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Why I Went Indie with My Debut

Updated: Jan 19

My first experience with the concept of self-publishing was in 2011, when a woman in my community was going around saying, “I’m a published author! I’m a published author!” But when I looked her up online, I found a poorly managed Facebook author page and a link to a novel with a pixelated cover that looked like it had been laid out in Microsoft Word. The story itself was confusing, and full of spelling and grammatical errors. Someone had supposedly “edited” this for her, but I had my doubts about their expertise.

At the time, I quietly judged her, although now, looking back, I realize she was probably just doing her best, and that the “publisher” she had paid to help her finish her book was basically scamming her. However, that book had always shaped my basic idea of what indie publishing looked like, even until a decade later.

That’s not to say I hadn’t encountered other, more professional self-published authors since then. I had. My good friend Kristin J. Dawson sets a good bar for indie pub quality—she gets professional covers done, has a trustworthy editor, a street team, and more—but hearing her talk about all the work she had to put in to get her books out sounded like more than I was capable of doing on my own. 

Doing all my own marketing? My own formatting? My own distribution? Coming up with the money to pay a cover designer, editor, proofreader, printer … in advance? It was an investment of time and money I didn’t have. So even once I’d begun to get a better picture of what was possible in indie pub, even once I’d begun to respect the hustle of it all, I still just couldn’t fathom doing it myself. Not to mention I, like many writers, fantasized shamelessly about the clout that comes with being published by a Big Five (now Big Four)—or at least by a publisher I’d heard of before.

Thus, I pursued traditional publishing from the get-go, and refused to let up for anything. Self-publishing (for me) was giving up on my dream. I had nothing but respect for anyone who published their work on their own, but I wasn’t about to try it myself.

I started by querying Girl and the Machine, which, in an ironic twist of fate, is now independently published. It was a much different book then—an awful mess, and nowhere near ready for readers. You can read about that in more detail in another blog post. But despite its juvenile quality, I had poured my heart and soul into it; I had written it in rare, spare pockets of time; I had eked it out while caring for a toddler and a newborn baby, and working part time in graphic design. It felt like I had given every last ounce of my dwindling energy to it, and then … nothing. I got a few rejections, and radio silence.

As that year (2019) ended and a new year began, I found my courage again, came up with a new idea, and wrote it in three weeks. Then I realized that that book had some logistical issues and decided to shelve it for a while. 

Shortly after came My Next Brilliant Idea™—a YA fantasy with dinosaurs, which I also drafted in three weeks, which went on to be a constant near-success. I got lots of responses, multiple full requests, enthusiasm for the idea, detailed courtesy feedback even in the midst of rejections, and interest from multiple mentorship programs. I revised it in spurts, tore it apart and rewrote it multiple times, and changed so many things it made me cross-eyed trying to keep all the information straight. When I’d just about given up, an agent invited me to make some more changes and send it back to her (a.k.a. revise and resubmit) and I thought, “This is it! I’m going to get an agent!” 

Not that I really thought that. I’m actually very superstitious when it comes to being overconfident about anything. The second you get overconfident is the second life likes to throw a sucker punch—and I refused to be sucker-punched. But of course I did cling to the possibility that this might finally work out.

Anyway, I didn’t hear back from her for a year. A YEAR! I’d heard agents could take months and months, but a whole year? And I don’t mean she finally got back to me after a year. I mean a year had gone by and still … nothing.

Around that time, I was elbows deep in yet another revision, and a totally different agent that I had also queried a year earlier responded with profuse apologies and said if it wasn’t too late, she’d like to request the first 50 pages (a "partial” request). I let her know I was almost done with the latest revision and, if she was willing to wait, I’d send it to her when I was done. She said she’d wait.

Once I’d finally completed this long and painstaking revision—what I’d hoped would be my very last one, short of revising for an actual editor someday—I sent it off, and then I thought, “Maybe I’ll check in with that other agent, because … Why not?”

I messaged her and said I knew it had been a long time and she may have already made her decision on the previous version of my manuscript, but if by chance she still hadn’t read any of it and if by chance she was still interested, could I send her the even-more-updated version for consideration? To my shock and surprise, she responded promptly to say yes! She explained that she’d gotten a promotion at her agency, which had left her incredibly overwhelmed with queries and requests and that she’d gotten far behind but would still love to read my book again. Great!

