Monthly Archives: July 2012

A Slice of the Literary Life: Self-Publishing is no longer a Dirty Word

This past Friday and Saturday, I attended the 2nd annual Slice Literary conference, held by Slice Magazine, in illustrious Brooklyn, New York.  Coincidentally, this is my second time at a literary conference.  I was not disappointed.  Not only did I meet with some incredibly talented writers, but I also had a chance to meet editors and agents and listen to some of the brightest minds expound on all things literary.

The first panel I attended was the Self-Publishing Panel.  I am fascinated by the world of self-publishing, which is quickly shedding its stigma as the new kid on the block. One of the panelists, John Fine, Director of Author Relations and Associate General Counsel at Amazon, indicated that in 1999, self-publishing was merely vanity publishing but due to the ‘democratization of the means of production,’ self-publishing, print-on-demand and other forms of self-publishing have become increasingly used and accepted.  Penguin’s recent $116 million acquisition of e-publisher Author Solutions and Random House UK’s distribution unit’s acquisition of ePubDirect, are strategic moves that indicate a sea-change in the publishing industry’s perception of self-publishing and e-publishing.

One of the upsides of self-publishing, as pointed out by Associate Editor Hana Landes of Spiegel & Grau, is that self-publishers have a tremendous amount of data about the end-user or reader.  Landes mentioned Anthropology of an American Girl, which was originally self-published (not digitally but rather hand-created) in 2003 and contained a note from the author that she had lost faith in the  traditional publishing world, only to garner a cult-following, which eventually led to a traditional publishing deal.

Indeed, many authors have turned to e-pub and e-distribution platforms such as CreateSpace and Kindle Direct, in an effort to dictate their own terms of success.  There are countless stories of authors who have garnered a following through self-publishing.  Genre-specific categories are particularly successful as e-books (i.e. romance, sci-fi, thrillers).  Additionally, so-called ‘interstitial works,’ those works that are not long enough to be a  book, yet too long to constitute a magazine, may fit perfectly within the $2.99 pricing sweet spot that is so popular on Amazon.

The relative upsides of self-publishing are however, tempered by the advantages that traditional publishers still have: stronger distribution channels in real markets such as bookstores, editorial support, marketing and publicity.  The author may feel a little spread too thin as a one-person publishing powerhouse and publishers still play an important role in supporting the author in these related yet critical ways.

Instead of fearing change, publishers are finally starting to fully embrace it.  Although it didn’t really start picking up until the Kindle hit the market, due to wholesale changes within the publishing industry (publishing has shrunk, editors are freelancing, there’s more competition, authors, noise, competing forms of entertainment, etc.), self-publishing is here to stay.

As Mr. Fine pointed out, ” The smartest authors today are those who are trying everything.”  Or, if I may comment, the smartest authors are those who are not afraid of trying new things and experimenting with different approaches to their work.  The dream of obtaining the six plus figure advance still lives on, but the reality may be something more attainable.

What do you think about self-publishing?  Is the stigma really gone or does it lurk in the shadows still?  Are more publishers going to embrace self-publishing or do they only seem to be doing it because of the adage ” if you can’t beat the competition, join them?”


Filed under Authors, Conferences

Book Review: Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

I just finished reading Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok.  I found it after buying the e-book version of When The Empire was Divine by Julie Otsuka, when Amazon suggested ‘other books I might like’ (thanks Amazon, you know me!).  Based on the excellent mostly five-star reviews of the book, I decided to get a hard copy since the cover was so beautiful AND the hard copy version was cheaper than the e-book version (sometimes I still like to kick it old school!).

