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A sudden question popped up in my head just now: which of these two sentences are correct, or are they both wrong?

  1. I write books that nobody reads or even knows that they exist.
  2. I write books that nobody reads or even knows that exist.

I think what I am trying to express with these sentences should be pretty clear: that this person writes books, but their books do not sell, and moreover no one even knows about these books' existence.

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In each of those two examples, the second subsidiary clause is ungrammatical, even without the first subsidiary clause. In your sentence 1., one problem is the explicit "they" -- this should not be explicit. In your sentence 2., the problem is "that exist". This would be ungrammatical even if reduced to

2.b. I write books that nobody knows that exist.

However, this is OK:

3.b. I write books that nobody knows exist.

so, returning to your earlier examples:

3.a. I write books that nobody reads or even knows exist.

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  • The question and your answer to it both illustrate a tricky problem. It is still, despite the trawling i’d global data, very difficult to establish grammatical or otherwise in borderline cases. The borderline cases I mean are those where the meaning intention is obvious but there but at least one rule or standard usage seems to be violated: some people experience a dissonance. So the O-P has an ‘error’: plural for singular. It is so common that I could name it: ‘enclitic plural’, where the plural of the noun that preceded the copula drags it into the plural. (continued)
    – Tuffy
    Apr 26 '20 at 9:27
  • (continuation). But, once I have named it, haven’t I effectively sanctioned it. It’s become a rule. Also, I disagree with your version of sentence 2. I should have written “to” where you have gone for “knows exist”, which is not what I should have written. Perhaps this is a matter of personal style, though. Or may be I am wrong!
    – Tuffy
    Apr 26 '20 at 9:53
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    @Tuffy Please could you clarify the "plural for singular" error? I don't see it. I don't see a plural verb that should be singular.
    – Rosie F
    Apr 26 '20 at 9:59
  • @Tuffy I can't see how "to" works: "exist" is a plural present-tense verb, not an infinitive. To show this, suppose there's only one book. I have written a book that nobody reads or even knows exists. (That is, nobody knows the book exists.)
    – Rosie F
    Apr 26 '20 at 10:03
  • Certainly, Rosie. You are asking which of two things ... (well, out of two things, only one is left unless you think both both or neither might be wrong) ... is wrong? If you do think both might be wrong then the wording of the question is confusing.
    – Tuffy
    Apr 26 '20 at 10:19

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