I’m going to be 100% honest—self-publishing was my back-up plan. I was absolutely certain I wanted to find a literary agent and sign a contract with a traditional publishing house. Self-publishing was going to be my last-ditch, Plan B, Hail Mary pass if I drowned under a stack of rejections and exhausted all my resources. Secretly, I was afraid of self-publishing, because to me it would be an admission of my failure. It would mean I wasn’t good enough to make it the “right” way, so therefore I’d cheat my way into the publishing world by skirting around the authorities who dictated what was worthy for print and what was not.
And yet, in 2018, my debut novel A Fallen Hero was published through Barnes & Noble. No agent. No contract.
So, what changed my mind about self-publishing?
Signing my name on the line of a contract would have been a dream come true, but also a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I would be an author with the prestige accompanied by signing with a publishing house. On the other, I’d be relinquishing all of the intellectual rights and surrendering my claim to the creation that was almost a decade in the making. The publisher would have the final say over every word. As much as I futilely tried to convince myself that I’d be okay with giving up my rights to the book, my stomach turned at the thought. How much control over my own story would I have? How much would be changed against my wishes? What if the publisher insisted on cutting out the small tributes to loved ones I had hidden in the pages?
By becoming an independently published author, or indie author, I own the copyright. It is my book in every sense. Nobody forced me to make any cuts or revisions I might later regret. I had plenty of feedback from beta readers, a line editor, and a final proofreader, but in the end, although I heavily relied upon their expertise, I decided which revisions to incorporate and which to discard.
2.) The Cover
This was another case of desperately trying to convince myself to let go of my book because once a publishing house acquired the rights, I would not have any control over the book cover or layout. Just like the above point about the rights to the story itself, I told myself over and over that I was okay with giving up my vision of how I wanted the novel to look. I told myself the professionals would know best, and they’d create something beautiful, something better than anything I could do myself. I told myself these things in an attempt to ease my troubled mind and convince it that these were truths.
But they weren’t.
I knew what I wanted each cover of the entire series to look like. I knew which character I wanted on which cover, and I knew how I wanted the covers to look side-by-side on a bookshelf. And then, the Terry Goodkind incident happened.
A quick summary: early in 2018, fantasy author Terry Goodkind’s novel Shroud of Eternity was released. Goodkind is best known for his Sword of Truth series and is a well-established author who should have plenty of influence in the writing community. However, when Shroud of Eternity made its debut, Goodkind said he hated the cover and publicly criticized it for being “laughably bad,” triggering a heated rebuttal from the artist, who agreed he didn’t like the cover either, but it was what the publisher had commissioned. Goodkind later apologized and clarified that his criticism was for the artwork, not the talents of the artist, who was just doing his job. Goodkind wrote, “We all expressed our dissatisfaction with the character representation of the artwork and we protested the printing. We were overruled and the book went to print as-is. Sometimes that happens. It stings to see a publisher not always seem to care as much as we do.”
You can read more about this story from The Guardian here.
Goodkind’s experience horrified me. Shroud of Eternity was his twentieth published novel. If a successful author like Goodkind had no control over his cover art and was faced with something he considered horrendous, I as a debut author with a miniscule fan base and no prior novels to stake my name on would surely have no say in the cover of my own book. As an artist myself, that terrifying notion kept me up at night. I wanted to own this project I’d been obsessing over, cover to cover. I was petrified of suffering Goodkind’s fate and despising how my own book looked.
So, I created the cover myself. Any regrets about the design or artwork are mine, and mine alone.
Luckily, I have none!
Here’s where it gets personal, but the bottom line is: I kept striking out, and although I had an abundance of patience, I started to realize that didn’t mean I had forever.
In January 2017, A Fallen Hero was selected by the Inkwell Council for a complimentary critique of the first three chapters. The fact that my query and sample had caught their attention enough for such an honor spurred me to revise the manuscript based on their edits, then move on to the query phase in the hopes of finding a literary agent. Most agents didn’t respond. Those who did rejected me without asking for a sample. I felt like I was on an island throwing bottles into the sea. Despite my resolve to send out at least two new query letters for every one rejection I received, I felt my fire starting to die out.
I had two separate opportunities to speak with traditionally published authors about their experiences. The first was Catherine Lanigan, the keynote speaker for the 2017 Steel Pen Writers’ Conference. Lanigan is a bestselling author of over forty novels, and some of her stories have found their way to the Hallmark Channel. Those of us who attended her seminar peppered her with publication questions, and she explained the “slot” problem. That is, agents have a certain number of slots for specific genres. Say, for example, a particular agent is looking for three fantasy novels, one mystery, and two middle grade for the year. She may further complicate the equation by wanting 80% of her slots to be filled by published authors and only 20% by debut. You could have written the best mystery novel the world has ever seen, but if that agent has already filled her mystery slot, there’s a rejection with your name on it coming to your inbox. A rejection doesn’t necessarily mean your story was bad, Lanigan said. It’s all about timing.
