Ten books you didn’t realise were self-published

By   Hannah Bickerton 5 min read

The publishing industry is changing, and self-publishing is at the forefront of the movement. Now, rather than tirelessly waiting to be picked up by an agent, authors have the opportunity to design and publish their own books. How much you invest, which services you outsource and where your book is distributed is completely up to you…

However, there still remains some stigma surrounding self-publishing, positioned as it is in opposition to trade or ‘traditional’ publishing. For many self-publishing is (mistakenly) synonymous with vanity publishing, and instead of considering other routes, brilliant writers who struggle to find an agent are remaining unpublished, and everyone else is missing out on their work. 

Here at whitefox, we value quality above all else. We want everyone to have access to good books, irrespective of their origin. The whitefox model sits between self-publishing and traditional publishing – we’re trying to bridge the divide and create wonderful books in the process. To that end we have created this list: a list of famous books that you didn’t know were self-published, designed to show you that some of the most successful authors have chosen to self-publish.

1. Eragon, Christopher Paolini

When Eragon was published, no one could stop talking about how Christopher Paolini was only fifteen when he wrote the first book in the series. However, no one bothered to mention that Paolini (with the support of his parents, of course) chose to self-publish his book, and worked tirelessly marketing it himself. Eragon was then picked up by Alfred A. Knopf, became a New York Times Children’s Book Bestseller and was adapted into a film starring John Malkovich.

2. No Thanks, E.E. Cummings

This one will shock you. E.E. Cummings decided to self-publish primarily because his work was considered too ‘controversial’ to publish, but we all know what happened as soon as people got their hands on his work… The creation of No Thanks was paid for by E.E. Cummings’ mother, and released in a volume that notoriously listed the string of publishers who had refused to publish his work, and who quickly became desperate to.

3. Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter

We know, every time you read the next title in the list you’re surprised. And, believe it or not, Beatrix Potter didn’t self-publish only once! Even after Peter Rabbit was snatched up by a publisher, Potter chose to continue self-publishing to avoid continual conflict with her publisher. She knew what she wanted to produce, so she produced it.

With all of these examples, there’s one connecting factor: all the authors had endured back-breaking, mind-numbing rejections; endless apologetic letters (and now emails). Some of the world’s most successful authors went through the same painstaking process that so many of you are now going through, so they took control of their writing future…

4. Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L James

Do you remember when the success of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight inspired dozens of new writers to pick up a pen and begin writing fantasy novels? E.L. James was among those writers, but you couldn’t find her in any bookshops – Fifty Shades was published in Ebook and print-on-demand format to begin with, before it was catapulted into the public consciousness. Now one of the richest authors in the world, E.L James caused publishing chaos when she self-published to such acclaim that she secured a seven-figure deal with Vintage.

5. Still Alice, Lisa Genova

Now an indie film starring Julianne Moore, this book started its life as a self-published book. Although Genova always aimed to sign a deal with a publishing house, she made use of self-publishing platforms to boost her brand and attract the big names. Genova discusses the stigma surrounding self-publishing on her blog but acknowledges what it provided her with: a platform that led to a six-figure deal with Simon & Schuster.

6. The Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer 

Any cooks out there? Don’t worry, self-publishing isn’t for fiction only. The Joy of Cooking was originally self-published in 1931 and filled with illustrations drawn by Rombauer’s daughter. Rombauer printed 3000 copies and sold nearly all of them before signing with Bobbs-Merrill. It just goes to show, no matter the scale or design of your book, you can always find a talented freelancer to get the job done (even if it is your daughter!).

7. Double Persephone, Margaret Atwood

Long before The Handmaid’s Tale, there was Double Persephone, a book of poems and the first publication Atwood ever released. Atwood did everything herself, from designing the front cover to buying a press and printing the book itself. The poetry book won the E.J. Pratt Medal and (needless to say) launched Atwood’s career.

8. The Martian, Andy Weir

Hollywood is ahead of the game when it comes to self-publishing. In 2015 Matt Damon starred in cinema’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s The Martian. Weir began publishing The Martian as individual chapters on his blog for free, before doing what many self-published authors have chosen to do before and since and putting it on Amazon via Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). Within a few months the book was topping Amazon’s bestseller sci-fi list and, as usual, the publishing houses were watching – Weir quickly secured a deal with Penguin Random House and a rights deal with Hollywood, only months after selling his book for only $0.99 in Ebook format.

9. Milk and Honey, Rupi Kaur

The woman who has revolutionised poetry – launching a new age of digital, accessible poems that are being consumed daily by the millennial generation – self-published her famous first collection Milk and Honey in 2014. Although the collection was picked up by Andrews McMeel Publishing, Kaur, in an interview with Emma Watson, expressed no regrets at having chosen to self-publish, although she had been told that ‘traditionally, it’s not a good thing’. Milk and Honey stayed firmly put on the New York Times bestseller list for fifty-two weeks and is no less popular now than it was five years ago.

10. The Wealthy Barber, David Chilton

Self-publishing has always been popular in the business book genre, as this type of book will often appeal to a small but significant niche audience. David Chilton’s The Wealthy Barber is no exception to this, a book that Chilton began writing in his basement in 1989 and that ended up selling over two million copies. After the success of subsequent books including a sequel to The Wealthy Barber, Chilton launched his own publishing company, just to make everything a little bit easier.

And Chilton was in good company, following in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf. The husband and wife took self-publishing to a whole other level and set up an entire publishing house, Hogarth Press. The pair openly discredited ‘traditional’ publishing, wanting to create an initiative that offered complete creative freedom. After Hogarth Press was established, it published all of Virginia’s subsequent novels, as well as publishing much of T.S. Eliot’s work.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.