8 Famous Authors Who Self-Published Their Work

In this article, we profile famous authors who self-published their work.

When you look at famous authors on the New York Times bestseller list, it’s hard to believe some didn't instantly find their way to success. Instead, some went the self-published route first and found traditional publishing fame later, writing their self-publishing success stories.

These days, leaping from being an indie author to a traditional author is becoming much rarer and much more difficult. But in the past, it was sometimes the only way for an author to get their work out there. 

With the advent of the printing press, authors could pay a printer to print their work and sell it or distribute it themselves to advance a political cause get around censorship. 

Female writers back in the 19th century — such as Beatrix Potter — faced discrimination because they were female, so they published their work rather than be rejected by a then male-dominated industry. These days, it's as easy as signing up with Amazon KDP.

These days, however, successful authors who initially went the self-published route usually did so because they couldn't get the traditional publishing industry to believe in their first book and sign them on. Others, like Stephen King, self-published his first “book” as a young student in 1962, entitled “People, Places & Things” — King claims only ten copies survive.

Here are eight famous authors who took destiny into their hands by self-publishing to kickstart a writing career.

1. Andy Weir – The Martian

Famous authors who self-published

Andy Weir's story of a NASA astronaut stranded on Mars, who must do whatever it takes to survive until rescue arrives, was initially a series of chapters on Weir's website. Then he decided to publish it on Amazon, setting the price at the lowest possible amount — $0.99.

That proved to be the pivotal moment for Weir. The book hit the Amazon sci-fi bestseller charts, then the New York Times bestseller list. Then Hollywood came knocking in the form of director Ridley Scott and actor Matt Damon, who brought the book to the big screen.

“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshipped.”

Andy Weir
Sale
The Martian
  • Broadway Books
  • Andy Weir (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 387 Pages - 10/28/2014 (Publication Date) - Broadway Books (Publisher)

2. Beatrix Potter – The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Beatrix Potter decided to go the self-publishing route after being rejected by six publishers. They each rejected Potter's insistence that The Tale of Peter Rabbit be printed a certain way, so eventually she decided to do things her own way. Using her savings, she had 250 copies of the book made and started selling them herself. 

The book was such a hit that one of the publishers who initially rejected her signed Potter to a contract.

“Peter was not very well during the evening. His mother put him to bed, and made some chamomile tea: “One table-spoonful to be taken at bedtime.”

Beatrix Potter
The Tale of Peter Rabbit
  • Part of the Beatrix Potter Original Peter Rabbit Tales
  • Suitable for all ages
  • Comes with removable protected sleeve
  • Perfect addition to your Beatrix Potter collection
  • 100% officially licensed merchandise

3. Mark Twain -The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Twain is a rare example of someone who was already a highly successful traditional author, but he then went the self-published route because he wasn't happy with the profit margin he was getting from his publisher. In 1885, he decided to bypass his publisher and bring out “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” himself.

Upon publication, the book instantly became controversial due to its themes and was subsequently banned by some public libraries. But controversy is the best form of advertising — sales shot up even more, and today more than 200,000 copies are sold every year.

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

Mark Twain
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (SeaWolf Press Illustrated Classic): First Edition Cover
  • Twain, Mark (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 358 Pages - 02/25/2021 (Publication Date) - SeaWolf Press (Publisher)

4. EL James – Fifty Shades of Grey

Many cringing self-published authors — and many readers, if the reviews are to be believed — think that Fifty Shades of Grey represents the worst of self-publishing. They claim the story is badly written, tacky, and full of cliches. It’s definitely not their idea of high quality.

But you can't argue with EL James' success — the proof is in the pudding. She has made a tremendous amount of money from the books, and the Hollywood adaptation of Fifty Shades has only served to ensure the erotic novel's notoriety.

“Sometimes I wonder if there's something wrong with me. Perhaps I've spent too long in the company of my literary romantic heroes, and consequently my ideals and expectations are far too high.”

