10 Best-Selling Novels That Didn't Have The Backing of A Big Publisher

Culture February 27, 2017 By Hugo

It is very rare a novel becomes a best-seller, especially when a big publisher isn't on hand to help with its publicity, so authors and small publishing houses often rely on social media and book blogs to help spread the word.

However, there are some books that the big publishers inevitably ignore and go onto to become blockbuster best-sellers, even though the odds seemed heavily stacked against them

Image Source: via Pixabay

Here are ten best-selling books that found success without the aid of a Big Five publisher. 


1. The Alchemist- Paulo Coelho

Written by the international best-selling Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, a novella about a shepherd finding his true calling is now one of the best-selling books of all time, with total sales believed to be more than 100m. For Coelho, however, the spiritual prose that has gone on to capture the minds of millions was far from an overnight success.

Coelho, who only took up the profession in his 40s, was told he could 'make more money in the stock exchange' than as a writer despite the initial print run of 850 copies selling moderately well after its publication by an obscure Brazilian publishing house in 1988. 

Undeterred, the Brazilian went on a pilgrimage and returned with a passionate intent to get the book a wider audience. The writer even knocked on doors advertising it himself until the book became an unexpected best-seller in France in the early 1990s!

In the coming years, a word-of-mouth buzz then catapulted Coelho to literary superstardom, and the book is often a favorite among celebrities and those who have gone on to achieve a high level of success.


2. 50 Shades of Grey- E.L. James

E.L. James famously wrote part of her  "50 Shades of Grey" trilogy on her Blackberry on the commute to work, not knowing that her erotic fiction would one day reach millions of readers. Though it isn't just the raunchy details of her plots that gained her notoriety.

James would also be heralded as self-publishing's biggest success, after copies of the online version of her erotic series sold 250,000 copies less than a year after it went on sale in May 2011 as an e-book and print-on-demand title.

However, James technically isn't a self-published author as she signed with a small Australian publishing house called The Writer's Coffe Shop who had approached her and suggested she turn her Twilight fan fiction, which had attracted many online readers, into a novel with new characters instead.

Today, sales for her trilogy are estimated to be around the 70m mark, and a film franchise has since followed.


3. Still Alice- Lisa Genova

Publishers and agents like writers whose books include information that they have a special knowledge of, but for neuroscientist Lisa Genova that still didn't appear to be enough. Her debut novel, titled Still Alice chronicles a woman's struggles with early-onset Alzheimer’s and was self-published in 2007 with iUniverse.

Two years later it was picked up by Simon & Schuster and would spend over 40 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list while Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin, and Julianne Moore starred in the 2014 film version. 


4. The Time Traveller's Wife- Audrey Niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger, like many first-time authors, found getting a literary agent nearby impossible so instead sent her manuscript titled 'The Time Traveller's Wife'  to a small publishing house in San Fransisco called MacAdam/ Cage.

The publisher, which has now folded, sensed gold and attempted to sign Niffenegger shortly after, though by then, she had found an agent.

Explaining her situation, Niffenger was offered a life-changing $100,000 advance. It was an amount unheard of for a small publishing house, and despite bigger offers from more esteemed houses, she signed with MacAdam/Cage. But more good fortune was to come. 

Luckily for Niffenger, she had the good fortune of knowing best-selling author Scott Turow, who endorsed the book on The Today Show. This led to high sales and a subsequent film adaptation, which goes to show it's not what you know, it's who you know! 


5. Warm Bodies- Isaac Marion

American author Isaac Marion had initially published a short story of what would later be turned into a vampire romance novel called Warm Bodies on his blog. The story, initially entitled 'I am a Zombie Filled with Love' caught the attention of a literary agent, who encouraged him to adapt it into a novel and publish it with Simon & Shuster. 

A film starring Teresa Palmer and Nicholas Hoult was adapted shortly after the book's success.


6. Amanda Hocking Novels

Amanda Hocking is a prolific author who puts the work rate of even the most esteemed of writers to shame, but none of her manuscripts could find an agent, so she instead took to self-publishing. And it paid off. 

Yes, Hocking made over $2 million publishing only e-books with her My Blood Approves series, and Trylle Trilogy proving hugely popular. Because of her unprecedented success, she hit the headlines in 2011, with media outlets keen to report that a self-published author had sold over a million copies from nine books while averaging 9000 book sales per day.

Despite impressive sales figures and favorable royalty rates, Hockling, who is one the most successful self-published authors of all time, still couldn't resist the allure of a major publishing house so decided to sign a contract with St. Martin’s Press in March 2011. Valued at a further $2 million, the contract is for a four book YA paranormal series called Watersong.


7. A Time To Kill- John Grisham

John Grisham was working as a lawyer in the south when he wrote his first novel A Time to Kill in 1989Inspired by Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel was rejected 28 times before Grisham decided to take matters into his own hands and publish 5,000 copies with the vanity publisher, Wynwood Press. 

Admittedly, Grisham's inclusion on this list is dubious as the novel didn't sell as many copies as he would have liked, yet the experience encouraged him to write his second novel, the 1991 thriller The Firm, which would go onto the become a best seller after securing a home with Doubleday. 

After finding success with his second book, Doubleday then re-issued his first novel which quickly turned it into an overnight best-seller and a movie starring Samuel L.Jackson and Sandra Bullock soon followed.


8. Damaged- H.M. Ward

Romance is a lucrative genre for a writer as it is one of the most read categories in both print and online, so it's little surprise many self-published writers have cashed in on demand. 

However,  H.M Ward, the self-published author of the Ferro Family saga has had the most success as a self-published romance writer after her debut, Damaged, was self-published as an e-book on Amazon.

In a matter of months, it became a #1 bestseller in the New Adult genre, and after it turned into a series, Ward has sold over 4 million books. Unlike Hocking, Ward has, however, spurned the advances of big publishers, despite being a New York Times #1 Bestselling Author.


9. The Tale of Peter Rabbit- Beatrix Potter

Animal lover Beatrix Potter took her love for nature to literature when she wrote the beloved children's book, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit." Yet even in the age where books weren't being published every waking second, the ambitious Potter faced rejection so many times she eventually self-published 250 copies in 1991.

The following year, Frederick Warne & Co, a publisher who rejected Potter's manuscript, took notice of its popularity and decided to publish it as well as 22 more over a 40 year period.

Today, the book has sold over 45 million copies, while all of Potter's books accumulate around 2m sales each year.


10. The Celestine Prophecy- James Redfield 

As Paulo Coelho and authors in the spirituality genre will tell you, enlighting people about new outlooks on life is always bound to engage large swathes of readers, as James Redfield, a former therapist to abused adolescents discovered when his 1993 self-published book. The Celestine Prophecy went on to become an international best-seller. 

The story revolves around the protagonist's  journey to Peru as he attempts to understand a series of nine spiritual insights on an ancient manuscript. Redfield plowed a lot of money into the book as he sold the first 100,000 copies from the trunk of his Honda before Warner Books took notice and agreed to publish it. 

The book has since gone on to sell over 20 million copies worldwide. 


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