Why I’m self-publishing.

Three years ago, I never would’ve thought I’d be writing this post. This is a long story. Click here for the tl;dr.

First book, first agent

In 2010, I finished my first “real” book, a zombie thriller. It was a blend of literary and genre fiction featuring both teen-something and 30-something characters, which put it firmly into Demographic Neverland, AKA We Don’t Know How the Fuck To Market It. But Zombie Thriller landed me an agent, and in my absurd optimism, I thought, Thank god, the hard part is over.

As anyone who’s been lucky enough to land an agent knows, I was laughably wrong.

Zombie

Over the next year, against all good advice, I bit my fingernails and spam-refreshed my inbox while my agent sent Zombie Thriller out on submission. The replies trickled in after long, grueling months: “Love the writing, but zombies are over.” One editor wanted to acquire it, but her house had recently acquired another zombie novel, and apparently the limit was one zombie novel per annum.

Meanwhile, I watched The Walking Dead (zombies!) and Game of Thrones (ICE ZOMBIES!) and played Dead Island (zombies in the tropics!) and read about the upcoming Warm Bodies and World War Z movies and Courtney Summers’s zombie novel This Is Not a Test and the highly anticipated games Resident Evil 6 and The Last of Us and thought, Yeah, you guys are right. Zombies are totally over. What was I thinking?

It was the first serious inkling I had that the publishing industry was out of touch with reality.

Second book & Jodi Reamer

My agent and I parted ways, and I wrote Book #2: a YA sci-fi thriller about a physically disabled half-cyborg girl trying to stop the serial killer stalking her spaceship. I began querying again. YA SF Thriller got me lots of requests, fast. Suddenly, A-list agents were asking for fulls. I was floored. Maybe it’ll actually happen this time, I thought. Perhaps zombies were dead (har har), but YA SF? That was still alive and kicking. And on fire.

Out of morbid curiosity, I queried the Holy Grail of YA agents, Jodi Reamer. You may not have heard of Ms. Reamer, but you’ve undoubtedly heard of her clients: Stephenie Meyer (Twilight), John Green (The Fault In Our Stars), et al. I had no illusions about my chances: no way was THE top YA agent going to give me the time of day. I made a $5 bet with a friend that I’d get a form rejection.

Instead, I got a full request two days after querying, and I was out five bucks.

Cyborg

Shocked and giddy, but still in disbelief, I sent my manuscript to Jodi’s assistant, Alec. From the very start, Alec clicked with my writing. He was smart, witty, insightful, and provided me with insane amounts of editorial feedback, for which I will eternally be grateful. Getting to work with him gave me a good taste of what it’s like working with a professional editor.

A couple days after sending him the full manuscript, he wrote back. Blah blah blah not something that Jodi would represent at this time… My brain could only focus on the word “not.” Rejection. Heartbreak. Jodi didn’t want it. I’d told myself not to get my hopes up, but I don’t have fine motor control over my heart. I skimmed the email while forwarding it to a friend, and she immediately wrote back: “RE-READ IT. HE’S OFFERING YOU AN R&R.”

I re-read it. She was right. He wanted me to revise and resubmit.

Over the next ten (10!) months, I revised YA SF Thriller until that sucker shone like a supernova. The whole time I kept thinking, Oh my god. Jodi effing Reamer. The percentage of queriers who get a full request from Jodi is vanishingly small. And to then be offered an R&R, instead of rejection—it was an honor for me to even get that far. I was delirious with gratitude and can-do optimism. There’s such a sense of validation when you get to that point. Maybe I wouldn’t make it to the winner’s circle, but someone—a renowned, successful someone—thought I might.

An R&R basically means, “I see a lot of promise in this, but I want to see some changes before I commit.” It’s sort of an engagement period. The agent and the manuscript like each other. They can envision a future together. But the manuscript needs to lose some weight and get into shape first.

After ten months and two major revisions, Jodi said no. She just didn’t love it enough to commit. The engagement was over. No honeymoon. No Happily Ever After.

