10 Successful Self-Published Authors: Indie Success Stories
In the wide world of self-publishing, success won’t look the same for every author — and that’s a good thing! Different writers have different goals for their books and their careers. Some might want to see their books become bestsellers, some just want to share an exciting project with people who have similar interests, while others want to bolster representation in publishing.
But money and traditional deals aren’t the only markers of success — not that self-published authors are falling behind in terms of how much they make. So here are 10 self-publishing success stories to inspire and excite you:
1. LJ Ross
The British publishing scene is famously London-centric, so when Northumberland-born lawyer Louise Ross (publishing as LJ Ross) wrote the first of her wildly successful DCI Ryan crime thrillers, she set it in England's Northeast — and made the decision to self-publish her debut novel.
Flash-forward a few years later, Ross's books have sold over 7 million copies worldwide, and 18 of her novels have hit the #1 spot on bestseller lists. While you'll find her books in almost every English home and tourist shop north of Durham, her influence now extends far beyond her homeland.
She’s been called “the Queen of Kindle” for her ebook sales success by the Sunday Telegraph. The Daily Mail has hailed her as “the next J.K Rowling” (before that became a bad thing), and she was the first self-published author shortlisted for the British Book Awards. And she did it all herself.
2. Mark Dawson
Mark Dawson’s literary career serves as a testament to the power of self-publishing. A lawyer by training (just like LJ Ross), Dawson published his first two novels through traditional means. He later admitted they weren’t given the attention they needed in a competitive market and ultimately “sank without trace.”
Taking matters into his own hands, Dawson turned to self-publishing. A few short years later, Mark Dawson has sold millions of copies worldwide, established multiple series (including his flagship John Milton thrillers), pulls in a seven-figure publishing income, and has become a leading advocate for self-publishing:
“Self-publishing has enabled me to build the career that I always dreamed of having, with the ability to make decisions for my own books that larger organizations might not have necessarily taken. Traditional publishers print thousands of new titles every year, and there was always the danger that my stories would be forgotten — that proved to be the case, and, with no sales, there was no appetite for any more books from me.
"My choice to go it alone hasn’t closed down other avenues for reaching readers, either; I have a print-only deal that sees thousands of my books in stores and I have licensed most of my books to audio specialists who can do a far better job of selling in that medium than I can. I’ve also sold film and TV rights and will have a comic adaptation of one of my franchises coming in the next twelve months. My decision to self-publish in 2012 has proven to be the best I’ve ever made, and I’m looking forward to the 2020s with optimism and excitement.”
Are you looking to replicate the Mark Dawson publishing experience? Why not start by hiring his editor, Edmund Pickett, on Reedsy!
3. Rupi Kaur
At the tender age of 21, university student Rupi Kaur wrote, illustrated, and self-published her debut poetry collection, milk and honey. Kaur had already become a prominent figure in the growing “Instagram poetry” movement, and she adeptly used her talent and platform to sell over 8 million copies of her first two NYT-bestselling poetry collections.
In an interview with the Times of India, the poet explained that self-publishing gave her the power to overcome her socially marginalized status: “The literary world didn’t even see me. I was a 20-year-old, brown, Punjabi Sikh woman from a working class immigrant family.” For Rupi Kaur, self-publishing meant taking control of her narrative without relying on anyone else’s approval.
4. Rachel Abbott
Another novelist who built an empire on self-published thrillers, Rachel Abbott (real name Sheila Rodgers) has sold over 4 million copies in the English language alone. She was the first self-published author to ever reach #1 on Amazon and has secured trailblazer status in the indie community.
Considering her claim that says “[she] wrote the first book for a bit of fun”, Abbott's astonishing career shows that you really can turn your passion into a job, and that hard work really does pay off.
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5. Phillip Goodrich
Phillip Goodrich led a busy life as a general surgeon and amateur historian when he began to write on his free weekends. As an outsider to the publishing world, he never knew what to expect from his efforts to self-publish — but he did follow the voice of curiosity in his head. That was the birth of Somersett: a nonfiction historical narrative that suggests the landmark court case Somersett v. Stewart as a motivation for the American Revolution.
After being turned down for editing by his brother (a newspaper editor), Goodrich decided to seek professional guidance. Turning to Reedsy, he collaborated with editor Allister Thompson and designer Mark Thomas, and soon found his book on the receiving end of national attention.