Five months later, she responded with even more notes and feedback than the first time, and said that, ultimately, she didn’t think she could take on a project that still needed so much work. Cue the slide whistle.

The other agent got back to me as well, to tell me she loved the story, but she didn’t enjoy my MMC’s POV as much, and since that was half the book, it didn’t make sense for her to represent me. 

Naturally I was devastated. I appreciated that the first agent had taken so much time to not only read my book twice but to also give me super thorough notes and feedback (also twice). But I was also perplexed by the idea that she could invest so much time in my manuscript and still not want to help me see it through to publication.

I thanked her graciously for all her help and support, and then proceeded to mope the entire summer. My heart was broken. My brain was tired. What else did I have left to give?

I tried to pivot to revising a different project, another YA fantasy based on my Guatemalan heritage and gold magic, a story that I loved dearly and had once been very excited for, but I struggled to find enthusiasm for writing in general. Was I doomed to repeat this cycle every year? Fighting for every word, tearing manuscripts apart, laying it all out in the open for strangers to read (or not read) and reject? 

Even if I could get an agent—which, when it had seemed within my reach, had still been years in the making—it would be more months, and maybe more years, before a publisher might pick up my book. Based on what I’d seen online, even with a publisher and a book deal, it would still be at least another two years before getting a physical book on a bookstore shelf. New authors with new deals were announcing their books on Twitter every month like this: “Coming Spring 2024!” (Posting about it in 2022.)

I may have still been closed off to the idea of self-publishing in general, but a small part of me was beginning to soften. Maybe I could write a simple rom-com and self-publish it just for fun. Nothing serious like the big, epic fantasies I’d had planned, but something more suited to a little side hustle that I wouldn’t have to put much effort into. I didn’t know if I’d ever actually do it, but the seed was there.

It was around this time (summer 2023) that one of my recent acquaintances—another writer I’d talked to at a local girls’ night—asked me about going to writing conferences. I told her I’d dreamed of going to one, but I also couldn’t imagine how I would navigate leaving my kids (ages four and six) for days at a time for an event in another state. I had never done anything like that before.

My family situation is complicated, and my husband and I have never had much help with our kids. My husband’s parents visit when they can, but live far away. My mom is unavailable. My dad and stepmom live closer than my in-laws but still not close enough to help regularly. And for the first four years after the birth of my oldest, we lived in a remote town where we only made a few close friends. I’d allowed myself to become isolated and I didn’t know how to trust anyone with something I’d been handling on my own for so long.

Still, I wanted to be brave. My husband said I had his full support and that if I wanted to go to a conference, we would make all the necessary arrangements. My mother-in-law agreed to come for the entire week I’d be gone, whichever week it ended up being. I had business money from my Etsy shop, enough to cover the entire cost of any one of the conferences I was considering.

I’d been looking in to the 20Books Vegas conference and felt pretty good about it. Vegas wasn’t that far from me (6.5 hours driving, 1 hour flying). I’d already been to Vegas several times and somewhat knew my way around. And it was a big conference in a major city, so there were sure to be good agents and editors there (don’t laugh if you're familiar with this conference and know how true that isn’t). Maybe this would change my life! Maybe this would be where I finally got my big break! And as it so happened, my new writing friend was already planning to go to this exact conference, so I wouldn’t have to be there completely alone. I told her I was in.

When it came time to seriously take the leap, though, I couldn’t do it. I got scared. I wanted out. I had intrusive thoughts. I felt sick to my stomach. Luckily, I hadn’t paid for anything yet, so there was still time to bail.

But before I could bail, I knew I had to have a good reason. How about, “Yes, I have the money, but I can’t justify spending that much on just me, just for fun. That would be selfish.” Or, “It’s too many days for me to be gone. I can’t justify making family members rearrange their entire schedules just because I want to make up stories for a living.” Then, after reading the 20Books website thoroughly, I found the perfect excuse: “Ohhh. This is an indie conference. My goal is to get into trad pub.” Boom. Done.

Or so I thought. 

