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Self-Publishing "Success" Stories

I'm about to get myself into trouble. No matter how carefully I write about the myths of self-publishing, I still expect to receive angry e-mails from authors accusing me of elitism, of demeaning self-published authors, of being a tool for the publishing conglomerate in New York, and any number of other crimes. I've watched it happen again and again on various mailing groups and discussion forums. Reasoned discussion on self-publishing often devolves into a virtual slap-fest from authors on both sides

Comments are open (though nastiness will get you screened). And my contact info is at www.jimchines.com. Slap away.

I have absolutely nothing against self-publishing. I do have serious problems with scammers trying to talk would-be writers into shelling over hundreds or thousands of dollars, while completely deluding them as to what they're getting into.

The sad thing is that most of these scammers recycle the same old lines about how "traditional" publishers refuse to accept new writers*, and then they start listing famous and bestselling authors like Grisham and Paolini who chose to self-publish instead of going with one of those New York monstrosities . . . the implication being that you too can be a NYT bestseller if you self-publish your novel!

I finally got annoyed enough to gather some of these claims together, starting with good old Grisham.

1. John Grisham self-published A TIME TO KILL. Actually, Grisham sold A TIME TO KILL to a small publisher, Wynwood Press, who did a 5000-copy print run. Grisham bought the remaindered copies, which he sold himself. While this is the sort of hard work self-publishing often involves, A TIME TO KILL was certainly not a self-published book.

2. Christopher Paolini self-published ERAGON. Paolini's family ran a small commercial press. ERAGON was not the first book published by Paolini International. Paolini International was founded in 1997, and you could make a strong argument that they are a commercial publisher, albeit a small one. On the other hand, since they were publishing the work of their son, you could also call this self-publishing. In either case, Paolini's success** relied heavily on the fact that his family had five years of experience running a publisher, and were willing to devote themselves full-time to promoting his book. Unless your family has the same experience and devotion to your book, I wouldn't count on achieving this level of success.

3. Mark Twain self-published HUCKLEBERRY FINN. I love this one. Companies will loudly proclaim that publishing is changing, that "traditional publishers" are the dinosaurs of the book world, and that self-publishing and print-on-demand are the wave of the future. These same companies then cite examples well over a century old. HUCKLEBERRY FINN was published in the late 1800s. Given how much the publishing industry has changed, how about we confine our arguments to examples less than a hundred years old. M'kay?

4. James Redfield self-published THE CELESTINE PROPHECY. Actually, this one appears to be true. From everything I've researched, Redfield did indeed self-publish. He gave away about 1500 copies, and word-of-mouth helped from there. What, you thought I was only going to post the false myths? Self-publishing can lead to success. Not as often as scammers would have you believe, but anything's possible.

5. William Strunk, Jr. self-published THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE for his classes at Cornell University. Also true. However, it's misleading. First of all, this book had a captive audience from day one. Unless you can force several hundred students to buy your book every semester, don't count on seeing the same success. Also, there's a huge difference between self-publishing non-fiction and fiction. With non-fiction, if you have a niche audience and you're an expert on your topic, then you have a built-in platform through which to market your work. The success of Strunk and other non-fiction works is pretty much irrelevant to those of us who write fiction.

6. Even famous authors like Louis L'Amour self-published their work! L'Amour's collection SMOKE FROM THIS ALTAR was published in 1939 by Lusk Publishing Company, which was owned by Enoch Lusk. I've been unable to find any other books from this publisher, so it may be self-publishing and not a small press publication. Regardless, what this claim usually omits is what L'Amour self-published. The implication is that he's another success story who went from humble self-publishing to bestselling author. In fact, SMOKE FROM THIS ALTAR is a collection of L'Amour's poetry. Poetry, like non-fiction, is a very different beast than fiction. L'Amour's first novel appeared in 1950, and he never self-published his fiction.

7. What about L. Frank Baum? He self-published, right? L. Frank Baum wrote 14 Oz books, which were published between 1900 and 1920. (So technically, I suppose you could say this example is less than 100 years old. But you're cutting it close!) THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ was the first book, which was published by the George M. Hill Company in 1900. Hill also published at least one of Baum's earlier books. George M. Hill went out of business in 1902, after which Reilly & Britton published Baum's Oz books. The final two Oz books (by Baum) were published by Reilly & Lee. But this myth isn't completely false. My research suggests that Baum did indeed self-publish one work . . . a manual on chicken farming.

I could go on at length, but this could easily become a novel-length work if I had the time and energy. I have books of my own to write. And my goal isn't to analyze every last myth, but rather to take a critical look at some of the most popular claims, in the hope of helping others do the same.

Publishing is hard work. It doesn't matter which route you choose. Commercial publishers can be slow. Most authors who go this route face years of rejection and struggle. Self-publishing gives you a lot more control. You can publish the very first book you ever write, if you're so inclined. (I would advise against it, but that's just me.) On the other hand, the average self-published book sells very few copies, and requires much more marketing and self-promotion by the author. A commercially published book doesn't make you an instant celebrity either, of course. Believe me, I wish it did. But the average book from Baen, DAW, or Tor will sell more copies in its first week than most self-published books sell in their lifetime.

