Blog – Posted on Monday, Jul 24
The 34 Best Selling Self-Published Books of the Past 100+ Years
More and more authors are circumventing traditional publishing in favor of self-publishing these days: anyone with a story to tell can share it with the world, whether in print or digital format. This comes with its pros and cons: while many hire professional editors and designers to give their manuscripts a top-level treatment, some publish barely edited drafts.
So to help you separate the wheat from the chaff, we’ve put together a list of bestselling self-published books in various genres, from nonfiction to poetry to fantasy. To help you navigate, we’ve arranged the books in chronological order, taking you from some of the classics you may not have known were self-published, to some of the hottest TikTok darlings of the moment.
When talking about self-publishing, Kindle and the advent of ebooks is often what springs first to mind. But long before digitalisation, authors were already circumventing the gatekeepers of publishing by making their voices heard though subscription models or printing presses in their own homes.
Here are some of our favorite public domain classics that were self-published long before self-publishing became cool:
1. Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667)
Found on almost every single English Lit syllabus in the Western world, Paradise Lost, a Biblical epic written in verse, is considered one of the most important pieces of writing of recent times. And to think that it almost didn’t see the light of day… The first edition of Paradise Lost was published by subscription. That is, Milton ran ads in local papers to describe his project in the hopes of garnering interest. Readers, or subscribers, then stood for the production costs (kind of like how crowdfunding works today). It may not be self-publishing in the modern sense of the word, but it’s fair to say that without Milton’s own initiative, Paradise might truly have been lost.
2. Maria Sibylla Merian: Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium by Maria Sibylla Merian (1705)
Considered one of the most significant contributors to the field of entomology by none other than Sir David Attenborough himself, the German naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian became famous in 1705 for her publication of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, documenting the metamorphosis of the butterfly through careful illustrations. Together with her daughters, Merian took great care to color in the plates to accurately reflect the flora and fauna of Suriname, and funded the publication herself. Her drawings were used by European scientists like Linnaeus to develop a classification system for insects.
3. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)
Struggling to get her work published, in 1811, Jane Austen decided to take matters into her own hands with the finished manuscript of Sense and Sensibility. Commissioning a publisher to print the book for her, she paid for the production herself. In the end, she came away with a £140 profit (equivalent to £5,000 today) and, luckily for us, made sure that generations of readers could continue to enjoy her tale about the two Dashwood sisters.
Bonus: After gaining some recognition and success with her writing, Austen went on to sell Emma (1815) to a publisher, but when he asked for the copyright to Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility as well, she refused and went on to yet again pay for the publication herself.
4. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)
Technically speaking, A Christmas Carol — the classic tale about an old miser who is visited by ghosts from his past on Christmas Eve so that he can learn the importance of gratitude and generosity — was published under Chapman and Hall, but after the less successful run of Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens stood for the cost of publication himself, in exchange for a higher percentage of the profits. Agonizing over end-papers and struggling with production, the profits ended up being much lower than he had expected, yet A Christmas Carol remains a steady seller to this day. A good investment, all in all.
5. Leaves Of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855)
Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
As a newspaper editor and printer, American poet Walt Whitman had both the knowhow and resources to travel the road towards publication on his own with the first edition of his classic poetry collection Leaves of Grass. Spending time getting the typesetting and page design right, choosing binding, and working on the frontispiece, Whitman worried about the physical details of all his work, staying close to the process and overseeing the creative decisions to make sure the exterior matched the interior. A huge perk, some would argue, of self-publishing.
6. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
Having already achieved fame and success through the power of his pen, when it came time to publish The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain decided to cut the middleman and publish his newest tale on his own. Records may state that this classic about a boy and his adventures on the Mississippi River with a runaway slave was brought to the world by a publisher called Charles L. Webster And Company — owned by one Mr. Samuel Clemens — but as a piece of literary trivia, Mark Twain was just the pen name that Clemens wrote under.
7. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (1901)
Another reason some authors choose self-publishing over traditional publishing is to retain creative control over their work. When publishers wanted Beatrix Potter to make one too many alterations to her classic children’s story, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, she decided that enough was enough and went ahead and published it herself. A wise decision, as readers loved it just as much as five year-old Noel Moore — son of Potter’s governess who was recovering from scarlet fever, for whom she’d originally wrote the story — did.
8. A Lume Spento by Ezra Pound (1908)
The modernist poet and controversial figure Ezra Pound had about $80 to his name when he arrived in Venice, Italy. Of those, he spent $8 on getting the hitherto rejected collection of 44 poems, A Lume Spento, printed. Despite receiving some attention for it in London, it was never picked up by a publisher, though half of the poems in the later collection Personae (1909) were from A Lume Spento. The collection contains numerous allusions to Dante’s Inferno, dramatic style monologues, and spiritualism.
