Writers have been self-publishing since the beginning of written words. Celebrating those creative individuals determined to be heard, we present a timeline of notable moments in self-publishing history.
Picture-writing on clay tablets and papyrus scrolls. It takes a while, but things get much, much easier from here on out.
What took you so long Johannes Gutenberg? While movable type had been used in China and Korea, it was German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg’s improved mechanical printing press with movable type that would change the course of publishing history in the West, leading to the first mass production of books.
Gutenberg's achievement made him an icon in western culture, and his legacy endures today.
Self-publishers know well that “Time is money,” and so did Benjamin Franklin, who for twenty-six years (when he wasn’t inventing stoves and bifocals, discovering the nature of electricity, or midwifing the birth of a nation) busied himself writing and publishing the yearly pamphlet Poor Richard’s Almanack, a compendium of essays, weather forecasts, household tips, aphorisms, and proverbs, many of which live on in our spoken language today.
English poet, painter, and engraver William Blake epitomized the DIY ethic. During this period, Blake self-published some of his best known works, including Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He wrote the text, designed accompanying illustrations, and etched these onto copper plates. He then printed and colored the pages to create his illuminated manuscripts. Explore Blake’s oeuvre in The William Blake Archive.
After an initial rejection and years of reworking her first novel, Jane Austen went the vanity publishing route and paid London-based Thomas Egerton to publish Sense and Sensibility. Austen’s novels were popular, but she received little renown in her short lifetime, in part because they were published anonymously (the authorship of Sense and Sensibility was simply “By A Lady.”) She could not know that her works would go on to receive wide acclaim, be spun off into mini-series and films, and even zombified.
“Urge and urge and urge,/Always the procreant urge of the world” (“Song of Myself”). Such was the urge of the American poet Walt Whitman that he designed and published the first edition of Leaves of Grass himself. Whitman’s work was called obscene by some and he was even fired from his job, but his ecstatic free-verse poems extolling the virtues of love, country, and freedom have gone on to influence generations of poets. Explore the life and legacy of Walt Whitman in The Walt Whitman Archive.
“Perhaps I am as thick as two short planks, but I cannot understand how a man can take thirty pages to describe how he turns round in his bed before he finally falls asleep.” Novelist Marcel Proust didn’t let this rejection from a French publisher deter him and went on to pay for the publication of Du Côté de Chez Swann (Swann’s Way), the first volume of his seven-volume masterwork À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). Six subsequent tomes were published by Gallimard, and Proust’s account of tea and madeleines has gone on to challenge countless students of French literature.
Hogarth Press, started by Virginia Woolf and husband Leonard Woolf, was the first famous example of an author starting a small press to publish both herself and others, a path followed by contemporary authors like Dave Eggers, who started McSweeney’s, and Kelly Link, who started Small Beer Press with her husband Gavin Grant. Hogarth went on to publish writers like Christopher Isherwood and Edwin Muir, as well as Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and “A Room of One’s Own.” Learn more about the origins of Hogarth Press.
Software engineer Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web, outlining a plan that would make the Internet accessible to the general population. In 1993, it’s announced that this technology will be free for anyone to use. Seeds of modern self-publishing are planted. Things get wild.
Lightening Source, one of the largest print-on-demand (POD) companies, is founded. Advances in digital POD technology allowed for books to be published one at a time. Publishers no longer had to commit to large print runs or worry about inventory and storage costs, and backlists could be made available indefinitely. POD opened the market up to more small presses and independent publishers, and spawned a slew of new companies, including iUniverse, CreateSpace, and Lulu, offering services to writers who wish to self-publish.
Writers start telling each other: “I wrote about it on my blog. Haven’t you read it yet?” Blog hosting services such as Blogger, LiveJournal, and WordPress make it easy for people to instantly publish themselves on the Web. The blog-to-book phenomenon is born, exemplified by Julie Powell’s 2002 The Julie/Julia Project blog, a chronicle of her attempt to prepare each dish in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which led to the book Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen (Little, Brown and Company, 2005) and the 2009 movie Julie & Julia. Also of note is Susan M. Schultz’s book Dementia Blog (Singing Horse Press, 2008), which was, as the title suggests, originally a blog that chronicled the progression of her mother’s dementia.
“My friends, we have a chance to become Big Publishing’s worst nightmare,” writes Stephen King on his website as he becomes the first major author to self publish a book on the Internet, offering the sale of his epistolary novel The Plant in electronic installments.
Double tall espresso or espresso book? In 2006, the first Espresso Book Machine (EBM) is installed at the WorldBank InfoShop in Washington, D.C. EBMs can print a book in minutes at point of sale and can now be found in locations around the world, including Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, and the NYU Bookstore in New York City.
Crowdfunding platforms like IndieGoGo, Kickstarter, and RocketHub are founded, and people online everywhere are exhorted to “support this amazing project!” These slick, streamlined platforms for crowdfunding make it easy for artists and entrepreneurs to market and raise money for their projects, sending an “Ask” not just to mom and dad, but with some help from social media, to friends, friends of friends, and on and on.
A Pew Research Center survey estimates that 29 percent of Americans aged eighteen and older own an e-reading device of some kind, and the New York Times adds “E-Book Best Sellers” in fiction and non-fiction as a category to the New York Times Book Review. Companies like Smashwords and BookBaby make it easy for writers to self-publish and distribute e-books worldwide.
Many authors self-publish with the hope of eventually getting a traditional book deal. One such success story is Sergio De La Pava, who in 2008 self-published his novel A Naked Singularity through POD company Xlibris. After a positive review in the online journal The Quarterly Conversation, the book was discovered by other reviewers and picked up by the University of Chicago Press. In 2013, it won the twenty-five-thousand-dollar Robert W. Bingham Prize from the PEN American Center, showing what can be accomplished with that rare combination of talent, hard work, dogged perseverance—and a little luck.
Help us enrich the timeline by adding more notable moments in self-publishing in the comments section below.