Why I Decided, As a Womxn of Color, To Self-Publish

Self-portrait, by Sharon H. Chang

My recording engineer husband has taken to calling me a “punk rock writer” recently. But I don’t play punk. I don’t listen to punk. I don’t move in punk circles. Never have. So why call me this, I asked confused? “Look it up,” he told me. “It’s DIY, anti-establishment, rebellious, counter-culture.”

Ah, got it. He’s taken to calling me punk because of the growing distrust I’ve developed toward traditional publishing and my subsequent decision to self-publish my newest book Hapa Tales and Other Lies.

It’s almost too easy to roll those words out in a blog post, I’m self-publishing my newest book–as if I simply decided to try a different grocery store or switch brands of underwear. But the decision to self-publish has actually been fraught with worry and remains pretty scary.

There’s risk to self-publishing. Self-published books are often seen as amateur or low quality by the literary and academic world. If you are self-publishing it must be because no one wanted you and therefore your writing is no good. Without an established press imprint (read: stamp of approval) a book is easily dismissed as a silly vanity project. As a result, self-published books often don’t qualify for accolades like creative grants, fellowships, or literary awards.

But this is an interesting state of things as the publishing industry is still notoriously white dominated and, as such, still prioritizes manuscripts by/about white people. Of course anyone who works to be a writer will face rejection. But People of Color, given the state of the industry, are more likely to face rejection particularly if they try to tell a story, their story, which white publishers think “won’t sell.”

And of course I’m not just a person of color. I am a Womxn of Color, Asian American and Mixed Womxn, writing about multiraciality from a critical, uncomfortable, often painful and lonely purview. If publishers want a book about race–this is usually not the one they want; one that can’t/won’t subscribe to monoracial concepts and treads unsettled in liminal waters. I am defying too stereotypes of Asian American women as docile and uncomplaining, of Mixed womxn as “post-racial,” and of Asian Mixed womxn in particular as “happy hapas.”

Catch-22. Our stories our seen as less legitimate by the publishing world so we self-publish because we can’t get in the door…and we are still seen as less legitimate. We can’t get access to financial support, market our books as widely, be read by interested readers, etc. And thus the cycle of untold stories continues.

There is also the issue that Hapa Tales is a non-traditional book: research-driven memoir written with an anti-racist, decolonizing feminist lens. A lot of my writing is personal essay that takes to task systems of domination: racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, U.S. imperialism, etc. Part academic, part literary, part something else. I call my newest book memoir but it likely fits across or between genres (which seems rather fitting given the liminal waters right?). Still, a book that does not “fit” is irritating to the industry which needs to categorize, shelve, and file according to its historically white (and male)-made genres.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention my first publishing experience with an actually very reputable press. Yes, I was allowed through the door initially and released a book that did quite well. Despite the success of my first book, however, you may be surprised to know the overall experience was still very discouraging and I left feeling angry, frustrated, depressed, and chronically under-valued. Because I will publish with this press one more time I can’t say any more at the moment. Suffice to say, I followed the formula, it wasn’t awesome, and certainly didn’t leave me feeling more empowered as a Womxn of Color.

Given all this–my first experience publishing with a reputable press, observing the industry over the years, as well as speaking frankly with many other Womxn of Color writers–I realized trying to get Hapa Tales into the world through traditional outlets was likely to be a drawn out, miserable experience, and potentially not even successful in the end. The industry wasn’t going to “get” me. Even if I could get the book through the next door, I suspected, it was likely to get chewed up and spit out in entirely different form than I had originally conceived it. Moreover, traditional publishing is very slow, my book is time sensitive, and I wanted to get it into readers hands as quickly as possible.

After months and months of debating and deliberating (should I? shouldn’t I? should I? shouldn’t I?) I finally just said to myself, fuck. I should. I’ll never know about self-publishing unless I try and it could be amazing. So, here I am. There’s a lot I’m loving about self-publishing already and I’ll write about that more as I move forward. There are also things that are hard which I will write about as well.

For now, let me leave you with this. It’s not easy going against the grain and when you do, you will be told repeatedly, from every direction, that you’re wrong and maybe even a bad person for doing so. Self-publishing has been an emotional roller coaster ride so far, I won’t lie. But I’m also not giving up. So, what then? I’m throwing my hands up and going for the wild ride. Here we goooo…

1 Comment

  1. As Sheryl Crow sang, “No one said it would be easy.” As someone who spent a year unsuccessfully pitching to more than 100 publishers and agents and then self-publishing myself, I concluded: “Fortune favors the bold.” So, I went ahead and self-published myself too. Jane Friedman (www.janefriedman.com) has written some excellent essays on this topic that any writer should review concerning self-publishing logistics. Good luck!

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