If you visited the websites of many self-publishing service providers a few years ago, there was a common practice to cite folklore and myths about well-known authors who — we were informed — self-published one or more of their books with great success. It’s only in the past couple of years that this practice of citing such authors has become less commonplace. With more and more authors opting to self-publish, I think companies feel less of a need to name-drop famous authors walking the same path as a way of convincing authors that it is a credible and accepted choice with less of the stigmas which once surrounded self-published books.
Sure, there are still many self-publishing service providers name-dropping literary greats like James Joyce, Beatrix Potter and Mark Twain. These stories can be inspiring to newbie authors, evoking thoughts of ‘if Twain did it, why can’t I?’ But often there is less than a grain of truth behind some of these publishing stories, and deciding to self-publish should not be based on the fact that some literary great two hundred years ago trod the self-publishing path during a very different publishing era. There are many good reasons to self-publish and the fact Twain or Potter self-published or had wealthy patrons to pay for it is about as relevant today as saying, ‘I’m going to self-publish because the girl across the street did it!’
Let’s take a look at the reality of some self-publishing myths and true successes:
James Redfield – The Celestine Prophecy
It’s always nice to start off with a self-publishing success story which is true. Redfield certainly did self-publish The Celestine Prophecy. He gave away the first 1500 printed copies to promote the book and his self-published edition actually sold well into the tens of thousands. But like many successful self-published authors, Redfield eventually sold the second print rights to Warner Books.
Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
This one always puzzles me and I honestly have no idea why this myth started. The book was first published by George M. Hill Publishing in 1900. Yes, Baum did self-publish a small manual on chicken farming, but it was hardly The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Chicken farming was a major genre back then!
John Grisham – A Time to Kill
This book was first published by a small American publisher called Wynwood Press. Publishers, particularly small ones, sometimes go out of business suddenly and Wynwood went belly up soon after A Time to Kill was released. Grisham took the bull by the horns and bought the remainder of stock from the publisher (what was left of a 5000 copy first print run), loaded them into the book of his car and hit the road. He certainly did what some self-published authors have to do by direct selling to readers, but selling the remainder of your own publisher’s books, I’m afraid, doesn’t count as self-publishing success. The book didn’t really achieve widespread success until it was picked up by Doubleday several years later, and this was only after Grisham had global success with three bestselling novels.
Robert James Waller – The Bridges of Madison
This book was published by Warner Books. It was never self-published. It is one of those self-publishing myths cited by some service providers only because the myth is taken second-hand from folks who just keep passing the story on without questioning it. I guess it is a case of the old adage; that if you keep repeating a false story, it just gets accepted as the truth.
Christopher Paolini – Eragon
One we can argue about, but Paolini’s book was first published by his parent’s small press in Italy, Paolini International, with a first print run of 10,000 copies. It’s one of the most recent self-publishing myths. Not only did Paolini’s parents bank-roll publication, but they provided all the marketing push any independent publisher provides for a book. If you want to call this self-publishing, then I think you are stretching self-publishing beyond what it actually means.
Tom Clancy – The Hunt for Red October
This is an odd one. Clancy’s book was picked up by the Naval Institute Press, not the kind of book you would expect a naval institution to consider. I think the obscurity of the original publisher may have given rise to this myth. No matter how unusual the publisher, it was still traditionally published.
Graham P. Taylor – Shadowmancer
This is a great self-publishing success story and it is true. Taylor, a former UK police officer, rock band roadie turned Anglican vicar self-published the book with a print run of 2000. The book was later picked up by Faber UK. Taylor went on to write a number of bestselling books and he also became involved with Grosvenor House Publishing, a UK-based publishing service provider acting as a promotional figurehead for a time.
Beatrix Potter – The Tale of Peter Rabbit
This was self-published in a limited edition of 250 copies in 1901. It was more akin to what we would now describe as a chapbook. This was also at a very different time in publishing.
Dan Poynter – Self-Publishing Manual
One of the original self-publishing gurus. Poynter published the book in 1979, selling 130,000 copies. He described it as “the book that launched a thousand books.” He may be an extraordinary business man and entrepreneur with skills beyond most of us, but he did self-publish many books with his own company’s imprint. It is also worth considering that unlike today, books about self-publishing were pretty hard to come by and his sales were all the more impressive back then.
Michael Baisden – The Maintenance Man
This author self-publishes his hardcover novels and then sells the paperback rights to Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone imprint. Very novel indeed, but if he can get away with it – what the hell! We are in an age when we are used to some self-publishers holding on to their e-book rights.
David Brody – Unlawful Deeds
Brody used iUniverse, and though he only sold 3000 copies, it was one of the first significant successes for a print-on-demand book.
E. L. James – Fifty Shades of Grey
James released early versions of her erotic bestseller on fan fiction websites and her own website before publishing it as a print-on-demand title through The Writers’ Coffee Shop in Australia. The manner in which the book went viral persuaded Vintage Books to publish the book and market it as a mainstream title. James drew on her experience as a TV production and broadcasting executive at the BBC and I can’t help feeling this background gave her a huge head start when she was originally marketing her work.