6 Books You Didn’t Know Were Originally Self-Published

jtyler/iStock via Getty Images
jtyler/iStock via Getty Images

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

The Tale of Peter Rabbit original edition
Carl Court/Getty Images

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

Upton Sinclair's The Jungle
Byeznhpyxeuztibuo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

The Elements of Style 1920 edition
Jimregan, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

Explore a Visual History of the Internet in This New Book From TASCHEN

Taschen
Taschen

Whether you’re looking for a funny cat video or tips on how to run your own business, chances are you’ll find what you need online. But how did the internet develop into this seemingly never-ending source of information? With so much out there, trying to nail down how the web came to be might seem like an impossible task. But Web Design: The Evolution of the Digital World 1990–Today, a book recently published by TASCHEN, will take you through the journey, complete with year-by-year breakdowns of key developments and visuals from the web's earliest days. It's available on TASCHEN's website now for $50 or you can pre-order from Amazon, with a release date set for December 7.

The 21 chapters of this book explore everything from the first viral website to how artificial intelligence came to live online. Web Design also allows readers to have a glimpse inside the minds of some of the people who paved the way for other online pioneers, such as Jonathan Gay, creator of Flash.

The Cover of the book Web Design. The Evolution of the Digital World 1990–Today exploring the internet's history.
TASCHEN

It's in the visual evolution where Web Design really stands out. Readers can see the first photo ever uploaded online, which was of a comedy band called Les Horribles Cernettes, a group composed of CERN employees. There are also photos of more recent accomplishments, like the Mind Scalextric, where users wore headsets and controlled a racecar with their thoughts. And, of course, there are photos that will simply make you feel just a bit nostalgic—think the famously indestructible Nokia phone.

CERN computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee was the first to propose the idea for a database of hypertext links that allowed people to send data and communicate across a network just over 30 years ago. For Berners-Lee, the creation was meant as a more convenient way to find information at work; little did he know what it would evolve into. You can learn more about the internet—like the fact that you can still visit the first-ever website—by heading here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Why Don’t Bugs Eat People’s Bones?

ledwell/iStock via Getty Images
ledwell/iStock via Getty Images

In her new book, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death, mortician and best-selling author Caitlin Doughty answers real questions she's received from kids about death, dead bodies, and decomposition. In the following excerpt, she describes why the creatures that consider skin and organs a tasty snack just don't feel the same way about our skeletons. (It's nothing personal.)

It’s a lovely summer day and you’re having lunch in the park. You bite into a fried chicken wing, munching on the crispy skin and juicy flesh. Is your next move cracking into the bones, crunching them like the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk”? Probably not.

If you yourself wouldn’t eat a pile of animal bones, why would you expect a beetle to show up and eat your bones? We expect too much from necrophages, the unsung heroes of the natural world. They are the death eaters, the organisms that fuel up by consuming dead and rotting things—and bless their hearts! Imagine, for a moment, what the world would look like without the assistance of the consumers of dead flesh. Corpses and carcasses everywhere. That road kill? It’s not going anywhere without the help of necrophages.

Necrophages do such a good job getting rid of dead things that we expect them to perform miracles. It’s like how if you do too good a job of cleaning your room, then your mom will expect perfection every time. Better to not set expectations so high. It’s just not worth the risk.

The corpse-nosher ranks are filled with diverse species. You have vultures, swooping down for a roadside snack. You have blowflies, which can smell death from up to 10 miles away. You have carrion beetles, which devour dried muscle. A dead human body is a wonderland of ecological niches, offering a wide range of homes and snacks for those inclined to eat. There are plenty of seats at death’s dinner table.

Remember the dermestid beetle? The helpful cuties we’d enlist to clean your parents’ skulls? Their job is to eat all the flesh off without damaging the bone. Let’s be clear: we don’t want them to eat the bone. Especially because other methods of flesh removal (like harsh chemicals) will not only hurt the bones, but might damage certain types of evidence, like marks on bones, which could be useful in criminal investigations. That’s why you bring in a colony of thousands of dermestids to do the dirty work. Plus, while you were over here complaining that they don’t eat enough bones, the beetles were also eating skin, hair, and feathers!

All right, but to your question: why don’t they eat bones, too? The simple answer is that eating bones is hard work. Not only that, but bones are not nutritionally useful to insects. Bones are mostly made of calcium, something insects just don’t need a lot of. Since they don’t need much calcium, insects like dermestids haven’t evolved to consume it or desire it. They’re about as interested in eating bones as you are.

But, here’s a dramatic twist: just because these beetles don’t usually eat bone doesn’t mean they won’t. It’s a cost-reward thing. Bones are a frustrating meal, but a meal is a meal. Peter Coffey, an agriculture educator at the University of Maryland, told me how he learned this firsthand when he used Dermestes maculatus to clean the skeleton of a stillborn lamb. Adult sheep bones are robust, “but in fetuses and newborns there are several places where fusion is not yet complete.” When he removed the lamb bones after the beetles finished cleaning them, “I noticed small round holes, about the diameter of a large larva.” It turns out beetles will go after less dense, delicate bones (like those of the stillborn lamb), but, Peter says, “there has to be a perfect storm of good environmental conditions and poor food availability before they’ll resort to bone, which would explain why it’s not more commonly observed.”

So, while dermestids and other flesh-eating bugs do not usually eat bone, if they get hungry enough, they will. Humans behave the same way. When Paris was under siege in the late 16th century, the city was starving. When people inside the city ran out of cats and dogs and rats to eat, they began disinterring bodies from the mass graves in the cemetery. They took the bones and ground them into flour to make what became known as Madame de Montpensier’s bread. Bone appetit! (Actually, maybe don’t bone appetit, as many who ate the bone bread died themselves.)

It seems like no creature out there wants to eat bone, really prefers bone. But wait, I haven’t introduced you to Osedax, or the bone worm. (I mean, it’s right there in the name, people. Osedax means “bone eater” or “bone devourer” in Latin.) Bone worms start as tiny larvae, floating out in the vast blackness of the deep ocean. Suddenly, emerging from the void above is a big ol’ dead creature, like a whale or an elephant seal. The bone worm attaches, and the feast begins. To be fair, even Osedax don’t really devour the minerals in the bone. Instead, they burrow into the bone searching for collagen and lipids to eat. After the whale is gone, the worms die, but not before they release enough larvae to travel the currents waiting for another carcass to comes along.

Bone worms aren’t picky. You could throw a cow, or your dad (don’t do that), overboard and they’d eat those bones, too. There is strong evidence that bone worms have been eating giant marine reptiles since the time of the dinosaurs. That means the whale eaters are older than whales themselves. Osedax are nature’s peak bone eaters, and they’re even sorta nice to look at, orangey-red floating tubes covering bones like a deep-sea shag carpet. Pretty amazing, given that scientist didn’t even know these creatures existed until 2002. Who knows what else is out there in the world, devouring bone?

The cover of 'Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death'
The cover of Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death
W.W. Norton

Reprinted from Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty. Text copyright (c) 2019 by Caitlin Doughty. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER