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The Most Successful Self-Publishers

Photography: MorBCN

There was a time when “self-publishing” was just another word for “loser.” It was what bad poets did when they ran out of magazines to reject them and what grandchildren did after they’d finished putting together their grandparents’ memoirs. But publishing is changing. Print-on-demand, “entrepreneurial publishing” and digital books have put the entire process from writing through publishing to distribution at the hands of anyone who wants to put their knowledge and their experience into a book form. And the results of creating your own book can be tremendous. It’s not just the money from sales — which actually might not be very much — but the ability to bill yourself as “the author of,” to show off your expertise and to pass on your knowledge to others who might find it useful. For many self-published authors, writing and then producing their own book isn’t just satisfying in itself but it’s the first step in preparing a massive boost to their careers.

Seth Godin, for example, recently announced that he will no longer be publishing books in a traditional manner. That might sound like a revolutionary move from someone who describes himself as a former “book packager,” has created 120 published books and written a dozen bestsellers himself. But it’s also a step back. After publishing Permission Marketing with Simon and Shuster in 1999, Godin released his next book Unleashing the Ideavirus as a free, self-published ebook. In effect,  he was putting the idea in the book to the test, releasing it into the wild to watch it spread and see how far it reached.

The Most Popular Ebook Ever Written

And it worked. Described as “the most popular ebook ever written,” Unleashing the Ideavirus is believed to  have picked up more than 200,000 direct downloads and a further 300,000 from other sites. It went on to win traditional publishing contracts in 41 countries and launch Godin’s professional speaking career. It might not be a strategy for everyone but if you’ve got the platform and the right content then giving away an ebook online, something for which you don’t need a publisher, can win you attention from publishers and build your platform.

Seth Godin’s book was in a traditional format but produced and distributed in an untraditional way. When Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson produced The One-Minute Manager, they wanted everything to be traditional, including the $15 price tag. The industry told them it wasn’t going to happen, that a book that short would need a cut price too. Rather than compromise the value of the information in their book they decided to go their own way.

At that point, their book should have gone the same way as most self-published business books: into large piles of boxes buried in the garage. Instead, within three months, the pair had sold more than 20,000 copies in San Diego alone. Shortly afterwards they were holding a contract from William Morrow — and in the 30 years since then, they’ve seen their $15 book sell more than 12 million copies in over 25 languages.

That’s unusual. It’s usually difficult to sell your own business books unless you have a platform as large as Seth Godin’s — or the determination to fill halls, speak to crowds and push your product yourself. But if you’ve done that, you’ll have the proof that doubtful publishers need to be willing to lend a hand.

Richard N. Bolles had much smaller ambitions for What Color Is Your Parachute. Originally intended as a job-seeking guide for Episcopal priests heading into the secular world, the book was initially self-published and passed around inside the Church. That was always going to limit the audience though, and the positive feedback the guide received suggested it could do much more good if more people could read it.

Ten Speed Press bought the rights, and the book went on to spend 288 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, returning to the bestseller lists with each annual update.

It’s possible that the success of What Color Is Your Parachute was a pleasant surprise but there’s a little more to it than that. Bolles wrote a book for a specific audience but which contained information that was also universal. When the feedback came in saying that the book could have had a more general audience,  he was quick to act on it and put the book in the hands of a publishing company with longer reach than his alone.

Know Your Market Better than Publishers

Writer E. Lynn Harris did something similar. He tried the traditional publishing route first for his novel Invisible Life but came up against the wall of rejection that meets most first-time novelists. So he turned to a market he knew. He printed the book himself and placed it in beauty salons and bookstores owned by African-Americans. It was a case of the author knowing more about a segment of the book-buying public than the publishing giants did. E. Lynn Harris sold 10,000 copies of the book before Doubleday/Anchor offered him a contract. His novels have since sold millions and repeatedly hit the New York Times bestseller list.

And if all of that isn’t inspiring enough there’s always Tim O’Reilly who began his career with a degree in Classics and as a self-publisher of books on Unix. O’Reilly & Associates is now one of the world’s largest computer book publishers as well as a conference organizer.

Of course, none of this means that if you lay out a pile of notes to a vanity publisher to print your book that you’re immediately going to hit the big time. Most self-published books don’t sell. But if you know your market, if you’re willing to do the marketing, and if the content within the book is valuable enough, then you too can build a platform, boost a brand, construct a company, and if you’re really lucky — and still want to — maybe even interest mainstream publishers too.


