Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Evolution of an Indie Author


1970-ish: How vain would a writer have to be to slap down good money in order to see his work in print? What unscrupulous publisher would take advantage of such self-aggrandizement? Vanity presses, indeed! I eschew the like.

Mid-1980s: As a college student, I concede that certain academics, writing on esoteric topics, could find it beneficial to self-publish in their field. But never fiction!

1990s: Several of the members of our local poetry club have published chapbooks. That’s quaint. Not something I would do, but I see the value, especially for their families and friends.

1992: I begin my first book, a picture-book with quite a bit of text, Up a Rutted Road. When it comes time to submit it, I begin at the top with a major publisher. One of the high-ranking editors likes it and asks if I would be willing to rewrite it as a middle-grade novel. Uh, yes. No self-publishing for me!

1993: The rewrite of URR is finished. I resubmit to the same editor, who eventually responds with a lovely personal note. "Unfortunately, our MG list is full now. We cannot consider another title for a couple years." Though discouragement rears its ugly head, I continue to study fiction writing, but abstain from submitting, waiting for the wound to heal.

Early 2000s: What in the world is going on in publishing? I hear of many writers who, after forfeiting all hope of being pubbed traditionally, now turn to print-on-demand, whatever that is. I’m pretty sure it’s a type of self-publishing. Meanwhile, I continue to study my craft and write occasionally.

2001: I co-founded Southern Indiana Writers' Salon, a group of local writers. A few of us intend to seriously pursue a writing career.

2002: My friends, Ron and Jo E., support my writing. They seem to think I have some talent and want to sponsor the—here it comes—self-publishing, vía POD, of my manuscript. I decline. “If I can’t find a traditional publisher, I’ll go unpubbed. I’m leaving my writing career in God’s hands.” And He would never want me to do such a vain thing. Would He? No. No. Of course . . . not. But is vanity the only thing that drives one to . . . ? Never mind.

2003: Now I can say I’ve met people who have published their own work. As for quality, that varies. Some works are very good. Most could benefit from a careful, critical editing by a pair of knowledgeable, objective eyes.
             I’m sticking to the traditional route. I approach the same editor again, ignorant that that generally is not done. She agrees to take another look. Alas, again she rejects it, saying it needs more conflict.
            At some point around this time, the Lord—always gracious and merciful—leads Ramona K. Cecil to SIWS. We become friends, and she urges me to look into ACFW membership, attend conferences, and beat up my darlings.

Late in the first decade of the 2000s: I’m following Ramona’s advice by attending conferences and having sit-downs with editors, never giving a thought to self-publishing, though I hear more about the issue, especially following the release of Amazon’s Kindle in 2007. (One of our SIWS writers actually brings one to a meeting for us to see. What a fun toy, much like the little Connect Four electronic game I carry in my purse. Nothing to take seriously.)
            At the first major conference I attend (the now-defunct Central Ohio Writers of Literature for Children Conference, Columbus), I present my work to two editors, since I now have two MG manuscripts to pitch. The first editor requests to see the full of Up a Rutted Road. “Your style reminds me of Cynthia Rylant, but for slightly older readers,” she said. Since Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains is one of my favorite picture books, I was pleased by the comparison. Unfortunately, that editor had to take an extended medical leave and never got to read the full. The second editor also requested a full, but her publishing house was bought out, and she moved on, so—you get the picture.
            Self-pubbing is looking better. Just teasing. Sickness and loss of position, those things happen. I will keep praying, keep polishing, keep learning, keep submitting, keep attending conferences, keep on.

2011-12: The ACFW Conference, the main event for Christian writers, is held in Indianapolis! An hour down the road from me! Huzzah! When I receive my schedule, I’m thrilled to see the name of one of my favorite agents, and I get to have a sit-down with her to pitch my second novel, The Second Cellar. She likes it and requests the full. I have to admit it isn’t quite finished. “That’s all right,” she says. “When can you get it to me?” We agree that March would be good timing, after the holidays.
She retired from the agency in December, before she could see it, and none of the other agents handled MG.
            Lord, what are You trying to tell me? I honestly don’t know. What’s next? A battle rages within. I enter into a dark night of the writer’s soul. A shadow seems to hover over my computer. I want to write, but doubt my calling, doubt my ability to put words together cohesively on a page. The enemy tells me I should give up, use my computer to play Spider Solitaire and check Facebook.

