The Literary Traditions of Self-Publishing

Peter Rabbit

As a way to avoid or recover from rejection or after having given up on finding a publisher or agent, writers have increasingly turned to self-publishing. Here’s a bit of surprising self-publishing history by some classic authors.

Gone are the days of having to store copious numbers of cartons of unsold books in the garage or under the bed. User-friendly print-on-demand or e-book services allow writers to create books on an as-needed basis, avoiding the pitfalls of overprinting.

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 to be picked up by a trade publisher, and then continue to sell like crazy.


Self-publishing successes

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.

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 Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit

Beatrix Potter young

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

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. And she would have married her editor, Norman Warne, had he not gotten ill and met with an untimely death.

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Anaïs Nin and Under a Glass Bell

Anais Nin in tux smoking

Under a Glass Bell by Anais Nin

Anaïs 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.

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Virginia and Leonard Woolf start Hogarth Press

Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, and dog

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.


Better in print than in the drawer

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 roses, and can leave an author disappointed and broke.

Do your homework thoroughly and never, ever, agree to pay hefty up-front fees. Learn the difference between DIY publishing and services that promise you the world if you cough up a few thousand dollars. Those are just vanity publishers by another name.

You can publish on any number of platforms with various degrees of support and services, just be savvy before jumping into anything!

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What if L’Engle had self-published?


A wrinkle in Time 50th anniversary cover

Madeleine L’Engle might not have had to endure so many years of rejection of A Wrinkle in Time had she undertaken the publishing of her own work. On the other hand, maybe it would have flamed out as a self-published book in its time.

Fortunately, it finally landed just at the right time with just the right publisher (and it was her very last hope). While there is still no simple salve for the wounds of rejection, at least now, there are options.

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.

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Get your words into the world cover

You’ll find lots of resources on self-publishing in
Get Your Words Into the World

4 Responses to “The Literary Traditions of Self-Publishing”

  1. This is such a wonderful article for new and aspiring writers. Many potential authors shy away from the dream of writing a book because they don’t believe they will be of the same caliber, as more known authors. ….and, yes. They are probably right. However, having the self-publishing option encourages them to at least try. They can free their story, and share it themselves.
    Thank you for writing and sharing this article.


    • Thank you for your comment, Stephania, and for your insights on Literary Ladies’ FB page. I always delete commenter’s e-mails so that they don’t become live links, and meant to copy yours. I’ve been meaning to reach out to you to see if you have any interest in writing for the site. I’ll try to find you on FB as well!

  2. Susan, I also like to know that those options are there and have published on Kindle and Createspace under noms de plume. I found Draft2Digital totally worthless as compared to Kindle.

    Do you know about Grammarly? It’s like having a free copy editor. Even the free plan is great: — really easy to use and catches a lot of typos and punctuation errors.

  3. This is a wonderful post! I always keep self-publishing as my “Plan B” option thus making me feel empowered rather than at the mercy of others. I have used CreateSpace on a number of occasions and find them easy to work with. They print on decent paper and the books look nice. As a musician, I have also taken advantage of their CDs and self-published all the ones I used to make myself from home. The difficulty is finding a good editor and proofreader — both musts! Gets a little expensive but is totally necessary.

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