the indie author hat: worthiness reconfigured

This is not going to be a post about what I think you should do – you’re the only one who can answer that for you – but this is a post about what I’ve decided to do, and why. It seems, since we all have these choices now, people feel inclined to vocalize what choices they’ve made. It’s become something akin to mommy wars – bottle feeding or breast, working or stay-at-home – which isn’t always a good thing. It splits us more often than it unites us. Has there ever been a time authors have been so split? Indie on one side, traditional on the other?

In any case, we feel inclined to talk about the choices we make, and that’s what I’m doing here. It’s something big and exciting for me – the most exciting change in my life since I became a mom. It is like becoming a mom all over again, the anticipation of launching my paper baby in a few more weeks. Less diaper-changing required, though paper babies do oddly require middle-of-the-night feedings sometimes.

the indie author hat:

It’s sort of funny how the industry has changed in just the twelve months since I first drafted this post. (And now you’re thinking: Who the hell keeps a blog draft hanging around for twelve months?!? Well, I do, lol!) When I first drafted this post, it was February last year. A little bird whispered the idea of indie publishing in my head – that bird was my friend Nina, so if you want to blame someone, I guess you can blame her. ;)

When I allowed myself to really consider the possibilities – as in, consider it like something I might actually do – the freedom of it was more fantastic than I ever could have imagined. For the whole first month after I’d decided I would give it a shot, I was flooded with more ideas than I knew what to do with – than I will EVER know what to do with. For the first time in my life there were no limits. It was a rather inefficient month, to be honest. Faced with a career of not having to convince publisher after publisher to take a risk on me – I would take a risk on me – I came up with so many ideas. Great ideas, bad ideas, half-baked ideas, some ideas that I’m still not sure how to implement just yet.

I could hear the voices of publishers in my head. All those same publishers who rejected my short stories (no hard feelings) saying: We enjoyed this, but it’s not quite right for us. Please send something else. In my head they were also saying: You want to write tie-ins and spin-offs and prequels? You can’t do that — literary fiction authors don’t do that. You want to write novellas? No, those don’t sell. We can’t sell that. What is this? What genre is this? Is it literary or is it chick-lit? Can this be more like romance? What shelf does it fit on? You can’t write literary fiction that’s also romantic-comedy. How will we sell that? Who is your audience? AND a six-volume pseudo sci-fi drama series that is really more women’s fiction than it is sci-fi? No, sorry, that’s not quite right for us.

But yes, I do want to write all those things! I do, I DO!!!

Once I’d given myself permission to consider publishing myself, all those voices in my head, saying you can’t write that, nobody will want to read that, you won’t sell that – all those can’ts – went away. Do you see how it closes you down before you even get started? Instead of writing what’s in your heart, instead of tackling all those ideas you haven’t seen done before and you’re still not even sure how you’d implement, you’ve tainted it already. What will I call this? How will I sell this? How will I ever convince some publisher to get on board with this crazy idea?

Sure, people sell crazy ideas, new ideas, innovative ideas to publishers all the time. After so many years of rejections. I have to ask myself, is it really worth all that? With the prospect of self-publishing in mind, there was nothing but freedom. My stories and the people who would read them. That’s all.

So after a full month of making wild, hedonistic love to my imagination, I finally came back down to reality. The plan was a good one but I wasn’t going to finish anything working like that. So I picked one book and I got to work on it.

But you see, all that isn’t why I decided to go indie. That was just how it felt to take the leap.

Here’s the why.

the list:

There was a decision to be made – whether to try the traditional route first or not. You might say: “Well, easy. Just try. What’s the harm in trying? If all fails, you can still self-publish.”

But no, in my heart I knew that self-publishing shouldn’t be a last resort. Not for me. If I was going to self-publish, I wanted it to be because that was what I really wanted for myself and my career.

I lay awake one night, my brain spinning on a loop like it does sometimes, and I couldn’t fall asleep until I’d written this list. So I grabbed my phone, opened up my notes app (a godsend for writers who get ideas in bed!), and I made two columns:

Traditional author:
- because I want to be respected.
- because I’m shy and could use the connections.

