Stories of Self-Publishing Success

by John L. Hodge

The biggest things usually have a small beginning. How did Fifty Shades of Grey begin? With an online posting followed by a self-published eBook and a print-on-demand paperback. E.L. JAMES first posted a story, Master of the Universe, on a fan-fiction website and later on her own website. She developed this story into a trilogy and self-published the first volume. The response was so enthusiastic that within a few months she had sold the publishing rights to Vintage Books. It was the public, not the quite critical critics, who determined the book’s success. The book has been translated into 52 languages and, along with the rest of the trilogy, has sold 165 million copies.

It was the long-lasting Chicago publisher A.C. McClurg and Co. that encouraged W.E.B. DU BOIS to write his first book that became The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois’s essays had previously been published in The Atlantic Monthly and other magazines. But publishers closed the door when he wanted to start and write a weekly magazine. In his book, he had included a chapter that sharply criticized Booker T. Washington for not advocating for full equality for ”Black” Americans. The publishers were all supporters of Washington. So in 1905 Du Bois ventured out on his own. He bought a printing press to print and publish the first “Black” illustrated weekly magazine, Moon Illustrated Weekly. In his self-published magazine, he continued his criticism of Washington and advocated for full equality for “Blacks” as he also addressed the plight not only of “Blacks” in America but also in Africa. Although the magazine lasted for less than a year, it led to Du Bois’s later success as founder and editor of The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. It was he—he helped found and name the new organization—who advised that it should address not just “Black” people in America but also the needs of “colored people” around the world.

IRMA S. ROMBAUER was known not for her cooking but for her sparkling personality at the parties she hosted. But she had to find a way to earn a living after her prominent husband committed suicide in the wake of the stock market collapse of 1929 when she was 52 years old. Using her many connections within her community in St. Louis, she collected recipes and tested them in her kitchen. She modified many of them and introduced them to her readers by explaining how to prepare each dish in an engaging, relaxed, conversational style. In 1931, this became the first edition of The Joy of Cooking. She found a printer who had never printed books before. Her daughter, Marion, created a cover more attractive than that of any subsequent edition. The first printing of 3000 copies sold quickly. Eventually, after numerous rejections, Bobbs-Merrill Company picked up the second edition in 1936 and also published some subsequent editions. Before she died in 1962­­­, she arranged with Marion to take charge of subsequent editions. After Marion, a grandchild and later a great-grandchild carried on to expand later editions. Joy of Cooking (dropping the “the”) has sold over 18 million copies around the world.

LJ ROSS (the pen name of British-born Louise Ross) published her first novel, Holy Island, in January, 2015. It is a cross-genre book, combining romance with thriller crime. She was told that she could not do that, for it had to be one genre or the other, not both. Refusing to accept that limitation, she published the book herself, calling herself Dark Skies Publishing. She began selling it on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform (KDP). Within a few months, by attracting readers of both genres, it became KDP’s best-selling novel in the UK. Since then, she has written twenty-two novels, including a long series starring DCI Ryan. Publishing companies quickly came to her to capture her success, but she turned them down. Overall, she has sold over seven million books, all by Dark Skies Publishing. And yes, she makes a living (a quite good one) selling her self-published books.

VIRGINIA WOOLF, considered to be one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, had a terrifying fear of rejections. This was solved when she and her husband, Leonard, purchased a printing press and set it up in their living room, calling themselves Hogarth Press. Its first publication was Two Stories, containing one story by Virginia and one by Leonard, published in 1917. The first printing was 134 copies of a 31-page pamphlet, hand bound by Virginia with bright red thread. All of Virginia’s works, except for two, were initially published in England by Hogarth Press. The other two,The Voyage Out and Night and Day, were published by Gerald Duckworth and Company Ltd, owned by her half-brother. Hogarth Press itself grew to become famous. It published, among many other well-known writers and works, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and the first English translation of Sigmund Freud’s Collected Works.

