Don’t Even Get Me Started: Self-Publishing and the Need for Diverse Stories

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So last week I wrote about Why Your Whining Behind Needs to Self-Publish, and hopefully, it reached the people it was intended for– talented writers who have been rejected by traditional publishers, not because they aren’t talented, but because of industry rigmarole, the inability of the planets and stars to align on days that end in “y,” and good ol’ fashioned crappy luck (“Oh? Your story is about kung fu squirrels who take over Manhattan? Well, wouldn’t you know! I just sold a story like that last week for a staggering 7 figures, so I can’t take yours on at the time. Sorry, toots!”).

I will say this again: just like spandex, self-publishing is not for everybody. I have friends who are, at this very moment, querying agents (and one friend with a novel so good that if he can’t get an agent this time around, I’ll think this whole darn thing is rigged). As I’ve said before: different strokes for different folk.

But I would also like to take this a step further. Some people assume that when a writer can’t get an agent/publisher, they are either not a good writer, or they are a good writer, but the story is just not where it needs to be. Is this true sometimes? Absolutely. Is this true all the time? Absolutely not. So why, if a writer is talented and the story is great, wouldn’t they get an agent or publisher?

For part of the answer, let’s take a look at author Tia William’s article, Why Aren’t There More Black Women in Fiction? The excerpt I’m including is long, but worth the read:

Last year, I finished my fourth novel, The Perfect Find, about a 40-year-old former superstar fashion editor who, after losing it all, risks her big career comeback for a deliciously steamy romance with a coworker nearly half her age. When my agent shopped it around to publishing houses, the editors loved it. They told me so in their rejection letters, many of which included some variation of the following critique: “Witty, juicy, timely — but given that Jenna’s a black woman working in a white world, we wish this aspect of her were more deeply explored. Can you give more insight into her struggles as a black woman in fashion?”

How could these non-black women decide that I, a black woman, hadn’t adequately explored my character’s race? Jenna isn’t struggling with her blackness, in fashion or otherwise. She’s struggling with starting over and her ticking biological clock and hiding from her boss that she’d just had an orgasm in the fashion closet with the guy three cubicles down — all multilayered, real situations that white characters are allowed to experience, no apologies. You think anyone asked Lauren Weisberger to play up her protagonist’s Jewishness in The Devil Wears Prada? So often, in order to make sense to mainstream audiences, publishers need us to speak to some aspect of the understood “black experience.” Hence, the popularity of Big Issue books on slavery and civil rights and literary tomes theorizing race in America. Where’s the black Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train? Where’s the Sophie Kinsella-esque rom-com confection starring a cheeky Spelman alum? Just once, I’d love for the best-sellers’ lists to include a book about a black coed intrigued by a creepy-hot rich dude who introduces her to whips and chains in his Red Room of Pain (for better or worse).

The fact is, black commercial-fiction heroines aren’t afforded the luxury of nuance. That’s because most of the people making decisions about what Americans read aren’t personally intimate with everyday blackness. 

And then this:

Many black female commercial-fiction writers are driven to self-publish — check out Amazon, Goodreads, and (African American Literature Book Club) to discover new voices.

Tia goes on to say that she found an indie press, Brown Girls Books, for her latest novel, A Perfect Find (which has fabulous reviews, by the way).

Let’s keep it real: if black, brown, and purple writers are not exploring race, or talking about their experiences as a black, brown, or purple writer and what that experience means and how it relates to a deeper meaning of life and society, MANY publishers don’t want to hear our stories. Is there anything wrong with these kinds of stories? Nope. In fact, we need them (and if you haven’t read The Bluest Eye or Nervous Conditions, stop what you’re doing right now and go buy and read these novels).


We also need love stories. And comedies. And Christian fiction. And thrillers. And mysteries. And suspense. And horror. And paranormal. And science fiction. Because we come from all walks of life and have different experiences. And we are also not a monolith.

But there’s great news!  Many readers are starved for stories featuring diverse protagonists (see the “We Need Diverse Books” or the “We Need Diverse Romance” initiatives for examples). The even greater news? With the advances in publishing technology, we can let our voices be heard–even if we’re writing about Kung Fu squirrels who take over Manhattan (or a zany rom com that takes place in Silicon Valley).