There are no easy paths to success. Whatever you might think of THE CELESTINE PROPHECY, Redfield did an awful lot of work to sell his book and build word-of-mouth. Paolini went to hundreds of schools, in costume, promoting ERAGON. My goblin books are published by DAW, but I still I spend way too much time designing and distributing promotional materials, not to mention traveling to conventions and libraries and anywhere else I can go. Being a writer is hard! (Anyone who says differently is selling something.)

Bottom line: know what your goals are. Do the research. There are plenty of scammers and snake oil salesmen*** in this field. Don't fall for the sales pitch, and make an educated choice.

Good luck!


*Off the top of my head, here are a few new authors who sold books to major publishers in the past few years: Sarah Prineas, Tobias Buckell, Joshua Palmatier, Marie Brennan, Jay Lake, Matthew Cook, Anton Strout, and myself. Many more examples are given in the comments thread.

**Don't get me wrong. I would love it if GOBLIN QUEST did half as well as ERAGON!

***The snake oil salesman analogy is borrowed from John Savage, who writes an excellent entry on self-publishing myths at http://scrivenerserror.blogspot.com:80/2004/08/autobibliophilia.html.



( 81 comments — Leave a comment )
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Oct. 4th, 2007 12:58 pm (UTC)
New authors are indeed still being published by major publishing houses. One of my co-workers told me about the daughter of one of her good friends (sorry, I don't have the name). She got a $300,000 advance for her first book (yes, you read that right. $300K for a first book). It's fiction but also semi-autobiographical.

Apparently, when she was in France, she spent some time at a monastery where she met a young Syrian (who had been Muslim) who was there to become a monk. They fell in love, but nothing happened until they met again - can't remember where - and ended up married.
Oct. 4th, 2007 01:03 pm (UTC)
$300K? Holy crap! Do you happen to have directions to that monastery?

Average first novel advance is closer to $5000 or $6000, but the huge deals are out there too.
(no subject) - antonstrout - Oct. 4th, 2007 01:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - arielstarshadow - Oct. 4th, 2007 01:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - barbarienne - Oct. 4th, 2007 04:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rachel_swirsky - Oct. 4th, 2007 06:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 4th, 2007 12:59 pm (UTC)
My corporate overlords will be pleased...

Oct. 4th, 2007 01:04 pm (UTC)
Of course, one downside to going with a major publisher is you can end up working with some very odd people...
Oct. 4th, 2007 01:24 pm (UTC)
I think you've put your finger on the problem, and some self-publishers don't see it as a problem: you have to put in the hard work of hand-selling your book because it won't get distribution. The truth is, vanity press books do NOT get distributed to brick and board stores. The sleazy ones word their come-ons to make you think you will, and they say you will be "featured" on their website, without saying that no one EVER goes to those websites looking for a book to buy, much less editors and agents to scout. The only people on those websites are looking for an easy way to get published themselves.

Some people like the challenge of hand selling their book, so self-pub is the way to go. But I recommend a place like Lulu.com, which is honest--what you see if what you get--and none of the scammers who charge hundreds of dollars for what you can do yourself at Kinko's.
Oct. 4th, 2007 04:20 pm (UTC)
I had to explain to my friends the difference between what I'm planning to do with self-publishing a collection of short stories that I've all ready sold elsewhere as opposed to self-publishing, say, one of my unsold novels, which I wouldn't do in a million years.

I do think self-publishing has a place in specialized non-fiction, but fiction is a different beast entirely.
(no subject) - sartorias - Oct. 4th, 2007 04:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 4th, 2007 01:40 pm (UTC)
I don't think those invisible demons were reviewers. Usually when reviewers eat authors alive, they like very much to be seen doing it. :)
(no subject) - dedbutdrmng - Oct. 4th, 2007 04:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Oct. 4th, 2007 08:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 4th, 2007 01:56 pm (UTC)
Well said.

And is there something in the air about this topic? Because I've seen several conversations here and there about how self-publishing is the wave of the future, and how we can all do just as much for ourselves as any commercial publisher can. I should point them to your post, if I may?
Oct. 4th, 2007 01:59 pm (UTC)
By all means, point away!

I went ahead and posted this in part for my own reference, since I've had similar discussions several times in the past month alone.

Ironically, by posting it on LiveJournal, I've self-published the article. This amuses me.
(no subject) - beth_bernobich - Oct. 4th, 2007 02:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - barbarienne - Oct. 4th, 2007 04:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Oct. 4th, 2007 04:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - beth_bernobich - Oct. 5th, 2007 11:30 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Oct. 5th, 2007 11:44 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 4th, 2007 03:03 pm (UTC)
Excellent work, Jim. Right...rrr...Write on!
Oct. 4th, 2007 03:26 pm (UTC)
I have a weblog called Fantasy Debut, which tracks debuts of most speculative fiction, despite its name. During the 3 1/2 months during which I've been running this blog, I've announced dozens of debuts. There are typically 2-3 debuts each week from major publishers and even more from small press. Since I run this blog in my spare time, and since I review books in addition to announcing debuts, I'm actually having a hard time keeping up.

