Why Indie?

FRED TV oil painting videos by Natalie Buske Thomas

August and September are a hazy memory. I was lost in the production of Fred, an interactive and funny book featuring my oil paintings. Fred is my life story summarized in a 40 page children’s book, told in my own style, illustrated by my art, and brought to life by multimedia. I love being an indie because I have the creative freedom to do projects like Fred.

But I almost took a different path.

About fifteen years ago I was in negotiations for a publishing contract. I was sorely tempted. After all, isn’t that what I’d always wanted, to be an author? But the publisher wanted me to commit to 50 booksignings and/or author events a year. I did the math. Hmm, the last I knew there were only 52 weeks in a year. I explained that I didn’t want to travel while raising young children. Unfortunately, the travel requirement was non-negotiable.

I thought back to when I went to Bouchercon, a convention for mystery writers, fans, and industry professionals. It was held in Milwaukee that year. We were living in Minnesota then – Milwaukee is a manageable day trip from Minneapolis. My husband dropped me off at the convention hotel, armed with my self-published mystery novels and a whole lot of moxie. Then he headed off to the science museum with the kids.

I served on a panel and I signed a few books. I thought I’d feel important, but I was instead lost in a sea of well established and traditionally published authors. I was snubbed by most, and then roasted online afterward. I didn’t take it personally. After all, writing is a competitive business and I wasn’t (yet) an experienced or trained competitor. The only thing I felt foolish about was my naiveté in thinking that these people were my colleagues. No, I wasn’t ready for prime time (then).

When the convention ended, my husband showed up with the kids in tow. My son was in a stroller and my daughter was walking alongside him. My daughter had never been to a museum like the ones in picture books and on children’s TV shows, the kind of museums that feature dinosaur skeletons. When she saw me, her eyes lit up and she immediately bubbled over into a steady stream of chatter about T-Rex’s and dinosaur bones and dinosaur eggs, and… you get the picture. She’d had a big day. And I had missed it.

So, no, Mr. Publisher, I will have to pass. My requirement to be home is just as non-negotiable as your requirement that I travel. However, had he been willing (he wasn’t), I was open to compromise, and that’s the part that scared me the most. After the travel issue, how many other things would I have been willing to compromise? I’d get the chance to find out.

Later on down the road, after a third baby and a private teaching career, I was in negotiations for a publishing contract for a different book. I figured the kids were getting older and I could handle the traveling requirements. But wouldn’t you know? There was another impasse. This time, the issue was with the main plot of my book. He said he “couldn’t get past it” and wouldn’t sign on unless I either changed it or offered him a different book.

I actually considered doing it. I don’t have a fierce love for my own writing, I never do. It’s the act of writing it that excites me. Shortly after I finish a book, or even before the final page, I’m already hooked on the next project. The point is, I don’t get upset when editorial changes are suggested. However, he wanted me to change the main plot. I couldn’t do that without re-writing much of the book, making it a different book entirely. My gut was telling me not to. If he was already leveraging me for radical changes before I signed t he contract, what would he expect after I signed it?

How much was I willing to compromise? Was I comfortable giving someone else veto power over my ideas? It’s one thing to give my book to an editor to find typos, grammatical errors, pacing issues, weaknesses in the plot, contradictions in the story line, or any other suggestions for improvement. Improving a work is a far different action from approving, or obviously disapproving of a work. While improving a book is a necessary step in professional publishing, approving/disapproving is a form of censorship.

How desperate was I for a publisher? After all, wasn’t I getting the hang of this publishing gig on my own? Those early days when I was snubbed and ridiculed by traditionally published authors were humbling, but I learned from them. I trained. I gained experience. I am now a strong competitor. Had it not been for indie publishing, I wouldn’t have learned what it takes to win. Now I regularly attend booksignings, public speaking events, and conventions. Sometimes I’m the host or the guest! No one’s laughing now.

I’m grateful for that nagging feeling in my gut that told me not to compromise. Today, I’m working on my 27th book, Birds Day. Besides being an author, I’m also an artist with oil paintings on exhibit. I wouldn’t be where I am today if someone had slowed me down, vetoed my ideas, and discouraged me from experimenting. No one believed in me as much as I learned to believe in myself.

Even when it was hard to keep the faith, I followed each creative twist and turn. One thoughtful Christmas my husband gave me a beautiful artists’ easel. I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I put it to use. In 2010 I painted my first oil painting and submitted it to a juried competition. I got in! My painting Savannah Reading in a Butterfly Garden was on a 14-month tour, part of a traveling exhibit to libraries. Encouraged by that warm reception, I painted several more works of art that were featured in gallery exhibits: Ron and Joy before the War, Irish Angel, Life Sustaining, and We are the Angels that He Sends.

Today I’ve painted dozens of gallery-sized paintings and dozens more story-board illustrations. I’m doing what I love to do, what I was born to do! If not for indie publishing, I wouldn’t have had the freedom to explore new ideas. And that’s not all! I’ve taken my book adventures a step farther: I’ve made them interactive via videos to watch me paint the illustrations. The art comes to life when the videos are sped up, like a short animated film. I love dabbling in film!

Well, as much fun as all of this sounds, as you might already know firsthand, being an indie is a lot of work. Coercing a computer to cooperate is a joyless ritual. And there’s always an unwanted-guest-who-never-leaves elephant in the room: that pesky issue of money. It’s not enough to create the work. I also have to SELL it.

Life was especially hard when my husband was unemployed for a year. The pressure on me to produce income was cranked up to “boiling”. But I’m not alone. Every entrepreneur and small business owner has this worry. Sure, the worry for some might not ever reach the boiling point, but few people can afford to dabble at being an indie publisher. And those of us who are full-time indies without a “day job” have a strong motivation to sell books!

As I write this blog post I’m multi-tasking. After every few sentences a notification alert tells me that there’s another message from my son at this college campus. He wanted me to remind him to bring his earphone cable. The chat moved on to other subjects. Shortly afterword I got the message “it was here the whole time”. I realized we were back to talking about the earphone cable. Then, he wanted to me to install a chat room on my computer. I followed his instructions. My computer went bezerk. The keyboard failed, making my cursor drunk with power. I lost control of the wheel. I had trouble even re-starting. Just now I was able to get back to this blog post.

Communication with my son resumed. “Did you try it?” he asked. I told him what happened. His response, “Oops.” See? I would have missed all of that, had I taken the other path. Who knows where I’d be right now; would I have had time to talk to my son on a Tuesday morning? What would my day have been like? Later this afternoon I’ll be cheerfully painting a goldfinch for my new book project Birds Day. I also have a lunch date for macaroni and cheese with my daughters. I want this day, my day.

I want it all: creative freedom to push books to the limits of my imagination, mac & cheese lunch dates with my daughters, and disjointed chats with my son. There are no limits, there are no rules. The ugly days challenge me. Well, if I’m honest, some days I’m defeated. But I get back up, even if it’s a slow climb. The good days inspire me. Whenever one project ends, it means that another can begin. I think I’ve plead my case to you long enough.

Why indie? Because I love it!

Dream big, God bless, xoxoxo - Natalie

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