Fallen girl

I was crushed. What else can you feel in that moment? I got closer than I’d ever dreamed, I was right at the golden door and someone had started to open it and warm light spilled from inside and the hallelujah chorus fired up and then BAM, the door slammed in my face and I tumbled backward, sprawling flat my on ass in the freezing cold street, like some tuberculosis-stricken urchin out of Dickens. And all I could think, in a piteous faux Cockney accent, was, Please, sir, it’s Christmas…

The decision to self-publish

After a major disappointment, it’s natural to do some soul-searching. I’d tried the traditional route, and despite getting tantalizingly, almost cruelly close, it just wasn’t happening. Everyone had nice things to say about my writing. Almost every agent who requested the manuscript said, “Please send me your future work if you don’t find representation for this.” Well, thanks, but…what am I doing wrong? How can I improve? Why didn’t this work for you?

When the self-pity depression lifted, I realized it wasn’t the quality of my writing—I’d simply written books that weren’t right for the current market, according to industry professionals.

But maybe they were wrong. Publishing is a slow, antiquated machine. When a novel is acquired by a major publisher, it often takes at least two years until the book actually comes out. Those publishers weren’t thinking it was wrong for the current market—they thought it was wrong for the future market.

And what would I get after 2+ years of waiting? A low advance (if any) and a shitty royalty rate, because I’d be yet another small fish in a big pond. And that major publisher would’ve left me to my own devices, expecting me to do my own marketing and promotion. So what were they offering, besides the veneer of legitimacy that comes with being published by a “real” publisher? A nice cover and professional editing?

But hey now—I’m a graphic designer. It’s what I did for a living before The Recession. If I self-published, I could do my own cover, website, ebook formatting, and other design-related junk.

And hey, I have some Awesome Writer Friends who are agented and have book deals and are willing to do whatever they can to help, including giving me professional-grade editorial feedback. And I have plenty of awesome beta readers, too.

So what, exactly, could a big publisher offer me that I couldn’t do myself or with the help of my friends? Aside from an absurd check full of way too many commas and zeroes, obviously?

Answer: a big fat nothing.

Third time’s the charm?

So, I tried my best to go the traditional route. I did everything you’re supposed to do: a lifetime of voracious reading, hundreds of thousands of words of writing practice, beta readers, ruthless editing, polishing the hell out of my manuscripts and queries. I landed an agent and my first book didn’t sell. My second book attracted the attention of A-list agents, but ultimately didn’t secure rep. All of this left me with a pile of nice compliments stapled to rejections and an overwhelming sense that I’m just not writing the “right” books, whatever those are supposed to be.

Maybe it’s time to face the fact that the publishing industry doesn’t know what the “right” books are, either. Publishers rarely take risks on new talent anymore. The midlist is vanishing. New authors often have to prove themselves in the self-publishing arena first. Big publishers wait for indies to strike oil, then snap them up. Atria: Jamie McGuire, Colleen Hoover, Katja Millay. Berkley: Sylvain Reynard. Simon Pulse: Abbi Glines. Simon & Schuster: Hugh Howey. Vintage nabbed the infamous cashcow E.L. James. These are just the ones I know off the top of my head.

Dandelion

I’m tired of trying to break into an industry that’s so hostile to unproven authors. This summer I wrote Book #3, a New Adult Romance. It’s a story I’ve had in my head for a long time, one I thought (probably correctly) would never see the light of day with a traditional publisher: very taboo, very morally gray. It’s graphic and unflinching and perhaps painfully earnest. I let all my inhibitions drop while I wrote it (with the help of some Knob Creek), and it was an incredibly liberating experience—writing whatever the hell I want, publishing it however the hell I want. Yee-fucking-haw. It’s like the Wild West out here in Self-publandia.

The awesome part? I don’t need anyone’s permission or approval. I have total responsibility, but I also have total control.

The hardest thing to let go of is the dream I had as a little girl about seeing my book in a bookstore. It probably won’t happen now—the bookstores will all close first. But that’s okay. I played out the bookstore fantasy in my head. The movie deal fantasy, too. They’re nice. But the real goal was getting my writing out into the world, letting people read and enjoy it. Hearing that they clicked with it the same way Alec did. And that’s already happening as I send Book #3, Unteachable, out to reviewers.

All I really wanted was to write and be read. Mission fucking accomplished. Everything else is gravy.

30 Responses to Why I’m self-publishing.

  1. I’m totally excited for the new novel. Are you thinking of self-publishing the previous two, as well? Are they tied up because of your previous dealings with agents?

    • EDWARD! I have missed you, friend. <3

      Yep, I'll most likely self-pub the previous two at some point. They're not tied up with agents or anything. The challenge is going to be how to appeal to people who like zombies, spaceships, cyborgs, AND teenage romance. Do such people exist? Aside from me, obviously.