2013: Southern Indiana Writers’ Salon lived a good life, lasting for seven years—longer than most writers’ groups—but suffered a tragic demise a few years ago. In 2012, a handful of Writerly Sisters, former SIWS members, began meeting at my writer’s nest each month.
          One of our scribes publishes some of her children’s books using and suggests I consider doing the same. She presents me with my own copy of Publishing E-Books for Dummies and some other resources. They sit gathering dust until—

May 2013: I have an internal debate:
Why do I write?
Because I must. It’s been in my soul since fourth grade. I can’t not write, not for long, anyway.  
What if I never get published traditionally?
That’s possible because publishing is changing.
Do I want to make money with my writing?
Well, that certainly would be nice. But it’s not my priority.
Then what is the true and important thing?
That my work glorifies God. That I write winsomely, pointing readers to Him.
No one is reading my work now. It’s languishing in my computer.
What if I go to all the work of e-pubbing and still no one reads it?
I have grandchildren, my "grandtreasures." They’ll read it. And if they’re the only ones, it’s well worth the effort. Maybe someone else will, also. And perhaps—just perhaps—the right agent or editor will stumble over it and decide it has possibilities. It happens!
But I’m writing middle-grade. Research shows that few middle-grade readers read e-books.
As fast as things change in the world of publishing, that could turn overnight. Up a Rutted Road waiting for them.

I have no plans to e-pub my second MG novel, The Second Cellar, or my third. I’ll leave those decisions to God’s leading. For too long, I held the misconception that members of ACFW eschewed indie books. I've since learned that many of my brother and sister scribes have self-published. I’m sure I’ve read and enjoyed some of their work without knowing it because they took the time to do it right through careful revision and editing and by creating (or paying a professional to design) a professional-quality cover.
This topic came up for lively discussion on our ACFW members loop recently. One writer put it in perspective by reminding us of how blessed we are to have so many options open, considering that in closed and threatened countries, any type of Christ-proclaiming publication is outlawed. Apparently, those who would muzzle Christian writers understand the power in the printed word.

Write on!
Because of Christ,
Sharon Kirk Clifton


  1. Sharon, are you sure you didn't steal my writing journey? I did find a traditional (though small) publisher for my first book, but I just self-published my second after going through much the same mental process through the years. There are a lot of great self-published books (and hopefully ours are included in that), but there are still too many people who use it as a short-cut rather than first learning how to write, hiring people to edit and proofread, etc.

    1. Kathryn, hello! Good to hear from you. I sat directly across the table from you at the recent ACFW luncheon in Fort Wayne.

      I agree with your assessment of many self-published books. Hurrying to publish does nothing to recommend a writer's future work. There are no shortcuts. UP A RUTTED ROAD endured tough critiques from an ACFW Scribes group, at least three full revisions, and multiple edits. Is it perfect? No. Have you ever read a book that was perfect? I haven't.

      I'm glad I wrote it with a trade editor or an agent in mind, however. It kept me on my toes and helped me see it with a semblance of objectivity.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Write on!
      Because of Christ

  2. Sharon,

    I had a similar experience to your favorite agent retiring before reading your book. Except in my case it was a self-publisher that would have published my book, leaving me no closer to being published and a couple of thousand dollars poorer.

    I also notice self-publishers have two main arguments for using them --
    1) My book needs to be published (appeals to my impatience; wait, that's not a godly quality), and
    2) I get 100% of the profits from my book sales (appeals to my greed; wait, that's not a godly quality).

    That being said, is there a chance I might eventually go with self-publishing? Yes, especially with non-fiction. I'm considering e-publishing when I finish the re-write of the novel that would have been self-published -- and is much better after going through three or so rounds in ACFW critique groups than it was when I planned on publishing it.

    1. Hello, Jeff~

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

      Frankly, I'm glad UP THE RUTTED ROAD wasn't pubbed by the big firm early on. The MS needed to go through those revisions and edits that followed, and I needed that growth as a writer. God is, after all, in control, and He knows the plans He has for us. I rest in that.

      Believe me, I didn't go indie because of greed. Few there are who get rich writing. I did it because I had a story I wanted to share. Though I don't think it's wrong to earn money, that's a side issue.

      Any writer who self-publishes out of impatience is, as my mama would say, "biting off his nose to spite his face." A work produced from that motivation likely isn't fully dressed and shouldn't appear in public. It will prove to be an embarrassment. (I've heard writers who were published traditionally say, in fact, they were embarrassed by their early books. We grow--or should--throughout our careers.)

      I wish you success in your writing.

