Self-publishing: changing with the times

Book launch exhibition in 2008

In 2008, when I first self-published A Little Beijing: Your Niche Travel Guide, I made an art installation with the help of my best friends to represent a narrow alley in Beijing. I sent out invitations, got featured in the local newspapers, went on the radio and finally did a book launch with a two-week exhibition.

Like-minded creatives then invited me to exhibit at a new location. More people saw my publication and not long after, A Little Beijing was featured on and made its way to Good Design in 2009: Make Histories.

“Making histories doesn’t have to be about huge gestures or wide-spanning narratives. By capturing, cataloging and visualizing stories over time, we lay the groundwork for interesting patterns, connections, and ideas to emerge that help us better understand groups, people, events, places and ourselves. By bringing to life our daily movements, both real and virtual, we leave a trail for us and others to add to and learn from.” — PSFK presents Good Ideas in 2009

A Little Beijing enables travelers to carry only postcards of places they want to visit in a single day

Back in those days, smartphones were not a thing and travelers were lugging heavy travel guides with them whenever they visited new places. This unique set of 60 postcards with a map of Beijing encourages travelers to pen their thoughts and send them home (or to someone special).

Stamped mementos

A Little Beijing didn’t fit into the usual publication genres but I’m glad I made it anyway. It is a record of a phase in life that I could never recreate.

As I started laying out a new book last year, I realized I couldn’t possibly do what I had done ten years ago. Times have changed; the world has changed — information needs to be available or shared online and human activities happen predominantly in cyberspace.

The idea of producing two physical books — a bilingual storybook and a vocabulary handbook — seems somewhat ridiculous in this age where most people have switched to e-books. The latter soon became digitalized after discussions with my husband, Jon, who works as a software developer at Wikimedia Foundation. Making the vocabulary handbook editable gives me the flexibility of updating it.

Work in progress

But I do love printed books, not just because of my fondness for paper and the sound of flipping pages. The physical existence of a book takes up a certain space — be it in the room or in our bags — we can’t simply “close a tab” or “shut down” to make it disappear in a split of a second.

This was how A Little Daily Dose: Discovering Chinese characters through short stories became a physical storybook and a digital handbook of vocabulary.

Jon and I built a mobile site for our book of vocabulary

What we were working on is a special project for Jon and me as it documents our journey of learning Chinese together. Yet, it is hard to submit this concept to a publishing house. Our short stories are fiction; the idea of learning Chinese is non-fiction — is it educational or a reference? Submissions take 3–6 months for a response or no response at all.

This was how A Little Daily Dose: Discovering Chinese characters through short stories became self-published.

Finalizing the format was quite the breakthrough but we soon faced another problem: where and how are we going to launch this? Our family and friends are all over the world, it was rather impossible to have everyone here in San Francisco for a book launch.

We started exploring the possibility of crowdfunding late last year as it felt like the most feasible option. During the month-long campaign, our Kickstarter page served as a digital portal that everyone in most parts of the world could access and an informative webpage before our site was ready.

Our campaign was fully funded at the beginning of 2019
Our Kickstarter backers: People we know (in red) and don’t know (purple)

Although we would have loved to meet everyone in person, it is pretty cool to watch where our books go. The most rewarding bit is how we managed to share our idea with people we know and don’t know, all at the same time.

Blue represents purchases from our website via Paypal and yellow represents Amazon purchases

Now that our books are printed and the website is up, we are able to sell them online through various channels and reach out to online media such as the local news and foreign weblogs.

So far, so good.