      • Missed you, too. :)

        I’m sure your statement was meant to be rhetorical, but:

        You’re awesome at recognizing and jumping into net social communities and trends. I think you’ll be able to do a fantastic job of targeting specific audiences based on each novel’s content, and you can worry about building name recognition a bit later. With your design and web skills, you’ll be able to put together some pretty compelling campaigns, and probably try some stuff the big pubs wouldn’t even consider. Or you could try a male pseudonym and leak the truth later. That seems to work.

      • You know, I have considered a male pseudonym, or at least a gender-neutral one, like JK Rowling. Sadly, the thriller and SF worlds are still kinda skittish when a girl walks into the clubhouse with all her girl cooties.

      • Do such people exist, you ask? Yup. Right here. I just stumbled on your blog post (I think we’re in a FB group together) and wanted to say kudos! I went through the same soul-searching and came to the same conclusion: Movie deals and seeing your books in bookstores are great fantasies, but all I really want is to tell my stories. :)
        Oh, and if you do a blog tour, I’d be happy to help. :)

      • Mara: awesomesauce, to both things. My blog tour is already filled up, but if you review, I’d be happy to send you a free review copy. Let me know, info’s on the contact page. :D

  2. I’m still waiting for THE FERAL. :(

    But wow, I didn’t realize you were THAT CLOSE. That’s frickin’ insane, Leah! Seriously, you are an amazing writer. I realize that only means so much when it comes from someone who has gone out of his way to not read “literature” and hardly even reads genre fiction, but your writing has so many subtleties to it that it really illustrates to me how many English classes I have not taken so that I cannot describe what it is you are doing in each of your novels. Instead, you get my wishy-washy highly untechnical feedback about how the books made me feel.

    I hope you release all three books through self-pub and you become as rich as your stories and as successful as your stories are at making me feel emotions.

    • Travis…you are seriously one of the sweetest and smartest people I’ve ever met. I heart you hardcore. Why do I have such awesome guy friends? GROUP HUG.

      P.S. Totally gonna work on TF next, no worries. THE FACE-BITINGS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL MORALE IMPROVES.

  3. Hi, lady. What happened to the “like” button on your posts? :(

    As someone who has sent you about a billion caps-lock emails (like those cited above), it makes me crazy angry that you, of all people, should be one to get passed over by the traditional path. For obvious reasons, I don’t think that traditional publishing is completely dead, though it scares more each year to see publishers on the whole increasingly unwilling to be leaders instead of followers and to offer less and less value for the high entry barrier they place.

    I believe that you–through your high-quality and highly original writing, your value as a graphic designer and formatter, your skill at utilizing resources (crazy people like me who will crit your entire book in 36 hours, for instance), and your willingness to put yourself out there–are in the best possible position to self-publish, and by doing so, are in no way at a disadvantage against traditionally published books. Your books are so heartbreakingly wonderful that they demand to be read, and I am so proud of you for finding a way to GET them read, no matter how frustrating that path has been.

    You’re gonna be a rock star.

    • Dude. Where would I have been without you this past year? So much gushing, gross, gooey love for you, hahaha. Thank you so much for being so fucking awesomepants. <3 <3 <3

      And I'm gonna turn that optimism back around on you: I think YOU will do well with the traditional route, because your stuff is brilliant, sharp, and DIFFERENT. Get in there and set the YA world on fire. People are PSYCHED (har, appropriate pun!) about Sekret. They're gonna love it.

  4. Leah,

    I just wanted to say how happy I am you took control and you’re forging ahead with self-publishing. I do hope you publish all of them and the traditional publishers will be begging you to sign with them. It’s their loss. I know how it is to get that close. I’m in the same boat right now, but for me, I can’t afford to self-publish. I wouldn’t know the first thing to do with it. But being a graphic designer should help you tremendously. I saw your cover on AW and I fell in love. I just had to read your story too. I’m so glad I did. So uplifting! Love U Leah. Can’t wait to see your movies too! Rock on. Forever your fan, LMC

