Famous Writers Who Self-Published: Busting a Self-Publishing Myth

When you dig into the biographies of famous authors who published themselves and examine their self-publishing experiences, you'll see why it is unlikely that you'll join their ranks by publishing your own books
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Book promotion guru John Kremer introduces his Self-Publishing Hall of Fame by writing, "You could stock a superb college library or an incredible bookstore just from the books written by the some of the authors who have chosen to self-publish [sic]," then proceeds to reel off the names of 52 famous writers who published their own works, including L. Frank Baum, Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, William Strunk Jr. and Mark Twain. (Kremer misspells Poe's middle name and omits "Jr." from Strunk's name.)

"This website features many other amazing authors who have chosen to self-publish at some time in their careers," Kremer continues. "You would do well to be among this honored group."

In his recent blog entry, "Are Self-published Authors Really Authors or Even Published?", Dr. Jim Taylor echoes Kremer, writing, "Many famous authors started out self-publishing their works including John Grisham, Jack Canfield, Beatrix Potter and Tom Clancy."

A self-published writer commenting on a recent article by a librarian who disparaged self-published books repeated Dr. Taylor's claim, which he took from the website of a consultant charging $120 an hour to help writers publish themselves.

The names of famous authors who published themselves are often defiantly asserted by self-published writers attempting to erase the stigma attached to self-published books, the lepers of the literary world.

Associating self-publishing with the most respected and commercially successful authors is a favorite ploy used by vanity presses and other self-publishing hucksters to suck in credulous customers for their services. Implicit in Kremer's list is the contention that you can join his pantheon of literary immortals and share their success just by publishing yourself.

The problem with Kremer and Taylor's lists is two-fold. Several authors who are frequently cited as self-publishing Cinderellas never actually published themselves, and the efforts of those who did self-publish were usually peripheral to their careers and eventual success.

Memo to Dr. Taylor: John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Jack Canfield never self-published. It's an urban legend cherished by poorly informed self-published writers.

In 2009, for an article on the 20th anniversary of Grisham's first novel, A Time to Kill, USA Today reported, "That April 15, after Grisham returned from his accountant frustrated, broke and about to borrow money to pay his taxes, agent Jay Garon called wanting to represent him.

"Wynwood Press, a small company in New York, bought the manuscript a year later and printed 5,000 copies of A Time to Kill -- at a length about a third shorter than the original manuscript -- in June 1989. Grisham ordered 1,000 himself."

Tom Clancy's first novel, The Hunt for Red October was acquired by the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis, Md., when an editor there, Deborah Grosvenor, became enthralled by Clancy's novel, convinced she had a potential bestseller in her hands.

Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen did not self-publish Chicken Soup for the Soul, either. In this interview, Canfield recalled how they found a publisher:

So we went to the American Bookseller's Association Convention in Anaheim and walked the floor from booth to booth asking publishers if they would be interested in our book. There were 4,000 booths there! I don't think we hit every one of them, but close to it. Finally, we went to the booth of Health Communications, which became our publisher. They were a small company out of Deerfield Beach, Florida. Their primary focus was on the recovery world, such as people getting over alcoholism or drug addiction or being co-dependant [sic]. They were slowly going out of business at the time because that whole market had become saturated. They said they would take a look at it and they read it on the way home on the airplane. They loved it and said that they would publish it. There was no advance.

But what about the writers in Kremer's Self-Publishing Hall of Fame? He can't be making up the whole list, can he? No, but when you dig into the biographies of famous authors who published themselves and examine their self-publishing experiences, you'll see why it is unlikely that you'll join their ranks by publishing your own books.

Consider the cases of Baum, King, Poe, Strunk and Twain, who actually published their own books.

Let's look at Stephen King first, because his inclusion on Kremer's list demonstrates how deceptive such lists are. In 1962, King and his friend, Chris Chesley, published a joint collection of their stories, People, Places, and Things-Volume I. The following year, King's Triad and Gaslight Books, published the two-part book, The Star Invaders. Here's the kicker -- Stephen King was a fifteen-year-old high school student in 1962, Chesley was his best friend, and Triad and Gaslight Books was King's amateur press. King's first published novel was Carrie, published by Doubleday in 1974.

L. Frank Baum published three of his own books: Baum's Complete Stamp Dealers Directory, published when he was seventeen, The Book of the Hamburgs, a guide to the care and feeding of a breed of chicken known as the Hamburg and The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors. Yes, Baum self-published three books that no one but hardcore Baum buffs know exist. None of the Oz novels for which he is known or his other, lesser known works of fiction were self-published.

In 1827, Edgar Allan Poe paid a printer, Calvin F. S. Thomas, to publish 50 copies of Tamerlane and Other Poems, a 40-page pamphlet-sized collection of Poe's poetry. The book did not carry Poe's name as author, but was credited "By A Bostonian." Tamerlane was included in a couple of lists of newly published books, but received no other attention. Tamerlane is now considered the rarest book in American literature. In 2009, a copy was auctioned for $662,500.

English professor William Strunk Jr. privately published The Elements of Style in 1918 for use by his students at Cornell University. If it wasn't for E. B. White, a former pupil of Strunk's, his little manual would probably have been forgotten. In 1957, White wrote a feature story for The New Yorker extolling the virtues of Strunk's book. Macmillan and Company then commissioned White to revise the book for its edition, published in 1959. (Strunk had died in 1946.)

By 1885, when Mark Twain started his own publishing company, Charles L. Webster & Co. (Twain put Charles Webster, his nephew by marriage, in charge of the company), he was already a popular author whose books had been published by Chatto and Windus in England and the American Publishing Company in the U.S. Though Twain created his company to publish his own works, he also hoped to prosper by publishing other writers' books. Though the first two books Webster & Co. published, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, were great successes, the company failed in 1894 after publishing a little more than 80 titles.

Commenting on Kremer's list, legal blogger C. E. Petit writes:

It implicitly extends the cachet of an author's complete oeuvre to one or two works. For example, the cachet of the Oz books (L. Frank Baum) seems to be extended to his chicken-farming manuals, which he did indeed self-publish. I've seen used-car salesmen who didn't display this slickness in false comparisons.

Famous writers who self-published usually fall into one of the following categories: the writer whose self-published book failed, only to achieve belated recognition (Poe), the already successful writer whose earlier books were published by commercial houses who decided to go it alone (Twain), the writer publishing their book as an ancillary part of their day job (Strunk), the destined-to-be famous writer publishing his juvenilia (King) or the writer who published oddball books unlikely to have wide commercial appeal before hitting it big (Baum).

When famous writers' forays into self-publishing succeeded, it was due to factors most self-published writers can't access or to serendipity.

According to author Mike Cooper's back-of-the-envelope calculations, the average e-book (the preferred format for self-publishers) earns less than $500. (Cooper's analysis
apparently lumps together self-published and traditionally published e-books, but his conclusion is still disheartening.)

Shorter version: you are not Baum, King, Poe (not that you'd want to be him, anyway), Strunk, Twain or just about any one of the famous writers who once dabbled in self-publishing. And, barring a miracle, you're not going to be.

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