On the back of Somersett, Goodrich was invited to write an op-ed for TIME magazine, made several appearances on radio and television, received a 5-star Reedsy Discovery review, and had his book listed as a #1 New Release on Amazon for 48 hours. As he puts it himself, “Not bad for a self-published debut by an unknown author…”
6. Zenda Walker
Inspired by conversations with her daughter, Zenda Walker set out to write a picture book to help Black children connect with the unique heritage of their hair and hairstyles. As a hairstylist and amateur historian, Zara’s Wash Day allowed Walker to combine her interests and help children learn to be proud of their unique qualities.
With the help of Reedsy designer Anthony Foronda, Walker self-published Zara’s Wash Day and won many awards, including the 2021 Writer's Digest Self-Published Book Award. The book was featured in multiple magazines and publications and its many accolades resulted in a book deal for the next book in the series, Zion’s Crown.
Take a deeper dive to learn more about Zenda’s self-publishing success.
7. Christopher Paolini
As the story goes, Christopher Paolini wrote his debut, Eragon, as a 15-year-old. However, he finished and self-published the epic fantasy children’s novel at 19 with his parents’ help. The young author then tirelessly promoted his book, embarking on a country-wide book tour, appearing in schools, festivals, bookshops, libraries, and anywhere else he could (in medieval garb, no less).
A year later, Paolini was approached by Alfred A. Knopf with a publishing deal for Eragon and the rest of the Inheritance Cycle. The series has since sold over 35 million copies, giving Paolini the Guinness record for being the “youngest author of a bestselling book series.”
Even though Paolini transitioned to traditional publishing, what then became a legendary literary phenomenon all started with a single self-published book.
8. Hugh Howey
If anyone ever had an unconventional career trajectory, it’s Hugh Howey. Before he became an author, he wore many hats, working over the years as a yacht captain, a computer repairman, and much more. During a stint as a bookstore clerk, he began writing his first novel in the store's backroom. Rather than going down the traditional publishing route, he once again took the road less traveled and self-published his novel through Amazon KDP.
Interest in his first book led to sequels and a six-figure book deal with Simon & Schuster. Howey only sold his print rights and turned down much more lucrative deals in favor of retaining his ebook rights and the freedom to self-publish them as he wished. Recently, he’s added a TV show to his list of accomplishments with SILO, a big-budget Apple TV adaptation of Wool.
Straddling the line between traditional and independent publishing, Howey has managed to get the best of both worlds.
9. Maria E Cantu Alegre
Like Rupi Kaur, Maria E Cantu Alegre didn’t see herself represented in the publishing world. Faced with a dearth of Latinx authors in the fantasy space, she set off to blaze her own trail.
On Reedsy, Maria hired editor Amanda Rutter, who had previously worked with Kameron Hurley and Sarah Pinborough. With expert suggestions from her editor, Maria worked hard to revise and improve her work, and she eventually brought on author and editor Cindy Marsch to further transform her manuscript.
The Legacy of Lanico became Maria's first book: an epic fantasy novel boasting a perfect 5-star Amazon rating (at the time of printing). Also, she’s since published two more books in her series. “If someone like me — a Latinx woman from an impoverished city, who is the product of a broken, working-class family — can do this, anyone can.”
Read more about Maria's story on Reedsy.
10. Howard of Warwick
If you think humorous medieval crime fiction doesn't have a ton of commercial potential, you're not alone. That's exactly what traditional editors and literary agents told Howard of Warwick (real name Howard Matthews) when he pitched a novel that centered on a crime-solving monk from 1066.
Brushing this rejection aside, Howard decided to self-publish his Chronicles of Brother Hermitage series and he hasn't looked back since. He found his niche pretty naturally, but it was only when he hired Reedsy marketer Julia Pidduck to boost his readership via digital advertising that he saw his books’ sales grow by 122%. Having now sold over 100,000 copies, Howard is still seeing long-term financial results that have allowed him to retire and devote himself to writing full-time. Not bad for a supposedly non-commercially viable genre!
Find out more about Howard's collaboration with his book marketer.
The self-published authors we’ve listed here write in various genres, and the choice is deliberate — self-publishing success doesn’t exclusively come from commercial genres like romance and thrillers. If you’re willing to put in the work, any niche can be profitable.