Self-publishing is a tough gig. As if having to create an entire book and market it from scratch wasn’t enough, writers who’ve elected to give self-publishing a try are often met with scorn by innumerable literary critics and book buffs on the internet. Even friends and family can get that look of abject pity in their eyes when you talk of your plans to self-publish.
However, the belief that mainstream publishing houses are the sole authority on quality writing is getting more antiquated by the day. Luckily, self-publishing is gaining traction, and this movement is producing more and more bestselling authors that are proving the armchair critics and literary agents wrong.
It’s not always easy to stay optimistic as a self-published writer though. That’s why we’ve put together this list of self-published authors who have achieved mainstream success. Next time you’re feeling dejected by senseless, ungrounded critique or misplaced pity, why not throw some of these names into the conversation to prove your point?
The story of Andy Weir’s journey to publication is in many ways the archetype of self-publishing success. As a computer programmer by day, and a self-professed “space nerd” with a writing hobby by night, Weir wrote The Martian with technical precision acquired through extensive research. After being continuously turned down by major publishing houses, Weir decided to publish the book one chapter at a time on his personal website, free of charge.
The book’s popularity skyrocketed, and Weir then put the whole thing on sale on Amazon for less than a dollar. Three months later he’d sold 35,000 copies, and the publishers that had previously rejected him came crawling back. Weir ended up selling the publishing rights for $100,000. While the book oscillated between various positions on the New York Times bestseller list for the next two years, it was simultaneously adapted as a movie. Not bad for a self-published author who had already given his work away for free, right? Never underestimate the power of the internet, free samples, and a captivated audience.
You’re most likely familiar with Atwood’s smash hits like Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale – most people are these days. Far fewer people, however, know that Atwood kicked off her career with a self-published poetry collection back in 1961. She printed the 220 copies of Double Persephone (as the collection is called) by hand, using a flatbed press. Humble beginnings for one of the most prolific writers of our time, wouldn’t you say?
Pride and Prejudice is inarguably one of the absolute greatest pieces of writing ever penned. Austen read the novel aloud to her family as she was writing it, and they liked it so much that her father decided to send the manuscript to a publisher (women couldn’t sign legally binding contracts yet). Guess what? The publisher rejected it. It’s hard to wrap your head around in retrospect: someone passed on Jane Austen.
Later, Austen managed to sell the rights to Northanger Abbey through her brother Henry. She was assured that the book would be published quickly, and the publisher even went so far as to advertise it. However, 6 years went by without a single copy being printed. Imagine sitting on an Austen book for so long, and not realizing what you’ve got! Eventually, Austen managed to buy the book back from the publisher for the same amount she originally sold it for.
It doesn’t stop there though. As if Austen hadn’t suffered enough setbacks, she couldn’t find a publisher to take Sense and Sensibility off her hands either! Instead, Austen had to pay to get the book published. The first edition went on to sell 750 copies, which was a lot at the time. It was only after this success that she managed to sell Pride and Prejudice to her publisher.
Nowadays of course, Jane Austen is practically synonymous with English literature. Just imagine what we would have missed, had she decided not to self-publish? Tenacity is probably one of the most important qualities a self-published author can have. Austen exhibited it in abundance. So next time you feel like throwing in the towel, remember Jane.
This is one of those self-publishing success stories that sounds like it came straight out of a feel-good Hollywood movie. Michael Sullivan started writing from a young age, eventually producing 13 novels. He tried to get these published, but all of them were rejected. Disillusioned by these setbacks, Sullivan gave up writing.
A whole decade passed by before Sullivan found his drive again. He wrote a sprawling fantasy series – The Riyria Revelations – with the aim of helping his then 13-year-old daughter with her dyslexia. This time, however, he decided not to seek publication; the rejections he faced 10 years earlier must have remained very fresh in his mind. Sullivan’s wife, however, was of a different opinion. After reading the books, she published them for him. The Riyria Revelations have since become bestsellers and won a slew of fantasy awards. The takeaway? Don’t worry so much about the potential audience – find your own reason to write, and the audience will come to you.
You’ve heard the story, we know – what started as Twilight fan fiction eventually developed into the world’s collective guilty pleasure. EL James saucy BDSM romp has since then sold over 125 million copies, clocked in as the fastest-selling book of all time in the UK, and put the author on several of Forbes’ highest-earning authors list (even topping it in 2013 with a staggering income of $95 million). In fact, 50 Shades was one of the books that supplanted The Martian as the number one on the New York Times bestseller list for two weeks in 2015.
James combined two of the most derided writing practices of our time – self-publishing and fan fiction – and churned out an international bestseller. It’s an impressive feat whether you like her books or not (actually, especially if you dislike them), which any self-published author can draw inspiration from.
Even people who don’t read for pleasure have heard of Virginia Woolf. A lot of people who do, however, don’t know that this titan of English literature self-published much of her work. Woolf even went so far as to establish her own press with her husband. Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse were both printed by the couple in their living room.
Luckily, should one not have the means to acquire a press of one’s own, there are easier ways to self-publish these days. Nevertheless, it’s an encouraging thought that Woolf found such success with self-publishing. This is especially true for a time when making and promoting a book was so much harder.
Most people who saw Still Alice in the cinema probably didn’t know that the film is based on a self-published book. Genova’s debut novel tells the story of a 50-year old Harvard professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Genova’s Ph.D. in neuroscience lends the narrative its unique authenticity, which is one explanation for its success.
Genova went through the traditional series of rejections from literary agents and publishers that we’ve seen many times before. However, instead of giving up, she rolled up (her sleeves). Genova used her expertise to start a website containing information about Alzheimer’s, as well as her own author blog. In addition, she wrote several blog articles for the national Alzheimer’s Association. As a result, she gained their official seal of approval for her book.
This free, accessible writing, combined with the partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association, won her a substantial audience. People followed her out of genuine interest for her content. When they then found out that she had published a book, they were quick to buy it. The sales figures for Still Alice spoke for themselves, and before long Simon & Schuster bought the rights to it for half a million dollars. Since then, the book has won the Bronte Prize and been translated into 20 languages. If you’re struggling with the idea of promoting your book after writing it, then we suggest looking to Lisa Genova for inspiration – and our own guide to book marketing, of course.