All Is Not Vanity

The rise of literary self-publishing

Ward McBurney is a Toronto writer best known for the series of stories he read on CBC Radio’s Fresh Air from 1997 to 2007. In 2001, Dundurn published a collection of these radio stories under the title Sky Train, which sold modestly. When McBurney proposed a follow-up volume, Dundurn politely declined, citing poor sales. Undeterred, he published Wave Hands himself.

Around this time, McBurney began working on an ambitious novel about World War One and its aftermath: & After This Our Exile. When the book was done, Ward asked me to read it. I happily obliged. (McBurney is a former student of mine whose literary career I had been following with interest.)

The novel centres on several members of a fictional battalion drawn from the ranks of Toronto typesetters. It is set both in the trenches of France and in Toronto in 1934, during the great Canadian Corps reunion. And it contains some of the finest writing about war and the impact of war that I have ever read—not to mention a compelling portrait of Toronto in the dirty thirties. It also moved me deeply. I offered to help him find a publisher.

I gave the manuscript to a former colleague who was now an editor at a Canadian house with a strong literary fiction list. Because it came with my recommendation, he read it quickly. Then he politely declined. It was not his particular literary cup of tea.

I have no doubt McBurney would have found a publisher eventually, had he persisted, probably one of our smaller literary presses. But he was not prepared to spend the months—more likely, years—that finding a publisher would likely take. He decided to go it alone.

The book launch in the spring of 2008 at the Horse Palace at the CNE (which served as headquarters during the 1934 reunion) easily outclassed many a launch sponsored by many a mainstream publisher—something few publishers now consider worth the cost. The physical book was primarily available for order through the print-on-demand website Lulu, one of a burgeoning number of self-publishing services that include iUniverse, Penguin’s new Book Country and recently acquired Author Solutions, which is the parent company of Trafford (originally based in Vancouver), and Amazon’s CreateSpace. The artifact produced by Lulu is sturdily bound between soft covers with an attractive cover design. Its production values are high. It looks as good as any commercially published novel in trade paperback format.

But unlike a book from a conventional publisher, McBurney’s novel was not reviewed on a book page or submitted for a mainstream literary prize. The print media do not accept self-published books for review. Nor are they eligible for awards such as the Giller Prize or the Governor General’s Awards. In the view of these taste arbiters, & After This Our Exile fell into the disreputable category of vanity publishing.

After his novel’s release, McBurney wrote a regular blog on which he posted the stories and poems he continued to produce. He mined his considerable online network as well as his contacts in the academic world. Among his marketing successes, a history class at the University of Windsor adopted & After This Our Exile as a required text. To date it has sold 350 print-on-demand copies, a quite respectable number for a book not available in bookstores or via any of the major online retailers.



Ward McBurney’s story is a case study in an emerging trend: the rapid rise of self-publishing. Two technological breakthroughs have driven this trend: the development of the user-friendly e-reader, such as the Kobo, the Kindle and the Nook, and the appearance of inexpensive print-on-demand technology, which prints single copies of a book “on demand” at a cost comparable to traditional printing methods that produce many copies per run and leave the publisher with a pile of books sitting in costly inventory waiting for orders. For the first time in history, a book can be affordably published and made widely available without producing copies in advance. Nowadays anyone can become a book publisher.

Much has already been written about the earthquake in conventional publishing caused by these technological advances. The enormous increase in the number of self-published books is one of its primary aftershocks. According to Publishers Weekly, the number of self-published titles in the U.S. jumped from 133,036 in 2010 to 211,269 in 2011. Of these roughly 45 percent were fiction. And some significant proportion of this impressive number must be literary fiction.

By “literary” I mean the kind of novels that vie for the literary prizes, the pool of serious, high-quality fiction out of which emerges the books that last. What does the rise of literary self-publishing mean for the future of literature?

It is no longer possible to dismiss the kind of self-publishing McBurney practises as vanity publishing. The mainstream can no longer claim to be the only quality stream. Self-publishing has simply become too attractive an option.

There are several good reasons a novelist chooses to self-publish:

1. Because of repeated rejection. This is, no doubt, a common reason. And, yes, it leads to the publication of more than a few bad novels.

2. To get the book to market more quickly. Submitting a novel to a publisher—or an agent—is often a long and frustrating process. Few publishers accept a manuscript for consideration without the assurance that no other publisher is simultaneously considering it: publishers do not want to invest in evaluating a potential book only to discover that another company has beaten them to the offer. So the author must wait the three or four months it typically takes for each publisher to come to a decision. Years can pass.

