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Blog > Understanding Publishing – Posted on August 24, 2017

4 Successful Self-Published Authors & Their Surprising Beginnings

So what do a Martian, a BDSM obsessed CEO, a Harvard professor suffering from Alzheimer’s, and a subterranean city have in common?

If you guessed that they’re all characters from originally self-published books, you’d be... correct.

Today, these titles and characters are famous worldwide, and their authors are some of the most successful in the world. Their backstories are worth re-visiting, as these authors all come from a range of backgrounds. In fact, the only thing they share is a desire to write—and the decision to self-publish.

But it was a decision that worked wonders! Find out more about their stories in this three-minute video:

1. Andy Weir

How Andy Weir took The Martian from blog to international bestseller is today a tale in the Self-Publishing Hall of Fame.

Having seen prior manuscripts rejected by publishers, Weir gave up the dream of publishing some time ago. He didn't try shopping it around to traditional publishers when the idea for The Martian came about, choosing instead to publish the novel in chapters on a blog. But it was so popular that fans of the science fiction serialization asked Weir to publish an e-book.

And once it was on Kindle Direct Publishing? Demand rocketed immediately. The Martian, priced at $0.99, became a #1 Amazon bestseller.

It didn't take too much time before word got out to the traditional publishing world. In the space of a week in 2013, Weir signed dual multi-million book and movie deals with Crown Publishing and Twentieth Century Fox. “At the time I was a computer programmer,” he said in an interview with NPR. “So I was in my cubicle fixing bugs, then I'd sneak off to take a phone call about my movie deal, then back to my cubicle to fix bugs. It was pretty surreal.”

The book went on to sell more than three million copies. The Oscar-nominated movie adaptation grossed $630 million worldwide. That’s not too shabby for a computer programmer who once gave up on bygone publishing dreams, is it?

2. E.L. James

Fun fact: before Eliza Mitchell became the infamous E.L. James of 50 Shades of Grey notoriety, she was Snowqueens Icedragon.

Titled Master of the Universe on, the story that would make Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele famous started as fanfic in the Twilight universe. It’s summary? “Bella Swan is drafted in to interview the reclusive, enigmatic Edward Cullen, multimillionaire CEO of his company. It’s an encounter that will change her life irrevocably, leading her to dark realms of desire.”

Today, E.L. James is one of the richest authors in the world with a net worth of, oh, about $80 million, so we’d say that self-publishing via fan fiction worked out quite well for James.

(Suddenly finding yourself in the mood for fanfiction? Get your fill here!)

3. Lisa Genova

Before 50 Shades of Grey, before The Martian, there was Still Alice.

Lisa Genova, the author, is a Harvard-trained neuroscientist. She was in graduate school when Genova’s grandmother was diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s. From this ordeal emerged the manuscript for Still Alice, about a Harvard professor who dealing with early onset Alzheimer’s.

Rejected by every publish she pitch to, Genova made the decision to self-publish in 2007, while the KDP was still in its open beta testing phase. So Genova self-published through iUniverse. The rest, of course, is the success story: after Still Alice gained readers and popularity around the world, Simon & Schuster published it traditionally in 2009. Today, there are over 2.6 million copies in print, and it’s been adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Julianne Moore.

4. Hugh Howey

Before self-publishing Wool, Hugh Howey was a yacht captain and a computer repairman, so you could say that authorship was a different sort of turn.

In fact, Howey rejected a small press offer to self-publish the post-apocalyptic Wool through Kindle Direct Publishing. Why? "I wanted to move at a faster pace and figured I could do the pagination and marketing on my own," said Howey in an interview with Wired. "So I struck out as a self-published writer with no real dream beyond selling anything more than a few copies and possibly entertaining some friends." The decision to self-publish was one that turned Howey from yacht captain to a #1 Amazon bestselling author. Within a year, Howey was selling 20,000 - 30,000 copies every month. That was right around when bigger publishers started knocking on the door.

Howey eventually penned a print-only deal with Simon & Schuster to produce print copies of Wool―a story about Silo, a subterranean city under totalitarian rule, 144 stories beneath the ground. Signing this type of deal meant that Howey got to keep the e-book rights, an example of today's hybrid publishing models.

After achieving so much success through the self-publishing model, is it any wonder that Howey is now a champion of all indie authors? "Self-publishing is the future," Howey wrote in an op-ed for Salon, "And it's great for writers.”

Were any of these stories new to you? Share your favorite self-published author’s backstory in the comments below! Surprise us.