  5. I just finished Unteachable and just want to let you know how much I enjoyed it. It was getting to the point where I no longer had any desire to read any more self-published books. Even the best authors seem to have more mistakes in editing than I find tolerable in a book I’ve actually paid for.
    I can’t imagine a publishing company doing a better job editing your book, however. Maybe it was just because I was so engrossed in your story, but I didn’t see a single error. It’s obvious that you take pride in your work. You also have a great writing style. I sometimes give a review for a book I’ve read that was particularly good or bad, but I’ve never written anything directly to an author until now.
    The subject of teacher/student relationships, believe it or not, wasn’t that far-fetched when I was in high school in the late seventies, early eighties. There were actually three teachers having affairs with students during my time there. Two of the three teachers wound up marrying the students, while the third teacher and student moved in together as soon as she graduated. I even had to avoid one teacher who went out of his way to learn who I was and other information about me (btw, he was one of the three). These weren’t hot teachers like Evan and I wouldn’t have let even one of them touch me with a ten foot pole.
    But I have had crushes on teachers, like probably the rest of the female population, so reading about a forbidden affair was really enjoyable for me. I’m not exactly a new adult, but I loved it. I’m hoping you plan to write other books similar to this one, because I (sorry!) won’t be reading any zombie book, or paranormal, or vampire book. I really have a distaste for them, and popular or not, they’re just not my thing. So please, please write more books like this one, because you really are a talented writer. I love that you didn’t sugar-coat the story, or give us a moral about teenagers, sex, and drugs. We all know this is what teens do. You didn’t hold back, and I love that.

    • Thank you so much, Leah. (And hi to someone with the same name!) I’m thrilled you loved it and that it drove you to contact me–hearing from readers like you has been so incredibly satisfying and humbling.

      No worries, I will definitely be writing more in the New Adult contemporary romance vein.

      Thanks for taking a chance on my book despite bad experiences with other self-published books. I know exactly what you mean.

  6. Just wanted to say I LOVED Unteachable!! Amazing! The writing, just beautiful! I don’t really have the words to express how much I loved your book (I am a reader not a writer) just know that it’s my favorite book this year!! The Fault In Our Stars was my fav of 2012 so you are in great company (as if my opinion really matters, haha). Anyway, I wanted to tell you that I think you should check out Karina Halle. She has some amazing books (Ezperiment in Terror and The Artists Trilogy), I think will love her writing and I think you might share some of her publishing headaches.

    Last, I am hoping there will be more from Evan & Maise!

  7. Wow, I’m adding your story to the (ever growing) list of reasons to share why I self-publish. Although I don’t need any reason other than it feels right–and it does, eh?

    Congratulations on your success! Have you explored kboards.com yet? If not, check it out. A lot of success stories there of self-published authors straddling genres (or even genre hopping). Elle Casey and H.M. Ward are both active there.

    I’m looking forward to reading your books. Yep, all of them!

  8. I just finished Unteachable this past weekend twice. That’s right I loved it so much I had to go back and read it again. LOVED IT!!!! I’ve already recommended it to several people.

    So that book brought me to your website and this post. Please publish the zombie novel. I will read it in a heartbeat. Keep up the great works and I can’t wait to read what you put out next.

  9. Leah, a friend recommended your book Unteachable to me and I LOVE it! I had crushes on teachers and older men in my early years but never had the courage to act on them like Maise has. I stop with every chapter and think how it would have felt for me. Back in the 40s and 50s who had that kind of courage? I guess it takes courage now too. I love Maise’s freedom to come and go too. You must know how all this feels the way you write. I do hope you will write another book like this. I am so glad you decided to self-publish Unteachable.

    Jean

    • Thank you, Jean! I’m so happy my book touched you and brought back your own memories.

      And yes, I totally agree that it takes courage to pursue your heart’s desire when everyone is cautioning you against it. Which is why I self-published. :)

      I’ll certainly be writing more books that deal with difficult topics like this.

  10. Love your post! Congratulations again. I went to the same route myself – but unlike you I just upped and quit trying to get published and kept writing (for the sake of writing). Then someone purchased my manuscript, I saw it take off on Amazon, and that was the only time I realized e-pubbing / self-pubbing on Amazon can really bring in the bucks.

    When you’ve been querying for years and surrounded only with writers who are also only out for traditional publishing, you tend to develop a kind of distrust towards self-pubbing and mistake it for vanity publishing. I was guilty of that before. :( Thankfully, those shameful days are behind me and now I’m all for authors going indie! If trad publishing doesn’t want you for whatever reason, then that’s their prerogative. We can only move on and find alternative routes to publishing. :)

    P.S. Why is there no mention of Left 4 Dead here? =D

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