She had called to congratulate me on the publication of my first novel, but now I could detect the slightest bit of disdain in her voice. “Oh, so you self-published your book?”
Yes, I self-published. And no, I don’t consider it a sign of defeat, proof that I could not get my book published the traditional way. I could have spent the next year or two looking for an agent, then waiting for an offer from a publisher, then waiting another year for the publisher to bring out the book. But instead of waiting two or three more years for someone else to publish my book, I decided to do it myself, to start my own business with the intention of publishing books full-time eventually.
Self-publishing is increasingly becoming an option for authors frustrated with the difficulty of trying to interest agents and publishers in their books. According to “active ISBN” figures from R.R. Bowker, which distributes ISBNs to U.S. publishers, in 2002 there were 73,000 small publishers with one to 10 active ISBNs. (ISBNs are the unique sets of numbers assigned to each book as it is published.) This does not include print-on-demand books.
According to a 2003 study, “The Rest of Us,” released by the Publishers Marketing Association, independent publishers who fit Bowker’s definition of small (1 to 10 active ISBNs) and medium (11 to 199 active ISBNs) have aggregate annual sales between $29.4 billion and $34.3 billion, or 10-27 percent greater than the sales currently reported for the publishing industry as a whole.
Self-publishing is a good way to test the market for a book. Many authors with good sales figures are able to sell the reprint rights to their books for substantial amounts.
Traditional publishers are now scouting self-published books looking for the next best-seller. That’s how E. Lynn Harris (Invisible Life; Any Way the Wind Blows), James Redfield (The Celestine Prophecy) and Richard Paul Evans (The Christmas Box) and other top authors who originally self-published got their big breaks. Publishers pay attention to self-published books that are selling well, or that have a “buzz.” Do you think these authors would have been discovered if they had continued to try to get published the traditional way, or if they’d just given up in despair after receiving rejection after rejection and stuck their manuscripts in their desk drawers? I applaud them for taking their future into their own hands, for believing in their books and risking their own money to publish them, and then getting out there and promoting them every way they could. They had no guarantee of success, but they tried, and it paid off for them.
While self-publishing seems to be a big trend now, thanks to technology that makes it possible to produce a book and print 1,000 copies for around $5,000, authors have always self-published when faced with rejection from traditional publishers, even when it was a lot more difficult and expensive to do so.
John Kremer, author of 1001 Ways to Market Your Books, has compiled a “Self-Publishers Hall of Fame” on his Web site. You might be surprised at the roster of famous and successful authors who self-published their books. I certainly was. Here are just a few:
John Bartlett — Financed the publication of the first three editions of his book of quotations.
L. Frank Baum — Self-published at least a few of the books in the Wizard of Oz series.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning — Self-published her first book of poetry.
Edgar Rice Burroughs — Self-published some of his books (he’s best known for the Tarzan series).
Willa Cather — Self-published her first novel. Another novel, One of Ours, won the Pulitzer Prize.
Pat Conroy — Financed the publication of his first novel. His later best-sellers include The Prince of Tides.
Alexandre Dumas — The author of The Three Musketeers self-published his first novels.
Benjamin Franklin — Self-published Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1732, and continued to produce the almanac for 26 years.
Galileo Galilei — The Italian scientist self-published The Starry Messenger and is credited in history books for being the first to study the moon through a telescope, even though an English scientist had done it four months earlier.
Lord Byron — The English poet paid for the publication of his first collection.
Zane Grey — Self-published his first adult Western novels.
Thomas Hardy — The English writer famous for “Far From the Madding Crowd,” and “The Mayor of Casterbridge,” self-published his first novel.
Nathaniel Hawthorne — The author of The Scarlet Letter self-published his first novel.
James Joyce — Paid for the first printing of Ulysses with the help of some friends.
Louis L’amour — Privately printed his first book, a collection of poems, Smoke From This Altar, in 1939. Bantam later reissued it, and it has sold more than 100,000 copies. L’amour’s Western novels have sold more than 200 million copies worldwide.
Thomas Paine — Self-published Common Sense, in 1776. The 46-page pamphlet, which recruited people to fight for the American Revolution, has been called the single most influential political work in American history.
Beatrix Potter — Self-published a limited edition of 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, in 1901. When the British publisher who had rejected it because of the cost of printing illustrations saw it, he brought out a color illustrated edition in 1902. It has sold more than 40 million copies since.
Henry David Thoreau — Self-published “Walden,” in 1854.
Leo Tolstoy — Paid 4500 rubles for the first printing of War and Peace.
Mark Twain — Paid for the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even though he was already a successful novelist with a publisher. He then invested profits from the book to help develop one of the first working typewriters.
Walt Whitman — Self-published many editions of his classic book of poems, Leaves of Grass. The first edition was published on July 4, 1855.
Virginia Woolf — Self-published her early books before becoming known as the author of Mrs. Dalloway, and other acclaimed novels.
And that’s just the writers who would be considered household names. Kremer’s list includes dozens who have successfully self-published but are not well-known.
Yes, I self-published, and I’m glad I did. At least my book is in print now and there’s a chance, no matter how slight, that I could be successful with it.
And my friend? The one who gave that withering response when she learned I had self-published? She’s still waiting to hear back from the publisher she submitted her manuscript to…a year ago.
Robyn Jackson has 20 year’s experience as a reporter and editor for daily and weekly newspapers. She is the author of Lakota Moon, the story of a girl who is captured by warriors while traveling on the Oregon Trail with her family. Lakota Moon”is available on her Web site Amazon.com.
Copyright 2004, Robyn Jackson