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October 23, 2017
By Matia Burnett
For Jessica Bell, success as an author has come from being true to herself, finding her readers, and self-publishing with pride.

For indie author Jessica Bell, writing and music are two vitally important pieces of a creative personal and professional mosaic. She was raised in Melbourne, Australia, by her German mother and Greek stepfather, Erika Bach and Demetri Vlass, founding members of the revered indie rock bands Ape the Cry and Hard Candy. Today, Bell is the lead vocalist and songwriter of the Greek synth-pop group Keep Shelly in Athens.

As one might expect, Bell’s earliest writing was greatly influenced by her musical upbringing. “Having grown up surrounded by musicians, I started songwriting first, when I was about 12 or 13, which soon evolved into a love of writing poetry,” she says. In her early 20s, she wrote her first novel, which she says was “terrible,” and she later “erased every word of it from existence.”

Novel writing didn’t come as organically as did poetry and song lyrics, which Bell believes had to do with her tendency to focus on word cadence more than storytelling and plot. Yet persistence has paid off. “Now having completed the second draft of my fifth novel, and having also published a memoir this year, telling an engaging and gripping story seems to have taken priority,” she says.

Bell’s self-publishing story is an example of lemonade making in action. Her debut novel, String Bridge, about a female musician, was published by an independent press in 2010, but the company liquidated just six months later. “I had to make a decision,” she says. “Do I let all the marketing I had done prerelease go down the toilet or get this book back on the market myself?”

Bell decided to self-publish the novel and handle her own publicity, which brought with it uncertainty and setbacks. “For a very long time, I didn’t know how to market myself or my books, because I didn’t write series, nor in any one genre,” she says. “I’d receive marketing advice after marketing advice that just did not work because I was targeting audiences that would not pick up my books.” 

She eventually accepted that her books weren’t going to be mainstream successes. Bell has a slogan now that she feels captures the essence of her work: beautiful ugly words. “I branded myself as an author and created a cohesive book cover look that represented my writing style, instead of genre,” she says. “I also know to only target readers with acquired tastes or the desire to stray from their reading habits.”

Though Bell didn’t realize it at the time, as she was defining who she was as an author, she was also launching another professional venture: book cover design. After designing her own covers, she began helping other authors; she has since designed hundreds of book covers, a business that helps support her other endeavors.

"I know to only target readers with acquired tastes or the desire to stray from their reading habits."
Before writing and publishing her own books, Bell worked as an editor for New Editions, an English-language–teaching publisher in Athens. She has also worked as a freelance editor and writer for Cengage, HarperCollins ELT, Macmillan Education, and Pearson Education. She was a project manager for Education First, a language-teaching organization, but quit once her cover design business began to thrive. 

Bell’s most recent venture—writing her memoir, Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to Be a Rebel—was another eye-opening experience. She learned that memoir writing comes with its own set of challenges. Notably, because the details of her own life were so intimately familiar to her, she found she was neglecting to enliven them for readers. “The effort it took to dig out, and describe those fine details, I found, was the biggest hurdle for me,” she says.

With her many projects, Bell is very busy. “I make a living as a fiction and nonfiction author, book designer, singer-songwriter, and the publisher of Vine Leaves Press, an independent press founded by myself, which started out as a literary journal that published vignettes,” she says.

For aspiring self-published authors, Bell offers a few hard-earned words of advice. She recommends that authors learn to diversify their talents, and define their successes in nonmonetary ways. “If you can feel good about what you have achieved without anyone else knowing about it, then you will still feel like a success when sales figures aren’t what you had hoped for,” she says. Another piece of advice: “Follow your instincts. Just because a certain method or strategy is common and ‘proven’ to work, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for you.”

Though Bell’s creative and professional projects may seem like dramatically different modes of expression, she sees them as being on a continuum, particularly when it comes to writing and music.

“They are very closely intertwined,” she says. “I don’t think I could do one without the other, as they often feed off each other. I used to say that music was my oxygen and writing my carbon dioxide. Is that cheesy?”