Fans of my past novels are sometimes surprised to learn that I have become an indie author. I’m known to librarians as the author of six successful Young Adult science fiction novels, including an award-winner, that were first published by Atheneum in the 1970s and have all been reissued in hardcover as well as paperback by different publishers in the 21st century. They are enjoyed by adults as well as teens, and three of them were reprinted by a small press as adult science fiction. So why did I publish my recent adult science fiction trilogy, now concluded with Defender of the Flame, myself?
In the first place, my books don’t meet the marketing requirements of the science fiction genre. The editing and marketing of Young Adult books is very different from that of adult novels; this was the main reason I chose to publish in that field to begin with. YA editors are not genre specialists, nor are YA books categorized into subject-oriented genres; and I knew from the start that my novels would appeal more to a general audience than to avid science-fiction fans. They are character-driven rather than focused on adventure. Furthermore, they are not “far out” enough in terms of the culture and concepts portrayed to suit people with extensive SF background, for I feel speculation about the future should be intelligible to all readers. Thus they don’t fit SF publishers’ criteria. Some science fiction enthusiasts do like them, but not enough to give them mass-market potential, which to commercial publishers is the only thing that matters.
But apart from this, indie publishing has many advantages that are important to me:
• It enables me to have a book appear exactly as I want it, without interference by an editor;
• It eliminates the long delay between completion of a book and publication;
• I enjoy book production—page layout, cover design, ebook formatting etc. (I do everything myself, as I have desktop publishing and professional copyediting experience);
• Both paperback and ebook editions will stay in print forever without action on anyone’s part, even after my death (which at my age is a significant consideration).
To be sure, there are also disadvantages. Chief among these is the difficulty of making potential readers aware that my indie books exist—since they are set in the future on hypothetical worlds, they have to be listed as science fiction, yet general readers don’t look at the science fiction section of announcement or review sites. And it’s hard to get reviews because most SF specialists consider them too close to reality, while mainstream reviewers aren’t interested in reading anything labeled science fiction.
Also troubling to me is the fact that it has proven impossible to get my indie books into libraries because libraries won’t buy books they can’t get from their regular distributors—not even those by authors whose other books they already have in their collections. And most won’t accept self-published books as gifts, presumably because they don’t have staff to evaluate them. Since library circulation is the best way for an obscure book to become known, this is a serious handicap.
Finally, despite excellent reviews I don’t sell many copies, and I probably never will. This is more because my books aren’t genre-oriented than because they are self-published. Authors who write fiction tailored to popular genres such as romance are making money from indie publication and acquiring large followings. I can’t expect this because mine not only break genre conventions but are long novels that cannot be called light reading.
But even if they don’t gain a large audience, my recent books are available to readers who like my personal style and outlook, from many of whom they’ve received high praise. If they couldn’t be self-published they would not be available at all, so I am thankful for the technology that now makes it possible.
I wish, however, that there were some way to publicize books that aren’t typical of a specific genre. Genre labels are often damaging; a book that doesn’t conform doesn’t appeal to readers who see it where it’s listed, and isn’t seen by anyone else. I realize that there are so many books being published that they have to be categorized in some way at large websites, so I don’t know of a satisfactory solution. But it’s frustrating to be invisible to my largest potential audience when so many of the people who like my novels tell me that they don’t usually read science fiction.
Sylvia Engdahl is best known as the author of the Young Adult novel Enchantress from the Stars, which was a Newbery Honor book, a 2002 Book Sense Book of the Year runner-up in the Rediscovery category, and winner of the Children’s Literature Association’s 1990 Phoenix Award. She has also written five other YA novels and three adult science fiction novels. Currently she works as a freelance editor of nonfiction anthologies for high schools. Learn more about Sylvia from her website and her Amazon author page.