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Self-Publishing Taught Me To Rethink Success

There’s an old adage that writers should write the stories they want to read. As a reader of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, and also as a queer reader who hunts for queer subtext in practically every media I consume, I was hungry for historical romance that not only provided space for queerness, but reveled in it. I didn’t want clandestine romance, finding love and then safely hiding away in the country where nobody will see (although there is a great deal of value in those stories). I wanted a fantasy world where a woman could propose to another woman, where a man could lead another man onto a dance floor, where a nonbinary aristocrat could be a leader of the fashionable world.

So I started writing queer historical fantasy romance stories.

Set in an alternative Regency England, where magic is real and queerness is normalized, my first book Letters to Half Moon Street is about a shy young man, Gavin Hartford, who goes to London and accidentally forms a friendship with a dashing gentleman, Charles Kentworthy. Their friendship eventually turns into love as Charles shows Gavin around town. The whole story is told via letters, because I’ve always wanted to write an epistolary novel. I also have a novelette available through my newsletter, The Glamour Spell of Rose Talbot, a sapphic romance about a young woman who casts a spell to make herself irresistible to a particular gentleman and accidentally makes the whole town fall in love with her.

In the second half of 2020, I clung to this world I’d created. Writing these stories turned into a massive hyperfixation (hey, pandemic anxiety!). I hammered out drafts for multiple stories. I wrote Letters to Half Moon Street, a story that eventually split into the second and third books in my series, the fourth book, and even jumped to a sequel series to start a story that will eventually be my eleventh book (I give my plot bunnies free reign, what can I say?). By spring 2021, I decided it was time to stop playing it safe by keeping these books to myself and my best friends, and actually try to get them published.

I put all my eggs in one basket (I’m optimistic by nature), and sent Letters to Half Moon Street to my top choice of publisher. And in April 2021, I received a rejection letter. It’s a common rite of passage as a writer to receive a rejection letter — and then another, and another. So many successful writers proudly state the number of rejections they received before achieving their ultimate acceptance letter. I had mentally prepared for it: I had a Google Sheet full of agent possibilities. I had been researching small publishing companies and looking up editors and agents on the online database ManuscriptWishlist. And yet, when I got the email that my novel wasn’t accepted by my first choice of publisher, I sat on my bed and cried. After crying, I asked myself a question: Was I going to continue down this path or try my hand at self-publishing?

I weighed the pros and cons for a few days, researched costs, and added notes to my Google Sheet. As I grappled with the decision, I tried to get to the heart of the matter: Why did I want to be traditionally published? Traditional publishing is the gold standard and an easy measurement of success. In my head, if I were to be published traditionally, I would be able to tell friends and family I had made it as an author. But I realized that the friends and family who supported me wouldn’t actually care who published it. And those who didn’t support me wouldn’t be swayed by the grandeur of a Big Five Publisher. My Episcopalian priest dad, for instance, was not going to suddenly think it was impressive that I was writing queer stories simply because I had the backing of a big publisher, and the relatives I always hoped to impress would probably still raise an eyebrow at the fluffy content of my work. It’s a little disheartening to realize that, at 33, I’m still seeking approval from the “grown-ups” in my life.

Part of the submission process included attaching an outline for future installments if the work was going to be part of a series. I managed to find examples of cover letters, how to format excerpts, how to write a blurb, but nowhere could I find anything on how to write a series outline. During my research, I found a site that cautioned writers against being too detailed about a planned series. “You need to prove you are open to change,” one website said. I submitted to this particular small romance publisher, because they accepted authors who had already planned out a series. Now that I was back to the drawing board, I realized I would have to be more open-minded in pitching my stories.

The problem? I wasn’t very open-minded. Remember that hyperfixation of late 2020 I mentioned? I had not only the first book worked out, but half the series planned. I knew which side characters Gerry and Bertie were going to end up with; I knew how Seb was going to come into his own; I knew how Gerry’s magic career was going to go; I knew how Charles and Gavin would look in domestic bliss. I knew exactly where I wanted the series to go. I knew the long-running character arcs, the themes, and the general vibe of the stories. I wasn’t interested in someone telling me to scrap a particular character or major plot point. I write stories for the joy of it and to give myself the exact type of comfort read I’m in the mood for.

In the end, I sought advice from my sister, who’s an indie musician. She said that if creative freedom is important to me, I should go the self-publishing route. She also very kindly reiterated that our dad was never going to like the stories I was writing, so I shouldn’t make a decision based on his approval. I anxiously quoted some of the prices I had found in my preliminary research — self-publishing can be expensive — and she talked me out of some of the expenses. She told me to use the online graphic design program Canva to make my own covers instead of hiring a designer. There were audiobook narrators who fit my budget. I’d have to start considering Instagram a part-time job and use it more effectively to promote my books.

