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The Secret Self-Publish Success Stories

by Tom Ashford

Mark Dawson often says that there’s never been a better time to be a writer. He’s not wrong. But I’d go one step further:

There’s never been a better time to be anything in regard to the arts.

Anyone can publish anything now, whether that’s a novel, a novella, a set of short stories, or a really long, rambling poem. And not just in eBook form anymore, no; Amazon will just as happily print you a paperback book as it will send a digital copy to somebody’s eReader, and it’s even possible to produce an audiobook without any upfront cost. Writing a good book might not be free (though that’s certainly possible), but producing it definitely is.

But look at other mediums, too. Filmmakers can make movies and upload them to hosting platforms such as YouTube or Vimeo. With the help of crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter, it’s even possible for self-producing directors to make feature length films. Some immensely popular video games have been developed by a single guy in his bedroom (over a good few years, of course). And then there’s music. All it takes is some basic equipment and anyone can upload their album to be bought or streamed on iTunes and Spotify.

Yet when we tell our family and friends that we’re self-publishing our novels, the news can still often be met with unease. “Have you not tried sending our book to any publishers?” they sometimes ask. Or even if they’re excited by the prospect of us having a book out – and at the idea of us doing it by ourselves, no less! – they’ll talk enthusiastically of the time when a big publisher notices the waves we’re making and offers us a book deal.

Don’t get me wrong. With the sales numbers I’m looking at I’d sell my soul to a traditional publisher in a heartbeat.

But the potential for success is lost on most people, and certainly on anyone that isn’t interested in self-publishing in the first place. Even writers who are traditionally published sometimes turn their noses up at the idea of producing their own books, even though they’d probably sell just as many books (and do the same amount of leg work) as they do now and make about seven times as much from each book that’s sold.

To many, self-publishing is still seen as a form of failure. As if we’ve not chosen this route, but resigned ourselves to it.

I could write about the failures of the traditional publishing houses and why it’s not necessarily one’s fault for being turned down by them (and maybe I will, in a future article), but perhaps it would be more interesting and optimistic to write about the success stories instead.

Secret might be a bit of a stretch. I mean, we know that these authors are or have been self-published. But our families and friends probably don’t.

Of course, we can start off with our very own Mark Dawson. He’s on track to make one million dollars this year (minus costs, I believe). Most people – authors or not – would consider that to be a very good living. Some people don’t make that much their whole lives. The same can probably be said for a good few other indie authors, such as LJ Ross and Rachel Abbott. Yet outside of their readers (of which, to be fair, there are a fair few) and the self-publishing community, nobody mentioned is a household name. Which is surprising in a way – their sales numbers are probably greater than a good few authors who are.

Let’s move on to a series that’s well-known enough for me to recognise it, and perhaps a lot of you will too. The Wool trilogy, by Hugh Howey. After first self-publishing through Amazon, he sold the trilogy to Simon and Schuster for half a million dollars… and sold the film rights on top of that. Not too shabby, eh? And there I was, thinking Wool was another traditionally published novel from the start. It’s almost like there’s no difference, so long as a self-published book is done well.

Here’s another one that Simon and Schuster picked up after it had been self-published: Still Alice by Lisa Genova. Remember that award winning film, starring Julianne Moore? Yep. Even Hollywood loves a self-published story.

In fact, here’s a really famous example of exactly that: The Martian by Andy Weir. A lot of people didn’t realise it was an adaptation of a book. Even more people didn’t realise that said book was self-published. Why? Because it didn’t matter. The book was good and it got optioned – end of story. The reason why he went down the self-publishing route? Because every literary agent he approached had turned his previous books away. Yes, that does happen (and it shows that sometimes it pays not to listen to them).

Okay. How about some really big numbers?

One of the most successful books in recent years started off life as Twilight fan fiction. After publishing it on fan sites, the author eventually turned it into a series of self-published erotic novels.

You know the one.

E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey series has sold so many copies that in 2013, James topped the Forbes list of authors with $95 million. The icing on the cake? When Vintage Books bought the rights to the series (because of its existing success), they kept the original Print On Demand cover art she’d chosen herself.

Can we get bigger? Oh, I think we can get bigger.

Harry Potter.

That’s right. The best-selling book series in history is self-published.

Now I can hear you through your computer/phone/tablet screen, shouting, “No, it isn’t.” And you’re right. Sort of. Bloomsbury Publishing deals with the UK market, and Scholastic the US. It just about got J.K. Rowling a measly advance, after being turned down by eight to twelve publishers (reports differ). Not because it was bad, of course – far from it. Because nobody thought a story about a kid going to magic-school would sell any copies. Another reason one might want to avoid a traditional publisher – they don’t always get it right.

But those deals were for the hardback and paperback editions – eBooks didn’t exist in 1997. They still hadn’t completely taken off in 2007, when The Deathly Hallows was written.

J.K. Rowling owns the digital rights to all the Harry Potter books. That’s why she originally sold them solely through her Pottermore website (though they’re now available on Amazon and other eBook stores). And because she’s publishing them herself, rather than through her publisher, get this: it’s Scholastic that receives a tiny royalty for its marketing work, not the other way around.

Not bad for a series that’s sold over five hundred million copies worldwide, in a franchise worth an estimated $25 billion.

So next time somebody looks at you with a withering expression of pity when you mention you’re choosing to self-publish rather than wait for a traditional publisher to realise your book is a.) good and b.) a suitable fit for whatever ‘trend’ they suspect might be around the corner, perhaps you can remind them of a few authors who dared to keep the rights to their books, and have done all the better for it.

Or just send them Mark Dawson’s Book Report screenshots. That’ll do it.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.