Writers’ Roundtable: Self-Published Authors Make Their Own Success
Author: Adi Gandhi
September 6, 2021
Most of the books we read come to us through the mill of traditional publishing. They pass through the hands of agents, editors, and publicists until they come to rest on bookstore shelves and online websites in their glossy covers. Publishers have become almost intrinsic to a book’s existence—so much so that they are ingrained into the very pages of books, whether as the logo along a spine or as the name at the bottom of a title page.
Yet traditional publishing isn’t the only option for authors who want to get their books out there. Many authors choose to bypass publishing houses and to independently publish their books. While reasons for doing so vary, the motivation to self-publish can be even stronger for queer authors, who find themselves having to cater to straight or cis audiences to be more profitable in traditional publishing. In our recent roundtables featuring trans and queer women of color writers in the crime genre, several authors spoke about how they often experienced rejection from the publishing industry due to their stories’ lack of mainstream appeal. As Mia Manansala explained, “the most common rejection was, ‘This book is great, but we can’t sell it. It has no audience.’”
Blue Delliquanti, M. Haynes, and Fiona Zedde are just three of the many talented queer writers who are self-publishing today. Their work spans a variety of genres, from graphic novels to fantasy to romance. In this roundtable, they talk with us about their experiences as self-publishers, their thoughts on the contemporary publishing scene, and their advice for writers who are considering becoming their own publishers.
Blue Delliquanti (they/them) is a comic artist and writer based in Minneapolis. From 2012 to 2020 they serialized and self-published the Prism-winning webcomic O Human Star, and they co-created the graphic novel Meal with Soleil Ho. Their next book, Across A Field of Starlight, comes out from Random House Graphic in 2022.
M. Haynes’s (he/him) childhood was so filled with fantasy worlds that he just had to create one of his own. As a result, he began writing at the age of nine, crafting his own short stories and the Elemental Series of novels. With his writing, M. Haynes hopes to show that fantasy protagonists can be more than just straight, blonde haired, blue eyed men or boys.
Jamaican-born Fiona Zedde is the author of several novels, including the Lambda Literary Award finalists Bliss and Every Dark Desire. She loves French pastries, English cars, Jamaican food, and currently lives in Spain. Her novel, Dangerous Pleasures, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and was the winner of an About.com Readers’ Choice Award for Best Lesbian Novel/Memoir. Her latest novel, House of Agnes, is available now.
What was your journey to becoming a self-published author?
M.: For me, self-publishing was the best route to create the types of stories I wanted to create. I have known for years that I wanted to write, but I was warned that if I went the “traditional” route I would likely be discouraged from centering nuanced Black and/or queer characters. So rather than allowing that to happen, I decided to self-publish.
It wasn’t an easy decision; I had to learn (often the hard way) how to find an artist, editors, and conventions to promote my book, and how to even format my books in the first place. My first year or two as a self-published author were all about learning, but I can honestly say that all of those dead-end conventions and late nights were worth it in the end. I wanted to be able to control the stories I wrote and self-publishing was the best way to do that.
Blue: As a comic artist and writer, much of my career benefitted from a “right place, right time” situation. I began by serializing my comics online, on a personal website that I built myself, but around that same time crowdfunding campaigns like Kickstarters became popular and effective tools for funding and distributing printed comic collections. Thanks to advice from colleagues and a snowballing readership, I was able to distribute my comics on my own terms.
Fiona: After being with a traditional publisher, I also started indie publishing to give myself more options. With a publisher, I was putting out one book a year, writing only full length novels, and exploring specific themes. Going the indie way, I felt free to experiment with single short stories and short story collections, to publish multiple projects per year, and to try my hand at riskier themes or ideas.
Also, working with a publisher can be a long game. Between completing the book and holding it in my hands, years could pass. Indie publishing gives me the (nearly) instant gratification of a shorter time between book completion and publication.
These days, I still self-publish as well as work with traditional publishers. This hybrid style suits my current level of productivity.
“Self-published queer stories don’t have to be the ambassadors to a mostly straight cis audience the way big publisher books need to be—they can afford to be niche, ambiguous, and complex.”
“Bad and good are possible on both sides”
What are some misconceptions about self-published authors? What would you say in response to those misconceptions?
Fiona: The biggest misconception I see about indie authors is that the overall quality of our books is lacking. I’ve seen amazing, well-done books by indie authors and I’ve also seen terrible books from established writers and publishers. Bad and good are possible on both sides.
M.: I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that self-published authors just put together any kind of work to be published. The idea is that we all do “vanity publishing”, which is just publishing works to have works published. I am in community with quite a few other self-published authors and all of us use editors, beta readers, cover artists, and the like to make our work high quality. Some people cut corners, and of course we don’t have the funding of traditionally published authors, but the work most of us put out is quality.
Blue: The most common misconception I get as a cartoonist is that I must work in the superhero genre for a large publisher like Marvel or DC, which is the majority of the work people know if they read comics at all. Usually, I have to explain how vibrant the world of self-published comics actually is. And by talking more about the kinds of stories I like to tell, people start perceiving my work as they would that of a prose writer, and indie comics start sounding much richer and more vibrant than cape comics!
