The Literary Traditions of Self-Publishing

Peter Rabbit

As a way to avoid or recover from rejection, or simply to be entrepreneurs, writers have increasingly been turning to self-publishing. User-friendly print-on-demand or e-book services allow writers to create books on an as-needed basis, avoiding the pitfalls of overprinting, then having to store copious numbers of cartons of unsold books in the garage or under the bed. Whether the product ends up only in the hands of the author’s mom and cousins or becomes one of the rare successes that sells like wildfire, it’s good to have options. The ultimate stroke of luck for a self-published book is being picked up by a trade publisher, then continuing to sell like crazy.

Some well-known examples of books by female authors that were first self-published: When I Am an Old Woman I shall Wear Purple by Sandra Haldeman Martz (sales of  more than 1.5 million copies prompted her to found Papier Maché Press); Irma Rombauer self-published The Joy of Cooking in 1931; it was subsequently published by Scribner’s and has consistently sold more than 100,000 copies annually for many years; Marlo Morgan sold 370,000 copies of Mutant Message Down Under herself before selling the rights to HarperCollins for $1.7 million. There are but three of many self-published books that went on to substantial success.

Beatrix Potter self-published 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit after numerous publishers had turned it down. Once in print, it finally caught the eye of Frederick Warne & Co., which published the book in 1902 and making it an immediate success. This house published all twenty-three of her subsequent books, selling millions and making Potter a wealthy woman.

Anais NinAnaïs Nin self-published when it became apparent that no commercial publisher would take a risk on Under a Glass Bell, a collection of eight short stories. With her then-husband, Hugh Guiler, she founded Gemor Press in 1944 for the purpose of printing this edition. Three years later, a British publisher agreed to republish the collection, expanded by two novellas and Nin’s famous prose poem, “House of Incest.” The following year, Nin’s friend and erstwhile lover Gore Vidal used his clout to encourage his publisher, Dutton, to publish the collection in the U.S.

With her husband Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf founded Hogarth Press. It started as a hobby, to print fine small editions of literary works. The press gradually grew to accommodate some notable authors from their Bloomsbury circle and beyond, and enjoyed some bestseller successes, notably, the novels of Vita Sackville-West. Some of Virginia Woolf’s novels were published by the press once it gained prestige—a case of publishing close to the vest, rather than self-publishing.

The lesson here is that it may be better to publish, whatever form it takes, than to pour your heart into a work that languishes in a drawer. You must be scrupulously honest about its quality, though. Get objective opinions before taking the plunge. And buyer beware: self-publishers’ experiences aren’t all like the ones cited earlier, and can leave an author disappointed and broke. Having gone both routes, my personal preference is for mainstream publishing; a book benefits from the editorial process and the higher production values of conventional versus print-on-demand publishing.

Madeleine L’Engle might not have had to endure continuous rejection of A Wrinkle in Time had she undertaken the publishing of her own work. On the other, perhaps it may have quickly flamed out as a self-published book in its day and age, if it hadn’t landed just at the right time at just the right publisher (and her very last hope). While there is still no simple salve for the wounds of rejection, at least now, there are options.

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