For many of us, the road to indie publishing begins by way of a false start. We dream of the big contract, the book signings, interviews, and maybe an award or two. Our course begins with the obligatory first stop: getting the agent. We polish our manuscripts, craft the perfect query, and wait by the proverbial phone—or obsessively check our email inbox. Hopefully, we use those “passes” and “near-misses” to perfect our craft, and the quest for the publishing contract becomes a crucible for our best work. But even then, some of us find that our book doesn’t quite “fit on the shelf.”
I can remember the despair of pursuing that path for years, all the almost-but-not-quite moments, and the fear that the way might be forever barred to me. Like many authors, I perused agent wish lists, resolved to write the next book not for myself, nor even for my eventual reader, but for the agent, without whom my journey could not begin. And yet, invariably, I was doomed to follow my voice wherever it led, a blessing and a curse.
Finally, I got the call and secured my dream partner, a talented young agent at a top firm with bestsellers on her list. I can still remember that moment too: the feeling of euphoria, the certainty that “this was it,” crying into the phone when I called my husband to tell him the good news.
A year and a half and two well-received but unsalable manuscripts later, I found myself not at the pinnacle of success, but back at square one. It was the eve of the pandemic, and there I was, face-to-face with a choice: begin the search for another agent or take the “indie plunge.”
The words of editors still rang in my ears. “A rich and smartly spun tapestry” and “magnificent job of weaving fantasy and history” echoed alongside “worried that it won’t grab readers enough” and “could be more kid-friendly.” The experts said my voice wasn’t marketable. If I self-published, I would be venturing out into the world with only my own stamp of approval. This was my moment of truth: did I believe in my voice?
I couldn’t answer that question right away. I knew only that I had to keep going. And isn’t that how it is for most of us? We must write, and we must be read, and the only questions concern how we go about it.
So, in the winter of 2020, I took the indie plunge, set up Starr Creek Press LLC, hired a cover designer and a copy editor, learned how to typeset on Adobe InDesign, and in August 2020, Believe was born. After years of writing novels for agents and editors, I was about to meet my reader, for the very first time.
Believe went on to win several awards, a validation, yet one that I experienced differently than I once might have done. These accolades would be useful, would help me reach my ultimate judge—the reader. But my real validation came in the form of reviews—from an 11-year-old (“I went through the whole book and never wanted to stop reading!”); a mother (“My eight-year-old daughter loved this book!”), and more than one adult, surprised to find themselves captivated and reduced to tears (“Believe is that kind of book that leaves you with a couch full of used napkins and a heart that is broken and is healing at the same time.”)
Suddenly, the tendency of my voice to defy categorization meant that it spoke to readers of any age. And gone (at least for the moment) were the dreams of the New York Times bestseller list and the Newberry Award. I was present to the miracle of one reader, one reader at a time. The miracle of taking a stranger by the hand into a world of your making. The miracle of connection.
The indie path is not for the faint of heart. Without an agent or editor to greenlight our work, we must discover our own audacity. With no publishing house to cheer us on, we must probe the meaning of validation. We must answer our own questions and chart our own paths. But for me, there is one reward that compensates for all the hard work, loneliness, and uncertainty. For better or for worse, I own my voice.
With no one to tell me who the reader is or what the reader wants, I am free to express myself, to explore and discover. With no one to judge me but the reader, the feedback is immediate. And with just me calling the shots, I’m on solid ground.
How often do we dive back into a manuscript on the advice of the newest expert in our lives, only to find that the next expert holds the opposite opinion? When we own our voice, we must discern craft from preference, law from idiosyncrasy. There are no rules out here, except the cause and effect of reader engagement. And there is a different kind of security in accepting the mantle of our own authorship.
The questions remain, as do the challenges. Vasilisa, the book that first interested my agent, eventually went to press under my author imprint and was a BookLife Prize semifinalist, along with its sequel, Elena the Brave. Readers love these books—when I can get them to click buy.
Believe is easy to market because it fits, at least superficially, “on the shelf.” But how do I “position” my Old Rus series? Should I redo the covers, repackage them for the YA market? This is now my nut to crack, and the beauty of being independently published is that I have the luxury of experimenting, finding my readers, even if they too are slightly outside the box.
Rather than “writing to market,” I have the privilege of “marketing to my writing.” By flipping the conventional wisdom on its head, the indie author keeps her vision front and center, and from there, moves into relationship with the reader through a process of discovery. It’s a hard path, but a brave one, and now that I’m on it, I find it hard to imagine ever abdicating my kingdom for the comfort and security of the fold.
Which brings me full circle. Upon finishing The Starlet Letter, my first YA mystery, I decided that if I were ever to give traditional publishing another try, now was the time. I was curious too: would any agent be interested in a previously self-published author? The answer was yes, with the result that now, as I proceed with my production schedule, I still have manuscripts out and conversations in process. It’s the perfect intersection for a before-and-after shot. Once, getting an agent meant my chance to be heard by the world. Now, getting an agent means finding someone who is as passionate about my voice as I am. And if that person isn’t out there? It doesn’t really matter. I’m already on the journey, and now, I’m in the driver’s seat.
Julie Mathison is the founder of Starr Creek Press and the author of four novels for young readers.