Publishing your book yourself won’t guarantee you a bestseller, but these self-publishing success stories prove that success is still possible.
Mention the term self-publishing to some people, and they will tell you that it’s vanity publishing and that you’ll never achieve a best seller status without the help of an established publishing house. Look at the facts, however, and you will discover that such opinions are simply not correct. Self-publishing won’t guarantee you success but, as you will learn when you read the stories behind these five bestselling books, neither is it impossible.
50 shades of Grey — EL James (2011) 
Sold 125 million copies in less than 4 years
About “50 Shades of Grey”
50 Shades of Grey is a self-published erotic romance novel by British author EL James. The book was the first instalment of a trilogy and was published in 2011, becoming a record-breaking international bestseller. The book as also made into a film in 2016.
The story behind “50 Shades of Grey.”
The Fifty Shades trilogy started life as a serialised story called Master of the Universe, which was inspired by Stephanie Myers vampire novel series Twilight. The author subsequently migrated it to her own website, Fiftyshades.com, after comments relating to its explicit sexual nature.
Sometime afterwards she completely re-wrote it, removed it from her website and then self-published the first of three parts as an eBook. Then in May 2011, released a print-on-demand paperback with the support of an independent Australian publishing house called The Writer’s Coffee Shop. The 2nd and 3rd parts were also published by The Writer’s Coffee Shop in September 2011 and January 2012 respectively.
Due to the publishers limited budget, marketing was restricted primarily to reviews by book bloggers and word of mouth marketing which, thanks to the particular demographic of its audience, quickly went ‘viral’.
Vintage Books bought the licence to the trilogy and quickly released a new and revised edition in April 2012. At the beginning of August of the same year, Amazon’s UK arm announced that 50 Shades of Grey had outsold the complete Harry Potter series in the UK.
Lessons for Authors
Don’t be afraid to rework earlier manuscripts. Many famous authors have admitted that the first draft of their novels wasn’t up to scratch. If your first attempt isn’t well received, consider rewriting it.
Prove the concept first. Many successful authors started by testing out their story ideas via their website and, if the response was positive, went on to invest time and professional help to create a saleable, self-published book.
Became a worldwide movie hit grossing over $600M
About “The Martian”
This successful self-published Science fiction book chronicles the story of a NASA astronaut, stranded on Mars and how he survives by using his scientific training.
The story behind “The Martian.”
The Martian was written by Andy Weir, a computer programmer and self-confessed space nerd, and was initially published in serial form on Weir’s personal website starting in 2009. Weir decided to take the self-publishing route with The Martian because his earlier manuscripts had repeatedly been turned down by literary agents. After numerous requests from readers to make the book available in its entirety, Weir published it in Amazon Kindle format in 2011 with a selling price of just 99 cents. The book quickly became an Amazon bestseller within the science fiction genre, selling in excess 35,000 copies in less than a month. Its online popularity brought it to the attention of numerous mainstream publishers which resulted in deals first for an audiobook version in 2013 followed shortly afterwards by a publishing deal for a hardback version. The hardback version went on to achieve top twenty status in the New York Times Bestseller list. As if all this wasn’t enough, the film rights to the book were bought by Twentieth Century Fox and the film version, starring Matt Damon, released in 2016, went on to gross more than $600 Million worldwide!
Lessons for Authors
Write the best book you can. I have seen blogs which tell you that you can write a bestseller in a few weeks even if you have never written anything before. Really? Writing is a skill, and it takes practice also audiences are discerning and, if your book isn’t interesting, relevant and well-written people won’t buy it or leave you great reviews. Andy Weir knew about his subject, and he researched it in depth over at least a year. He also made chapters available to his friends and fans via his website. You can bet your bottom dollar that he edited his manuscript based on the feedback he received from his early readers.
The Celestine Prophecy — James Redfield (1993)
Sold 100,000 copies before landing a lucrative publishing deal
About “The Celestine Prophecy”
The Celestine Prophecy is an immensely successful self-help book which explored the nature of humanity’s connection to the divine, through a first person narrative story of spiritual awakening. The book was inspired by a combination of the psychology of transactional analysis and ancient eastern mysticism.
The story behind “The Celestine Prophecy.”
James Redfield grew up in Rural Alabama and studied several Eastern philosophies including Zen Buddhism and Taoism before achieving a master’s degree in counselling. He self-published The Celestine Prophecy in 1992 under the imprint Satori Publishing, doing all the promotion, marketing and distribution himself, and selling more than 100,000 copies in two years. No mean feat given that the internet was still in its infancy back then.
Such was the book’s popularity with readers and booksellers alike that Redfield was approached by Warner Books who bought the hardback rights to the Celestine Prophecy for $800,000 and went on to publish the first hardback edition in 1994. The book went on to become the US bestselling book in 1996, selling more than 20 Million copies worldwide.
Lessons for Authors
Tap into timing. One way to create a successful book is to write the kind of book that your audience is hungry for. Part of the Celestine Prophecy’s success was timing. It was released at a time when there was a global upsurge in people looking for a fresh approach to living a more meaningful, fulfilling and connected life. Does your book address a clear and present need within your target readership?
