Jane Austen’s Self-publishing Success (and what we can learn from it)

Did you know?  Jane Austen was self-published.  Yes!  Can you imagine?  Jane Austen — one of our Best Writers Ever — could not get a publisher to take a chance on her.  And not just for her first book.  Three of the four books published during her lifetime were self-published.  (I must thank Juliette Wells for drawing my attention to this in a conversation we had a couple years ago.)

Of course, writers love hearing stories like this, because if you’re having trouble getting a publishing house to take you on, it makes you feel like maybe you aren’t the problem.  Maybe you really are an unrecognized genius who will go down in the annals of history as having permanently changed the course of the novel and your works will enlighten readers for hundreds of years to come.  The publishers are wrong about you, just like they were wrong about Austen.

Austen’s road to publishing was not easy.  When she wrote First Impressions (later to become Pride and Prejudice), she read it to her family in the evenings.  Her father thought it was wonderful, and sent a query letter to a publisher asking if they might be interested or what it might cost to publish at the author’s own expense.  The letter came back quickly; across the top was written “declined by Return of Post.”  Mr. Austen’s query letter is certainly nothing to emulate, but this has to go down in history as one of the worst publishing mistakes ever.

Years later, with her brother Henry’s help, Austen secured her first publishing contract for the novel Susan (which we now know as Northanger Abbey). The publisher started to advertise the novel and promised it would be released quickly.  But a year went by, and another year, and four more years . . . and no Susan.  Six long years Austen waited, and when she tried to get the manuscript back, the publisher said she would have to re-pay the 10 pounds they had given her for it.  10 pounds was not much, but Austen decided not to risk the expense just then.

So she must have been both thrilled and anxious when she got an agreement to publish Sense and Sensibility thirteen years after her father’s first publishing attempt on her behalf.  The publisher was willing to put the book out, but not willing to take any of the risk. If it failed to sell, Austen would have to reimburse the publisher for his costs — a nerve-wracking idea for a woman who survived on the generosity of family and friends, with no income of her own.

Sense and Sensibility did sell, and Austen made 140 pounds, which she felt was “a prodigious recompense for that which had cost her nothing,” as her brother Henry wrote in his biographical note.  She then offered her publisher Pride and Prejudice, and seeing a sure thing, the publisher bought it outright for 110 pounds.  It’s the only one of Austen’s works that was purchased outright, and she would have made more on it had she self-published it.

Even before Austen ever published, she assisted in the self-publishing efforts of Fanny Burney, one of her favorite writers.  In her book Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman tells the story of Burney being generallly dissatisfied at how little she had made on Cecilia. She had been paid 250 pounds for it, but she heard through the grapevine that the publisher made £1,500 in just the first year. Encouraged by her friend and neighbor Mrs. Cooke (a cousin of Mrs. Austen’s), Burney opted to publish Camilla by subscription, which netted her £1,000, with another £1,000 to come when she later sold the copyright. One of the subscribers for Camilla was “Miss J. Austen, Steventon.”  The subscription model sounds a bit like crowdsourcing, no?  (Check out this cool successful crowdsourcing project.)

Granted, self-publishing was different in Austen’s day.  Her books were reviewed just like any other “real” published book.  Buyers probably couldn’t tell the difference between a book the publisher purchased outright and one published at the author’s risk.  But still, I think there are some lessons we can take away here.

Self publishing is not going to destroy the publishing world.

There’s a lot of angst these days about self-publishing and electronic publishing and what it means for the future of the publishing industry.  The ease of e-publishing increases traditional publishers’ fears, but really, self-publishing in some form or other has been around for hundreds of years.  Let’s keep it in perspective.

It’s a good thing.

If it weren’t for self-publishing, Jane Austen’s novels would not exist.  How many other writers who are rejected by the traditional houses will be able to publish and reach their audience because of these opportunities?  And how many of those will be gems?  Okay, I doubt there’s an unpublished Austen out there, but still, there will be some wonderful writers discovered only because they were able to go outside the traditional publishing system.

Publishers don’t always get it right.

Self-explanatory.  They passed on AUSTEN.  Remember that.

Let’s not get all hoity-toity about who’s really published and who’s not.