Later, I met Alexandra Bracken, the author of The Darkest Minds series that recently hit the big screen. I seized my opportunity for some one-on-one questions with her, and I asked if there was a trick to finding an agent, and how she found hers. “Dumb luck,” she said. I stared at her, certain that I must have heard incorrectly. She went on to say that she’d been rejected many times, and then by “pure, dumb luck,” she happened to pitch the exact right story to the exact right person at the exact right time.
I was discouraged by this game of chance and timing I didn’t know how to play. And then time seemed to slip away. I understood that writers might query for years, even decades before finding an agent. I was young. I was patient. I was willing to wait. But then, one of my former teachers who had been battling cancer passed away, and I was heartbroken because I had written a tribute to her in my novel, but I didn’t let anyone read it because I wanted to surprise them with a published book one day. She died never knowing that I’d named a school in her honor.
And then, one of my friends passed away. She had been perfectly healthy—a Zumba instructor, elementary school teacher, sky diver. One day here, the next day gone. She was twenty-six years old. She also died without ever knowing she was in my book.
These deaths turned my blood to ice in panic. Time had mutated into something that was much more than a waiting game played with query letters and literary agents. It was sand slipping through my fingers, and suddenly, I was afraid of having to change my dedication to “In loving memory of.” I wanted my grandparents to hold my book. I wanted my loved ones to find their personal tributes, or at least have the chance to so I wouldn’t blame myself again. And after the death of my friend, I realized there was no guarantee I would be around for another few years or decades to wait. Dying with untold stories is one of my greatest fears.
It was more than fear that drove me forward, though. It was frustration. It was the fire rekindling my fighting spirit. It was the firm belief that I could do this, and I could succeed, if only someone would give me a chance to prove it. And since nobody would, I’d just have to do it myself, like many entrepreneurs before me.
So…I did. I stopped waiting for somebody else to make my dream come true and took fate into my own hands. And here I am! Below is every signing event from 2018:
I did my research and came to understand the pros and cons between publishing independently versus traditionally. It’s not the “right way” versus the “wrong way.” Although self-publishing often has a poor connotation due to some writers cutting corners and not spending either the time, money, or both on producing a high-quality book, it’s no different than any other entrepreneurial endeavor. Investment and dedication pay off for those who work hard and believe in their own success.
I invested in a reputable line editor I trusted. I spent hours on the formatting and cover design, and I reviewed multiple proof copies before sending it off to the presses and relying on the well-known name of Barnes & Noble backing me. Now I’m moving forward with IngramSpark to reach other bookstores and outlets as well. In fact, I’m gearing up for my very first Barnes & Noble tour with five set dates—Portage, MI; Battle Creek, MI; Mishawaka, IN; Fort Wayne, IN; Evansville, IN—and a few more locations potentially extending the tour from the first weekend of May to the end of June.
(Read about my comparison between B&N Press and IngramSpark)
I’ve already learned so much, and my journey has only just begun. I’m confident I chose the correct path. Someday I might send out query letters again after I have a few books behind my name and a fan base who wants to read them. For now, I’m an indie author. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Love fantasy worldbuilding, strong character bonds, and page-turning adventures? Check out my award-winning Chronicles of Avilésor: War of the Realms series.
I'm an award-winning fantasy author, artist, and photographer from La Porte, Indiana. My poetry, short fiction, and memoir works have been featured in various anthologies and journals since 2005, and several of my poems are available in the Indiana Poetry Archives. The first two novels in my Chronicles of Avilésor: War of the Realms series both received the Literary Titan Gold Book Award in 2020.
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Hi Sara, we just met at the Barnes & Noble in Portage. I agree with all you’ve written here about your experience. I felt the same way regarding autonomy for the author, and, of course, the rejection. I put myself on a time limit of 6 months to find a traditional house to publish. When it didn’t happen, I went the self publishing route. I was a bit embarrassed about it, but, thankfully most folks know nothing about either avenue. They just think it’s awesome you wrote a book.
It was a pleasure meeting you today, and I’m sorry that I realized too late that I never signed your copy of Soultrapped. I hope to get the opportunity to sign it for you soon.
And I promise that I will read your book every day? And when I finish, I’ll give you a review!
Good luck with everything!
Hi, Andy! I was glad that I had the opportunity to chat with you at the event! And no worries–the copy of Soultrapped I picked up was already autographed! But maybe we’ll cross paths again and you can personalize it a little more. 🙂 My To-Read list is getting out of control, but I have every intention of giving you a review as well!
Best of luck, and let’s keep in touch,
Sounds good, Sara, and I have the same problem with the reading list. I’ll just have to let yours skip up a few spots!
Great stuff! Found this extremely enlightening as I embark on my debut novel. As a career journalist I’m finding the publishing industry is viewed in the same light as the pretentious art world. Play the game within their rules or they will gather their toys and fo home. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
I’m glad you found value in this article! Good luck with your debut novel!