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Bestseller Success Stories that Started Out as Self-Published Books

10/08/2013 01:06 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

You write, you re-write, you edit, you tweak and when it's perfect, you submit. And then you get rejected. Many times, maybe by a person who didn't even read it. Rejection is painful because it instantly devalues your creation. Someone says this isn't worth publishing. Rejectees, take heart. Many now-famous writers have been rejected before they made it big. Stephen King wrote his first novel, "Carrie," and it was rejected 30 times. Rejections were so devastating that he threw the manuscript in the trash. "Chicken Soup for the Soul" was rejected 140 times. Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With The Wind" was rejected by 38 publishers (and she did give a damn). James Joyce's "Dubliner" was rejected 18 times and took nine years before it reached publication.

Yet, as Vince Lombardi said, "It's not whether you get knocked down, it's whether you get up." When faced with rejection, many writers today have turned to self-publishing, an increasingly popular outlet with the rise of the e-book market. My book, "Once We Were Brothers," a modern day legal drama wrapped around a World War II story of the Polish occupation--was rejected several times. And yet I very much wanted to tell this story about two brothers who grew up in the same household in Zamosc, Poland but ended up on opposite sides of the war, about a family's struggle to survive the cruelties of war, about undying love, and about the ultimate betrayal--and one man's quest for justice.

Like other writers, I became impatient. I wanted to see the book in print before I died of old age. So my son and I formed our own publishing company, the Berwick Court Publishing Company, and we did it ourselves. Over the course of two years, we sold an incredible 100,000 copies (print and e combined). Perhaps the fan base was broad enough to attract those who like to read legal thrillers as well as those with an interest in World War II. Whatever the reason, Once We Were Brothers enjoyed enough success as a self-published novel to reach the mainstream: the book was acquired by St. Martin's Press, and a new edition is coming out this fall. All in all, the book's success--either self-published or published by a mainstream house--is a testament to word of mouth and a passionate fan base.

The following slides are other bestseller success stories that started out as self-published books.

1. In 1931, Irma Rombauer wrote "The Joy of Cooking," with her daughter, who not only illustrated the book, but also helped test the recipes. Ms. Rombauer used half of her life savings to pay a local printing company to print three thousand copies. A dollar a book. Five years later, Bobbs-Merrill Company acquired the rights. Over the years the book has sold over 18 million copies. I'll wager your grandmother has one in her kitchen.

john grisham
2. Influenced by Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird," John Grisham, a Southern lawyer, wrote his first novel, "A Time To Kill" in 1989. After 28 rejections, he published 5,000 copies through a small private publisher, Wynwood Press. He was eventually published by Doubleday and after his successes with "The Firm," "The Pelican Brief" and "The Client," Doubleday acquired the rights and reissued "A Time To Kill."

3. James Redfield self-published his first novel, "The Celestine Prophecy," in 1992. He sold the book one copy at a time out of the trunk of his car, which lends credence to the book's statement, "We must assume every event has significance...the challenge is to find the silver lining in every event, no matter how negative." It was later acquired by Warner Books, became a #1 bestseller and has sold in excess of twenty million copies.

4. Peter Rabbit faced rejections from Mr. McGregor's vegetable garden, losing his shoes and his coat. Beatrix Potter's story, "The Tales of Peter Rabbit," was rejected several times. She self-published in 1901. The next year, one of the publishers who had initially rejected the manuscript, the London firm of Frederick Warne & Co., published it and 22 more of her books over the next 40 years. Over two million Beatrix Potter books are sold each year.

5. Amanda Hocking wrote 17 novels while working as a group home worker in Minnesota. She self-published them all as e-books, selling more than a million copies. In 2011, St. Martin's Press bought the rights to her first three books, the Trylle trilogy, and for a new four-book series, Watersong, for a reported two million dollars.

el james
6. Erika Leonard (E.L. James) has sold more than 70 million copies of her "Fifty Shades" trilogy worldwide. She started out writing fan fiction stories and publishing them on her website. She then wrote "Fifty Shades of Grey" and self-published it through a small Australian company, which released it on eBook and print-on demand. After her passionate fan base (pun intended) had driven the book to extreme levels of popularity, the rights were acquired by Vintage Books.

7. Mike Michalowicz's guide to entrepreneurship titled "The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur: The Tell-it-like-it-is Guide to Cleaning Up in Business, Even if you are at the End of Your Roll" was self-published in 2008 after numerous rejections. He ordered 20,000 copies of it, which ended up taking over his basement. Penguin was so impressed with the sales, it acquired the rights to the print edition (Michalowicz still owns the e-book rights). Penguin also published his second book, "The Pumpkin Plan: A Simple Strategy to Grow a Remarkable Business in Any Field."

8. Michael J. Sullivan wrote for 10 years, in a variety of genres, but could not anyone to publish them. So he quit writing altogether. 10 years later, he said he got the "itch" and wrote the Riyira Revelation fantasy series. His agent still couldn't find a publisher, so Sullivan self-published through Ridan Publishing, a company started by his wife. His sales were so impressive that he re-solicited mainstream publishers, and this time received several offers. He sold the rights to "Orbit" for six figures.

9. Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist, wrote a novel called "Still Alice" about a 50-year-old Harvard professor who struggles with early onset Alzheimer's disease. After being rejected by several publishers, Lisa decided to self-publish. Her literary agent advised against it, telling her it would kill her writing career. She self-published anyway and received wonderful reviews, including one from the Boston Globe. Simon & Schuster acquired the novel for a reported half-million dollars. In January 2009, it debuted on the The New York Times bestseller list at number five.

bella andre
10. Romance writers have found a home in self-publishing. Especially when they capture their audience in a series about a fictional family and market their books for under $5.00. Barbara Freethy has sold more than 2,000,000 books writing about the Callaway family. Bella Andre (pictured above) has topped the million mark with her novels about the Sullivan family. The ease of self-publishing e-books has allowed these prolific authors to establish quite a fan base.

11. Now comes the best part: In 2009, I finished writing "Once We Were Brothers," a story about a family in a small Polish town struggling to make it through the Nazi occupation. My agent shopped the book to publishing houses for nearly a year and received a number of "I don't think this is for us" responses. So I self-published through Berwick Court, a company my son and I created. We ordered 750 hardcovers that sat in my living room for months, selling them (as well as e-books) one at a time. It was slow going until about September 2011, when really saw the word--of-mouth and a passionate fan base growing, pushing the sales. Each month the sales were greater than the month before. Because of that great word of mouth, an editor at St. Martin's Press heard about it, read it, and loved it. By the time my own sales topped the 100,000 mark, St. Martin's Press acquired the rights and will publish a new edition in October.