Vanity fare

Edmonton novelist Thomas Trofimuk heaps abuse on the self-publishing industry in an article written for a recent edition of WestWord, the Writers Guild of Alberta’s magazine. He does not mince words. “Any idiot can self-publish a book,” he writes. “Most self-published books I’ve read needed editing, revising or at some point needed to be profoundly rejected.”

A self-published Calgary writer, Eleanor King Byers, takes exception to Trofimuk’s remarks, characterizing them as “offensive.” In a letter to the WestWord editor, she suggests that Trofimuk should research the “art” of self-publishing before “throwing out careless comments.” She goes on to talk about the success of her own books, and says that independent Calgary booksellers have “indicated a readiness to carry any future work sight unseen.”

Trofimuk is not moved to issue a retraction. “In my experience, most self-published books are horrifyingly bad,” he repeats. “Self-published books are not subjected to an independent critic that will judge their worth on literary grounds. In short, they do not have to be good. They just have to be funded.”

Which argument is the valid one? Is self-publishing largely the domain of inept hacks with money to spend, or a legitimate literary enterprise that can sometimes produce nuggets?

In fact, there is truth in both arguments. Self-publishing does generate a lot of dross but then so does mainstream publishing. I was a judge for a national literary awards program last year and – of the more than 200 commercially published books I scrutinized – only a handful of titles were worth publishing. Some were superb. Most were, as the English literary critic Victoria Glendinning boldly said about the 2009 Giller Prize entries, “unbelievably dreadful.”

I have also been a judge for competitions in which self-published books were allowed entry, and occasionally have been pleasantly surprised. I have yet to find anything to measure up to the standards of such famous self-published works as The Celestine Prophecy or Mrs. Dalloway, but I have come across the odd self-published author (Terry Fallis is a well-known recent example) who would not look out of place in the catalogue of a major publishing house.

I have not read the work of Eleanor King Byers but I do know that her book Guardians of the Lamp – about the old Calgary General Hospital and its nursing school – sat atop the local bestsellers’ list of the Calgary Herald for many months. That suggests to me it wasn’t just her friends and family and former nursing colleagues who bought this book. Clearly, there are many Calgarians who wanted to read about those dedicated women who ministered to the sick at what was once the largest hospital in the province.

Self-publishing was once considered the basest form of literary endeavour, indulged in by mediocre scribblers who could not get their work commercially published. So desperate were they to see their books in print, they paid vanity presses to publish them. When I worked as a newspaper books editor, I could always tell from a quick glance at the covers which ones were the vanity publications. They were crudely designed with ugly artwork, deeply strange titles (Reusing Old Graves, Bombproof Your Horse) and fonts that looked as if they came out of a children’s printing set.

Nowadays, with the aid of sophisticated cover design software and inexpensive print-on-demand technology, it is possible for self-published authors to put out books that look professionally produced. It’s not just wannabe authors who are availing of this technology. Traditionally published authors like myself are also using it, to bring back old titles when mainstream publishers declare them out of print. These books have already been professionally vetted and edited so they usually are a cut above those manuscripts that have not gone through this gatekeeping process.

I sympathize with Trofimuk when he says he doesn’t want to wade through thousands of “iffy” self-published books when there are “just too many great books out there that I don’t have time to read.” I also sympathize with Byers when she says that self-publishing “does not necessarily indicate rejection by publishing houses.” It can also indicate an author’s desire for more editorial control or a greater share of the royalties. A writer I know who has published several best-selling mountaineering books with commercial trade houses did his latest book as a self-publishing venture because he wanted it out by a certain date and wanted a bigger slice of the profits. He already had an established track record so he had high hopes that his book would do well. I expect it probably will.

There is a legitimate place in the literary world for self-published books. There always has been. Mark Twain, James Joyce, Anais Nin, Beatrix Potter and a host of other well-known writers all had to self-publish at different points in their careers because they could not find publishers to take on their work. But for every self-published author who turned out to be a literary genius, there were thousands who fell by the wayside. Today, there are millions falling by the wayside, because all it takes to get published now is access to a computer and an account with Blogger. Good luck finding golden needles in that particular haystack.

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