It’s like a scene from Night of the Living Dead: you shoot them, they fall down, and then they slowly climb to their feet and stagger towards you once more. Yes, I’m talking about internet misinformation about surprising self-publication success. I’m sure you’ve heard them before:
1. John Grisham self published his first novel and sold it out of the back of his car.
2. Robert James Waller’s Bridges of Madison County was self-published, and Waller actually sold it door-to-door
3. Christopher Paolini wrote and self-published his bestselling novel Eragon at age 15, and created a brilliant self-publicity campaign
4. After his first novel was rejected by every publisher in New York City, Tom Clancy decided to publish it himself and it became an instant bestseller.
Grisham’s first novel.
No, John Grisham’s first (and possibly best) novel, A Time to Kill, wasn’t self-published. Wynwood Press published it, and paid Grisham a $15,000 advance. The print run was 5,000 copies. Sales were sluggish, and Grisham bought at least a thousand of those copies and—yes, as the legend says—sold them out of his car and wherever else he could. (Who wants 50%+ remainders on their resume?)
If you happen to have signed first editions, they fetch about $4,600 these days. Grisham should have kept the copies he bought and signed them.
The Bridges of Madison County.
I’m not quite sure how this persistent legend began. Waller’s earlier works were all published by University of Iowa Press, but when he wrote Bridges of Madison County, he sent it to one of the top agents in the US, Aaron Priest, who sold it to the third publisher that saw it, Warner Books. (How the “door-to-door” aspect of this story emerged is a real mystery.)
Christopher Paolini’s Eragon.
This is a particularly messy story, as parts of it have been misstated over and over again, and Paolini himself has given interviews where he makes slightly misleading statements to embellish the Cinderella aspects of the legend.
Paolini finished home-schooling high school at age 15 and began writing Eragon some time after that. He didn’t write and publish it at age 15; the writing itself took a number of years.
His parents owned and operated the small press Paolini International LLC, which was established in 1997 (Eragon was published in 2002), and had already published a number of nonfiction books. His parents edited and revised the manuscript and then printed 10,000 copies.
They used their existing publishing connections to get the book in local bookstores, and also arranged and financed—and brought the family along—on his book tour. The real Cinderella moment came when Carl Hiassen’s stepson Ryan Lindberg read the book and raved about it to Hiassen, who contacted his publisher, Knopf, about the book.
It’s a pretty amazing story even without embellishment. But it’s not exactly a story about self-publishing. (Do your parents happen to own a small publishing company, and are they willing to sink, what--$30,000?…$60,00?—into printing and promoting your book? And, while we’re at it, are you done with school and also not working?)
Tom Clancy’s first novel
The Hunt for Red October—the only Clancy novel I’ve enjoyed—was in fact turned down by many publishers before it was published by the Naval Institute Press. Although this was itself an unusual development (NIP had just decided to branch out into fiction when Clancy’s book arrived), it’s a long ways from self-publishing. There is a considerable difference between the personal finances and marketing clout of an insurance salesman (Clancy) and the United States Navy (the publisher).
As an irrelevant aside, despite all the pictures of Clancy in fatigues beside or astride various pieces of military ironmongery, he never served in the military. Hey, it’s fiction, okay?
I have nothing against self-publishing (though I’d be disinclined to try it myself; it's enough trouble to write the damn things). But what puzzles me is that the legends persist when there are so many true success stories out there. The redoubtable MJ Rose really did self-publish her first novel as an e-book and used the sales and buzz to hook up with a major publishing house. Zane really did start out self-publishing erotica on the web, and then in book form, before Pocket Books picked her up. Gay Afro-American writer E. Lynn Harris really did self-publish his first novel and sell about 10,000 copies through beauty salons and impromptu signings before he hit the big time. And there are plenty of self-published nonfiction books (well, arguably nonfiction) such as The Celestine Prophecy or The Christmas Box, that were later picked up and promoted into bestsellerdom.
So do we really need the Grisham/Waller/Paolini/Clancy legends?