American poet WALT WHITMAN self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 and paid a local printer to produce 795 copies. He designed the cover and even helped set the type. His first edition did not sell well, but Whitman kept expanding and revising his only book of poems in subsequent editions. He self-published the second edition and commercial publishers began publishing the subsequent editions. Some considered many of his poems to be obscene, and for that reason Leaves of Grass was banned in Boston in 1882. Earlier, in 1865, Whitman was fired from his job in the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Interior Department after his boss read some of his poems. In the mid-1800s, most public libraries would not touch it. Even the Harvard College library locked up its only copy. In 2014 a copy of the self-published first edition sold for $305,000.

MARGARET ATWOOD’s chilling novel The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985, has sold over 8 million copies and has formed the basis of a film, a television series, an opera and a ballet. In addition, she has published more than sixty works of fiction, essays, and poetry, and she has won numerous prestigious prizes. Her writing career began in 1961 with “Double Persephone,” a self-published booklet of seven poems contained in 16 pages. She couldn’t be bothered with looking for a publisher or an agent. She designed the cover and printed 220 copies herself with a flatbed press. There are still used copies of the original publication selling for thousands of dollars.

Though famous as one of the most-read of American poets, E.E. CUMMINGS barely earned enough to live on. Like his poems, he challenged and, in good humor, mocked conventionality throughout his life. Susan Cheever, daughter of Cummings’ close friend John Cheever, benefitted from Cummings’ withering critique of the uptight school she was attending at age 15. She changed schools which changed her life. In an article in Vanity Fair (March, 2014), Susan Cheever wrote, “He was delighted by almost everything in life except for the institutions and formal rules that he believed sought to deaden feelings.” He also had serious faults, once writing some antisemitic lines and supporting Senator Joseph McCarthy due to Cummings’s antipathy for communism, resulting from his visit to the Soviet Union in 1931. Though a well-known poet by the 1930’s, in 1935 he self-published “No Thanks,” a collection of poems, after fourteen publishers had rejected it. His mother financed the publication. He derided the fourteen publishers by dedicating the book to them and listing them at the beginning of the book.

AARON  BECK, who died recently after his 100th birthday, was a psychiatrist who transformed the practice of psychiatry with “cognitive behavioral therapy,” which is now the most popular treatment for depression and anxiety in America and Europe. Essentially it is a drug-free approach that engages the patient in looking for evidence that supports or fails to support the patient’s self-deprecating beliefs and thoughts. To do this, Dr. Beck removed the patient from the couch to the chair, where he would interact face-to-face with the patient to collaborate in searching for evidence for the patient’s beliefs. When he initially tried to publicize his approach and success, the psychiatric and psychoanalytic orthodoxies turned their backs, as though evidence was their enemy; his approach was also a threat to the profits of drug companies. So, in the 1970s, he established his own journal, Cognitive Therapy and Research, to record patient data. Eventually his evidence-based approach became accepted by other psychiatrists, but it took many years before his views were no longer shunned.

If you do not like your publisher, create your own. MARK TWAIN already had publishers. But he did not like them. They were too greedy and sometimes too slow. So he set up his own publishing company to publish his works. He named it Charles L. Webster and Company after his niece’s husband, whom Twain hired to run it. One of his company’s first published books was the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, his most popular book and considered to be one of the Great American Novels.

We may never know the impact on ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING’s life of the first published collection of her poems. Her father paid to print fifty copies of the collection and presented it to her for her 14th birthday. It was distributed to friends and family and not sold. After she became an invalid due to an accident when she was fifteen, she went on to write and publish poems and essays throughout her life — not only the love poem that begins “How do I love thee. Let me count the ways,” one of many sonnets written about Robert Browning who became her husband, but also a passionate opposition to slavery (“The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” 1850) and a portrayal of a woman’s struggle to become independent in a world that oppressed women (“Aurora Leigh,” 1856). She is recognized today as one of England’s finest poets.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit has sold around 45 million copies since it was first published in 1901, making it one of the best sellers in history. But when BEATRIX POTTER, its author, tried to publish it, she was turned down by every publisher she approached. Some publishers recommended changes. But Ms. Potter knew what the book should look like and ignored the publishers’ recommendations. So she published the book herself, printing 250 copies for distribution to family and friends. A year later, Frederick Warne & Company published it. But it was her uncompromised self-published edition that started it all.i