Why indie?

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for a long while. I’ve thought about it time and again in discussions with other authors, with friends and family, and with readers. It’s about why I decided to go indie for my first YA series, Fourth World—consciously, from the beginning, without even attempting to find an agent or work with a traditional Big Five publisher.

Even with the explosion of indie books as a major market force in the publishing world over the last several years, there is still quite a bit of stigma attached to self-publishing. And even with amazing, well-written and professional books climbing the bestseller list, there is still the unshakable notion that self-published books are exclusively slush-pile books, books that the author attempted to traditionally publish but were rejected—obviously because they were objectively bad books—and the author went ahead and published them anyway. There’s a notion that indie books are subpar, are messy/poorly edited/just all around crappy, “not real” books.

You can say that this stigma might be fading slightly with the increase of hybrid authors—particularly authors that started out traditionally published, then published indie later. A number of YA authors have recently had series canceled, book deals dropped, etc., and gone ahead and published the rest of the series or their dropped books independently. That’s a great sign for the increased “legitimacy” of indie writing as a profession, but it’s still just not quite there yet. By and large, indie books are considered lesser, and a career as an indie author is not as valued.

Maybe it’s because of this stigma that no one really seems to believe that an author would deliberately choose to publish indie first, without even trying to get a traditional publishing contract. Maybe that’s why they automatically assume this is a sub-quality work, because the assumption is that every indie book is a book that was sent out on submission and failed to get a contract.

But in reality, this just isn’t the case. There are a lot of reasons that someone may choose to publish indie first. For example, Susan Kaye Quinn outlines the very clear reasons why it makes business sense (and with some excellent numbers to back it up) in her Indie Author Survival Guide. But there’s more reasons than just business ones (although that is, of course, a big part of it for many authors).

So I thought I’d take this chance to explain all the myriad reasons why, after thinking long and hard about it, I made the choice I did. This is going to be really long, and really specific—my reasons for this book—so obviously it’s not going to apply to all or most indie authors. But I just wanted to do it to provide an example of how complex a decision this is, and how there’s so much more to it than just “indie books are slush pile rejects,” to help kind of cut through the stigma.

Reason 1: I couldn’t afford to wait.

Yes, yes, I just said, “It’s more than just business,” and now I start off with the money spiel. But listen. All traditionally published authors know that you are not going to make a living off your books until you’ve been in the business awhile—and even many strong-selling, multiply-published authors aren’t making a living for themselves; they rely on day jobs or, if they are full-time writers, on supplementary income from spouses, parents, or other family members. You don’t just decide to become a writer and immediately quit your job. You have to keep working and writing at the same time, usually for many years if not forever. This isn’t just because author earnings are typically not that great (although that is part of it)—it’s also because you don’t see any money until you’ve signed a contract (typically advances are split into three payments—one-third when you sign the contract, one-third when you’ve finished edits, and the last third when the book is released), a process which can take years.

So, obviously, you’d never rely on writing as your income when there’s no guarantee about when/if you’re ever going to get paid.

But what happens if you suddenly become unable to work? This is what happened to me. I worked as an after-school teacher for two years when I suddenly began having seizures. That’s a long story that I won’t bore you with now (I touch on it somewhat here) but it involved having to leave my job, switching doctors multiple times, going almost a year without a diagnosis, having minor brain surgery, and then, Surprise!, still continuing to have the seizures even after recovering from the brain surgery. There’s no preventative treatment for my condition. The only medication that has been effective has to be taken during a seizure, and it knocks me out for the rest of the day. When you don’t know whether you’re going to be able to make it through any given day without sudden-onset convulsions, working out of the house is not an option. I need an income. I don’t have years to spend on sending out query letters for books that might not sell, writing more books that might not sell, and hoping for the best. Even without having published that much, I’m making enough with indie that I can pay my medical bills. That’s money in my pocket now, not two or five or ten years down the road, and right now, that has to be my top priority.

Reason 2: This book I wrote is pretty diverse, and the traditional publishing industry isn’t really there yet.

I worked hard on Fourth World and I feel like it’s up there in quality with many traditionally published YA science fiction novels. But from the beginning, when I was still weighing in my mind whether I wanted to query with this book, I had a lot of reservations. See, like I said before, I used to teach, and this book was based on a story idea that came mostly from my students. I taught science, and when the Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012, I did a week-long unit that turned into a month because the kids were so damn excited about Mars, about space travel, about working for NASA, about colonizing the planet. And when I finally managed to divert their attention away from Mars and onto a unit on archaeology, one of their first questions was, “Would there be archaeology on Mars? What would we find if we lived there and did an archaeological dig? What if people lived on Mars in ancient times?”

That was the premise of Fourth World. It was written entirely for those kids, for them to be able to live the adventures they were dreaming of during science class.

