By Francesca Harnett, Chloë Marshall, and Natalie Klinkenberg
Self-publishing is far from a mere internet phenomenon; in fact, before there were publishing houses, anyone who wanted their work distributed had to do it themselves. The introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press in Europe changed the way books were sold, significantly reducing the cost of printing and facilitating a market of mass production. Since then, independent minds have been getting hold of their own presses to circumvent traditional methods, from Benjamin Franklin to Jane Austen to Walt Whitman to… you get the gist.
In modern day, self-publication has changed beyond recognition, from editorial to marketing and production, thanks to the internet and e-book formats. Technology has made self-publishing a more accessible and international market, but it has also increased competition while still involving high upfront costs, a heavy workload and a lack of editorial support. Whether writers choose to self-publish in order to retain creative control of their work, to avoid or escape conflicts of opinion with their publisher, or simply to be able to publish at all, the decision to go it alone has always been risky. But with risk comes reward: many celebrated classics are the result of a writer’s choice to manage their work’s entry into the market themselves.
One of our favourite classics was self-published in 1811 by Jane Austen. Sense and Sensibility, featuring the trials and tribulations of the starkly opposite Dashwood sisters as they struggle to find matches after the loss of their fortune, is well known today. In her early years of writing, Austen fronted the costs of production herself and self-published Sense and Sensibility, coming away with a £140 profit, which is the equivalent of almost £12,000 today. In fact, when she published Emma four years later with publisher John Murray, he requested the copyrights to Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park for £450 to republish, however, she refused and paid for another run of the book herself.
Another cult classic that we would be remiss to ignore, is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843. The story of ghosts of Christmas past, present and future was published by Dickens himself after an unsuccessful first run under Chapman and Hall. Motivated by a higher profit percentage and a desire to escape the restrictions of the publisher, Dickens designed a stunning book with lavish bindings, gorgeous illustrations, and golden-edged pages, which was an immediate success. However, the book barely broke even after the new costs, although we as modern readers would likely argue these costs were well worth it in the end.
A well-known and much-loved example of a self-published work is The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, which went on to become a household name and brand. Initially written informally in letters to the son of her former governess, Peter Rabbit came to life after Potter decided to print it using her own money after being faced with rejections from publishers. Soon after, it was picked up by the publisher Frederick Warne & Co in 1902 and saw immediate trade success, revolutionising the children’s book market. Recognising the marketable potential of her characters, Potter patented the Peter Rabbit doll, her own creation, in 1903, making him the first example of a licensed literary character.
Self-publishing isn’t just for free-spirited first-timers, however. Some writers choose to self-publish later in their writing career, such as Mark Twain, who published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884 with his nephew Charles Webster under their imprint Charles Webster & Co. Although already an established and successful author, Twain’s decision to break away from traditional publishing allowed him financial and creative control. Huckleberry Finn is a great example of why experimental self-published works are often landmark literary events: soon after publication, Concorde Public Library called the novel ‘trash [...] suited to the slums,’ which unsurprisingly piqued the public’s interest and boosted sales.
Finally, Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925 by Hogarth Press, the publishing company co-owned by Woolf and her husband, Leonard Woolf. Named after their house in Richmond, Hogarth Press was born in their living room during the interwar years, publishing 527 titles between 1917 and 1946. Hogarth was later revived by Penguin Random House and now operates as one of their imprints representing new and international perspectives; the press lives on as a testament to the two visionary writers who recognised the importance of visionary writing.
While today someone’s first thought of self-publishing may be print on-demand services or Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, the books discussed in this article are clear signs that self-published books can have tremendous success in the literary world. In the desktop era of self-publishing back in the 70s, the late Patricia Holt said that “the lesson for anyone with something to say… is that publishing, especially at the smallest level, is anybody’s game”.
The pros of self-publishing, such as full creative control with the book’s content, design and marketing, can be seen in books like Huckleberry Finn and A Christmas Carol. Self-publishing also comes with cons, like higher production costs and going without the support system that traditional publishing typically provides. In the end, we’d like these loved and popular self-published classics be proof to those who wish to self-publish that taking the risk can be worth the reward.