The author’s name was a mystery. Only twenty-five copies of the physical novel existed in the world, all mailed out to BookTokers with a letter explaining the scavenger hunt.
“Their boxes included one of five hints, some wax seals, and the book, which also had clues written into the story,” author Melissa Blair recounts to Paste, remembering the early days of her first publication. When she sent out A Broken Blade, she had no idea how far the book would reach. But the team at Union Square had taken notice of Blair’s BookTok experiment, and editor Laura Schreiber reached out, asking for a meeting. “That’s when I realized this book was going to go a lot further than just the little community I had built on BookTok,” Blair says.
Though Blair’s journey starts out sounding like a novel itself—anonymous author, scavenger hunt, and a mystery to solve, along with a thrilling anti-colonial tale of troubled assassin Keera—but according to her, it has only gotten better since she started her relationship with Union Square. “I realized very quickly with A Broken Blade that I didn’t know nearly enough about publishing to be doing it on my own, and certainly not at the level I was trying to debut at,” she explains. “Now I have a lot more support and can focus on writing. Also seeing my book in bookstores is incredible. I had no idea Keera’s face would ever greet me at a bookstore when I decided to do this. It’s literally a dream come true.”
As self-publishing has become more accessible—and a clear way to circumvent the boundaries of traditional publishing, which has historically limited what types authors can have a seat at the table—more authors have gotten their start trying things on their own, in the wilds of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, DriveThruFiction, and Smashwords. But while the doors are open, many self-published authors still find they don’t have the reach to get their books into the arms of all their readers. In some serendipitous cases, those books are discovered by editors at traditional houses, where they’re launched into new life and placed face-out on bookstore shelves. In many cases, readers don’t even know there was an original self-published version, only finding out the history of the book (if ever) through the author’s own fan communications.
Christopher Paolini’s Eragon
One of the early success stories of an author transitioning from self-publishing to a huge book deal is Christopher Paolini’s debut novel, Eragon. In 2002, the teenaged Paolini, through his family’s small publishing company, brought out the novel that became a YA hit.
Paolini made more than seventy appearances to promote the book before it was picked up by Alfred A. Knopf, along with two then-unwritten sequels, in 2003; the Knopf edition hit the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for 121 weeks. The Inheritance Cycle ultimately came to encompass four books, a film adaptation of the Eragon (with a possible Disney+ series in the future), a supplemental guide to the world, and a collection of tales. Paolini’s recent adult novels, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars (2020) and the forthcoming Fractal Noise, both began their lives at Tor, with no self-published versions beforehand.
K.S. Villoso’s The Wolf of Oren-Yaro
K.S. Villoso self-published The Wolf of Oren-Yaro through the power of will and an exchange of editing duties to a friend who owned a small publishing house, she described on her blog. On Reddit, she described how her book found a new home at Orbit through “Pure, blind luck.” After a group of bloggers fiercely championed the book on the Internet, Villoso’s editor discovered it and asked her to submit. After some editing, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro became the first in what became the “Bitch Queen” trilogy, with the final novel, , releasing in 2021. But Villoso has also continued to keep a hand in self-publishing; she has two additional series, the Blackwood Marauders and the Legacy of the Lost Mage, all independently published in 2022.
Scarlett St. Clair’s A Touch of Darkness
The romance world is abundant with writers who self-publish, many of whom also write for traditional publishers and bring their followings with them. Author Scarlett St. Clair made waves with her steamy Hades x Persephone series, starting with her self-published A Touch of Darkness in 2019. The mythology-inspired, modern world alternate universe, bad-boy romance resonated with readers instantly.
Like Blair, St. Clair first hit it big on TikTok, with 13 million views of the hashtag A Touch of Darkness. Bloom Books, an imprint of the independent publisher Sourcebooks, reached out to bring the novels to a wider audience and get Clair onto bookstore shelves, as well as TikTok. A former librarian, St. Clair was grateful for the distribution access. “I cannot tell you how ecstatic I am to join Bloom,” she told PR Newswire. “One of the questions readers and fans always ask me is, ‘How can I get your books?’ Joining Bloom means that all readers and booksellers will have access—something that is very important to me not only as a writer but as a former librarian.”
Her relationship with Bloom has grown into a second series, Adrian x Isolde, with its latest installment Queen of Myth and Monsters due out in December 20, 2022.
Olivia Atwater’s Half a Soul
Olivia Atwater is no stranger to traditional book submissions; she sent her first manuscript off to a publishing house in hopes of publication at the age of twelve. She had determined she’d never make enough money at publishing for it to be a career, but she continued writing, and she shared her drafts for Half a Soul with friends. “One day, one of my friends said ‘you know, this is quite good, why haven’t you just self-published it?’, and it was like a little light-bulb went off in my head,” Atwater told a blogger at Hidden Gems Books. “It genuinely hadn’t occurred to me until then.”
Half a Soul, the first installment in her Regency Faerie Tales series, came out in 2020; the whimsical tale of historical and magical romance won over editors at Orbit, who brought out new editions of the three novels in 2022. “I’m floored to realise that it will be in bookshops everywhere, along with its sequels,” Atwater said in The Bookseller, admitting that once, she’d thought no one would enjoy the stories but her! (Atwater’s standalone romantic fantasy, Small Miracles, also came out in 2022 as a self-published title, showing that despite the success with Orbit’s rerelease, Atwater still has confidence in her own self-publishing skills.)
R. J. Theodore’s Flotsam
But what happens when a traditionally published book suddenly doesn’t have a home? That was the case for R. J. Theodore’s Peridot Shift novels, the first two books of which came out from Parvus Press.
Though Theodore had originally been kicking around the idea of self-publishing, and had even gone so far as to commission original artwork for the cover. But when the offer from a small like-minded press came along, Theodore decided to work with them. Flotsam came out in 2018, with Salvage releasing in 2019. But publishing with a small press came with its own problems—the staff were passionate, but overworked, and the books struggled to get on their feet, despite very good reviews and an audiobook version of Flotsam narrated by Mary Robinette Kowall. When Parvus closed its doors in 2021, before the third book in the Peridot Shift could be released, it looked like Theodore would have to go back to the drawing board.
But instead of opting to self-publish on their own, Theodore connected with fellow self-published authors in a collective: Robot Dinosaur Press. “Robot Dinosaur Press was a newly birthed concept when I accepted an invitation to join in 2021,” Theodore tells Paste. “An imprint of Chipped Cup Collective, it’s a coop founded on the idea that a team of self-publishing authors can pool their individual energy and talents so that their books have powerful and consistent branding, support, and promotion. With a membership that stretches around the globe, each individual member lends their strength to the others, allowing self-published queer authors and authors of queer content to leap over the barriers and slide through the kept gates that we face in a landscape shaped and dominated by traditional publishing.”
The result is not only two new gorgeous editions of Flotsam and Salvage, both of which released in 2022, but the original release of the final book in the trilogy, Cast Off, which comes out in December. Given the epic nature of the first two books (a planet beholden to selfish gods, who themselves are threatened with murder by an advanced alien species—all with Captain Tallis and her misfit crew stuck in the middle of things as the only ones trying to save the world), readers will be eager to find out how it all plays out.
Sometimes, new life comes from a big house, reaching bookshelves that a BookTok author couldn’t hope to access independently. Sometimes, it comes from forming a collaboration with other like-minded self-published authors. And sometimes, authors play both sides of the publishing sphere, traditionally publishing on one side while continuing to self-publish on the other. The journeys are exciting—and the books they write even more so.
Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories, and many role-playing game supplements. She also edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including Bridge to Elsewhere and Never Too Old to Save the World. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.