When I saw the Julie + Julia movie recently, I loved the scene in which Julia Child finally comes face to face with Irma Rombauer, the author whom she's admired and idolized, the author whose book, The Joy of Cooking, had already spurred Child to train as a chef and agree to co-write Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Child discovers that Rombauer is not the precise, serious, erudite author and exacting trained chef Child had imagined, but someone more like Child herself – a woman who loves to cook and loves to write and is rather quirky and has grit. But what really interested me was Rombauer's explanation that, even though the book by then (1947) was a huge bestseller with a major publishing house, it had started its original publication life in 1931 when Rombauer used her meager life savings to "have it printed" (translation: she self-published, or in the parlance of the day, used a vanity press.) Recently, Joy of Cooking was "selected by The New York Public Library as one of the 150 most important and influential books of the twentieth century," according to Simon & Shuster.
I love how Child seems to visibly convey something important not-yet-published writers need to know -- that published writers are not so different from us. They just kept at it and kept at it and invested themselves and believed in their project. And, I liked the way, without praising or condemning the concept of self-publishing, it was just another fact about the book.
I have lots of opinions about self-publishing but mostly it boils down to: it all depends on the book, the topic, the author, and his/her goals. I thought of this again today when I found this list of other books which surprisingly began their publication lives that way. Take a look.