  1. Bonnie Roberts Says:

    I am a well-established poet in Alabama. I have three books that were published: To Hide in the Light, by a small press, Elk River Review; Dances in Straw with a Two-Headed Calf, also Elk River Review; and Bonnie Roberts: Greatest Hits, by Pudding House in Ohio, in a national archiving of American poets. I have taught by invitation at Esalen Institute as a "Master Poet"; I was a J. William Fulbright Scholar (1999) to study the Arts in Turkey (Rumi); I studied with Brown U. in Paris under a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, 19th century French poets; I taught American poets in Dublin, as a Fellow in Verse (1992) and worked with the most well-known conemporary Irish poets of that time. I was invited to read at the Piccolo Spoleto by the Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs long before my first book was ever published because two other poets heard me read at an imagery conference held in New York at the Roosevelt Hotel and later at an imagery conference in Los Angeles. I have taught graduate poetry classes at the University of Al in Huntsville, even though I have only a Masters. I was the head of the Creative Writing Magnet program for 11 years at the local high school and a poet-in resident for the National Endowment for the Arts for eight years. STILL, with all those credits and hundreds of individual poems published (one across from Robert Penn Warren in the Kentucky Poetry Review; one across from Charles Bukowski in Slipstream), it is difficult to get poetry collections published. I had cardiac arrest six times in one day in 2001. I really did not come back to myself completely until about three years later. I did have a publishing contract for my next book, which was ready to be published before my "death," but, because of a political statement against the war in Iraq, the publisher broke the contract two weeks before the book was to go to press. I was so deeply disturbed and depressed by that action, for which I could have sued, but knew I could not take the stress, I did not touch that manuscript Little Girl Faces on Old Bones until several years later. I have edited and re-edited the book, and I think it is better now than it was. Recently, I had the nerve to send it to a small press publisher, and I am still awaiting the results. Meanwhile, To Hide in the Light is out-of-print, and the press which published it is no longer publishing. To Hide in the Light won the Alabama Book of the Year Award, judged outside Alabama by a well-known poet. There is STILL a stigma about self-publishing here in Alabama. The head of the Alabama Writers Forum, for example, does not submit self-published works for review, and generally, they are not eligible for prizes, such as Pushcart, Lenore Marshall, etc. In my state--maybe in most states--poetry and politics do exist deeply entertwined. As a poet, I have always gone my own way. I became a poet; I did not take an MFA class. The head of the Alabama Writers Forum stated that one could not be a poet without having received an MFA. I wondered about Walt Whitman, Charles Baudelaire, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Butler Yeats, and hundreds and hundreds of others. I am not in the Writers Forum "group" in Alabama. Therefore, my goal is to be published outside this state. Before I turn to self-publishing, I do want to give traditional publishing a try. However, my life expectancy is not that long. My heart is "irreversibly and irrevocably" damaged, as one specialist in Santa Monica told me. I have actually outlived my life expectancy by seven years. I have a good attitude and take good care of myself. I have also created another manuscript called Everyday Trees We Walk Under, which is one long poem, I mean very long, 44 pages long. It is about what happens between the last sigh and death. It sounds morbid, but is not at all. Actually, it is about the many forms of love in daily life that apply to simple experiences and things around us, that are knitted into us, as well as to people and memories. It is by no means sentimental and takes a look at both the joy and suffering of human beings. Several highly respected poets have read it, and said, "Send it out!" I did send it to Tupelo Press, and I received back a personal note from the editor, Levin. He encouraged me to submit it to an upcoming contest, but contests are so highly competitive, I didn't follow his advice. Perhaps I should have. Since the advent of the computer and MFA classes, "poets" are everywhere. Some are brilliant and write from the soul. I honor those people. Many are simply word-crafters, and I forget their poetry a minute after I've read them, even though I may have said, "Ahhhh!" at some beautifully turned phrase or idea. It is the crafts poets who are winning in the publishing markets. What I want to do is get my word and voice out there. I am caught between the desire to be respected by the traditional poets who look down upon self-publication, especially in a field like poetry, and the part of me that says what matters is getting my word out. I do still give readings, though on a more limited basis than I once did. I have a broad base of poet support through WOMPO, a women's website through the University of Main; and even though many doors are closed to me in Alabama, I am well-known and respected as a writer. I don't even know if your company is intended for poetry. It sounds like it is probably intended for What Color Is Your Parachute books, or a poetry book that teaches, such as Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones would have been. I just wanted to leave these comments and to hear what you have to say about my own particular situation as a writer. Thank you.

  2. Magnolia Says:

    I have an idea for a book that as far as I can tell is for a completely untapped market that is starved for information. Men looking for help that are married to women going through perimenopause. I've seen one book.....yes, ONE, written to men on the subject and it was written by a man. While I appreciated his efforts, having read the book, I can say he was TOTALLY off the mark. Who better to educate men on perimenopause and what women need from their mates than a woman who has gone through perimenopause herself?

    Anyway, I've been wrestling with trying to decide if I should self-publish or submit a proposal to traditional publishing companies. Being a self-professed bull-head who doesn't like to relinquish control or decision making to others, I've been terrified to pitch my idea to a publishing company.

    I'm afraid I would get swallowed up in the machine and my idea would fall by the wayside. After ponging back and forth in my head on this, I think I'm going to jump in and make 2012 the year of self-publishing.

    Great post, by the way.


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