Should everybody self-publish? Probably not. There are many people who self-publish stories that probably should have never seen the light of day. They either need more practice, a damn good editor,  a page one rewrite, or a handy-dandy blowtorch. But not everybody who self-publishes does so because their work is subpar. Don’t even get me started!


16 thoughts on “Don’t Even Get Me Started: Self-Publishing and the Need for Diverse Stories

  1. Quanie,
    I have just taken the time to really sit and read your article. You point out a lot of deep issues. At the Women’s Fiction Festival in Italy, last year, I met an African-American Woman who lives in Sweden (She’s married to a Swede) and writes fantastic books. In fact, since then, I have bought all of her books. She says the same things that you are saying. She became frustrated with the publishing industry after one agent told her that her books were fantastic but she needed to make the heroine caucasian. That’s when she decided to self-publish.
    I personally have not given up. I want to be traditionally published. That is a dream that I have had since I knew how to read.
    However, it was enlightening to hear you say the same things that Kim said.
    All the best.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat Garcia recently posted..IWSG Article, July 6, 2016, Head Slightly Bent Upward, Looking SkywardMy Profile

  2. “I think that any reader will love ANY great story with exciting characters, no matter what color the characters are.”

    Yes! Excellent viewpoint, excellent post. I just want to cheer you!

  3. Wholly agreed. I have never liked the idea that, if a story includes a minority character (any kind of minority), that story has to reflect what it’s like to be that minority. I’d rather see diverse stories with characters who are X, Y, and Z, without X, Y, and Z being the primary things that make them who they are. People are a lot more than just their race or gender or sexuality, characters should be too.

    For instance, in the book I’m editing, one of the leads is a black man. He’s also the second-in-command of an interplanar spaceship where he’s one of only two humans on the crew. The challenges he deals with revolve around staying alive, getting jobs done, and making sure he and the rest of the crew can keep flying. His race isn’t even a factor.
    Mason T. Matchak recently posted..On Self-PublishingMy Profile

  4. When self-publishing first came along (e-publishing, not the vanity stuff that existed before the Internet), everyone definitely assumed it was for the less talented. But as things have evolved, there are so many small presses and self-pubbing options, I think an entire group of writers has emerged. These writers just want to be in charge of their own career. I also know quite a few trad-pubbed authors who chose to self-publish or go with indie presses when publishers started requiring us to do our own promotion. They figured if they were going to have to do all that work, they’d just keep more of the per-book earnings for themselves.
    Stephanie Faris recently posted..The House Where Someone Watches YouMy Profile

  5. It’s true. The publishing industry is as biased as any other business out there. They want to see exactly what they want to see and they won’t pay you dollars unless you give them exactly that. But that’s the thing: they’re a business. So is self publishing. Anyone can have a publishing business these days, and I think that’s pretty darn amazing. So many stories find their niche just because there’s an open door where there wasn’t before. People who cling to a stigma about certain publishers are pretty much just silly. =)
    Crystal Collier recently posted..7 Amazing Reasons to Celebrate Dads (Late)My Profile

  6. I commend you on this explosive essay/expose! “more insight into her struggles…” I’m still reeling! Did the idiot even read the manuscript?! It’s downright shameful to be that stupid. But see, that’s what we’re up against – or were. Imperious fools be gone! The new kids on the block are here to stay! Thankfully 🙂
    “handy-dandy blowtorch” – ha!
    diedre recently posted..Peaceful, Easy FeelingMy Profile

  7. Ugh. That is so frustrating to read, and lemme just say, my ancestors are lily white. My hubby has more in him with his 1/16 Native American than me.

    I think what gets me is when publishers make decisions like this it’s like they are saying that I, as a white person, can only be interested in a story by someone from another culture, another skin color, another religion, if that story is about their struggles in a white world. It’s why I love movements like We Need Diverse Books or that little girl Marley’s 1000 Black Girl Books. It highlights a wide variety of books and shows that people crave those books too. Publishers need to take note of these movements and stop being so afraid of breaking their molds.

  8. “So why, if a writer is talented and the story is great, wouldn’t they get an agent or publisher?” I’ve been asking myself this question with the book I’ve been querying for an agent. *sigh*

    You’ll be happy to know that I have projects in the works with diverse characters and romances. I don’t know when I’ll be able to finish them or publish them, but I have them waiting for me. 🙂
    Chrys Fey recently posted..Writing About: WrestlersMy Profile

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