The largest association of writers in Canada will be voting on whether or not to accept self-published authors at the end of the month.
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?
—Bob Armstrong, author
The Writers’ Union of Canada represents over 1,900 authors from across the country. For the past year, an ad hoc membership committee has been gathering feedback from chapters across the country on whether the organization should revoke its long-standing policy of not admitting self-published authors. Members will vote on the issue at TWUC’s AGM in Ottawa at the end of May.
“I think it’s been bubbling under the surface for a few years,” said John Degen, TWUC’s executive director. “There are a lot of young writers who are sold on the idea of having that level of control over their careers, which has nothing to do with their success in traditional publishing. For older members, it’s a question of what they’re going to do next, how to maximize their options.”
Degen is unsure which way the vote will go, with no clear majority opinion being expressed and, as he said, “strong voices on both sides of the argument.”
Bob Armstrong is the TWUC representative for Manitoba/Saskatchewan and author of Dadolescence. He hasn’t made up his mind on the issue and the questions it raises.
He does think that the mainstream success of some self-published works that have been picked up by traditional publishers – Fifty Shades of Grey, Shadowmancer andEragon – has taken some of the stigma away from what used to be considered an exercise in vanity.
“There are a number of ideas in play here,” Armstrong said. “One is that self-publishing is moving beyond the traditional vanity-press status for some writers. But at the same time, TWUC wants to remain the voice of the professional writer… 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?”
Armin Wiebe, author of Tatsea, The Salvation of Yasch Siemens andThe Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz has taught young writers while practicing his own craft.
“In other areas of the arts it is not considered unseemly to produce your own music recordings, mount productions of your own play, or to rent a gallery space to hang your own art show,” Wiebe said.
“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.”
Poet and associate publisher at Great Plains Publications Maurice Mierau agrees with Wiebe about the importance of an editor, but he thinks the lack of editorial oversight should bar people wanting to join the writers’ union.
“It seems to me that in a world where almost anyone can publish almost anything, and less people actually read books of any kind, that TWUC should not admit members who have never dealt successfully with a so-called gatekeeper,” Mierau says.
“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.”
Several major success stories aside, self-published works still make up a relatively small part of the book business. Chris Hall, manager of operations at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg, estimates of the 50,000 titles the store stocks, 1,000 are self-published.
“The sales figures work out to the same, small percentage of our monthly business,” Hall said. “They do come up on our weekly bestseller lists, but they may only be beating a traditionally published book by a few units. Then they rotate out.”
Whether the members vote to accept self-published authors, continue to reject them or choose some hybrid model, Degen is glad the union is tackling a topical issue on the future of publishing.
“We’re really not sure of the outcome, but it is generating a lot of heated discussion. Which is a good thing,” Degen added.” It’s a good thing for a democracy.”
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