I finished the book in 3 separate sittings.  I immediately loved the protagonist, Kimberly Chang, who had such a brave and formidable voice for a teenager.  The story is told in the first person and the details are so finely drawn, so realistic, that at times I felt I was reading a memoir.  The book is a coming-of-age story of a girl from Hong Kong and her mother, who came to the United States, only to have to labor for years in a sweat shop and repay an aunt for their debts.  The descriptions of the run-down roach-infested building that Kimberly and her mother return to after working at the sweatshop, were heartbreaking.  To realize that other human beings live, nay, survive, under such conditions is appalling.  Indeed, author Jean Kwok has revealed in interviews that the book was based, at least in some part, on her own life, where she too worked at a sweatshop, even at age 5, buttoning clothes and tagging clothes.  That is probably one of the reasons the book feels so authentic, because it is semi-autobiographical.  Here’s an excellent interview of the author, if you are curious:


The story is also one of the American Dream, overcoming great odds and becoming successful despite not being white, privileged, or rich.  That is the part of the book that I loved the most, the plucky self-assurance of the character despite some real and formidable challenges such as not understanding the English language, prejudice from peers, and no institutional support from her public high school.  Through talent and hard work, Kimberly Chang achieves a full-scholarship to Harrison Prep (Kwok’s real life counterpart was Hunter High School), achieves independence for herself and her mother, and then goes onto Yale.  Like Kimberly Chang, Kwok underscores that she was one of the lucky few that was able to escape the sweatshop, unlike many others who worked in sweatshops.

The character development and changes that the central characters undergo in the book are honest and believable.  One of the strongest characterizations is for Kimberly’s jealous aunt, who secretly does not want her niece to be as successful as her son.  Every time Kimberly out-achieves Nelson (the aunt’s son), you find yourself cheering for her.  Additionally, I love how skillfully the author brings the reader into Kimberly’s world by using evocative language that is a mash-up of the wrong English words as Kimberly hears them, it’s not quite Chinglish but rather explores how Kimberly obtains language with her limited vocabulary.  You have to read the book to catch my drift, but the way that Kwok uses the mash-up language is highly creative and makes you sympathize with the character instantly.

I find it very difficult to criticize any of the choices Kwok made in writing the book.  Although on Amazon some felt the ending was maudlin, I thought it was an appropriate, maybe a bit dramatic, way of ending the book.  The one thing I wonder about is why Kwok made her relationship with her mother seem so wonderful.  Maybe because it would almost seem unfair to have a mother-daughter relationship filled with conflict when the protagonist already had to endure and overcome so much.  Or maybe the family was just so busy keeping up with the exhausting work at the sweatshop that there wasn’t room or time for conflict.  Also, having a common enemy (the aunt, society), helps bond mother-daughter despite the age gap. Because the father is absent from the story it is particularly plausible that the mother and daughter would have such a close relationship.  I found that extremely touching and a departure from the mother-daughter conflict that is portrayed so well by other Asian American authors such as Amy Tan.

A beautiful book, I highly recommend it for your summer reading list!

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Filed under Book Review, Reading

True Story: I have never read Harry Potter

If the world could be separated into two kinds of people, a good way to categorize things, I think, would be between those who have read Harry Potter and those that haven’t.  I fall into the latter camp.  When I tell people I have never read Harry Potter, I almost always receive a gasp or similar look of horror in return. “You’ve never read Harry Potter?! Really?” or something along those lines.  And when I tell the person the reason why: I’ve never been particularly interested, J.K. Rowling has enough fans, I would rather read x, y, or z, the justification still doesn’t seem good enough.  As an agent that does represent some YA, it’s almost sacrilegious to mention that my eyes have not had the pleasure of delving into the world of Harry Potter. As if to add insult to injury, I have watched some of the Harry Potter movies, including the last installment.  Gasp, the horror, the horror.

ImageMaybe one day I’ll read it, but in the meantime, my list is full of books I’d rather read in lieu of Potter, not to mention the manuscripts and queries I receive that have taken priority in my reading list.  Perhaps I should take a speed reading course just so I can get through the entire Harry Potter cannon.  Right now though, I can’t justify it.  After all, I still haven’t read James Joyce’s Ulysses, ostensibly one of the most difficult reads in the entire English literature cannon, so why should Harry Potter deserve a spot above Ulysses?