9. Swann's Way by Marcel Proust (1913)
Deemed an unruly collection of memories and melancholic philosophizing, the first volume in Marcel Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way, was rejected by several French publishers before Proust managed to convince Grasset to publish it for him by footing the bill himself. Ultimately, Swann’s Way established Proust as one of the most important voices of his time, and when he was later approached by the same publishers who had rejected him for rights to publish the remaining volumes, Proust stayed loyal to Grasset.
10. The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism; Evidence and Reasons Behind the Media’s Corruption by Upton Sinclair (1919)
More well-known for his novel The Jungle (1905), an exposé on the meat-packing industry and working class labor conditions, American journalist Upton Sinclair also wrote and self-published The Brass Check as a critique against the yellow journalism (journalism without solid foundation in research and sources) he argued was prevalent in American newspapers at the time. To make sure his findings would reach as many people as possible, Sinclair published The Brass Check without copyright and encouraged people to reprint and spread excerpts around, though unfounded accusations of inaccuracy would leave The Brass Check largely forgotten for decades.
11. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
In an attempt to skirt the conventions and restrictions of her time, Virginia Woolf started a press of her own called Hogarth (today an imprint of Penguin) together with her husband Leonard Woolf. Running right out of their own living room, the pair used a handpress to publish both Mrs Dalloway — a stream of consciousness story about a housewife planning for a party — and To the Lighthouse (1927): a portrait of a family on holiday on the Isle of Skye.
12. No Thanks by E.E. Cummings (1935)
Today, ee cummings is recognized as one of the most innovative and influential American poets of his time, but in 1935, no less than 14 publishers rejected his ironically titled collection no thanks. Not salty at all, he published the collection himself (with the help of his mother) and dedicated it to all the publishers who had turned him down. Filled with literary risk-taking and experimentation with form, the poems in the collection celebrate the beauty of the natural world and love in all shapes and iterations. To his decision to self-publish, we just have one word for him: thanks.
13. People, Places and Things by Stephen King & Chris Chesley (1960)
Containing stories that King wrote when he was still a teenager, People, Places and Things is a short story collection consisting of 18 single-page stories — 8 written by King, 9 by Chesley, and 1 co-authored. The collection was handbound and self-published using King’s brother’s printing press and it’s estimated that only 10 copies were printed in total. Of those, the only remaining copy is owned by the author himself, though some stories were later re-written and included in other collections (for anyone who’s curious about where the horror author got his start).
Bonus: You can find a rewritten version of "I've Got to Get Away" titled "The Killer" in the 1994 spring edition of Famous Monsters of Filmland.
14. Double Persephone by Margaret Atwood (1961)
In 1961, armed with a flat bed press and determination, Canadian author Margaret Atwood, released some 200 copies of her debut collection of poetry, Double Persephone. Though overshadowed by The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace in Atwood’s oeuvre, the collection would go on to win the E.J. Pratt medal and dealt with the contrast between life and art, as well as natural and human creations.
15. What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard N. Bolles
In the 50+ years since What Color is Your Parachute? was first published, Richard N. Bolles bestselling career guide (with annual revised editions) has advised millions of job seekers on how to find gainful employment, useful resources, and strategies to navigate the job market successfully. Initially self-published, it has been commercially published since 1972 and is available in over 20 languages across the world.
Before the digital boom of self-publishing as we know it today, the early years of the new century saw a handful of authors still able to bring their words to the world by their own accord. Not only were some developed into film, but they set the stage for the gold rush of self-publishing of the 2010s to come.
16. Legally Blonde by Amanda Brown (2001)
More known for its movie adaptation in which a seemingly ditzy blonde gets accepted into Law School, starring Reese Witherspoon, Legally Blonde started as a series of observations on various “Law School species” that author Amanda Brown immortalized into funny letters, shared with friends and family during her time at Stanford Law School. Eventually, she compiled the writing into a novel, and the rest is history.
17. Eragon by Christopher Paolini (2002)
Another book-turned-into-movie pop culture phenomenon, Christopher Paolini started writing Eragon when he was only 15 (!). Self-published a few years later with the help of his parents, this middle grade fantasy story about a boy who finds a dragon egg and accidentally stumbles upon a legacy has captured the imagination of a generation of readers. It would eventually go on to be re-published by Knopf and followed by three more books in the series.
18. Still Alice by Lisa Genova (2007)
In this self-published book by author Lisa Genova, Alice is a successful cognitive psychology professor at Harvard University and a world-renowned linguist. She’s happily married and has three grown-up kids — until a devastating diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s uproots her world. Genova self-published Still Alice in 2007, and it was later picked up by Simon & Schuster, as well as adapted into a film, starring Julianne Moore.
