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Dreams to Realities: Navigating the Highs and Lows of Publishing as an Indie Author

When I set out to write a book about communal living, I was never certain what life would look like on the other side of publication. Here we are, two months out, and it’s been hard. After a year of working 80 hours a week, I finally crashed. Piecing together wreckage is easier said than done. Somehow, though, I am still here and still promoting a book that I published as an indie author. Or rather, I’ve entered my Sisyphus era.

Bailey Merlin reads from her novel. She wears a scoop neck blue and pastel pink dress. The Harvard Coop logo is in front of her.

A Lot of People Live in This House was born out of my passion for fostering a sense of togetherness and interdependence. After all, isn’t that what I found in my own experience of communal living? Hadn’t multiple people told me they weren’t interested in my novel about the French Revolution but did want to know what exactly went on in a house with 12 people? Now that the baby is born (so to speak), it’s hard to grapple with the fact that people aren’t fawning over it. Don’t get me wrong, my friends and family did the thing everyone is supposed to do when someone you love writes a book: they bought copies. Hell, one of my closest friends bought nearly 30 copies to give to all her friends.

I’m luckier than a lot of writers.

Still, my expectations were higher. I wanted to sell 1000 copies in the first month because that would be amazing and prove to all the professors who ignored my emails for feedback that hybrid publishing is valid. I didn’t do that. Not even close, really. My husband keeps telling me I’m doing great as an independent artist. And, to be fair, I could be on the NYT Bestseller List and still be upset if I wasn’t #1. My inner critic is very good at her job.

What is the purpose of sharing this? Well, I need you to know that I feel like a failure most of the time, despite what social media may tell you. Being an artist in a society that commodifies everything is hard, linking intrinsic self-worth to profit. If I don’t sell these books, do they exist? Of course, they do. We know they do. There’s a book sitting on my bedside table right now. My friend texted me last night at 11:30 to tell me she bawled like a baby at the end of the novel. Those are real things. I’m trying to focus on the real and the now.

In writing this to you (one of five people who regularly read this blog), I mean to tell you that publishing has nothing to do with writing. Publishing is about marketing, and marketing must be personal and impersonal. Just because the TikTok algorithm doesn’t push my content doesn’t mean that the story doesn’t matter; it just means that communal living isn’t something the masses have caught onto yet. Yet. I’m holding onto that yet.

Two weeks ago, Richie and I went all over Harvard Square to hang up flyers in preparation for a book reading. (We won’t do that again because not a single person in the 15-person crowd came because they saw a sign in Harvard Yard.) While doing that, we went to the Harvard Coop to drop off a poster. As it turns out, we didn’t need to because my face and book were all over the store. When we went inside to see if we could find it on the shelves, I was disappointed that I couldn’t find any copies. I went to the information desk to see if my book was stocked. Before the question had left my mouth, I saw it, right there in the middle of the store.

I don’t know why pride is hard for me, but I think the emotion I felt then was akin to that. Richie told the staffer it was my book, and she got up and asked to take my photo. She knew what it meant. For a moment, a stranger was proud of me, and that was enough to make the day. On the day of the reading, I went to the Coop’s second floor and found myself in the fiction and literature section. Literally. Two copies were sandwiched between talented voices. And the rest of the 18 copies the Coop had purchased? Upstairs, waiting to be signed.

Okay, so why mention that, Bailey? Well, I think it’s important for me to write down the wins when events like my book reading, which Suzanne Koven moderated, are only attended by 15 people (which apparently, as I’ve been informed by other authors, is a lot). When I (or you) feel like a failure, it’s important to hold onto the moments that are objectively wins.

I have to remind myself that at that reading, after Suzanne asked me any number of fabulous questions about my story, someone said something that made me feel like this was all worth it. Last year before starting grad school last year, I met up with other future grad students at Penguin Pizza in Boston. I met Jade. It was the last time I’d see or talk to her for nearly a year. When Suzanne asked if anyone wanted to have the last word on the evening, she raised her hand and said, “I want you to know how much this book meant to me.” Apparently, after moving to Boston and working and going to school full-time, she never really found a group that made her feel seen. It made living in Boston feel like a mistake. But after reading my book, she said that she felt like there was a chance for her to start over and make a life here.

I didn’t know what to say, so I just said thank you. It was one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.

After a lifetime of disappointments, I find it hard to hope for the best while simultaneously carrying around a huge ego that thinks it will be J.K. Rowling famous. I want you to see the highs and lows, the whiplash, the disappointment, the manufactured pride. Despite this battle to the death with imposter syndrome, I forge ahead with this warm story about communal living, grief, friendship, and community in the hopes that it makes someone feel less alone.


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