Indie author:
- because I want to keep all of my rights, to be free to write sequels and tie-ins when and if and in the order I choose.
- because I might want to get knocked up again, maybe, and I don’t want to be under contract when I do.
- because I just don’t want to be under contract in general?
- because I want to be my own boss.
- because I’m good at organizing and controlling things, and would enjoy it.
- because I enjoy posting bits on my blog and other places first, and I don’t want to worry about having to disclose that before I sell.
- because I don’t want to have to ask permission to share pieces of my own published work, wherever and however I choose.
- because I want to do odd things – web serialization, illustrated with photography, etc., and I don’t want to go through the hassle of trying to convince a publisher to get on board with my crazy ideas – I’ll own my own risk.
- because I want to choose which stories come out, and in which order.
- because I want to publish a few novellas.
- because I want to publish a collection of stories and poems and photography – all in one book, people!
- because I want to choose my own editors.
- because I think I’d be good at making my own covers.
- because I think I’d be good at social media marketing too.
- because I actually enjoy having a low-key but devoted cult following, and big NYC scares me a little.
- because (not to sound too arrogant) my stories are the kind that sell themselves, if they’re going to sell at all, and do well by word-of-mouth.
- because in the end, that kind of audience needs to be found by less traditional means anyway.
- because most authors have to do all that marketing themselves anyway.

And if we’re going to be honest about that “traditional publishing” list – if I work hard, and take off my wall-flower hat, I can build my own connections. And I hope, if I persist and work extra hard, I might even some day be respected? Not just by my fans but by everyone, traditional and indie authors alike?

Way back when I first decided I would try this indie author thing, it was still relatively a renegade thing to do. Now, not so much. Now every day authors are jumping ship on the idea of having a publisher to go it alone. I don’t blame them. It’s a good thing and I’m in good company. The stigma is wearing thin, the paths are being tested, proven, and paved ahead of me.

The bad thing? I won’t be so unique and renegade anymore, lol!

Which I can easily get over.

The past twelve months have only proven that the career model I suspected was a good idea, is really a terrific idea after all. And I am so sound in this choice that it pains me to even consider the alternative. This book will never be queried to agents or submitted to publishing houses – none of that. Not even once. The path this book takes to being born will be one I never would have imagined twelve months ago.

the resume:

When I first considered self-publishing, the idea of it sounded both arrogant and naive. I doubted it many times. I doubted it and came back to it even multiple times in the same day. I’ve wondered, what gives me the right to just plop my book out there?

I’ve had plenty of time to think this over, and I don’t come to this decision lightly.

#1: I am a career storyteller. This is what I do – this is what I’ve always done and what I’ll always do. I have NINE books in various states of draft. I have a lifetime worth of stories in me, and one way or another, they’re going to be told. There’s no option here for the “writing gig” to not work out. I have no corresponding degrees to put to use (English major through and through!). I won’t, for example, go and be an accountant, or dental hygienist – believe me, I’d be terrible at it! If I ever needed to get a job, it would be just that – a job. I have no other back up careers. This is it for me.

#2: I think writing web fiction has gotten me addicted to producing my own stuff, and I really, honestly love it. The feeling I got when I told myself I might go indie was such an amazing freedom of creativity. I was inspired! (Too inspired, lol!) Suddenly, there was nobody to tell me I couldn’t do this, or that. There was only the readers, and what they liked, and what they wanted. And I had stories for them to read. And I knew they were going to love them.

I wouldn’t have the guts to do this if I hadn’t spent a few years earning my little legion of cheerleaders who testify that yes, my stories are indeed worth hearing after all. I didn’t say that myself – they said it. You can ask them if you want. I’m doing this for them. Even if those few dozen people are the only people who will ever want to read my work, it’ll be worth it to tell the stories I love to tell, the way I want to tell them.

(Shout out to my LH peanut gallery – I love you guys! *blows kisses and grabs a tissue* xoxo <3 )

As we were…

#3: I’ve paid my dues. I got the degree. I’ve taken the workshops, joined the writers groups, gotten the short story rejections, written a practice novel, put it in a shoebox in my closet, I’ve started three or four more novels (that, I hope, will not also end up in shoeboxes in my closet), and I’ve gotten more short story rejections, nicer ones, encouraging ones that were still not quite acceptances. I’ve spent the past ten years studying my craft, and spent the past two years working on this book in particular, and I’m ready. I know I am. You’ll just have to trust me on that one.

#4: I am quite confident that I have no desire to ever go the traditional route with my books. The only thing I’ll be missing to start is the prestige, but I’m hoping in time I can make up for that too.