The early 2010’s
And now we’ve caught up to our modern times! The Amazon Kindle (for many synonymous with ‘ebook’) was launched in 2007, but it was not until the 2010s that ebook sales would start to really explode. The convenience and relative affordability of ebooks, mixed together with the huge popularity of installment and community based writing sites like Wattpad, made the 2010’s into something of a golden era for self-publishing and laid the foundation for what it is today.
19. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James (2011)
Starting out as Twilight fan-fiction, Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James — the story about young English student Anastasia Steele and successful businessman Christian Grey — started a tidal wave of unabashed enjoyment and celebration of ‘spicy literature’. First published as Master of the Universe on fanfiction websites, James reworked it and renamed the main character before publishing it with The Writers' Coffee Shop. Vintage Books later optioned it for a re-publication, and rights were later sold to turn the series into film.
20. The Martian by Andy Weir (2011)
Some readers still remember when The Martian by Andy Weir was just a blog, and not a mega blockbuster sci-fi flick with Matt Damon in the lead. Back then, Weir posted the story in serial form and gained a cult following who enjoyed speculating about what would happen if they too, like the story’s protagonist Mark Watney, were stranded alone on Mars. When fans requested Weir compile the story and publish a Kindle version, he agreed and set the price at $0.99. Within 3 months, he had sold 35,000 copies. As with many other self-publishing success stories on this list, this drew the attention of traditional publishers and the print rights were eventually sold to Crown publishing in 2013 for $100,000.
21. The Riyria Revelations by Michael J. Sullivan (2011)
After 13 novels and hundreds of rejections, Michael J. Sullivan swore to never write again. But when he couldn’t keep his imagination from creating new stories, he swore that he would only write on one condition: to never seek publication. The story he had been nurturing for almost a decade became The Riyria Revelations, an epic fantasy tale centered around friendship and hijinks about a thief and his mercenary partner framed for murder. After many back and forths, agent querying, and a publishing house’s bankruptcy, Sullivan and his wife decided to continue on the self-publishing path, and would eventually score a six figure deal with Orbit.
22. Wool by Hugh Howey (2011)
In this post-apocalyptic story meets Fifty Shades of Grey (according to the Guardian), humanity is surviving in a subterranean city known as the Silo, made up of 144 floors. No one knows what came before the Silo; all people know is that the outside world is toxic. If anyone leaves the Silo… they die within minutes. Starting as a short story of some 60 pages, Hugh Howey heeded the advice of reviewers and self-published Wool via Kindle Direct Publishing. The Wool universe now expands over 500 pages, hitting bestseller lists and landing him both national and international book and film deals.
23. Only the Innocent by Rachel Abbott (2011)
If you’re a fan of psychological thrillers, Only the Innocent and Rachel Abbott (pen name of Sheila Rodgers) might be for you. A living proof that you can make a career out of self-publishing, Abbott’s first seven novels have sold a combined total of more than 3 million copies and landed her on the Kindle bestseller list numerous times. Only the Innocent is the first in the DCI Tom Douglas series and centers around the murder of a philanthropist billionaire and his wife, Laura, who’s not exactly distraught by his death.
24. Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire (2011)
In the era of Tumblr and New Adult books featuring toxic love interests, Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster became something of a cult phenomenon, making the New York Times bestseller list a short few months after being self-published. Readers couldn’t get enough of the scintillating tension between Abby Abernathy, a bad girl trying to go good, and Travis Maddox, Eastern University’s walking one-night stand.
25. Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft (2013)
In an alternate universe of sorts, the Tower of Babel is one of the greatest marvels of the world and consists of several maze-like layers. When schoolteacher Thomas Senlin arrives for his honeymoon with his wife, Marya, they’re soon separated from one another. In his quest to reunite with her, Thomas navigates the madness and dangers of the tower.
Knowing that his book didn’t fit neatly into the fantasy genre at the time and reluctant to compromise his vision, Bancroft decided to self-publish Senlin Ascends. After three years of modest success, he submitted the book to Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) — a writing contest for self-published fantasy and sci-fi. Even though he was knocked out of the competition at an early stage, his book caught the attention of Lawrence himself, setting off a chain of events that led to a traditional publishing deal with Orbit.
26. The Cleaner by Mark Dawson (2013)
A lawyer by trade, Mark Dawson started his career as a writer in traditional publishing but, disillusioned by the lack of attention paid to his work in a competitive publishing environment, he decided to turn to self-publishing instead. A few years later, he has sold millions of copies and earns seven figures through his storytelling. The Cleaner is the first book in his trademark John Milton thriller series and follows a government agent who wants out. If you’re looking for a high-octane, pulse-raising read, this fits the bill.