EL James
Sale
Fifty Shades Of Grey: Book One of the Fifty Shades Trilogy (Fifty Shades Of Grey Series, 1)
  • Volume 1 of the erotic thriller trilogy of 2012 Shades of Grey
  • James, E L (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 514 Pages - 04/03/2012 (Publication Date) - Bloom Books (Publisher)

5. Christopher Paolini – Eragon

It's debatable whether or not Paolini can truly be classed as a true self-published author because it was actually his parents who first published his book with their own private publishing house and personal savings. Paolini then went out and promoted Eragon by making in-person appearances. This was years before social media would be “a thing” so hitting the road was the only feasible option for a self-published writer looking to make their mark.

Eventually, Eragon and its two unpublished sequels were bought by a traditional publisher for a rumoured $500,000. Of course, they ruined it with that travesty of a Hollywood movie.

“Books are my friends, my companions. They make me laugh and cry and find meaning in life.”

Christopher Paolini
Sale
Eragon (Inheritance, Book 1)
  • ERAGON
  • CHRISTOPHER PAOLINI
  • #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
  • Paolini, Christopher (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

6. Jane Austen – Sense & Sensibility

Jane Austen is one of the most famous authors in English literature, but if she hadn't decided to self-publish, we may never have heard her name or read her work. Both “Emma” and “Sense and Sensibility” were brought out privately by Austen. Eventually, a publishing company came to their senses and bought “Northanger Abbey”, but they procrastinated so long on bringing it out that Austen ripped up the publishing deal and bought the book's rights back again.

Austen is a rare example of a 19th-century woman who actively practised what she wrote — to take her life into her own hands and live it the way she wanted to.

“I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way.”

Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility (Penguin Classics)
  • Penguin Books
  • Austen, Jane (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 368 Pages - 04/29/2003 (Publication Date) - Penguin Classics (Publisher)

7. William Strunk Jr – The Elements of Style

Every true writer worth their salt knows “The Elements of Style”. It's the essential go-to guide for all matters about writing. But it started life in 1918, when Cornell University English Professor William Strunk Jr privately self-published the book for his students.

Strunk died after World War II and his writing manual had by then mostly faded into obscurity. But one of his former students — EB White — remembered the book and resurrected it in 1957. It was then picked up and traditionally published in 1959.

“The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by.”

William Strunk Jr
Sale
The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition
  • Wusthof
  • Strunk Jr., William (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 105 Pages - 07/23/1999 (Publication Date) - Pearson (Publisher)

FAQ about Authors Who Self-Published

What Is The Most Successful Self-Published Book?

To date, that record is held by Fifty Shades of Grey, which has sold over a hundred million copies to date.

What Percentage Of Authors Self-Publish In 2021?

Despite the ease of self-publishing, the number of authors who choose to go down that route is still only a very small 1%.

Can A Self-Published Author Turn Their Writing Into A Full-Time Day Job In 2021?

According to Amazon, you can. According to their revenue figures, thousands of Amazon Kindle authors are making royalties of over $50,000 a year.
Some are even apparently making six-figure incomes (although these are likely to be in high-demand niches in the book market such as romance and science-fiction).

Can A Self-Published Author Be Successful In 2021?

It depends on your definition of “success” (everyone views it differently). While getting prestigious awards from the literary world, and appearing on TV may be out of reach for most self-published authors, you can make a lot of money from book sales if you write the right story and know how to market it the right way.

So if making money is your idea of success, then yes you can be successful, with the right amount of hard work and determination.

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Author

  • Mark has been a freelance technology writer since 2004 when he wrote a regular eBay column for AuctionBytes (now renamed eCommerceBytes). He also contributed articles to the now-defunct Bookologist, Google Tutor, and a few other sites now lost to time (although you could probably find them on the Wayback Machine). Then came a couple of years of soul-destroying English teaching work before MakeUseOf asked him in 2007 to become the managing editor.

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