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A Brief History of Self-Publishing

Posted by in Self Publishing on March 3, 2012

Choose to self-publish and you’ll find yourself in illustrious company: some of the world’s best-loved writers started out that way. While the self-publishing industry has taken off in recent years, it’s always been an alternative to mainstream publishing as a look at some of the great names in literature will tell you.

The Voyage to Print
Take Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), one of the most acclaimed novelists of the twentieth century – and also one of the most prolific self-publishers. Her first novel The Voyage Out was published in 1915 by her brother’s small press. She went on to publish many titles under her own Hogarth Press, set up jointly with her husband, Leonard, in 1917. The press grew in parallel with Woolf’s success as a writer. It’s very first product was a 31-page booklet printed by hand, which contained a story by each of the Woolfs’. 150 copies were printed and sold to friends. The press went from strength to strength, and through the Woolfs’ personal connections handled work by writers as eminent as E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot and Sigmund Freud, translations of Russian greats such as Dostoyevsky, Chekov and Tolstoy, and, of course, Virginia’s own work. The press expanded during the inter-war period and went on to use commercial printers. In 1938 Virginia withdrew from the business, and Leonard ran it as a partnership, with it eventually becoming an associate company of Chatto and Windus.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) self-published a collection of his poems Tamerlane and Other Poems in 1827 when he was aged just 18. Although critical acclaim was lacking at the time, partly because of the rarity of the book (it is believed that only 12 copies are in existence today), the value of the self-published work has exploded in modern times. A copy was sold in 2009 for $662,500, a record price for a work of American literature.

In more recent times, Jack Canfield’s Chicken Soup for the Soul series found worldwide success after starting out as a self-published and self-promoted book. Canfield was then “discovered” during a book event and the Chicken Soup series was snapped up by a mainstream publisher. The series ran to over 200 titles with over 100 million copies in circulation today, enough for at least one for every household in the United States.

Clinching Deals
Some of the world’s best-loved children’s authors, too, were self-published. Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) published The Tale of Peter Rabbit herself in 1901, a year before she clinched a publishing deal with Frederick Warne & Co. The “chapbook” or booklet format she published it in is currently enjoying something of a renaissance, and is one of many forms of self-published books available today. Many of Enid Blyton’s works were published by the firm where her husband, Major Hugh Pollock, was editor. Both Potter and Blyton went on to worldwide fame, so self-publishing clearly worked for them.

The list of writers who have self-published and since found fame goes on: Margaret Atwood, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Alexander Pope, Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain to name but a few. Self-publishing works the other way round, too – many already-established writers have gone to self-publish subsequent work. Stephen King, for example, created an e-book The Plant and sold it for $1 per chapter. Plans are afoot for J. K. Rowling to sell e-book versions of the Harry Potter novels directly from a dedicated website. Meanwhile, the estates of Barbara Cartland, Ian Fleming and Catherine Cookson also publish the authors’ works as e-books.

In more recent times, Amanda Hocking has become a household name for self-publishing her books to the Kindle store and translating them into $2 million in sales in under a year. She went on to sign a four-book deal with St Martin’s Press, complete with a very healthy $2 million advance.

Stay in Control
Of course, technology has moved on from the books hand-printed on the Woolfs’ dining room table, and now there are many ways you can publish your own work. The advantages are many – the author maintains complete control of the process and retains all the rights, with the added benefit of managing the whole operation while lounging at home. It’s a growing business too – in 2008 self-published out-sold books published in the traditional way for the first time.

So, why not take a leaf out of the book of many a famous author and benefit from all the advantages self-publishing has to offer? Apart from being in excellent company, it’s hard to think of what’s not to like. In the words of Jack Canfield: ‘Don’t worry about failures, worry about the chances you miss when you don’t even try’.

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