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Considering many of the great writers of the 20th and 21st centuries are authors that are associated with big-name publishing companies like Bantam Books, Penguin Publishing, Scholastic, and others, many feel the only way to become recognized as a writer worth his/her salt is to be published under a recognizable company brand. This was a prevalent view over a decade ago, but there have been authors who self-published their books and were met with both commercial and critical success, so much so that publishers would later sign book deals with them.
Fifty Shades of GREY
British author E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey’s success is perhaps one of the most peculiar. What initially began as a Twilight fanfiction titled “Master of the Universe” and published to Twilight fan forums under the name “Snowqueen Icedragon” [insert audible groan here] became a worldwide literary sensation that had over 15.2 million copies sold worldwide by the year of its publication in 2011 and 125 million copies by 2015. Say what you want about the quality of The Fifty Shades trilogy, but it cannot be denied what a smashing success these books were.
The word of mouth proved to be a very effective tool in creating interest in James’ book as 2011 was abuzz with commotion over Fifty Shades. Everyone wanted to get their hands on the controversial love story between a meek girl-next-door journalist, Anastasia Steele, and the enigmatic and devilishly handsome playboy millionaire, Christian Grey, that delved into the depths of BDSM.
James proved herself to be a masterful self-promoter, using her blog, Facebook, and various other social media to fan the frenzied flames over her equally steamy book and regularly engage with her fans by sharing pictures either relating to her personal life to build a connection with her readers or relating to her book to expand its authorial universe.
James would eventually sell publishing rights to Vintage Books in 2012 and be named one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People in the same year, as well as going on to have three movie adaptations of her book trilogy. Today she remains an active writer; her most recent novel The Mister being released in 2019. Ironically, Fifty Shades of Grey, given its hypersexual content, could never have succeeded had it been published traditionally; erotica was still a niche and unsavory market ten years ago and no publishing company with its metaphorical head on straight would touch James’ work with a twenty-foot pole. These days, such subjects aren’t nearly as shocking as they were a decade ago and since then, Fifty Shades of Grey, if not regarded with ridicule, is regarded as objectively terribly-written “mommy porn” that romanticizes toxic sadomasochistic relationships. But the sheer enormity of the book’s success is something that no unpublished author should ever scoff at.
You may remember the 2015 film The Martian, the harrowing story of an astronaut who becomes stranded on Mars and has to use his ingenuity to create a survivable environment until he can be safely extracted and returned to Earth, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. But what you may not have known is that it was actually an adaptation of a self-published novel by Andy Weir in 2011.
Unlike E.L. James, Weir had been writing since his twenties and has authored various online comics like Casey and Andy and Cheshire Crossing and science fiction books and short stories like Artemis and The Egg. He had already amassed for himself a sizable following by the time he self-published The Martian, so he had an easier time getting his work into the hands of consumers. It also helped that he sold the book on Amazon for $0.99, the lowest an ebook can be sold on Amazon.
Originally a series of individual chapters published on his personal blog, Weir began to write The Martian in 2009 before deciding to finally compile the chapters into a book at the request of fans. The decision to self-publish his book came from a history of failing to get prior works traditionally published in the past. In fact, Weir stated he didn’t think The Martian would have any appeal as a book. “I was surprised that anyone was interested,” said Weir in an interview with the All Things Considered podcast in 2017. “Remember, at this time, I didn’t think that the book would have any mainstream appeal. So I thought it was just—oh, you know, it’s just a book, you know, by a dork for dorks.” Weir’s use of real science and chemistry and its grounded applicable use on the red deserts of Mars proved to be a huge selling point for the books, so much so that The Martian reigned as #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list for 12 weeks. He was able to sell publishing rights to the Crown Publishing Company in 2013 and have his book adapted into a film in 2015.
Let’s look at one last case, the success of Joseph Malik and Dragon’s Trail, the first book of his Outworlder book series. Though his story is not as well-known as that of James or Weir, Malik’s road to publishing his work is an awe-inspiring one.
Malik began writing since he was a teenager, but didn’t start taking the craft seriously until he was already in his mid-twenties. He had gone through many rewrites of Dragon’s Trail, wanting to craft a world that was grounded in reality down to the minute detail, but still complimented the magical elements of his world. Throughout the fifteen years he tried to get his book published, he accumulated over 47 rejection letters from publishers who all said the same thing: there was no market for “realistic fantasy.” And with that, Malik gave up fantasy writing.
That was until he was injured in a tour during his time in the U.S. military. While recovering, he rediscovered his old manuscript and began to rework it and try again to publish it, only for it to be rejected once more. This time, instead of giving up fantasy writing for good, he decided he would publish Dragon’s Trail independently.
It must be noted that independently publishing a book is different than self-publishing in that Malik published it through a small publishing company independent from larger big-name companies. This would technically make Malik an indie author, but still, in a way, a self-published author. Why is that? It’s because he founded his own publishing company, Oxblood Books, to publish his book through. But rather than doing all the self-publishing work himself, he employed editors, cover artists, and business development consultants to make the release of Dragon’s Trail as indistinguishable from traditionally published books as possible.
Of course, that’s not to say Dragon’s Trail was an immediate success after its release in 2016. In fact, as Joseph Malik put it himself in an interview with PublishDrive.com, “Dragon’s Trail pretty much treaded water for the first six months after release, but once [my business partner at Oxblood] came on board and started crunching the numbers and looking at my process, it was about another month until it popped into Amazon’s bestseller list in Military Fantasy.” A year after its release, the book would become a Kindle Top 100 Bestseller in four countries, reach #1 in Epic Fantasy in the U.S., Australia, and Canada, and #1 in Sword and Sorcery in the UK. Before his success, Malik had never even published a short story to have his name out in the public and was almost beaten down by gatekeeping publishers that told him his book had no market to cater to. When he finally decided he would get his work out into the world on his terms, he found the market he was told never existed. “This should tell you everything you need to know about traditional publishing,” says Malik.
It is thanks to the success stories of writers such as these that should go to show that just because your work is self-published does not mean its quality is inferior to those with the Big Five’s names on the front cover. And if there is to be a lesson taken from this, it’s not to trust the word of publishers for more than opinion. And to writers out there who are afraid that no one will ever want to read your work, there will always be an audience for the genre you write, even if the niche is small. Write the story you want to tell, unimaginative gatekeeper be damned.
Who are some of your favorite self-published authors? Let us know down in the comments.
This article originally published on GREY Journal.