May 13, 2013

Canadian writers’ union to make decision on self-published authors


Matt TenBruggencate reported for the CBC last week that the largest association of writers in Canada is set to make a decision as to whether to reverse its long-standing policy and admit self-published authors at the end of this month. Serious book people have typically looked at self-publishing as the purview of self-indulgent vanity presses, but with the mainstream success of some books that were initially self-published (including one that you may have heard of, which rhymes with “nifty maids love hay”), some of the stigma may have dissipated.

The Writer’s Union of Canada (TWUC), which includes some 1,900 authors, has been debating the issue of whether or not to allow self-published writers to join their ranks. TenBruggencate writes that an ad hoc committee has been polling chapters across Canada to get feedback about people’s feelings on the matter, in preparation for a vote at TWUC’s annual meeting in late May.

There’s no shortage of controversy over the issue, as some union members see welcoming the self-published as a welcome move towards artistic acceptance, and others worry that it will open the floodgates to people whose work hasn’t been vetted carefully enough. Those who are leery emphasize the importance of an editor’s role in providing some quality assurance; author Armin Wiebe told the CBC, “I have no objection to self-published authors joining TWUC as such… My problem with most of the self-published books I have read or tried to read is a serious lack of editing, both substantive and copy editing. Those are services that a good publisher will invest money in, so if you self-publish you should invest in it too.”

Maurice Mierau, associate publisher of Great Plains Publications, echoed those sentiments, saying, “Those of us who have published books with good presses have competed with a lot of other writers to get the approval of an acquiring editor, who acts as a filter for potential readers. Self-publishers frequently compete only on the basis of sales tactics and skill in self-promotion, which do not equate with the ability to write a compelling book.”

On the other hand, the TWUC representative for Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Bob Armstrong, opines, “If we don’t expand our membership, do we miss out on the opportunity to bring in new, often younger, writers who work within a different literary culture?” TWUC executive director John Degen reports that the committee gathering feedback hasn’t discovered a clear majority for either side, so it will all come down to the meeting at the end of the month; and Degen is happy that the subject is at least open for debate: “We’re really not sure of the outcome, but it is generating a lot of heated discussion… It’s a good thing for a democracy.”

The tricky thing is, of course, that not every self-published book is created equal. For every stroke of genius like The Apple Store, there’s a slew of inferior works, and while it would be great just to say, “We’ll admit self-published writers IF they’re any good,” that’s subjective and difficult to enforce. It’ll be interesting to see where TWUC lands on the matter, whether they open the doors to expand the definition of what we think of as a legitimate, professional writer.


Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.