Art Imitating Life and the Benefits of Self-Publishing

So…

Ka Kite is out, y’all! I’m so excited, you guys. Probably more than I should be. I got my hard copy in the mail from Amazon two days ago, and I promptly sat down, put everything else aside, and read my novel cover to cover in the span of a day. I remember getting such joy of doing that when I published Aroha last year, and this time it was no different. That new book smell, the glossy cover art, seeing your words in print: it never gets old. When you’ve got a tangible copy in your hands, even though you wrote it and edited it and conceived of it all, for a brief, lovely moment, you read it through new eyes, and fall into the story yourself. It’s a wonderful feeling.

Now I’m all done, and the sad realization has hit me that my Aroha-world, the world that Miranda and Hemi and Rae and Georgie and Nick and Dusty have been bumbling around in for the last three years of my life, is all finished. I knew that I’d feel deflated and aimless once it was over, and I do. But I’m also really chuffed.

It has been a fun experience, a stressful experience, a learning experience. I’ve watched myself grow as a writer. I’ve watched myself navigate through things that once caused pain and turn them into fiction that touches others. I’ve learned the ins and outs of the self-publishing business. And after all of it, I can say that I’m the author of two novels.

So I’m sad, but it’s happy-sad.

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A selfie from Instagram with my self-published books because ain’t nobody got time for pretense.

For a long time after I published Aroha, I felt conflicted about it. I was proud, and I loved hearing people’s praise of my book and seeing the reviews, but there was also an underlying current from certain spaces that was judgmental. And the nagging little voice in my head would say, “You aren’t a real writer. You aren’t selling more copies or getting as much positive feedback because you self-published. People who know literature aren’t going to buy your book because it’s not legit.” I told that voice to shut up, but it crept back in more than once. And the thing is, it was more than partly true.

I’ve been at this game a long time.  I’m friends with lit majors and English teachers and professional authors and book critics. I have run across more than one person who would light up when they heard I’d published a book (“Oh!”), only for that light to dim into a look of barely-disguised boredom when they find out that I’m self-published (“Oh…”). It happens everywhere, all the time. People don’t even realize they’re doing it half the time (and then there are the ones that do, the admitted “book snobs” that I have literally zero fucks for – don’t get me started).

I get it. Self-publishing takes this highly sought after thing – getting an agent and/or signing your book with a publishing house – and makes it possible for everybody. It dilutes the pool, and fills it with mediocre, amateur authors, which makes it harder to find the real gems.

Except that it doesn’t.

I’m not in there, milling about with the likes of Stephen King and Diana Gabaldon (I wish!). Self-publishing makes it easier to get your work in print, but that’s it. The rest is up to you. All the marketing, promotion and grunt work is yours, and it is not easy. Self-publishing puts your work into a printed object, but it doesn’t ensure an audience and it definitely doesn’t ensure success (the opposite, in fact, as publishing houses and PR folks use that snobbishness towards “indie authors” to their advantage). For many, self-publishing is the kiss of death. The success stories are few and far between (most of us aren’t going to end up as E.L. James – which I’m okay with).

Why did I self-publish? I didn’t want to at first. In fact, after I finished Aroha, I spent the better part of a year querying it around to agents and publishing houses. I got some really good feedback (see my post from a few weeks ago about niche writing), but no bites. I got a personal, long letter from one agent that really meant a lot to me, because she had clearly read my work and actually took the time to give me some pointers. She told me that my novel would be a “hard sell” because the subject matter was grim and unflinching, but there was also this sweet love story, and most publishers wouldn’t be able to fit it between literary fiction and romance and find an audience. She encouraged me to continue writing, and not to give up, because she felt it was good. But she warned me that it might be hard to find someone willing to take the risk.

After I read her letter, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t upset. I was inspired. Because I had figured out what to do. I had never really considered self-publishing before; I’d always just assumed I’d try to shop the book around. But the entire time I did, I was nervous. Nervous about the things they would edit out of my story. Nervous that they would chop and hack at my words and make them not mine anymore. I was afraid of how they would market it. Afraid they would want me to write under my real name. Afraid they would plaster my picture all over the promotional material. Afraid of critics picking me apart when I still felt very raw and vulnerable. The idea of putting my book, a book that I took ten years to get up the courage to write, in someone else’s hands, filled me with anxiety.

If I self-published, I could control all of that. I could choose my pen name, the look and style of the book, everything down to the cover art and the words on the back. I could promote myself as little or as much as I wanted, and take baby steps out into the world of authorship. I would be in control. And that was something I desperately wanted and needed, even if it took me a while to realize it.

Aroha and its sequel are deeply personal. They are fiction, but so much of it is pulled from my real life, from experiences I’ve had and people I have known. The subject matter is hard, and it is not an easy read. It was even harder to write at times. It is a deep-rooted narrative that I am forever entwined with. For that reason, it is more important to me to simply have it “out there” than it is to sell a hundred or even a dozen copies, to make real money at it, or to have notoriety and “fans”. Just having those books in my hands is enough validation for me. It is my legacy, my tale of survival, as melodramatic as it may sound (I am a writer, after all). Would the rest be nice? Of course. But I’ll tell any book snob to go get stuffed, because for me, the real triumph was writing them and putting them out there on my own terms.

Self-publishing Aroha is the best decision I ever made, because I have been hands-on every step of the way. It is my baby, and this is how it should be. Yes, I get discouraged sometimes when I see the pitiful sales numbers, when friends or colleagues make offhand remarks about “indie authors”, or when the shops in town have book signings for people I know but won’t carry my book because it’s from Amazon. It burns. But I wouldn’t change it. My book has found its niche, and even though it may take twice or even three times as long, it will find the audience it is meant for.

As a teenager, writing angsty love poetry in my little notebook, I never dreamed that I’d grow up to write the complicated and flawed female characters that seem to dominate my work. But I wouldn’t change them. Somewhere along the line I made the decision to thread much of myself into my heroes and heroines, to put the truth into my writing, warts and all. I probably have Margaret Atwood to thank for that. My writing is deeply, deeply personal, no matter how remote it may sometimes seem. So it only makes sense that when writing such a personal narrative, an author might want to control their own narrative, too.

Ka Kite is available for Kindle and paperback, and is now up for reviews on Goodreads.  I’d be overjoyed if you read it.

 

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2 thoughts on “Art Imitating Life and the Benefits of Self-Publishing

  1. KEL says:

    Self published or not…Aroha left me wanting more. The tale spun around these captivating characters brought this bookworm into their ( and your ) world. I look forward to your sequel and where it takes not only Miranda, Hemi, Rea, Georgie, and Dusty….but myself as well. It’s a well written saga deserving of notice by all. Thank you Lillah Lawson!

    Like

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