by Melissa Eskue Ousley, author and Indigo client

Confession time. When I first entered the world of publishing, I was painfully naïve. I thought if I could just snag an agent, I’d have a golden ticket. I’d get a contract with a big publishing house and a large advance, and doors would magically open. Next thing I knew, I’d be inheriting the entire chocolate factory (i.e., be a best-selling young adult author). After several years in the publishing industry, my third book is coming out. I’m no longer blindly optimistic, but I don’t have all the answers. I’m learning.

I still don’t have an agent, though I’m looking for one for a new manuscript. I ended up working with a book shepherd to find a small publisher, and this was helpful in my initiation to the industry. My book shepherd is a publicist who also teaches authors about marketing. She helped me lay a foundation for my platform and create a marketing plan and submission packet to send to small publishers who did not require an agent. One of the best things she did was connect me with an editor at Indigo, to polish my manuscript before sending it out. When we found a home for my book, it was with a small, independent press. Here’s what I learned from the experience.

The publishing industry is evolving with changing technology. It’s not big, traditional publishers versus authors who chose to self-publish. It’s a continuum, with different sizes and types of publishers. Some smaller publishers operate more like the big houses, and others have benefitted from the ability to print on demand or through ebooks. It’s not that one is better than the other—it’s about which readers you hope to reach, and what your goals are for publishing a book.

Working with a small press was a great fit for me in many ways, because, being a newbie, I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. I received one-on-one mentoring from my publisher and learned about the process and terminology associated with publishing (like realizing an ARC has nothing to do with a guy named Noah). I also got to have input in the design of the book, and I’m grateful for that. I had some initial ideas about cover design, and the designer did a wonderful job translating them into something beautiful (and better than what I’d envisioned). There was a nice camaraderie, and the publishing process was collaborative.

My publisher even got on board with my continuing to work with Indigo on editing the next two books (so long as I invested my own funds). We both recognized that in-depth editing beyond what was offered in my publishing contract would help me present my best work, and that working with an editor who specialized in my genre would be a benefit. My editor at Indigo and I already had a rapport, having worked together on my first book. She knew my work, and more importantly, she understood my goals for the books. Editing isn’t just about correcting grammar—it’s about getting a story and helping an author make it as strong as it can be.

There are challenges to working with a small publisher. There was no advance, though I was able to negotiate on royalties. There was also a limited marketing budget. Getting exposure for the book became my new job, and I had to learn a lot of marketing and publicity skills, such as building and maintaining a website, promoting via social media, writing press releases, and networking with other authors. I had to learn to be okay with rejections when contacting media and booksellers, because I got a lot of noes at first. And then, as I gained credibility, I started to get more yeses. I learned to adapt, to seek out new resources, and to find new strategies. I also learned that a small press is like an ecosystem. When something goes awry with one member of a tiny team of staff, it affects everyone else. Luckily, the rapport we’d established helped us ride out the rough spots.

Was it worth it? Yes. For my goal of establishing myself as an author, yes. Despite the challenges, I’ve gained experience in publishing and marketing that will help me with future books. But I no longer believe in golden tickets. What I do believe in is persistence and a willingness to learn.

Melissa Eskue Ousley is the award-winning author of The Solas Beir Trilogy, a young adult fantasy series. Her first book, Sign of the Throne, won a 2014 Eric Hoffer Book Award and a 2014 Readers’ Favorite International Book Award.

She lives in the Pacific Northwest with a piranha, her family, and their Kelpie, Gryphon. When she’s not writing, Melissa can be found hiking, swimming, scuba diving, or walking along the beach, poking dead things with a stick.

Before she became a writer, Melissa had a number of jobs that contributed to her education and enlightenment, ranging from the summer she scraped roadkill off a molten desert highway, to years of conducting social science research with an amazing team of educators at the University of Arizona. Her interests in psychology, culture, and mythology have influenced her writing of The Solas Beir Trilogy.