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Walt Whitman

by Richard Davies

Self publishing still struggles for respectability even though today it is easier than ever thanks to advances in technology and a host of companies offering affordable self publishing services. Anyone can become a published author but the ‘vanity publishing’ stigma remains as far as the mainstream publishing and bookselling world is concerned.

However, self publishing has provided a few gems that have found literary success and those initial self published editions are now worth a fortune. Some of the world’s most famous writers - including Walt Whitman, DH Lawrence and Stephen Crane - have self published for a variety of reasons. Of course, the most common motivation for printing a book privately is because no publisher wants the book – the subject matter is too obscure, the writing style is out of vogue, the content too controversial or they simply think the book is not good enough.

But talent does slip through the net.  Way back in 1772, Thomas Paine, the famous revolutionary, self published The Case of the Officers of Excise and was sacked from his job as an exciseman for this trouble.  Paine then sailed to America looking for work. Henry David Thoreau self published his debut book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, in 1849. He printed 1,000 copies but few sold and he was saddled with debt for years. Upton Sinclair self published The Jungle because mainstream publishers thought his expose of Chicago’s meatpacking district had too much “blood and guts”. Doubleday finally came forward as Upton’s edition was on the press.

There are many more examples. Below are 10 self published books that have become collectable – if you have £120,000 lying around the house then you could pick up a piece of American poetry history from Walt Whitman.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman 2nd Edition 1st Printing

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman - prices up to £122,000

Whitman self published Leaves of Grass, one of the definite collections of early American poetry, in May 1855. It was printed in a Brooklyn print shop where Whitman did much of the typesetting. That true first edition did not include the author’s name but featured an engraving by Samuel Hollyer showing the poet in work clothes and a hat. The book was small and contained just 12 unnamed poems in 95 pages because Whitman wanted the collection to be carried and read in the open air. Around 800 copies were printed with 200 bound in green cloth.  Few copies sold but Whitman was not discouraged and continued to work on revised versions of Leaves of Grass until his death. Leaves of Grass was originally inspired by The Poet by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who believed America needed its own poets to express the nation’s virtues.

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Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence – prices up to £23,000

Privately printed in Florence, Italy, in 1928, this novel was not officially published in Britain until 1960. No mainstream publisher would consider publishing something with so much sexual content and graphic use of four letter words. Penguin took the plunge and had to overcome an obscenity trial for their troubles.  Lawrence numbered and signed 1000 copies of the privately printed edition.   The story concerns a young upper class married woman, who has an affair with a gamekeeper because her husband is paralysed and impotent.

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Maggie by Stephen Crane

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane – prices up to £8,300

Stephen Crane’s debut novel was self-published by the budding writer in 1893 after he failed to find a publisher due to the book’s explicit content. Crane was just 21 years old. A small number of copies were printed and very few have survived. Crane printed the book under the pseudonym of Johnston Smith. The book’s grim description of life on the New York streets caused a major controversy at the time. Violence, poverty and drunken rages portray Manhattan in a very dim light. The 1896 Appleton editions of this classic book are also highly collectable.

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Eragon by Christopher Paolini

Eragon by Christopher Paolini – prices up to £8,400

Fantasy novel Eragon was self published by the author’s parents in 2003. Paolini had started to write the novel at the age of 15 and, backed by his parents, embarked on a booktour to promote the book. More than 130 talks were given at schools, libraries and bookshops with the teenage author often dressed up in medieval costume.  Journalist and novelist Carl Hiaasen picked up a copy of Eragon and told Knopf about the book, which led to a major publishing deal. Paolini has since authored two more books in his Inheritance series, which began with Eragon. In 2006, it was also made into a major feature film.

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Irma Rombauer

The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer – prices up to £3,300

Self-published in 1931, The Joy of Cooking is still a bestseller today with thousands of copies selling each year. More than 18 million copies have been sold and it is America’s favourite cookery book.  A housewife in St Louis, Missouri, Irma Rombauer had 3,000 copies printed by a company called A.C. Clayton – a label printer who had never published a book. She had written the book in the aftermath of her husband’s suicide.  The 1931 edition was illustrated by Rombauer’s daughter, Marion, who worked on designs at weekends. Later editions contained more recipes and lacked recipes for cooking raccoon, opossum and squirrel – dishes that became commonplace during the 1930s depression.


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The Highfield Mole by Roderick Gordon & Brian Williams

The Highfield Mole by Roderick Gordon & Brian Williams – prices up to £3,000

Originally self published in March 2005, The Highfield Mole, co-authored by British writers Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, was re-published by Chicken House, a division of Scholastic, in July 2007 with a new title – Tunnels.  Literary talent-spotter Barry Cunningham, who signed JK Rowling to Bloomsbury, was responsible for bringing Gordon and Williams to Chicken House – hence the prediction that Tunnels would the next big thing in publishing. There were only 500 hardback and 200 paperback copies produced of The Highfield Mole. Stocked by Gordon’s local bookshop in Norfolk, the book sold out in a single day following a review in the May 2005 issue of Book & Magazine Collector.  The Highfield Mole is a children’s fantasy novel concerning the underground adventures of Will Burrows, who embarks on a quest to find his missing father, an archaeologist.

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Betty Zane by Zane Grey

Betty Zane by Zane Grey – prices up to £2,600

Self published in 1903 thanks to funds from his wife, Zane Grey’s debut novel was inspired by an ancestor, Betty Zane, who was a heroine in the American Revolutionary War and a true frontier pioneer. He had also felt inspired after reading Owen Wister’s Western novel The Virginian and decided to switch from dentistry to full time writing.  The book features Grey’s classic style of Wild West adventure and rapid narrative. Betty Zane had helped defend West Virginia’s Fort Henry from the British and famously smuggled gunpowder into the fort to replenish the defender’s supplies.


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The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield

The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield – prices up to £1,700

Ignored by the big publishing houses, James Redfield self published The Celestine Prophecy in 1993 and sold the book out of the boot of his Honda. Warner Books eventually gave him an £600,000 deal and the book was America’s No.1 bestseller in 1996. Millions of copies have been sold. The novel discusses psychological and spiritual themes rooted in many ancient Eastern traditions and New Age spirituality. The main character goes on a journey to find and understand nine spiritual insights on an ancient manuscript in Peru.

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Spartacus by Howard Fast

Spartacus by Howard Fast – prices up to £800

Spartacus was self published in 1951 by Howard Fast, who wrote the book in reaction to his imprisonment during the McCarthyism era. He was charged over his involvement with the Communist Party and he refused to disclose names of people who had contributed to a fund for orphans of American veterans from the Spanish Civil War. The book inspired Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1960 movie starring Kirk Douglas. The final page describes the challenges faced by Fast: ”Readers who may wonder at the absence of a publisher's imprint are informed that this book was published by the author. This was made necessary when he learned that no commercial publisher, due to the political temper of the times, would undertake the publication or distribution of the book. Its publication was made possible by hundreds of people who believed in the book and bought it in advance of publication, so that the money would be forthcoming to pay for its printing. The author wishes to thank these people with all his heart…….”


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The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry

The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry – prices up to £200

This novel was self published by Barry in 2007 with Flap Jacket Press listed as the publisher. Two thousand copies were printed and word of mouth and online sales helped the book get noticed by major publishers. HarperCollins imprint, Morrow, won the auction for the rights and Brunonia (which is Latin for brown) was off the races. In 2008, the Morrow edition became a major seller in the US and the rights have been sold around the world. “We thought we would be like an indie Hollywood studio and could sell on to a bigger company if we got a hit,” said the author.

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