This post was due a few days ago, but I ran into some trouble, researching the piece. As an Indie author, sometimes overwhelmed by the three P’s of authorship (Production, Publication and Promotion), I intended to offer my fellow Indies a motivational article validating their choice to self-publish. However, researching via internet tends to be a bit like panning for gold. You pick a random plot of land, go to work, and pray you don’t come up with Iron Pyrite.
This article was more like trying to separate sugar from salt, with a flour sifter. I’m still not sure whether it was more difficult to verify the real self-published authors, or debunk the myths. Half of the sites I found seemed to be bent on burying any hint of self-publication, the other half were screaming it to the world, and declaring each author a self-publishing genius. I tend to follow the Joseph Addison school of thought, “There are three sides to every story — your side, my side, and the right side.” (as printed in The London Spectator, 1711) Two more days of digging brought me to a more balanced conclusion…
True or False?
James Redfield self-published The Celestine Prophecy
True – Redfield did self-publish in 1992. He gave away nearly 1500 copies of his book, sparking a word-of-mouth campaign, which eventually brought the novel to the attention of Warner Books. Published by Warner in March of 1994, the book quickly climbed to #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List.
Beatrix Potter self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit
Well… – Potter submitted to six traditional publishers, all of which rejected her. The rejections were, apparently, based on the lack of colour illustrations, so Potter added illustrations and self-published 250 copies of the book. She then resubmitted the illustrated manuscript to a commercial publisher. I could find no evidence to suggest what Potter did with the original 250 copies. I leave it to you to decide whether this should be counted as a self-publishing success story.
Mark Twain self-published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
True, but – Twain had already established his literary legacy with The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calveras County, his fiction-debut short story that just missed a deadline for inclusion in an anthology. The story was published in The Saturday Press instead, gaining him national attention. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Prince and The Pauper also preceded Huckleberry Finn. So Twain’s success with the book can be largely attributed to the fact that he already had a broad reader base.
Christopher Paolini self-published Eragon
True – Paolini’s debut novel was published by Paolini International. Now, that would lead you to believe Christopher created his own publishing company in order to lend his self-published novel an air of traditional legitimacy. No, the traditional enthusiasts insist, Paolini International was founded by Christopher’s parents, Kenneth and Talita, in 1997, and had been in business for five years before Eragon made print. Their son began writing in 1998 and Eragon was published in 2002. On the other hand, Paolini International had only published two books, (that I could find), prior to Eragon. Both of these books were non-fiction treatises on modern cults. Kenneth and Talita authored one of the books, and wrote the foreward and afterward for the other. With only these three books available from Paolini International, I think we can conclude that Eragon really was, essentially, a self-published debut that became a resounding success.
Charles Dickens self-published A Christmas Carol
True, but – Like Mark Twain, Dickens had already established a readership, as a traditionally published author, before he chose to self-publish A Christmas Carol. As far as how successful the venture was: financially it ended up being a dud for Dickens. Part of that was his own fault. Dickens insisted the book be produced with a gold stamped cover, and full colour illustrations. He set the price low, so it could be affordable to nearly everyone. Though the book was popular, and sold well, the costs nearly outweighed any profits. After the book was published it was pirated mercilessly. Dickens ended up spending more money fighting the piracy, than he made from the book.
L. Frank Baum self-published
Misleading – L. Frank Baum’s Oz books were published by the George M. Hill company. The only books of Baum’s I could confirm as self-published are Baum’s Complete Stamp Dealer’s Directory (1873) and The Book of the Hamburgs (poultry guide, 1886). I highly doubt either of those had anything to do with his success as an author of fiction, but again, I leave it to you to decide.
J.K. Rowling self-published
False, but true now – Rowling was turned down by twelve large publishers. Her manuscript was finally accepted by Bloomsbury Publishing. Yes, Bloomsbury calls itself an independent publisher. However, the process seems remarkably similar to traditional publishing, and its site offers no explanation of what it means by “independent”.
Rowling did reclaim control of her publications in 2011, and now produces them herself. Her publisher has become more like her printer, and she continues to use the marketing and promotions services of the major publishing companies, for which she pays them.
Stephen King self-published
Technically true, but also misleading – Stephen King, his brother, David, and best friend, Chris Chesley established a small press called Triad and Gaslight Books, in 1963. This small press published a collection of King’s short stories, and a two part book. However, King did not find success as an author until Carrie was purchased by Doubleday in 1973. King says, in an interview, that he followed the traditional publishing process and “got the usual rejection slips”, until Carrie was picked up. There is no indication that King’s self-published work had anything to do with his later success, as a novelist.
James Joyce self-published Ulysses
True, but – Joyce was an established, traditionally published poet, and author, when he self-published Ulysses. He’d begun serializing the story in Ezra Pound’s The Little Review, but obscenity laws put a stop to it. To get around the laws, he self-published the book and sold it privately. The real success of Ulysses didn’t come until much later.
John Grisham self-published A Time To Kill
False – Grisham’s words on the subject: ““Wynwood Press was a new, small unknown publishing company in New York in 1989. “Everybody else had passed on A Time to Kill, Wynwood Press took the gamble. Printed 5,000 hardback copies, and we couldn’t give them away. Wynwood later went bankrupt, or out of business.” Grisham ended up buying the unsold stock, which he then sold on his own. It wasn’t until The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and The Client made the best seller lists, that Doubleday picked up the rights to A Time To Kill, and began producing the next run.
Edgar Allan Poe self-published
True – Poe certainly did self-publish much of his early work. He is often held up as a shining example, by vanity publishers, as a self-publishing success story. However, Poe didn’t receive literary recognition until The Raven was published in The New York Evening Mirror, in 1945. He never achieved financial success, though he did scrape out a living strictly as a writer, and is cited as one of the first popular American writers to do so.
Margaret Atwood self-published
True – Margaret Atwood self-published her first book at the age of 22. The book, Double Persephone, was hand set on a flatbed press and went on to win the E.J. Pratt medal for poetry, a Canadian honour awarded by the University of Toronto. Her second self-published book of poetry The Circle Game, earned her the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1966, a national honour. Since then Atwood has written 35 books, (20 of them novels), and has been given 55 awards, and 12 honorary degrees.
I chose to finish with Margaret Atwood for three reasons: 1) Her’s is one of the few true success stories I found, other than Amanda Hawking’s. Hawking’s success is well-known, and well-documented, so I chose to leave it out. 2) I’m a fan, and she makes me proud to call myself a Canadian author. And 3) Atwood said something, during a keynote-speech question-and-answer session, that sums up what I’ve concluded from my research for this post…
When asked how she felt about “a world that allows for self-publishing”, and if she worried if the quality of literary output would become “questionable”, Ms. Atwood responded, “The quality of literary output has always been questionable. People forget that.” Later she said, “The problem always is, and… it’s a huge problem for a self-published author, how do you get anybody to even know about your book, let alone read it.”
The publishing world is changing daily. The old ways are no longer the only ways. Success, however, is going to require more than dreams, hopes and luck. To succeed as an Indie author today, you need to be tenacious, hardworking, studious, and flexible. And you need to find, and connect with, your readers.
There are many more examples of writers who are proclaimed self-publishing successes, and are not. There are also many successful Indie authors we haven’t covered here. I won’t try to claim this as a complete list, by any means, but I think it is a realistic sampling of the history of self-publication. Let’s see what we can make of the future.
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