I’ve read advice articles that say writers opt for the self-publishing route because they’re too impatient to go the traditional route. I won’t say that’s not true; traditional publishing can take years. I love that I made my decision in May of 2021 and released a book less than a year later. More importantly, I’m in charge of my own timeline. I can do truly ridiculous things like release my books during the months they take place in. I’m currently between book releases, but I’m hoping to start a release schedule of three to five months between each book starting November 2022. Part of that is necessity — money in self-publishing is more reliably made from a catalog of books than from new releases — but it’s also because I’m excited to get more stories out there. I’ve been sitting on some of these ideas for years, and I’m eager for people to read them. I have so many books I want to write, and the sooner I get these out, the sooner I can write more.

As a kid dreaming about becoming a writer, the idea of success was pretty straightforward: Become a bestselling author and get my books made into movies. As an adult and an indie author, my definition of success keeps changing. I would love to make a living with my writing, but I no longer consider that my only definition of success. I want readers who love my books and can’t wait for the next one. I want to table at a convention and meet readers who recognize my book. I want to see fanart of my characters. I want to see my books listed in trope posts by some of my favorite Instagrammers. And I really want to find a community of queer writers who support each other and bounce ideas and questions off each other. I have dreams of rereleasing my series in a special edition set with clinch covers, or more traditional romance novel covers.

And I’ve actually already achieved some of my goals: I have a handful of readers who are already asking about book two and about when certain characters are getting their own books. One of the first people who purchased my book posted artwork of the characters immediately after she finished reading it. And I’ve been connecting with other queer writers on Instagram. Finding or forming an actual community of queer writers is still in the works — making friends online can be hard for an introvert. It feels like high school, wondering if I’m cool enough to talk to someone, but I’ve made a few great friends on Instagram, and it’s a start. There are a couple of authors who I’ve gone to for advice, some who consistently engage with or promote my posts, and some who I’m looking to lead me by example. It’s only after following other self-published writers that I’ve gained the confidence to promote my own books so shamelessly. I see what other authors are posting and mentally add it to a list of posts I’m more or less allowed to do. I’ve even joined a waitlist to table at a convention in 2023!

In the spirit of celebrating myself and a personal accomplishment, I hosted my own release party when Letters to Half Moon Street came out. One of my friends drove up from out of town to help me set it up. My friend made Victoria sponge cake, my sister made shortbread cookies, my cousin brought champagne, and I provided my too-large tea collection. All of my friends showed up in teatime finery, and we spent a whole afternoon celebrating my book launch. I used the playlists I had put together for my characters to set the mood. I burned a candle I had commissioned specifically for my book. I gave away art prints of the characters as goodies. There was no playbook on how to navigate a book launch as a self-published author. When there’s no expectation of filling a bookstore with fans, it’s hard to know what will feel like a successful launch. But as with everything when it comes to self-publishing, I had to create my own definition of success. Accomplishing something I’ve dreamed of my whole life, seeing physical copies of my book piled up on a table, and being surrounded by friends and family who were proud of me and wanted to celebrate my accomplishment with me — that felt like a success. On a more business-like note, the party was also helpful for marketing purposes. It was very on-brand to have a sweet and cozy party for my sweet and cozy book.

It’s easy to get bogged down by what I want to achieve, so I’ve been striving to focus on what I can control. I’m working on getting book two ready for publication in November. I recently released a newsletter (can we talk about how newsletters are more complicated than they have any right to be?), and I’m hoping to start a Patreon eventually. In the meantime, I’m editing my second novel and promoting Letters to Half Moon Street and my newsletter. I believe in the stories I’m writing, and I think they’re unique and valuable in their own way, so I’ve been working on reframing my writing journey to focus on getting my books into the hands of the right readers and not on proving to myself that I’m “good.”

It can be terrifying to have no set guidelines for how to proceed as a self-published author, but it can be freeing too. I keep reminding myself that there are readers out there who want my books, who will feel happier after discovering my books. I’m confident my books will fall into the right hands as long as I stay the current course. If you’ve been wishing Benedict Bridgerton would be on-screen bi, if you ever thought Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith should have given up all the men in Highbury and ended up together, or if you consider Charlotte Lucas an aroace icon, my books are for you.


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Sarah Wallace

Sarah Wallace lives in Florida with her cat, more books than she has time to read, a large collection of classic movies, and a windowsill full of plants that are surviving against all odds. She only reads books that end happily. You can find her at sarahwallacewriter.com or on Instagram at @sarah.wallace.writer.

Sarah has written 2 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. I love this article! As an indie author myself, I appreciate the process and work that goes into making writing your business. My hat is off to you and I wish you all the success. And on a side note: selling at conventions is AWESOME and you will love it! Keep writing and publishing!

  2. I love this, Sarah! I also have some queer fantasy novels that snowballed rapidly as stress-escapism during lockdown. I’m solidly into a draft of one of them but it’ll be a while before I start making decisions about publishing. Great to hear your perspective and experiences on that!

  3. You nailed all the issues that indie authors have to deal with and you also nailed the idea that “Traditional publishing is the gold standard” to the wall! After having gone through the same thought process you describe here, I have come to think of traditional publishing as a high and mighty gatekeeper that serves to narrow the field and own the writers. I found out during my process about the differences between commercial pop fiction, think Stephen King or Amy Tan, and literary artistic fiction. There is, fortunately, room for both in the ever expanding universe of writers. Keep on, fellow scribe!

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