I've done lots of interviewers and I always make a point to ask how many novels the author wrote before getting published. The answer has not yet been "1". What's more, new up-and-coming presses such as Night Shade Books and Juno Books are bringing even more debut authors to actual bookshelves throughout the country.

Tia Nevitt
Oct. 4th, 2007 03:34 pm (UTC)
First, I am self-published, and trust me, Jim sells more books on a slow Tuesday then I have in total.

Second, Huckleberry Finn was not self-published. Mark Twain, who was already famous, started a publishing company after the Civil War. It's first book is a little thing few have heard of - Grant's Memoirs. (Twain and Grant were personal friends.)

Huckleberry Finn, which is actually the 5th book in the Tom Sawyer series, was published by Twain's company, but that ain't self publishing.

BTW, Twain's company went bankrupt, and Twain nearly lost his house over the deal.
Oct. 4th, 2007 03:38 pm (UTC)
Really? I didn't look into this one too deeply, aside from using it as an example of historical irrelevancy (in terms of publishing today). Thanks for the info!
(no subject) - chris_gerrib - Oct. 4th, 2007 05:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - melissajm - Oct. 4th, 2007 09:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ext_70379 - Nov. 16th, 2007 09:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
It's not? - (Anonymous) - Nov. 21st, 2009 03:48 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: It's not? - wordweaverlynn - Dec. 23rd, 2009 03:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 4th, 2007 04:22 pm (UTC)
Other new authors in the past few years with sales to major publishers:

Elizabeth Bear
Charles Coleman Finlay
Naomi Novik
Scott Lynch
Susanna Clarke

If we're willing to go back a whole decade, that list gets looooong. Just start with the finalists for the John Campbell award, or the Locus award for Best First Novel. Expand into other genres: both the Edgars and the RITAs have "best first novel" awards.

But it's easier to believe in some consipiracy against newbies than to think that maybe one isn't quite the genius one believes.

I think I should also point out that The Celestine Prophecy was originally sold as nonfiction, or at least ambiguously coy, to a specific audience (New Agers).
Oct. 4th, 2007 04:29 pm (UTC)
Mrr. If I'm remembering correctly Matthew Reilly also originally self-published his book Contest and was Extremely lucky with it. Now, he's Australian, and not that big here in America (However, this book geek will tell you that Reilly writes at 3000 miles an hour and drags you by the belly button through the entire book, and you should read him, absolutely.) but he did self-publish. And he's made a semi-decent name for himself. (Start with Ice Station and fall in love with all the weird/quirky/wonderful characters and let them drag you along at 3000mph!)
Oct. 4th, 2007 04:39 pm (UTC)
Nice post, Jim
This can't be said enough.
Oct. 4th, 2007 05:09 pm (UTC)
Nice one, Jim.
Oct. 4th, 2007 06:51 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I'm not a big fan of self-publishing, either; I encourage authors to try small-press publishing as a better way to break into the field. But self-publishing has become such a touchy subject that I wince every time somebody asks my opinion about it ... congrats for daring to tackle it!

-- Dru Pagliassotti
Editor, The Harrow
Oct. 4th, 2007 07:45 pm (UTC)
Hi Dru! I hadn't realized you were on LJ.

So far, response has been much tamer than I expected ... of course, folks reading this are mostly people I know. As others find the article, I expect comments to get a bit more exciting.
(no subject) - sistercoyote - Oct. 4th, 2007 09:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 4th, 2007 08:44 pm (UTC)
..well though out, well researched and..sane!

very refreshing!

Tom Brown
(Copper Age)
Oct. 4th, 2007 09:24 pm (UTC)
My friend Eve has expressed interest in self-publishing, or at least a small press, due to the difficulty she is having in selling her first collection of short stories. One of the problems is that her book doesn't fit categorically into one genre or even a strict medium, and she would like to generate some word-of-mouth for it first before taking it to a publisher.

Also, she and husband (the punk-Adonis rock-poser artist) are very do-it-yourself sort of punks, so I could see them really getting into the hardcore SELF part of the publishing. Mmm, typesetting...*salivates*
Oct. 4th, 2007 11:32 pm (UTC)
I'm not an expert, but every publishing pro I've spoken to has said fiction is one of the hardest things to self-publish successfully (where success is defined in terms of significant sales). And a collection is generally harder to sell and market than a novel. For word-of-mouth and self-publishing to attract the interest of a publisher, I'm told you'll have to sell probably four to five thousand books. (Average self-published book sells closer to 75 or 100.)

These figures are from memory, so may not be 100% accurate.

And the dynamics of self-publishing are pretty different from small press. There are a lot of small publishers doing great work, and publishing some impressive stuff.

That said, if they've done the research and they're willing to do the hardcore work like you describe....
(no subject) - andyleggett - Oct. 5th, 2007 12:20 am (UTC) - Expand
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Jim C. Hines


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