I have a very hard time saying no to people, so when I told my friend I wouldn’t be going because [insert all excuses here], she said, “Okay, but hear me out.” She pointed out that there was still value in a lot of the talks, and that the community alone was worth the experience. It wasn’t all “how to publish your own book.” Some of it was “how to craft better characters” or “how to write faster,” etc. Topics that would be useful no matter what my publishing goals might be. She didn’t argue with me, or give me a huge, lengthy speech. But she gave me enough to feel guilty about, and to revisit the topic. 

When I got back home that day, I started seriously looking into what it would be like for me to go. I looked at finances, transportation, hotels. I went through the calendar and everything my kids would have going on while I was gone. I had long talks with my husband in which he talked me off all my ledges and assured me everything would be fine, that he would take care of all he could and that his mom would be there to help with the rest (he had just started working from home at the time, which helped me feel a lot more comfortable with this). He reminded me that I could use this trip as a tax write-off, since I am self-employed and writing is part of my business (not the part that had been making any money yet, but still). 

Armed with these new reassurances, I started taking the next steps. I bought my conference ticket. I found a cheap flight (because if I flew instead of driving, I could arrive the morning of the first day and leave in the evening on the last day, to spend fewer nights away from my kids) and I got the flight for free thanks to a rebate from a credit card I signed up for. I also saved money on hotel because I wouldn’t be staying the extra two nights that everyone else would be. Things fell into place quickly and conveniently.

The night before I left, I sobbed like a baby. I had so many emotions about doing something like this in general, and even more about taking so much of anything (time, money, attention) just for me. I’ve been wanting to publish a book for 15 years, serious about it for five, actively pursuing it for four. But somewhere along the way, I became a different person with different priorities and responsibilities. I became less of my own entity, and much more deeply intertwined in other people (namely, my kids). That, paired with all the feelings that come with years of pursuing a dream and being constantly rejected, was overwhelming, especially when I still had the mindset that self-publishing was “giving up." My husband just held me and let me cry and told me everything would be okay, and that I needed to do this.

It was a tough start, but I got out the door and to the airport the next morning. By the time I got to Las Vegas, I was invigorated. I hadn’t done anything truly on my own since before I got married. My last solo adventure had been a trip to Boston and New York to meet up with my former roommate, an unprecedented trip for a small-town girl like me who always wanted to get out and go somewhere amazing but always feared she never would.

Less than two hours into my conference attendance, I was ready to consider self-publishing. And that was just Vendor Day. I hadn’t heard any of the speakers yet, because the first day is dedicated only to vendors (and swag!) showcasing apps and programs and services to help indie authors put out their best work. Just looking at what was possible gave me a renewed sense of hope. I’d had no idea a self-published book could be so beautiful and look so legit. (Hint: It’s because indie books are legit, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise)

By the keynote speech on the second day, I had already committed to publishing my books on my own. 

I couldn’t believe how quickly my heart had changed. Being around so many incredible authors, at all stages of their careers, brought an energy unlike anything I’d ever felt before. It made me feel like I could do anything. What once had terrified me (the thought of doing all these publishing and marketing tasks on my own, putting myself out there with no agent or publisher) suddenly felt empowering. Why wouldn’t I want to make all the decisions? Why wouldn’t I want all the power? Before, I had thought it better to be humble, to defer those things to the experts, to admit there were others better suited to handling them than me, but—why? Question the premise! I’m a control freak, by nature. Giving up the decisions to someone else doesn’t even make sense for me. I could learn to trust myself, and make this work. And where I truly fell short, I could hire professionals sometimes too.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how ridiculous it was to resist. I’d seen many traditionally published books come out that were not ready to be on the shelf (no offense to the authors who were following the process set out for them, and probably working with overworked publishing professionals struggling in the wake of post-COVID life). I realized that there is still merit in trad pub (obviously) but it is not the be-all, end-all for authors. And better yet, I realized I didn’t have to wait for someone to pick me and let me share my book with the world. I could pick myself. 

Once upon a time, the idea of “picking myself” would have sounded lame and pathetic to me. But not anymore. Despite my initial thoughts on self-publishing, I am now proud to go around saying “I’m a published author! I'm a published author!” and that I did it independently.

To those who have pushed me to take steps toward this stage of my life, please know that you have my whole heart. I can never truly repay you. <3


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