By Kelly Quindlen
In 2014 I self-published my first book, a sapphic young adult novel called Her Name in the Sky, the same year that We Need Diverse Books was founded. It was only six years ago, but it feels like a lifetime in terms of LGBTQ+ representation. This was before #ownvoices, before Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, before marriage equality. I truly did not believe there was space in the market for a book with a tender, emotionally charged sex scene between two girls. I was certain no publisher would want it, or if they did, they would whittle down the love scene until it no longer had a beating heart. So I put that book into the world myself, using Smashwords and Amazon to create e-books and paperbacks. I hired my sister to edit for content and grammar. I commissioned the cover art from an old college friend. My roommate painstakingly formatted the text to fit the e-book specifications. The end product was raw and flawed and absolutely perfect.
Self-publishing isn’t easy, but for a marginalized creator, it can provide so much freedom and agency. I had complete control over my narrative, from the artwork to the promotional pricing. I also knew who I was writing for: the same audience who followed me on Tumblr, where I’d been posting queer fan fiction for years. I wrote fanfic without self-consciousness, from a place of purity and passion and prayer. That was the same thing I wanted to bring to HNITS. Authenticity, heart, genuine longing. More than anything, it was a chance to create the mirror I had always wanted and needed to see.
People often ask me what it felt like to write that first book. My truest answer is that it bled out of me. It was my catharsis for a difficult coming out experience that made me feel like I was walking through a funhouse where everything was upside down. Writing gave me the chance to validate and make sense of those feelings. That was why, ultimately, the platform I used to get the book out there didn’t matter: it was the act of creating itself that healed me. Marginalized creators for any medium will be able to relate. You already know how to breathe your identity to life through song, poetry, dance, painting, film. It’s just a question of sharing your art with the world. How much do you give away? How much will you need to compromise? How much can you expect back?
Her Name in the Sky has sold over 20,000 copies since it debuted in 2014. No, this doesn’t happen regularly with self-publishing. Yes, I am incredibly grateful. The one thing I know for sure is that HNITS would not have found success if there had not been a hunger for it. Queer readers wanted this story. They didn’t care that it was written by an anxious 25-year-old who did all the marketing herself in sweatpants at the kitchen table, with no starred reviews or blurbs or industry validation to speak of. Readers don’t care about those things. They care about story and characters and heart. They want to be able to say, This writer just gets it. They get me.
So what am I trying to say? I’m saying we need diverse books no matter how we get them out there. Thank God we’re seeing such strides in the publishing industry—I mean that—but more to the point, thank God for that most sacred of all connections: the direct line between writer and reader, which ultimately comes down to the intimacy of the page. You let me reveal my heart there. You take me into yours in return. It’s a beautiful, symbiotic relationship that connects us through time and space. Our very own Mirror of Erised.
This April, I make my traditional debut in the publishing industry. Late to the Party is a queer YA novel about late bloomers and wallflowers and the constant reinvention of ourselves. The title might also, in a wry fashion, describe my arrival on the traditional publishing scene. But the funny thing is, I don’t feel late. Not really. I feel grateful for the winding journey that brought me here, a journey rooted in the online LGBTQ+ community and our organic support for stories that speak to our experiences. Thank you to everyone who has helped me reach this point. I’m sending you gratitude, love, and a prayer for you to finish your own art. I sincerely believe we need it.
(You can find more of my entries about writing and publishing on my Tumblr. I’d recommend starting here, then browsing through the #writing tag.)
Kelly Quindlen is the author of the young adult novel Her Name in the Sky. A graduate of Vanderbilt University and a former teacher, Kelly has had the joy of speaking to PFLAG groups and high school GSAs. She currently serves on the leadership board of a non-profit for Catholic parents with LGBT children. Kelly lives in Atlanta.