I don’t like the traditional model – the advance, having to earn it out, the whole holds against returns thing. I don’t like offset printing – to the tree-hugging hippie in me, it doesn’t make sense. It might have served its purpose in the past, but there are better models out there now, and I think independent POD and e-publishing are some of them. I want to be in control of my business and know everyone who is working for me. I don’t want to be a little cog in their big machine.

#5: I have spent the past year studying the industry, both traditional and independent. I’ve read everything I could get my hands on, and I’m under no illusions about either route. I’m not counting on any magic or strokes of luck. I know how much work it’s going to be. I’m making a very informed decision, and I’ve decided to put on the indie author hat.

a note on worthiness:

There’s an odd thing in the creative writing profession that doesn’t really happen in any other artistic endeavor. You can buy some yarn and some knitting needles, practice until your fingers knot up, and then set up on Etsy to sell your goods – and you ARE a knitter. Nobody would ever dare say you were not. You can take pencil to paper or paint to a canvas, and you ARE an artist. You can play a jazz set in a bar, for a few hundred dollars and some free drinks, and you ARE a musician. You can be a seamstress, a woodworker, a photographer, a designer – you can just set up and BE. Nobody would ever dare say you were not.

And yet, for so many years, authors have felt the need to be picked. To be designated. To be allowed into the club.

When I first came to the decision to self-publish my work, it was one that was very bittersweet for me. I was ashamed to tell people what I was doing – that pesky stigma – afraid they’d think I was taking the easy way out, or cheating, or that it wasn’t the same or as good as “being published”. That it was second-rate, a cop-out, a concession. I can’t recall anyone actually saying any of those things to my face (who knows what wasn’t said to my face), but on the whole, people were accepting of it and excited for me. But still, for the whole of my young writing career, I’ve always been waiting for the day that I would “be published”, that some hand from the authorly heavens would reach down and pluck me up and grant me entry to this very exclusive club. That someone else would declare me an author. To look at my work and declare me worthy? Good enough? Accomplished? There are so very many writers out there waiting for this day.

Never in a million years would I have assumed that that person could be… me?

It’s exciting and almost anti-climactic at the same time. And I suppose that’s because for my whole writing life, I’ve been waiting for this moment that is now never going to come. Or if it does come, it will come in some other form. I don’t know what it will be – good reviews, fan mail, a collection of finished work, a little bit of money? The worthiness will have to be reconfigured.

Because the thing is this – if I can make a little bit of money (which, if you put in the work, is not as terribly uncommon as people will have you believe) doing what I love to do, does it matter that I’ll never be reviewed by the New York Times, or get a starred review on Kirkus, or have my book submitted to contest for the Orange Prize like so many of my favorite women writers? Does that matter? Should it matter? I write literary fiction, people! If ever there were a genre that thrived on recognition from the establishment, this would be it. But the thing is, once I get this gig going, I’ll (likely) be making some money doing exactly what I LOVE to do, and how many people can say they’re able to do that with their lives?

Recognition be damned.

So I will stand up and I declare myself an author. I also declare myself a publisher of my own work. I’ll arrange for my own readers, hire my own editors, study book design and research printers, make my cover art, build up my own platform, be my own accountant (or no, maybe I’ll hire an accountant), and I’ll do my own publicity (…oh wait, all authors have to do their own publicity anyway).

If I need help along the way, I’ll find it. If there’s something I can’t do, I’ll hire someone to do it for me. I’m not doing this alone. I’ll be building my own team. I’ll be heading up my own career.

In my quiet little corner of the world, I’ll reach my own hand down from the heavens and declare myself an author. If that’s like line-hopping, to all those people who waited so long, I’m sorry. Please don’t take it personally. It’s not exactly fair, but it’s not going away either. It’s like the mommy wars, except we’re fighting around our paper babies. It’s not easier; it’s just different. And in the end, this path is better for me, and it’s the one I have to take. It might be better for you too, but I can’t decide that. All I know is that I like the indie author hat – it feels nice on my head. It keeps the sun off my eyes, is just airy enough to be breathable, just casual enough to wear with jeans, and just cute enough to wear with a sun dress.

I can’t say I know what the future holds for me, but for the first time in my life, I know that it’ll be in my hands to succeed or to fail brilliantly. And for me, there is no greater inspiration than that.