And more than that—it was written for the older kids, the fifth and sixth graders who were starting to notice that, apart from Rick Riordan’s books, there weren’t any kids who looked like them on book covers. There weren’t any kids who were like them starring in space adventures, colonizing Mars and traveling through time.

I wrote this story for them, so you can damn well bet that the characters were going to be like them.

But the problem with traditional publishing right now is that it tends to favor white characters, particularly in genre fiction. I knew that having a Latino protagonist in a YA sci-fi novel was going to be a hard sell. Then factor in the other protagonist, Nadin—a non-white girl from a non-Earth cultureI want to emphasize that even though Nadin lives on Mars (or, as her people call it, Iamos), she is not an alien. The Iamoi are humans, the same as people from Earth (possibly even originating from Earth—this is discussed more in the book, so I won’t spoil you). But I know that there is a lot of concern about “ace aliens,” aka only-ace-because-they’re-aliens/not-human. This isn’t the case. (because, as my kids pointed out to me, “How come whenever we see Martians on TV, they never look like us? If they’re not green, they look like this!”). THEN factor in that Isaak is demisexual and Nadin is asexual.

I mean, maybe it would have sold to a publisher. It may have. You never know. But I really, really doubt it. And if it did, I knew I was going to be letting myself in for a long road of struggles. “Does he need to be demisexual? Does anyone know what that even is? But it’s not going to sell without romance. What, you mean aces can have romance? But it’s not really romance if there’s not sex. Can’t you just add in a little sexual tension?

I know that the publishing industry is trying to change. But it’s an uphill struggle. Even people who want to make a change in the industry sometimes can’t do a whole lot:

Things are changing. But they’re changing slowly. I wanted to get this book out there while the kids I wrote it for are still in the target audience age range (since those 2012 sixth graders are now high school students). And maybe it’s a little selfish, since I also wanted to get this book out there because, as of now, there is ONE young adult book with an asexual protagonist—ONE—and none at all with demi protagonists. If I’d had a book with an ace heroine when I was in high school, maybe I wouldn’t have spent a decade hiding in the closet, praying to God to make me “normal.”

Reason 3: There’s something to be said for creative control.

Back when I was debating whether or not to query Fourth World with an agent (a separate choice from querying small presses, which I actually did do before ultimately deciding indie was a better fit for me), I was good friends with another YA author who was published with a Big Five publisher. She had two books out with this publisher, but was not happy at all with them or with her writing career in general because of it. She was constantly upset, stressed out, or angry, and most of it boiled down to creative control—or lack thereof. She had been very unhappy with the cover for her first novel, but the cover for the second book really took the cake. It was a pretty cover, but had nothing to do with the story inside the pages at all. For one thing, it showed a couple embracing—only there was no romance to speak of in the book.

She argued very hard with the publisher about this, because she anticipated backlash from readers who would see the cover and think the book was something it wasn’t. She went back and forth with them for months, but in the end, the publisher insisted on their cover design, and that’s what went through.

And guess what? Within days of the book’s release, Goodreads was flooded with reviews from unhappy readers who were lured in by the cover and found a story that was nothing like what they’d anticipated.

Watching this horror story play out behind the scenes was completely agonizing for me. I was so frustrated on behalf of my friend, but there was nothing I could do about it. And as I was working on Fourth World, I just kept thinking, over and over—this is what’s going to happen to me, too. I had a really specific idea in mind for how I wanted the cover to look, and I knew that there was no way in hell that I’d get it. Even if the book sold, even if the characters made it through edits intact, there was just no way the cover would have been what I wanted. For one thing, there weren’t even any stock photos available that would have fit the bill, and 99% of the time, publishers use stock photos. And for another thing, this.

Indie publishing gives you freedom. It gave me the freedom to set up a custom photoshoot, supporting an indie business run by a woman of color and putting the spotlight on two very wonderful young models who exactly fit my vision for my characters. It gave me the ability to get the story I wanted to tell into readers’ hands, the readers who need the book most. You can take more risks with indie than you would be able to in a traditional publishing environment, and for this series, that’s what I wanted to do.

After all,

Yeah. I agree with that.

This isn’t to say I am entirely ruling out traditional publishing for anything ever. There are a lot of advantages to it, and I think it would be a good experience to try that route sometime. But for this book? It was just entirely out of the question. This book was special to me and it was important for it to be done a specific way, a way that I knew I simply, flat-out, would not be able to get through a traditional publishing house.

So that’s why I went indie.


  • G.L. Tomas

    January 10, 2016 at 12:00 PM

    These are pretty much all the reasons we chose to self our first YA novel, the Mark of Noba, too. Love how we both read Susan Kaye Quinn’s book and got inspired by it. That’s like our bible! Started reading it and really wish you luck in your journey as an Indie since the road is long but in our opinion worth it!

    1. Lyssa

      January 10, 2016 at 4:52 PM

      Thank you so much! Good luck with your publishing as well, I will have to check your book out! 😀

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