In Defense of Self-Publishing
(despite being broke)
I read jay caspian kang’s open letter to minority journalists this morning, and it reinvigorated my faith in my decision to self publish. I’ve never held an official writing position, never been in the room for editorial meetings, never stepped into a publication’s headquarters to report for duty. But I’ve been freelancing for over a year, and even in my limited experience, I can identify with the content of the letter. I’ve seen how the industry at large, with the exception of a few (often minority-led) publications, tailors itself to trends and power over integrity. I’ve found that, as Kang asserted, there’s no security in it for writers like us unless we “build our own shit.”
When I started writing professionally, I had no idea how any of this worked. I had made it through only one year of college before dropping out in a depressive state, and then floated through life like a dandelion seed until the years planted me in a position to try my hand at it. My first piece went viral, and I got a taste of both success and exploitation. Multiple major publications picked my work up, but I was offered no compensation, and certainly no opportunities. Essay after essay, the same thing happened, while I watched white writers get book deals for similar notoriety.
But I began to feel my first inkling of faith in myself, anyway. I began to feel that I was good enough to follow a trajectory that might grant me a full-time or sustainable position writing or editing somewhere. I thought I could work my way to a seat at the proverbial table.
So I tried the typical freelancing route, despite being an atypical freelancer. I tried pitching publications that increased in prestige (and pay) in order to acquire enough bylines to back me. But I couldn’t eat bylines, and the ones I managed to collect didn’t cover the bills.
Still, I kept at it. And then time passed. And more time. And more time. Each pitching attempt meant sometimes two weeks of waiting for acceptance or rejection, and then a few days of writing, and then anywhere from 30–90 days waiting for a check (usually under $100) when my bills were already past due.
It became clear that following the path laid out for freelance writers required certain resources. Resources that I don't have. It requires deep wells of time and energy, connections to expedite pitching, fall-back money for when the checks are late or infrequent, and more. What I have is a baby who only allows me to write when he’s asleep, an occasionally debilitating depression that renders me unproductive, and an equally exhausted support network who can’t afford to bail me out while I bet on myself. But I kept betting on myself, hoping someone would throw me a big break before my resolve broke.
Spoiler: I didn’t get any big breaks. Instead, I found myself running into even more issues that hindered my belief in my ability to keep going. I found myself questioning whether I had it in me to place my personal essays in the hands of people who weren’t equipped to handle the content respectfully.
In response to Kang’s letter, Aura Bogado tweeted about a problem faced by many minority writers — who it is that shapes and critiques our work.
Beyond the stifling limitations inhibiting me from producing as much as more privileged peers, I found that the work I was producing was being watered down by the editing processes of the publications I was pitching. I found that men were editing my pieces on misogyny and sexism. I found that pieces on Blackness were being edited by white people. I found that pieces where my voice was strongest were being softened for palatability. I rapidly grew frustrated and dissatisfied.
If I was sacrificing sleep to write heartfelt work that generated serious traffic, if I was being abused by the audiences that exposure from big pubs brings, if I was grappling with editors to maintain the integrity of my own voice — where the hell was my stability? Where was consistency I could count on, the benefits of all my hard labor? Where was my half of the rent money? Missing.
I soon decided that what I was seeking when I started writing wasn’t what I wanted at all. It took all of my minuscule resources, and still left me financially insecure. So, I chose to prioritize self publishing my work, instead.
I self publish because what I want most from writing is to be able say what needs to be said as authentically as I can say it, and to reliably provide for my family while doing so. I’ve learned that — as a broke Black woman — the odds of me being able to count on the industry to allow me those things simultaneously are slim.
So I dedicate myself to building my own platform, and count on the fact that others value what I offer as much as I value providing quality content. I bank on faith that those who appreciate my work will invest in it so that I can afford to create it.
I reject the notion that appealing to gatekeepers is the only way through the gate. Gatekeepers are fickle and fallible. Their keys are ever-evolving. Gatekeepers don’t represent me without stipulations that I can’t stand by. I can’t count on being let in as I am. What I can count on, is that the audience that I’ve garnered here is here for my unfiltered abilities. What I hope to one day count on is that the model I’ve chosen can be enough to sustain itself.
I regularly receive comments or emails regarding my use of audience-funded self publishing. The commenters insist that if my work was good enough, I’d be working in major publications and not “panhandling.” Beyond pointing out that asking to be compensated for providing a service isn’t begging — I say to them that this route is my resistance against an industry that isn’t built for writers like me. I found a way that suits the life I lead as a marginalized person lacking time, energy, money, and institutional credentials. I created a space that allows me to create to the best of my ability.
And, no, I’m not at stability yet, but I know I’m bringing myself closer. Sometimes my pieces make me more than any publication would’ve offered. My audience receives my words from me exactly as I intended. And no one has the power to rip my platform from me and hand it to someone more befitting of whatever’s on trend.
In an industry where few who look like me hold power, I’ve taken my power back. Self-publishing empowers me to build my own sustenance.