer will suffer the same fate.)
- Stieg Larsson, 1954-2004. Sweden's Man of the Hour, author of the enormously popular "Millennium Trilogy" (consisting of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest), was unpublished during his lifetime. He reportedly wrote the books only as a hobby; his real work was as a journalist and political activist.
- Jonathan Larson, 1960-1996. No relation to Stieg, this New York playwright's death was legendary: he passed away the day before his great Broadway hit, Rent, premiered. His pre-Rent career was considered minor.
- Franz Kafka, 1883-1924. Working in relative obscurity throughout his short life, Kafka published only a few short stories and The Metamorphosis - which was hardly a bestseller - before his death from tuberculosis. His final wish, that his unpublished works (including The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika) be destroyed, was ignored.
- Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886. The introverted Massachusetts poet published around 10-11 poems, anonymously, during her life. After she died, her younger sister discovered some 1,700 poems that Dickinson had never done anything with. The first volume was published in 1890, four years after her death.
- Philip K. Dick, 1928-1982. The troubled science fiction author was impressively prolific, and managed to eke a living as a full-time novelist, but the field of sci fi did not pay well. Dick died just as he started making money, a few months before the premiere of Blade Runner, the film based on his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Since then, no fewer than nine of Dick's stories have been turned into feature films, with more on the way.
- John Kennedy Toole, 1937-1969. The frustrated New Orleans author's comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces was rejected by Simon and Shuster when he submitted it. After his suicide at the age of 31, Toole's mother championed the book, which was finally published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1980. It won a Pulitzer Prize the following year and became a bestseller. His only other novel, The Neon Bible, written when he was just 16, was published in 1989.
- Herman Melville, 1819-1891. The author of Moby-Dick, considered one of the greatest novels in the English language and the scourge of high school students everywhere, reportedly made just about $10,000 as a writer during his lifetime, most of which came from his early adventure novel Typee. Moby-Dick, published in 1851, earned just over $500. It wasn't until 1921, thirty years after Melville's death, that interest in his work was revived.
- Zora Neale Hurston, 1891-1960. The early African American writer, best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, was unpopular in both white and black literary circles; her Harlem Renaissance contemporaries derided her Ebonics-filled dialogue and her anti-socialist politics. The Color Purple author Alice Walker revived interest in Hurston's work in 1975.
- Anne Frank, 1929-1945. Though it may seem cruel to list the young victim of the Holocaust here, Frank did have genuine literary ambitions and hoped to submit an edited version of her beloved diary to the Dutch government for publication after the end of World War II. The job was left to her father Otto, the only surviving member of her immediate family, to take care of.