The world is increasingly full of authors. It’s said that more books are published than read, and that’s not taking into account the books written but never published: paradoxically, there seem to be many more writers than readers. At a time when traditional publishing is struggling, some brave authors are leaving publishing houses behind and going it alone by self-publishing.
Self-publishing is one of the most interesting phenomena to have emerged in the publishing world in the last twenty years. We’ve already looked at the topic in two introductory articles, and in this one we’ll explore the people who have done it and achieved incredible sales figures in a genre that is very much in vogue: fantasy. This category also incorporates science fiction (or sci-fi), horror and dystopian novels (which imagine a catastrophic future), with countless sub-genres (from vampires and aliens to romance and medieval history).
Fantasy and sci-fi: power to the imagination
Fantasy genres are very popular among self-publishers and their readers, producing surprise success stories on an almost yearly basis. Fantasy lends itself to self-publishing for at least two reasons: firstly, the writer must create a world and use their imagination to delve into its construction, meaning writing the book can be a long-winded and laborious process; and secondly, the books can be very long, sometime sagas thousands of pages long, with prohibitive production costs for any small publisher.
The big self-published fantasy and sci-fi success stories tend to follow a very similar trajectory, even though the authors themselves have very different and often unique backgrounds: once published, the book achieves so much success that a large publisher decides to buy the novel and publish it itself, or the film (or streaming) industry comes along and acquires the rights.
It seems incredible that anyone with a few good ideas and a way with words can potentially sell tens if not hundreds of thousands of books, written in their tiny bedroom in the dark or during depressing mornings in their local cafe… Does this remind you of anyone? A certain author who, depressed at her hard life and the countless refusals from publishers, finally found a small one that believed in her magical stories, giving rise to one of the most engaging storytelling projects in recent years? If you haven’t worked out who I’m talking about yet, you’re probably not a fan of fantasy literature… or indeed schools for budding witches and wizards!
Stories of successful self-publishers
Let’s have a look at some of the self-published authors who have made it big.
Hugh Howey – Wool Trilogy
Hugh Howey is an American author who created the epic Wool Trilogy sci-fi series, originally divided up into nine volumes, which describes a dystopian future where the world’s population lives underground because the world has become dangerously toxic. The original series was republished by the major publisher Simon & Schuster, and they also tried to buy the copyright of the digital editions with a ‘six-figure contract’, but Howey refused.
J R Rain, former private investigator
J R Rain is another successful fantasy author: his first self-published novel Vampire for Hire sold over two million copies. The author suffers from ADD (attention deficit disorder), which makes him hyperactive, frenetic and restless, and has seen him get through over 60 different jobs (including a private investigator!). Only writing seems to calm him down. He published his first book in his early twenties, but he got his big break when, instead of sending his manuscripts to small publishers in the hope they would believe in him, he started to do it all himself through self-publishing.
David Dalglish, from Pizza Hut to fame and fortune
David Dalglish is the author of the successful fantasy series Shadow Dance, with book sales in the hundreds of thousands.
Like many self-publishers, David’s journey involved a lot of graft and starting at the very bottom: he was working in Pizza Hut when he published his first book in February 2010. It sold well and, in the space of a few years, by publishing other books, he managed to earn a living from his writing. The self-sacrifice required to publish a book every year is one of the secrets of every successful self-publisher: write a lot, and well, promote yourself and hold your ground, even when you receive offers that seem impossible to refuse. Dalglish never agreed to sell the rights to his novels to any large publisher.
Amanda Hocking, a paranormal success story
One of the first authors to achieve a smash hit in the self-publishing world with a fantasy saga was Amanda Hocking. Writing by night, at the age of 26 she had already written thousands of pages that nobody wanted to publish. To earn enough money to buy a ticket for a Muppets exhibition, she decided to sell one of her novels online as an ebook. She needed $300, but she received thousands in just a few days, and eventually earned over a million. As tends to happen, once she had achieved widespread renown, the author from Minnesota signed a contract with a publisher. It was 2012, and she was one of the first people to make it big in self-publishing, giving hope to many others who, like, her, came home from often gruelling jobs, sat down at their desk and started to write.
A number of successful self-publishers have emerged in Italy.