      Write on!
      Because of Christ

    2. Thanks for your comment, Sharon.

      My comments on motivation are not so much about why people self-publish as to how the self-publishers, wanting your money, try to motivate you into pursuing this. And as I commented, I'm not anti-self-publishing, even though I've gotten burned. Like you, I was interested in self-publishing before that bad experience and still considering e-publishing to get my book in the market.

      BTW, the writing author who impacted me the most is Ron Benrey, who encourages everyone to get an agent. He does have a chapter on self-publishing in his great book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Christian Fiction, and points out there are times when self-publishing is a good idea, such as when you have time issues (he uses a novel planned aimed to capitalize on the 75th anniversary of the Scopes monkey trial as an example) or a story that needs to be too edgy for the CBA market.

      Thanks for hearing me out. Like I say, my experience has made me skeptical of some of the outfits out, and I do feel traditional publishing fits the proverb "Let another praise you and not your own mouth" (paraphrase of Prov. 27:2) more than self-publishing.

    3. I'm so glad that the Lord knows our hearts. He gives us various gifts expecting us to use them for His glory. That's my prayer where my writing is concerned. I didn't publish UP A RUTTED ROAD as a matter of pride. But I should do what I can to get the word out that it's available. I'd do no less if I opened a pie shop and wanted folks to know about it.

      Christian storytellers face the same issue. To book gigs, we need to get the word out about our program offerings. That's not being boastful; that's saying, "Here's what I do. Here's my experience. Here's what others say about my shows. May I tell at your event?"

      Whether I'm writing and pubbing a book or weaving an oral tale, I do my best for His sake.

      Write on!
      Because of Christ

  3. I know you've "heard" me say this before, Sharon, but I say it again for your readers who may not have heard it from me: so many "at the top" have recently changed their viewpoint on self-pubbing/indie pubbing, including long-time die-hard Jerry Jenkins! And yes, lots of self-pubbed books are not quality, but that's also true of lots of tradionally pubbed books! And just like trad pubbed books, our indie books also improve with each printing and each new book. I'm all for using pubs where there are no upfront costs, like Amazon's CreateSpace and Kindle, just royalties per book. But what I LUV best about being an indie is control! I can create my own cover, include photos where I want, edit whenever I want (and yes, the longer an indie book is around, the better it gets), choose my own titles, and most importantly, price my books at low enough prices to sell, plus give them away freely. Can you tell I'm happy to be an indie?! I praise God every day for enriching my retirement years with heaps of indie author opportunities, including book sales in the thousands! So far, the trad contracts offered me would have benefitted the pub more than me. BUT HEY, if the right contract with a traditional publisher is offered me, I'll take it! Until then, I'll joyfully and prayerfully indie on. . . :-)

    1. Wow, Millie, what an excellent testimonial! You've made many excellent points. And as a first-time indie author/publisher, I'm encouraged. At this point, I'm also waiting for the numbers of middle-grade e-book readers to increase, as I believe it will, as the prices of digital reading devices come down. If I recall correctly, you read to your grands, as I do. We need to promote that! It's really nice to have a whole library handy to draw from. Right now, I'm reading Jules Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. We have about a quarter of the book to go. Guess what's next. Yup! You got it. UP A RUTTED ROAD! Huzzah!

      Write on!
      Because of Christ

    2. Sharon, I haven't read your book yet, but I'm guessing it's a great one for the homeschool market -- that's a market I plan to do more with. . . soon. . . :-)

    3. Absolutely, Millie! That market grows daily.

  4. Great article Sharon Kirk Clifton. When my sister-in-love asked when my first novel would be published and would she ever get to read it~ I said maybe there is a reason it is not getting published.

    But because of the time line (1973) which none of the traditional publishers would look at from a new author, my agent gave me her blessing to (gasp) indie publish it. And so I did!

    And I love hearing from readers who responded and said the book blessed and helped them!

  5. Thank you, Sharon.

    I've had the same experience with friends and relatives who know I write. "We want to read your books," they say. Now they can read it!

    UP A RUTTED ROAD is set in 1950, which is in that middle time, also--not quite "historical," but certainly not contemporary.

    I appreciate your comments and hope I get to hear from my readers. That would be a blessing.

    Write on!
    Because of Christ

  6. Wow, Sharon, I really identified with you journey,especially "Lord, what are You trying to tell me? ...What’s next? A battle rages within...a shadow seems to hover...doubt my calling, doubt my ability..."

    People who read my work say, "I don't understand how you're not traditionally published." I too consider e-pub on an individual basis, still the hardest part for me promotion.

    Thank you for posting this. It was helpful to read it from someone outside my head.