As I prepare for the launch of my debut novel, it feels like a good time to reflect on my long path to publication. This has not been an easy journey by any means, and this post condenses many years of angst, self-doubt, and hard decisions into a relatively short summary.
I never could have predicted the process would be this arduous when I started writing the book eight years ago. But all this difficulty has made the triumph of finally releasing this book even more satisfying. I don’t know if it will ever stop feeling like a miracle to have it out in the world.
Back to the Beginning
It all began in the summer of 2012, when I read a blog post that encouraged me to take my writing more seriously. At the time, my kids were 4 and 2, finally emerging at a place where they didn’t need constant supervision and could play together on their own – which meant I suddenly had all this extra brain space.
My husband was working long days, so when I was home I spent a lot of time in my head. It wasn’t always the greatest place to be, since I often spent way too much time dwelling on various anxieties. But the blog post hit me at just the right time, and my brain was soon buzzing with story ideas instead.
My first inclination was to write nonfiction, since I’d spent my college and grad school years writing scientific papers and nutrition educational materials. But I was pretty burned out on that. I quickly scrapped the idea of a memoir, since my life is quite boring and I didn’t have any ideas for stunts like “The Year I Ate Only Dandelion Greens.” I’d always loved writing fiction when I was younger, though, and long ago I’d dreamed of becoming a young adult novelist.
After brainstorming a bit, I started to see how I could work my passion for food justice into a fictional narrative. As it turned out, this was the perfect match for me, because I didn’t have to come at it from an place of authority. I didn’t have to pretend I knew the “right” answers. I was able to step into the minds of very different people and explore food issues from a variety of angles… which I found to be tremendous fun.
Thus, When We Vanished was born. I wrote the first draft in about five months. As soon as I finished it, I knew that I needed to make some big changes – so I promptly trashed it and started all over again. I spent the next three years on the story, waking up early every morning to write, until – with the help of my wonderful beta readers – I finally had a polished novel. But I knew that these characters’ story was far from over, so the day after I finished up the first book, I started a brand new document for the sequel.
Pursuing Traditional Publication
After polishing the heck out of WWV, I was ready to start pursuing publication. I wanted to go the traditional route: sign with a literary agent who would sell it to a publishing house, work with them on the editing and cover and marketing plan, and enjoy a new career as a totally legit, professional author.
So I started querying agents. And while I received some encouraging feedback, I wasn’t able to find an agent who was interested in representing me. (This short summary really doesn’t do justice to the painfulness of this process – the joy of having an agent request it, the inevitable disappointment when, months later, they wrote back to say they’d decided to pass – or to the length of it. All told, I queried more than 100 agents over a period of several years.)
During this time, I’d become more engaged in conversations about racial justice, and was trying to put this into practice more effectively in my own life. I had already been working on tackling my implicit biases since I was writing about characters with different cultural backgrounds than my own. But this is only one piece of the larger puzzle. A harder, and arguably more important, part is making sure your actions line up with your values.
In my case, I started to wonder: what if I did get a traditional publishing deal with this story? Very, very few authors are fortunate enough to receive an offer, and there was a very real chance that my novel would fill the slot that otherwise could have been filled with an #ownvoices book instead.
So I began to feel more conflicted about this path. I knew that stepping away might be the right choice, but I so badly wanted the prestige and validation from important people that comes along with a traditional publishing deal. I wanted someone to tell me that my writing was good enough to publish.
But you know what? I knew, deep down, that it was good enough. After all, plenty of beta readers – some of whom didn’t even know me – had enjoyed it immensely. Heck, even I found myself enjoying it, which surprised me since I’m endlessly self-critical of everything I write.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the end game was never about impressing The Experts. It was about writing a story that readers would connect with, that would be entertaining and satisfying and maybe even the thing that someone out there really needed.
Once I managed to stop listening to my prestige-seeking ego, I started to wonder if moving away from traditional publishing was better from a racial justice perspective, too. Because one of the ways that white people like myself can help balance the inequalities inherent in the system is by choosing to not take up space that could be better filled by someone else.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s a really hard thing to do. But the thought of stepping away grew more and more appealing. Maybe because I subconsciously knew it was the right move… or maybe I was just really tired of all the rejection. One thing became clear: it was time to switch gears.
So, for various reasons, I decided to abandon my pursuit of traditional publication. The question then became: what next? During this time, I had drafted the whole four-book series and an unrelated standalone novel. I had plenty of material to work with, and self-publishing was the next logical step. But many things had been holding me back from this path:
- In order to do it well, you have to be willing to invest a fair amount of money, to the tune of several thousand dollars. For a long time, my family was living on a super-tight budget, so it didn’t seem like self-publishing would ever be financially within our reach.
- Based on my limited knowledge, it seemed like Amazon was the only game in town for self-publishing. Which was a problem for me: if you’ve read WWV, you’ll know I’m not a fan of huge corporations, and I go out of my way to avoid this one in particular. I figured that if I self-published, I’d be totally beholden to a company whose values are not at all in alignment with my own.
- I worried about my ability to market my own books effectively. Social media is hard for me, and I had no platform to speak of. If I didn’t have the muscle of a big company helping me out with marketing, how was I going to do it on my own?
- Also, how was I going to make the book pretty? I had no idea how to find a designer who could create a high-quality book that I’d be proud to call mine.
So instead of plunging right into self-publishing, I decided to do something different: in June of 2019, I began publishing it online as a serial novel.
And, guess what? A funny thing happened once I started putting the story out there: certain barriers started breaking down. It was almost as if I needed to commit to releasing the book on my own terms before things could start falling into place. And, one by one, they did.
- My husband’s income started growing as he increased the hours at the restaurant where he worked, and for the first time in our adult lives we finally had a little surplus – something we could use to invest in making a professional-quality book.
- As I researched self-publishing more, I learned about other distribution methods, including the company I ended up using, IngramSpark. (Side note, I was very tempted to not have my books available on Amazon at all. But after a lot of thought, I decided that it was important to me that the book would be accessible to readers wherever they are – which meant making it available at all possible retailers. Not everyone shares my anti-Amazon sentiment, and plenty of people have totally valid reasons for shopping there. It might also be the only way my non-U.S. readers are able to find the book. I guess this is a good illustration of the many gray areas involved in making these decisions!)
- I took a platform-building class from DIY MFA, and gained a better understanding of how to market effectively. The course helped me get over my mental block by reframing marketing and promo: it’s not about pushing sales on people, it’s about thinking of how you can be of service to your readers, and delivering content that is valuable to them. That was really a game-changer for me! It still isn’t easy and I’m at the very beginning of a long uphill battle, but I like focusing my efforts on building relationships with the people who follow me, as opposed to focusing solely on metrics and traditional methods like advertising.
- Also very importantly, I found out that a friend of mine was an amazing (and award-winning) book designer. What incredible luck! And I cannot believe how gorgeous the print version is. Even if it had gone through the traditional publishing process, I don’t think the result would’ve been half as perfect as the book he designed for me.
So, with all those pieces coming together, I pivoted yet again once the serial concluded. I ended up forming my own independent publishing company, Rootcity Press, then went about publishing this book on my own.
I’ve learned a TON over the past year, and even though it’s been a real challenge in every way, I’m so glad that this book is finally out in the world. However messy the path was, it’s here now, and ready to be added to your bookshelf!
Have you gone through your own publication journey? What were some of the challenges/triumphs along the way? Any questions about self-publishing details or things you’d like me to cover in future posts? Let me know in the comments!