In picking a book, in our increasingly media-saturated and attention-deprived world, what rules or methods do you have to keep your reading list manageable?  I have some rules for reading, some of which you may (or may not) find helpful:

1) Does the subject matter interest you?  No offense but I’ve also never read Twilight.  This doesn’t make me a book snob (alas, I have seen some Twilight movies).  I’m just not interested based on the subject matter.  I’d rather read a riveting memoir or another Jon Krakauer book (I loved Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, and his other books on are my list).

2) Is the author one you have read before and enjoyed?  Usually a good bet is that if you enjoy the author, you’ll like his or her other books. In high school I went through a Jane Austen stint and read most of her books, one of my favorites being a lesser-known or less-popular one called Persuasion.  I enjoyed every single one.  I also try to follow authors that are new-ish and have written books I enjoyed, such as Chang Rae Lee.  His book, The Surrendered is on my list because I loved reading Native Speaker.

3) What do your friends, who know your tastes, recommend?  Often, I’ll ask my friends who know my literary taste, what they are reading.  Usually they are pretty spot on.  Sometimes there are misses, but it’s good to branch out and ask a friend what book they are reading that may not usually fall into your list.

4)  What is everyone else reading?  I admit it, I was curious about The Hunger Games but resistant to the mass-mentality that made it so popular (sort of along the lines of Harry Potter).  I read the first installment and loved it.  I haven’t gotten to book two or three yet but imagine I will in due course.   Another book that has garnered a huge following, especially among the Stay at Home Mom contingency, is 50 Shades of Grey.  I’m sure you’ve already heard what that one is about.

5)  The close your eyes and point test.  Sometimes, when I don’t feel like reading from my list, I will take a total risk and go to the library, run my fingers along the spines of book, close and point.  I’ve come across some surprises and some duds, but it’s never a boring experience.

What popular books and movies have you not read or seen?

In short, there are really no rules about what to read and what not to read.  Everyone has biases and everyone has their favorites.  Some of us may be romance novel junkies, some of us love paranormal thrillers, and some of us don’t read (which is sad!).

And yes, a few of us have never read Harry Potter.


Filed under Reading

Author John Jung signs with Penumbra Literary

Author John Jung has recently signed with Penumbra Literary!  Jung is an accomplished author who wrote four books on the history of the Chinese in America.  Jung is also the Professor of Psychology Emeritus at California State University, Long Beach where he taught for 40 years.

According to Jung, his approach to history “goes beyond dates and events to examine the life experiences of Chinese immigrants.”  He seeks to understand how Chinese immigrants coped with and overcame hostile societal prejudices against the Chinese and other “Orientals” from the late 1800s until the mid-to-late 20th century.  Many of these Chinese families carved out a niche in American society by operating family businesses such as laundries, grocery stores, and restaurants.  By establishing their own family businesses, they were able to enable their children to gain higher education that moved them beyond these humble origins into successful careers in many prestigious fields.

Jung’s first book which examines such themes is a memoir on growing up in Georgia’s Jim Crow South, entitled Southern Fried Rice: Life in A Chinese Laundry in the Deep South.  His second book, published in 2007, Chinese Laundries: Tickets to Survival on Gold Mountain, examines the significant role that their laundries had on the economic survival of Chinese immigrants throughout North America from around the 1870s to 1970s.  In 2008, he published Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton: Lives of Mississippi Delta Chinese Grocers, a book about the social history of the few Chinese immigrants who came to this region in the late 1800s to run grocery stores mainly in black neighborhoods.   His fourth book, Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants, published in 2010, is a social history of Chinese restaurants and the lives of families that operated this popular ethnic business for over a century.

Penumbra Literary looks forward to working with author John Jung to achieve an even wider audience for his important and revealing books.


Filed under Authors