Today more than ever, it’s not just great writing that sells. Besides having a powerful plot, theme, protagonist (whether that is a fictional character or the star of your nonfiction), and stellar writing, there is another piece to the puzzle that all successful self published authors share.
Decades ago, great authors wrote their books, sent them to the publisher, and then started the next. There was no website to keep up, no social media to build a brand for, and no podcasts to speak on.
Book tours did not take place in the way they do today, and word of mouth spread via literal word of mouth, not free apps on smartphones.
Today, great writing still sells, but in a heavily saturated market, great writing usually can’t stand alone.
Writers are now not just focused on learning the craft of writing and doing their best to write well, but turning some of that attention to building their platform. This takes away from their writing time, but allows them to heighten their chances of success in book sales.
In fact, many authors who make it in the self-publishing world do so because they know how to use current marketing trends in their favor. They are an established brand, they have a large following (platform), and when they write and publish their books they can easily take it to the masses.
If your goal is to publish, you can do so with a few clicks on your computer. There are many online self-publishing companies that allow you to publish your book no matter what stage your writing is at.
However, if your goal is to maintain autonomy over your book, the edits, the cover, and the marketing plan through self-publishing, your road to success will have a bit more work along the way. There are great benefits in selling the exact words and format you want your book to be in, and self-publishing allows you to do so.
Sometimes it helps to hear the stories of those who have gone before and seen success.
Let’s get started.
Can You Be Successful Self-Publishing Books?
The answer to this question is subjective, because success is defined differently by most writers. If you define success as a certain amount of book sales, you know how to market well, and you have a plan in place to do so, the chances of succeeding are high.
If success is making a certain impact on your readers, being successful is much more subjective. However, large sales often mean great influence, and influence often means impact.
Yes, you can be successful in self-publishing. Success is dependent on how you define success, and the amount of work you are willing to put in, as well as what we will call “chance.” Algorithms change frequently, and something you promoted via an online post a year ago could blow up tomorrow. You never know.
Successful Self Published Authors Who Made It Big
If you’ve heard all the stories of traditionally published authors making it big and seeing success, you may be surprised to find some well-known authors got their start through self-publishing.
Some of the big names you likely know are successful today because they took matters into their own hands and decided to self-publish their work, even when traditional publishers didn’t think their ideas were worth a contract.
Below is a list of authors and their success stories. This list is not exhaustive, and only emcompasses a percent of the authors who have self-published their work and gone on to see success.
As you read their stories, take note of what they did well, when they decided to self-publish, and what their journey was like. Emulate the ideas that apply to your own writing and publishing goals:
Margaret Atwood is known for her work The Handmaid’s Tale (now a major TV show). But before her success with The Handmaid’s Tale, she was a self-published author for her book of poems Double Persephone, which was award-winning.
Robert Kiyosaki is now known as a businessman and successful author, but he experienced many putdowns for his idea Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Unable to land an agent or traditional publishing contract, he self-published. Now he has sold over 40,000,000 copies, spanning 109 countries.
Lisa Genova attempted traditional publishing for her book Still Alice, but received many rejections. In 2007 she self-published her book, and two years after, she republished her book with Simon & Schuster. Seven years later, it became an Oscar-winning film.
Wayne Dyer was so passionate about helping people it’s said that he gave out copies of his self-published book. He printed 4,500 copies of his debut book Your Erroneous Zones before traveling across the nation for marketing. Known as one of the top-selling books, he’s sold more than 100,000,000 copies. Probably worth giving those few away!
Have you ever heard of Eragon? Well, it started as a self-published book. Written by Christopher Paolini, who was just 15 years old, he used his parent’s small publishing company to get his book into the world. Christopher toured an entire year just to promote his book, and it ws discover and republished by Alfred A. Knopf. In just five months it sold over one million copies and went on to become a series. The series went global, and has sold more than 33.5 million copies.
Writers are often encouraged to have a website and blog regularly. Author Andy Weir is a great example of what can happen when following this advice. Weir used his blog to post chapters of his novel, The Martian. With a growing fanbase and asked to distribute his work as an ebook, it quickly became a bestseller on Amazon. Traditional publishers caught wind of what was going on, and “within one week, Weir signed dual multi-million dollar book and movie deals with Crown Publishing and Twentieth Century Fox.” He sold more than three million copies of his book, and the movie grossed $630 million and was nominated for an Oscar.