More than just an internet hole
What are the biggest joys you experience as a self-published author? What are the biggest challenges you face?
Blue: Readers who seek out my self-published work are passionate, engaged, and genuinely kind! I have a positive experience with my readership for the most part. An unexpected challenge in the past year is having to forgo comic conventions and public gatherings where I can speak with readers, participate on panels, and all of the other things that help remind me I’m not just drawing comics and dropping them down an internet hole.
M.: I love being able to interact with people about my work. I think being a self-published author gives me the opportunity to engage with fans in a more direct way. Cons have always been a source of joy for me, so being able to go to those and connect with people is something I love.
Probably my biggest challenge is balancing all the things that come with being a fully involved self-published author. I’ve had to find editors, artists, reviewers, web designers, promotion specialists, and more. It can be overwhelming how much work goes into truly getting your work out there, but I think the joy I get from my work helps me to deal with that.
Fiona: There’s nothing quite like watching in real time the results of my marketing efforts. It’s great to immediately see the rise in sales when a particular campaign works. That way I can try to duplicate that success. At the same time, the biggest challenge for me as an indie author is marketing. How to do it right. How often to do it. How and when to shift gears when something that was churning out sales two months ago suddenly stops being effective.
“The straight books are more profitable”
How does being queer impact your experience as a self-published author?
M.: Like with most things there are benefits and detriments. I think my queerness and wanting to bring that into my work makes my writing stand out a bit more. I also think that it makes me comfortable enough to navigate a lot of spaces and connect with a lot of people. Ironically, although being out about my queerness helps my comfort levels, I think it can also throw off other people’s comfort. I have been to conventions where my queerness was unwelcome and I have talked with customers who were uncomfortable with my books’ subject matter. Regardless, though, I would never change being an openly gay writer.
Fiona: From the beginning, it’s always been finding and maintaining the same level of passion for the straight books I publish. It’s an unfortunate truth that the straight books are more profitable but I just love my queer characters and stories so much!
Blue: To be honest, being openly queer has been beneficial in the indie comics world in that describing my work as queer and created from a queer perspective draws in queer readers. It’s not the broadest audience, but those who do check out my work understand what I’m trying to do, and often haven’t been able to find what they’re looking for in books from bigger publishers. Self-published queer stories don’t have to be the ambassadors to a mostly straight cis audience the way big publisher books need to be—they can afford to be niche, ambiguous, and complex.
“If I went the ‘traditional’ route I would likely be discouraged from centering nuanced Black and/or queer characters. So rather than allowing that to happen, I decided to self-publish.”
What advice do you have for self-published authors? What resources would you recommend?
Fiona: Finding a community of people doing the same work you are is essential—locate them by searching through social media groups, writing organizations, Meetup.com groups, etc. Also, allow others to help you and then help others once you’re able. Finally, for writers of women-loving-women books, check out iReadIndies.com—they’re on social media, and have a website as well as a newsletter. The organization is a great resource for self-published authors.
Blue: For comic artists, try publishing comics online before you try funding a print book! Aside from the usual social media platforms, sites like Webtoon are a good place to serialize long-form work and develop an audience. Independent comic conventions like TCAF or SPX, or local zinefests are good places to meet other self-publishers as well.
M.: Self-publishing is rewarding, but it can be A LOT of work if you don’t know at least some of what you’re getting into. Think about what you want your work to look like, how you want it to be published, and who you want to appeal to and look into how to achieve that. As far as resources, Fiverr is pretty good for finding a lot of things like cover artists, book designers, editors, and more. I would also strongly suggest you look up conventions or festivals that would have the type of people you want to appeal to. Inclusive cons like Flame Con and Multiverse (if you’re doing comics, fantasy, sci-fi, etc.) will be filled with the type of people who would probably love your work, but there are plenty of spaces like that for all sorts of writing. Find your tribe and join them!
Crowdfunding, Tik Toks, and a wide open future
What does the future for self-published authors look like to you?
Blue: Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon seem to have proved themselves to be sustainable and reliable, which is a huge benefit for self-published indie comics. I am concerned about the trend of the internet becoming more centralized and hostile to adult content, which always disproportionately hinders queer artists and their work.
M.: I agree that crowdfunding is a big part of the future. Through crowdfunding, people can publish works with built-in fanbases, which was a big hurdle for a lot of starting authors. I also think that self-published authors more than probably anyone else will have to really take advantage of the multimedia world we live in. A semi-viral Tik Tok vid to accompany your book release could really boost your profile (I’ve seen it happen), so I expect authors to more and more take advantage of visuals to accompany even their prose books.
Fiona: Every day, we’re learning more about the business, collaborating, and sharing resources. We’re publishing books outside the mainstream current, influencing that current, and also making our own successes. Because of these things, the future looks promising for us and it looks wide open.
O Human Star: Volume Three by Blue Delliquanti Paperback, 978-0990995623, 200 pp. December 2020 Return of A.G. by M. Haynes, illustrated by Jermaine Dickerson Createspace Independent Publishing Platform Paperback, 978-1548264598, 266 pp. July 2017 Femme Like Her by Fiona Zedde Paperback, 979-8655047259, 264 pp. November 2020