Famous Authors You’d Never Guess Were Self-Published

Self-Publishing Was Cool Before You


Self-publishing was, at one time, the best—and only—way for authors to print and release their books into the hands of readers. Here’s a list of authors you’ve probably heard of, but didn’t know were self-published.

Benjamin Franklin

The Way to Wealth was, in short, a collection of advice on personal finance that appeared in the preface of his self-published Poor Richard’s Almanac. This Founding Father also published the newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette before inventing electricity, the Franklin stove, or bifocals. Since its debut, The Way to Wealth has sold millions of copies and dozens of editions.

the way of wealth     the voyage out

Virginia Woolf

One of the most prolific and nonlinear authors of her time, Virginia Woolf published—and hand-printed—her own books in the living room of her Richmond home, including her debut novel, The Voyage Out.

Just a couple years later she and her husband, Leonard Woolf, later founded their own publishing house, Hogarth Press, in 1917. Now an imprint of The Crown Publishing Group within Random House, Hogarth Press houses notable titles, like Virginia’s collection of short stories, Monday or Tuesday, and T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland.

Mark Twain

Best known for that famous novel we all read in high school literature class, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in 1885 at Twain’s own publishing company, Charles L. Webster & Co. It’s debatable to say whether or not Twain was truly self-published if his work was published within his own publishing company. It’s telling of the route of some self-publishing companies that came about centuries later; when does a self-publishing, or vanity publishing, company move outside of its realm into traditional publishing when it may provide the same services?

It’s hard to say exactly how many copies of the book were sold in the 1800s, but more than 200,000 copies are sold each year (that doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of copies that are reused in high schools throughout the world).

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn cover     The Tale of Peter Rabbit cover

Beatrix Potter

Another 20th century author, self-published Beatrix Potter made Peter Rabbit a household name. Potter initially brought her book to traditional publishers, but after multiple rejections, she published it herself. Not even a year later, the book was doing so well that a publisher who originally rejected her picked up the book.

Lisa Genova

The neuroscientist-turned-author made it big with her first novel, Still Alice. First published in 2007 with iUniverse, the story of a Harvard professor’s relationship with Alzheimer’s disease and how it infiltrates her family, work, and self held steady on The New York Times bestseller list for more than 40 weeks. Before it was adapted into a film, the story took shape in a play on stage in 2013 for the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago.

Still Alice cover     The Black Mile cover

Mark Dawson 

Mark Dawson, author of the popular John Milton thriller series, claimed Amazon.co.uk success with strategic advertising and marketing plans. After his first self-published book, The Black Mile, didn’t make the sales he was hoping for, Dawson took a big risk: He gave it away for free. His book was downloaded more than 50,000 times that weekend. So he kept writing. Now, Dawson’s repertoire includes 19 self-published books.

Barbara Freethy

Not often do successful authors veer from traditional publishing to self-publishing, but for Barbara Freethy, it was the right move. In 2011, Freethy released her backlist titles (even ones she retired from traditional publishers) as ebooks with various distributors. The romance author has seven series in her repertoire and was awarded Best Contemporary Single Title Romance for The Way Back Home, which she self-published in 2013.

The Way Back Home cover     50 Shades of Grey cover

E.L. James

And finally…the critically controversial, yet proven successful erotic romance novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. British author E.L. James first self-published her book in 2001, which became the United Kingdom’s fastest selling paperback novel with more than 100 million copies.

Despite mixed reactions, Fifty Shades of Grey was so successful among its fan-base it was adapted into the popular box office film, where it also received reviews ranging from “mixed” to pretty bad. Think pieces have attempted to determine what it is exactly that made so many customers buy the book, but for as many theories about the book’s success, there exists many, many more copies sold. 50 Shades of Grey sparked a global conversation about self-publishing as a successful platform.



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Jenny Handke

When Jenny Handke isn't at the office tackling fulfillment and distribution projects, she's more than likely writing podcast story ideas on her front porch or backpacking through the wood

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