Bonus: Psst! You can hire Mark Dawson’s editor, Edmund Pickett, on Reedsy.
27. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur (2014)
After gaining a following on her Instagram account where she would publish her poetry, Rupi Kaur self-published her first collection, milk and honey at the age of 21 to great success. Together with her second collection, she explores themes of diaspora identity, immigration, and femininity, and has become the face for the phenomenon of “Instagram poetry,” selling millions of copies of her work worldwide.
28. Nice Dragons Finish Last by Rachel Aaron (2014)
Since cozy fantasy is having a moment, here’s a backlist title you may want to add to your TBR pile: Nice Dragons Finish Last is the first book in the Heartstrikers series by Rachel Aaron, and follows Julius, the smallest dragon in the Heartstriker clan. Julius survives by keeping his head down and staying out of the way from the bigger dragons, but his gentle demeanor irks his family. When he finds himself banished to the DFZ — a vertical metropolis built over the ruins of Old Detroit — and transformed into human form, Julius must prove that he has what it takes to become a ruthless dragon, or say goodbye to his dragon exterior forever.
2015 and onwards
If the 2010’s brought self-publication to the forefront, it’s in more recent times that it’s starting to get mainstream recognition. With many books being picked up by traditional publishers to reach larger audiences, some have gone on to the silver screen while others have defined an era. Now, the road lays open to authors as the line between publishing and self-publishing is well and truly beginning to blur.
29. Holy Island by LJ Ross (2015)
Much like Mark Dawson, LJ Ross is a lawyer by profession but a writer at heart. With her DCI Ryan crime thrillers set in the Northeast of England, she has become an internationally bestselling author and nabbed more than 20 individual #1 spots on various bestseller lists. Holy Island, the first book in the series, follows Detective Chief Inspector Ryan who has been forced to go on a sabbatical from his role as a homicide detective. Retreating to Holy Island, he doesn’t expect to stumble across a murder case — but then a woman is found dead among the ruins of the ancient Priory.
30. Until I Met Her by Natalie Barelli (2016)
If you love books set in and centered around the world of publishing, here’s a thriller for you. Natalie Barelli’s Until I Met Her follows Beatrice, a bestselling crime author who has a favor to ask: she needs to write her next book under someone else’s name. Emma Fern is happy to oblige, but when she gets a taste of success, she finds it hard to let go of her masterpiece. After all, it’s her name on the cover. Self-published with the help of Reedsy editor Katrina Diaz Arnold, Until I Met Her landed Barelli a publishing deal with Amazon’s own imprint, Thomas & Mercer and launched Barelli’s writing career. You can read her story about how it all started here.
31. The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang (2018)
Winner of Mark Lawrence’s aforementioned Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off competition, The Sword of Kaigen is a Samurai and Avatar: The Last Airbender-reminiscent high fantasy story centered around 14 year old Mamoru Matsuda and his mother Misaki. In the harsh landscape of the Kaigenese Empire, on a remote mountainside, the Matsudas prepare for the enemy invasion, but for Mamoru, the wool is pulled from his eyes when an outsider arrives and makes him question everything he has always thought to be true.
32. The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake (2020)
A BookTok sensation and literary darling amongst bloggers and content creators, The Atlas Six is a dark academia that was originally self-published by Olivie Blake, before being picked up by Tor in a seven-way bidding war. Centered around the Alexandrian Society, a secret society of magical scholars with a highly selective entry criteria, the novel follows six candidates up for consideration to join and become privy to the secret knowledge held within the elite group. With only five spots available, the six must ask themselves what they’re willing to do to gain access.
33. Humankind: Changing the World One Small Act At a Time by Brad Aronson (2020)
A Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller, Brad Aronson’s Humankind is a heartwarming and uplifting work of nonfiction published with the help of Reedsy marketer Ricardo Fayet. Inspired by the many acts of ‘humankindness’ Brad and his wife Mia received when Mia was diagnosed with leukemia, Aronson set out to disprove the idea that the world is growing more cold and distant. Practical as much as it is spiritual, Brad sat down to pen this book in hopes to encourage that we too can lead a life of kindness.
34. Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree (2022)
Another self-published darling that blew up on bookish social media is Travis Baldree’s cozy fantasy novel, Legends & Lattes. Tired of fantasy centered around wars and killing people, full-time audiobook narrator Baldree wrote L&L during NaNoWriMo with the intention of creating something simple and relatable that could fill a gap on the market. Said and done. Without any major central conflict, it shouldn’t work, but it seems readers have been longing for wholesome goodness and Viv — the orc who wants to retire from her job of maiming and fighting — is the perfect character to provide this: she may look like she could kill you (and she probably could), but deep down she really is a cinnamon bun. All she wants to do is run her café and teach the world about the wonders of a hot cup of java.