As my friend and former agent Beth Jusino wrote in her blog, we need to stop nitpicking about who’s really published.  It’s tempting to make a distinction, to think that those who have used traditional publishing houses are “real” writers and those who haven’t aren’t.  But it’s not that simple.  What really matters, anyway, is whether a writer is good, and that’s a much more difficult call.  The truth is, there are good and bad writers — wonderful and horrendous writers — both self-published and published through traditional houses.  Write well, that’s the most important thing.

Writers and publishers don’t always — or even usually — see eye to eye.

When Austen was negotiating for the publication of Emma, she wrote to her sister Cassandra about publisher John Murray, whose offer had been far below what Austen expected.  She wrote, “he is a Rogue of course, but a civil one.”  When her brother Henry continued their negotiations, he wrote to Murray, “The Terms you offer are so very inferior to what we had expected, that I am apprehensive of having made some great Error in my Arithmetical Calculation.”  Is this simply the perennial battle between authors and publishers — the authors expecting more, the publishers hoping to pay less?  Austen was not willing to take Murray’s offer, so she published Emma at her own risk.

Publishers, don’t be offended if we think you are Rogues.  It’s inherent in the way this relationship is structured. We are always prone to think your terms are “very inferior.”

As a writer, I love knowing that Austen had the power to publish her work at her own risk.  I love that this enabled her work to come into the world, brought her some success, and allowed her to make a little more money than she would have otherwise.  And I love — though I’ve not self-published (yet) — that I have those same opportunities today.  Also, I think the more financial transparency publishers can provide, and the faster they can provide the data (why is it in the internet age we still wait four months for bi-annual sales reports?), the less Rogue-ish I would think they were.


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  1. Zoiks! Her dad sent in her first query! I guess those were the times though. There’s a section in the back of the Writer’s Market magazine for penning a fake rejection letter. You should write one to Jane’s dad. That would be awesome. Great piece and great reminders.

    1. Yep, her dad sent her first query. But I doubt she asked him to. She was reluctant to try to be published and the family had to talk her into it. I bet he sent that first query on his own accord, probably without telling her before he did it, just out of pride at his very talented daughter. Which I think is so sweet. We don’t have a record of whether or not he even told Jane about the unsuccessful query, but I assume he did.

  2. Beth was my agent too (I miss her in that role!). And her advice is spot on!!

    Being published is not as important as writing well. Publishers recognize a lot of lousy writers… Usually spotting those they think will make money.

    Money and art have rarely gotten along in history.

    Thanks for your post!

    1. Dale – Funny, but sadly true that money and art have had a disagreeable relationship throughout the ages….

      Lori – I shared this blog with a writer friend of mine – I’m sure your words will be very encouraging 🙂

    2. Thanks, Dale. I agree. And it seems that part of being successful — or making money at art, whatever form — in the end often comes down to chance, luck, whatever you want to call it.

      1. Lori… Yes, luck and chance… LOL Very often it’s the right place at the right time and hitting the zeitgeist in the right way (Rob Bell had no idea his most recent release would get so much press). I think part of the “whatever you call it” is popularity… Hence why publishers want to see your “platform” before they read your manuscript. Platforms sell books. Building platforms, however, takes a lot of time and perseverence beyond the writing life.

        Being good at marketing AND good writing… that is indeed an art form on another level. Sadly, many who are popular prior to being writers do not make very good writers.

        My rule of thumb (which I have no idea if it is correct until I’m looking back at age 95): slow and steady, do good work, grow your soul with open eyes, fret not over fads and the next festival’s highlights, and (as Corrie Ten Boom said) don’t look over your shoulder to see who is approving you.

  3. Very encouraging! And what’s even more so is how long it took her to get published–I mean, it’s a lesson in never give up hope. Sense and Sensibility was her 1st to be published, in 1811–more than 20 years after she started writing stories, and about 15 years after she started writing THAT PARTICULAR NOVEL.

  4. Great post, Lori! I had no idea Austen was self-published. Very inspirational and I agree with your insights as well — the only one who should really judge is the reader who bought the book, and really, isn’t opinion often subjective to taste?

    1. Thanks, Steph. Regarding who to listen to about whether the writing is good… I can tell you (as someone who has reviewed a lot of books) that reviewers sometimes get it wrong. And readers who post reviews on Amazon — well, they feel free to be cruel (some of them) because they are anonymous. In the end, I guess it comes down to having faith in what you’re doing.

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