Don’t neglect the power of connections. James Redfield created a blockbuster book way back in the 90’s, without the backing of a big-name publisher or the internet. He was prepared to get out there and talk about his book to anybody willing to listen. He didn’t only send out a press release and wait for the orders to roll in and neither should you.
From rejection to bestseller in less than two years
About “Still Alice”
Still Alice is a novel is about a fictional married woman and mother called Alice who suffers early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. This moving story explores how this neurodegenerative disease rapidly progresses, changing Alice’s relationship with her family and the world.
The story behind “Still Alice.”
Dr Lisa Genova, the author of Still Alice, is an American Neuroscientist with a degree in Biopsychology and a PhD in Neuroscience from Harvard. Lisa’s grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when she was in her 80’s. As a result, the author witnessed first-hand as the disease “systematically disassembled the woman I knew as my grandmother.”
After researching the topic, Lisa discovered that most of the literature about this illness had been written by the clinicians or the caregiver’s point of view rather than the patient’s perspective. She wanted to understand what if felt like to have Alzheimer’s from the first early symptoms onwards. And, after interviewing and working with many early onset Alzheimer’s patients, she wanted to find a way to share that understanding with others, and the Still Alice was the answer.
Genova self-published her first book in 2007 having spent a year unsuccessfully trying to interest literary agents in her manuscript. The last agent she saw warned her that self-publishing would kill her writing career before it had started but thankfully for us all, she ignored their advice and self-published using iUniverse. The way she tells it, “I was selling it out of the trunk of my car and trying to create a buzz.”
After a year of incessant guerrilla marketing techniques including Myspace, Goodreads and Shelfari, organising at least two book events every month and attending local book signings, her efforts started to pay off. At this point, she invested in a professional PR agent, and the resulting press and TV buzz led to her finding a sympathetic agent and subsequently lucrative audiobook and paperback deals.
Still Alice subsequently appeared in the New York Times Bestseller List for more than 40 weeks and had been translated into more than 20 languages.
Lessons For Authors
Don’t always believe what literary agents tell you. Self-publishing can generate significant sales and can even lead to a mainstream publishing deal if you want it.
Getting published is only the first step. If you really want your book to be a success, you must be prepared to commit to a prolonged period of shameless publicity. This can include a range of diverse activities in including social media, local book signings, speaking events, PR and award entries.
18 million copies and eight editions!
About “The Joy of Cooking”
Who would have thought that a book about cooking, written and self-published by an American widow to “uplift the spirits of a nation” during the great depression, would become a worldwide best seller? Irma Rombauer’s quirky, culinary classic was the first cookbook to address the challenges facing impoverished housewives, and it continued to adapt to meet the needs of future generations with each new edition.
The story behind “The Joy of Cooking.”
Irma Rombauer was not your typical cookbook author. She was an amateur cook and housewife with no recognised culinary qualifications, but she turned this apparent shortcoming into her book’s biggest strength. Her lack of expertise naturally allowed her to position herself as a helpful friend in the eye of her readers, rather than as a haughty teacher.
There’s not much known as to how and why Irma self-published her cookbook, but one can imagine that trying secure the support of a mainstream publisher amid a global economic downturn was nigh on impossible. Irma spent a year collating her recipes and then committed half of her life savings, some $3000, to publish 3000 copies of the first edition of “The Joy” as it later affectionately became known.
The design of the book is, in large part, thanks to Irma’s daughter Marion, an art teacher, who designed the cover and created the simple line drawings used to illustrate the text. With limited resources, Irma sold the book to her local community, and its reach expanded organically as word of its affordable, no-nonsense recipes and conversational style, spread.
After its initial success, the author produced an updated edition in 1936 and, after multiple rejections, publisher Bobbs-Merrill agreed to publish the book, which went on to become a bestseller with a total of eight editions, the last one being in 1997.
Lessons for Authors
Keep your book current with regularly updated editions. Many authors think that once their book is in print, that their work is done, but this is not always true. As Irma Rombauer knew only too well, times change, and so do the requirements of your readership.
Every author needs a support team. When Irma Rombauer wrote the Joy of Cooking, in 1931, she did so with the enthusiastic support of her son Edgar and her daughter Marion, an art teacher. Make sure you have the right support team in place to help you ensure the success of your book.
 “Fifty Shades of Grey Author Interview E. L. James Before and After .…” 6 Feb. 2015, http://time.com/3697185/fifty-shades-of-grey-e-l-james-interview/. Accessed 30 Jun. 2017.
 “Andy Weir; the man whose space scribblings became The Martian.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/the-martian/andy-weir-author-interview/. Accessed 30 Jun. 2017.
 “The Martian (Weir novel) — Wikipedia.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Martian_(Weir_novel). Accessed 30 Jun. 2017.
 “The Celestine Prophecy — Wikipedia.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Celestine_Prophecy. Accessed 30 Jun. 2017.
 “Interview with Lisa Genova | ALZFORUM.” http://www.alzforum.org/early-onset-familial-ad/profiles/interview-lisa-genova. Accessed 30 Jun. 2017.