Trying to make it as a female author in the 1900s was a difficulty Beatrix Potter decided to overcome. Traditional publishers wanted nothing to do with her book The Tale of Peter Rabbit, so she self-published 250 copies. Less than a year later, Beatrix signed a traditional publishing contract and sold over 20,000 copies in the following twelve months. Her book has now sold roughly 45,000,000 copies. Looks like Potter made a wise choice when self-publishing those first few hundred!
Carl-Johan Forssén Ehrlin was a behavioral scientist from Sweden who originally wrote The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep to help his own children get to bed. He used positive reinforcement techniques in his book and self-published it. It went on to become the first self-published book to top Amazon’s charts in the UK and USA.
E. L. James was a British woman going through a self-described “midlife crisis.” The story, which became 50 Shades of Grey, was first developed as a fan-fiction project in 2009 based on the Twilight series, originally titled Master of the Universe. However, after being reprimanded for the mature content by the administrators of a fan fiction website, James decided to self-publish the book in 2011 with the help of an online publisher, The Writers’ Coffee Shop.
Which points in the above stories stuck out to you? What did you resonate with? What sparked an idea for a way you could pursue the success of your own novel?
Write down your answers to these thoughts.
You never know which idea may be worth a contract, a movie adaptation, or sell millions of copies.
As You Consider . . .
Margaret Atwood’s book went on to become a TV show, but it wasn’t without a lot of hard work. She shares how she generates plot here, and even teaches a MasterClass on creative writing. Her start as a self-published author, and her later success, did not come about simply by adamantly pursuing a bad idea. She put the time, work, and effort into her creative process, and the end was success.
Lisa Genova went through the process of attempting traditional publishing. This pursuit took long enough for her to stockpile rejection after rejection. It would have been easy to give up, but she believed in her idea enough to pursue another format for getting it into the world. Seven years after self-publishing, her book became an Oscar-winning film.
Both of these authors had an idea, and both of them believed in it enough to see it through to the end.
As you consider your own idea, ask yourself the following questions:
- Why am I passionate about my idea?
- What response have I received from others?
- Positive? Negative? Mix?
- What feedback am I getting from the industry?
- Agents, editors, traditional publishers, etc.
- Do I know how to write in a way that meets industry standards?
- Writing rules, writing for different genres, etc.
- What is my writing voice?
- Formal, informal, come-alongside-approach, credible, etc.
- What is the current market for my genre?
- Do I have a platform? Am I building my platform?
- What is my writing brand?
- What is my definition for publishing success?
Answer these questions honestly to set yourself up for the best possible outcome. Once you know what you’re working with, you can move forward with confidence.
As you consider your answers to the above questions, realize your idea may need tweaking. Learning to write well, understanding what makes a great idea, and knowing how to present it to your target readers takes time.
It’s crucial to understand the difference between pushing forward with an idea you believe in, and pushing forward with an idea you believe in and is credible.
What’s the difference?
The answer to that question is subjective. However, a good way to measure the credibility of your idea is to look at the feedback you receive.
Do most people love all your major plot points but get confused over the decisions of your protagonist?
Do people connect with a specific orbital character better than your main character?
Is there a specific subplot readers want more of, even more than the main plot/goal/quest?
For nonfiction, consider the feedback you receive on your writing voice. Are people encouraged by the way you write, or put off?
Are you sharing knowledge you are credible to share?
Is your idea one that will get lost in an overly saturated market? If so, what is a fresh angle you could take that hasn’t been done before?
Writers succeed because they don’t quit, but writers also succeed because they consider advice and incorporate the feedback that applies to their writing.
Part of what makes you a writer is knowing what feedback is best for your story, and what feedback should be ignored.
As you pursue your writing goals, take encouragement from those who have gone before you. Study how they met success, and take the ideas that work for you.
Be honest with where you are at. Practice the craft. Market. Build your platform.
Then get out there. It’s time for your book to be read!