Their sales figures may pale into insignificance compared to authors writing in English, but nevertheless, time and time again, people are proving that you can be a writer without going through a publisher.
Michele Amitrani is the author of the four-volume Omnilogos series. He started writing around ten years ago, but only recently started to reap the rewards, thanks to a more professional approach to his writing and marketing.
He gave some excellent advice for any author wanting to take the leap in an interview with a writing blog:
“I started […] to adopt a business approach. In self-publishing you need to wear various ‘hats’: writer, marketer, accountant, designer… not many people acknowledge that an independent writer has to be able to do all these things”.
Stefano Lanciotti is the author of the Nocturnia Saga who became a literary sensation in the early days of self-publishing, selling almost 20,000 copies of his novels, which were published solely in electronic format. He followed this up with a successful series with an Italian publisher, but also decided to carry on self-publishing, expanding his sales and eventually becoming one of the top-selling Italian fantasy authors.
His bio does not disappoint either: like any self-respecting self-publisher, it’s a story of overcoming life’s challenges, taking him from recovering from a nasty car accident to becoming world sabre champion!
Another example, a woman this time, is Elisa S. Amore, author of the Touched pentalogy, a paranormal saga that began as a self-publishing venture before being published by a far-sighted publisher that spotted how well the books were selling.
A community of special writers
As we have seen from these examples, fantasy authors tend to be unique characters, with interesting backstories, and often write in huge quantities, with an uncontrollable urgency that sees them churn out story after story. And they’re avid readers too: fantasy authors read a vast amount of literature from their genre, leading to the natural formation of large communities of writers who share recommendations, reviews and advice.
One in particular, launched by the American fantasy author Mark Lawrence, has even started an annual literary competition, the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO), reserved to self-published fantasy authors writing in English. Lawrence, the author of the Broken Empire trilogy, wanted to help other emerging authors by inviting other bloggers and authors to leave reviews and judge the manuscripts.
This award has uncovered other self-published authors who went on to sell thousands of copies. There are dozens of examples, particularly the other side of the Atlantic, where self-publishing has become commonplace, in a country where the myth of the ‘self-made person’ still persists.
It should be noted that eReaders are very popular in America, and so many authors self-publish in digital format only, often only printing a limited number of copies to sell in local bookshops. In Europe, however, e-books remain a niche market in the publishing world, and traditional books continue to have a strong appeal. Plus European readers only tend to consider a novel to be successful when it is accessible in printed form.
The future of self-published fantasy
As we’ve seen, fantasy readers tend to become very attached to the worlds created in the books, and form genuine communities around their favourite authors.
Image of Sanderson
The best self-publishers are therefore the ones who manage to create an empathetic relationship with their readers. As an example, I’d like to end the article with this news, reported by the New York Times in spring 2022:
“Brandon Sanderson, a prolific sci-fi and fantasy author, started an online fund-raising campaign this week to self-publish four of the novels he wrote during the pandemic. His goal: to raise $1 million in 30 days.
He blew past the first million in about 35 minutes. And the ticker kept rising.
In 24 hours, he raised $15.4 million, which the fund-raising website Kickstarter said was the single most successful day of any of their campaigns. By Thursday, two days into it, he had raised more than $19 million.”
Brandon Sanderson is a highly successful writer who is experimenting with a hybrid publishing model somewhere between self-publishing and a traditional approach, publishing both in digital and paper format and taking care of his community. In doing so, he is probably charting the way for the publishing market of the next few years, a balance of self-publishing, ambition, hard work, promotion, passion, traditional publishing, digital and paper that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. A world where authors never forget about their readers. And ignoring the so-called ‘vanity publishers’, self-styled ‘publishers’ that actually demand a payment from the authors.
In another interview, Sanderson describes publishing’s hybrid future, saying that traditional bookshops and therefore paper books will continue to be an important medium for writers, in part to defend themselves against the monopoly of digital marketplaces:
“My career was partially made by bookstore employees sharing my books with people. And I think that bookstores are really important … The more we lose the bookstores, the harder it is for new authors to break into the industry“.
In conclusion, if you’ve got a good idea for a fantasy book, now is the time to write it: you could become the next big publishing success story.