Some of the most well-known authors published their own work at some point in their career. Even in the 1800’s, it was considered both a risk and a way to maintain control of one’s work – bound to produce success stories as well as tales of caution!
Today Henry David Thoreau’s Walden might be read in high schools across the country, but his first book was a certified flop. At the suggestion of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau paid for the Munroe printing of the first 1000-copy print of A Week on The Concord and Merrimack Rivers in 1849. When fewer than 300 copies sold, it fell to Thoreau to pay for the remaining copies and remove them from the seller’s house. As he later wrote:
“[…]I had them all sent to me here, and they have arrived to-day by express, filling the man’s wagon, – 706 copies out of an edition of 1000 which I bought of Munroe four years ago and have been ever since paying for. […] They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs […] I now have a library of nearly nine-hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”
At the turn of the 20th century, Betty Zane, by Zane Grey, passed over the desktops of many publishers, all of whom declined the book. Grey is thought to have been helped by his wife or brother in order to self-publish this novel loosely based on the life of his great-grand-aunt in 1903. He would struggle to find publishing outlets for his books for the next ten years, but ultimately carved out his place as one of the nation’s favorite fiction writers of the American frontier.
Carl Sandburg “self”-published with a little help from his friends. Years before Sandburg’s success as an orator, biographer, and poet, his mentor, Philip Green Wright, printed a series of leaflets on his behalf. Wright was a professor as well as an amateur publisher, and produced Sandburg’s In Reckless Ecstasy, Incidentals, and The Plaint of a Rose on his cellar-floor hand press. Sandburg would win his first Pulitzer Prize fifteen years later, in 1919.
Irma Rombauer published her book The Joy of Cooking in 1931, during a year of financial and family hardship. It has never left print, however, and has seen seven more editions published by Bobbs-Merrill and later Scribner (a Simon & Schuster imprint). Today it’s a staple in many homes’ cookbook collections.
And a more recent success story: James Redfield self-published his spiritual novel The Celestine Prophecy in 1993. As the story goes, he even sold it from the trunk of his car, after giving away over 1,000 copies simply to generate word-of-mouth interest. He’s said to have sold nearly 100,000 copies before Warner Books, Inc. picked it up! Since then, Redfield has published three more books in the arc, making The Celestine Prophecy the first installation of a four-part series.