Though the wild success of a few self-published books—like E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey—has created a wave of DIY authors, it’s not a novel idea. Long ago, Marcel Proust, Charles Dickens, and Walt Whitman decided to go their own way for some of their most famous works. Here are six well-known books that were originally self-published.
1. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets // Stephen Crane
Stephen Crane is perhaps best known for traumatizing generations of elementary schoolchildren with grisly, gory depictions of the Civil War in his novel The Red Badge of Courage. Before that, he financed the publication of his first work, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, an equally bleak examination of poverty, prostitution, and alcoholism in 19th-century New York. Just 21 years old at the time, Crane released the novella in 1893 under the pseudonym Johnston Smith and even devised a clever strategy to publicize it: He paid four men to read it on a New York elevated train. “It fell flat,” he said later, according to The New Yorker. But Maggie did pique the interest of fellow writers William Dean Howells and Hamlin Garland, which helped Crane gain confidence and momentum for his next works.
2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit // Beatrix Potter
While Stephen Crane’s Maggie was hitting shelves in 1893, British author Beatrix Potter was beginning to write what would become The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The six publishers who received her manuscript insisted on publishing it as a large book so they could inflate the price, but Potter refused—she wanted it to be small enough that a child could easily hold it. So in December 1901, Potter dipped into her savings to print 250 copies herself. Its overwhelming early success convinced one of the original prospective publishers, Frederick Warne and Co., to change its tune. In October 1902, they released an edition with Potter’s specifications that sold more than 20,000 copies by that Christmas.
3. No Thanks // E.E. Cummings
E.E. Cummings had already published several poetry collections to widespread critical acclaim when he submitted what would eventually be titled No Thanks to New York publishers in 1934. All 14 of them declined the collection. One reason was that the Great Depression had made it difficult to sell already-successful books, and publishers were rarely acquiring any new ones. Another reason was that Cummings had ruffled feathers with EIMI, an experimental travelogue of his trip to Russia. Many writers thought it disrespected socialism, which was then en vogue. Eventually Cummings’s mother lent him the money to print the new collection himself. He named it No Thanks, and his dedication page read “No thanks to” followed by a list of all 14 publishers who had rejected it. The list was shaped like a funeral urn.
4. The Jungle // Upton Sinclair
In February 1905, the public encountered Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle as a serialized work in the socialist newspaper The Appeal to Reason, and again later that year in a quarterly journal called One-Hoss Philosophy. But when it came to publishing it as a book, Sinclair ran into serious issues. His contract with Macmillan fell apart after he refused to cut some of the more repulsive meat-packing details. Five other publishing houses also rejected the novel. Just as Sinclair was printing it himself using donations from readers, Doubleday, Page finally approached him with an offer. Always the portrait of integrity, Sinclair asked that they allow him to self-publish his edition so he could fulfill the existing pre-orders. Doubleday acquiesced, and Sinclair released 5000 copies of the so-called “Sustainer’s Edition” under The Jungle Publishing Company in February 1906, the same month that Doubleday released its almost identical version.
5. The Elements of Style // William Strunk, Jr.
Before The Elements of Style was Strunk and White’s, it was just Strunk’s. Professor William Strunk, Jr. privately published the self-proclaimed “little book” in 1918 for his Cornell students, and in 1920, Harcourt, Brace re-released it. But it wasn’t until E.B. White, one of Strunk’s former students, wrote about it in a 1957 issue of The New Yorker, 11 years after Strunk’s death, that it really gained momentum. The original 43-page publication, according to White, “consists of a short introduction, eight rules of usage, 10 principles of composition, a few matters of form, a list of words and expressions commonly misused, a list of words commonly misspelled. That’s all there is.” The rediscovery of the guidebook so invigorated White that he revised and added to it, and Macmillan republished the expanded edition in 1959. One hundred years and millions of copies after its initial release, The Elements of Style—or just “Strunk and White,” as it’s called colloquially—is one of the most acclaimed how-to books ever written.
6. The Celestine Prophecy // James Redfield
James Redfield’s novel/spiritual guide began with a 3000-copy print run that set him back about $7000. Redfield and his wife packed up their van and spent a month at a time traveling to independent bookstores across the nation to give a copy to each manager and whatever customers were present, reprinting as needed. The strategy reinforced the old publishing adage that the best way to sell books is by word of mouth: After a few months on the road, Redfield said that everybody was talking about it, and he estimates that they had sold around 160,000 copies. It was enough to ignite an informal rights auction between Warner Books and another unnamed publishing house, which Warner won. When asked at the Southern California Writers’ Conference if Warner requested any revisions, Redfield said yes. “But we didn’t do any of them,” he added. Warner published the book anyway, which then spent an impressive three years on The New York Times best seller list.