3. To have more control over the process. Many are the authors who complain about some aspect of their treatment by publishers. They especially resent their lack of input into cover design. Fewer and fewer are the in-house editors with the skill to edit a serious novel properly. Standards of copyediting and proofreading are steadily declining as publishers seek ways to cut costs. The self–published author can directly hire top professionals for each aspect of the book-generating process. Of course, the money for this will have to come out of the author’s own pocket.

4. To receive a larger share of the book’s earnings. The author of a conventionally published book typically receives 10 percent of the list price or less, although on conventionally published e-books, whose selling price is much lower, that author would be entitled to 25 percent of the net price. For a self-published author, the earnings per book sold are higher—as much as 70 percent of the selling price with an e-book. For a POD book produced via Amazon’s CreateSpace, for example, the author’s take runs as high as 60 percent of the selling price, but this is after paying the upfront cost of the publishing “package” comprising preparatory costs such as editing, typesetting, design and e-book formatting. (The minimum selling price is generally set at roughly four times the unit production cost of the book.) If the author handles all the prep work and deals directly with a printer such as Lightning Source, the cost per book is lower and the potential earnings are higher.

5. To attract the attention of a major publisher. Indie websites and blogs are awash with stories of the self-published book that made a big enough splash on its own that it was picked up by a mainstream publisher and made into an even bigger success. A recent example of a literary novel to make this leap is A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava, which was picked up by the University of Chicago Press. It is difficult to imagine this 678-page doorstopper the Globe and Mail reviewer called an “absurdist romp through the [American] justice system” finding a proper publisher any other way.

The main challenge of self-publishing is getting the book widely known among potential readers. The author must become his or her own publicity and marketing department. It is difficult, but not impossible, to place your book with the Indigo chain, which now accounts for as much as 50 percent of Canadian retail sales of physical books. Magazines and newspapers will not review your book and it will not be eligible for the grants and awards available to conventional publishers. But it seems to be relatively easy to gain access to the major online booksellers such as and, in Canada,, where it can be available as POD and in e-book format.

As it happens, mainstream publishers now expect all but their best-selling fiction writers to do most of their marketing themselves. Once the publication date rolls around they offer little or nothing beyond sending out copies for review and giving the book space in the catalogue. Authors are expected to maintain a website, write a regular blog and social-network themselves silly. Many authors are so disappointed by the lack of support from their publisher that they hire professional publicists to supplement the in-house effort. And still the average conventionally published novel in Canada is lucky to sell 2,000 copies—and that is assuming it makes it into Chapters/Indigo as well as most independent bookstores.

As Peter Mayer, former CEO of Viking/Penguin, recently acknowledged, “publishers clearly need to newly prove to readers and authors the value that publishers add.”

Much of this value is now being offered by the increasing number of companies that support the self-publishing sector. A local example of this trend is Colborne Communications, a company that since 1985 has primarily provided editorial services to a variety of clients large and small, including all the major Canadian publishers. In recent years, however, self-publishing clients have grown to account for over half of the company’s book-editing business. For these clients, Colborne now provides the full range of publishing services—everything from substantive editing to design, production and marketing.

In 2011, the company’s president, Greg Ioannou, decided the next step was to offer his clients an actual publishing imprint: Iguana Books. Iguana is primarily an e-book and POD publisher, but occasionally produces a physical print run. The only catch: someone other than Iguana must pay all the upfront costs (and warehouse and distribute any books produced). Which would make Iguana a classic vanity press were it not for this notable criterion quoted from the company’s website: “we publish ONLY the books that meet our standards.”

The line between self-publishing and conventional publishing becomes perilously thin here. What Iguana does that a self-publisher cannot is separate the good from the bad. It makes a decision about quality. It mediates between the writer and the potential reader. It exercises literary judgement.

Before the rise of literary self-publishing, the makers of literary taste lived in the editorial departments of mainstream publishing houses, among the contributors to the review pages of mainstream publications and on the juries of literary prizes. These tastemakers have yet to fully emerge in the Wild West of self-publishing. But there are already several well-established book awards for self-published or “independently published” books, the latter a grey category that includes self-published books. And publishing services companies are beginning to promise quality control. According to Trafford’s website, its “flagship Gold Seal Packages are externally critiqued by the highly respected book reviewers in the industry such as Kirkus, ForeWord Clarion and the US Review of Books. Trafford books with positive reviews are rewarded with that much-coveted stamp of excellence—the Trafford Gold Seal.”

Self-publishing is at a stage analogous to the early days of Wikipedia, when users were reluctant to trust information contained in a communally written encyclopedia. It turns out that online democracy performs quite an effective self-regulating function. The more individuals who contributed to Wikipedia the more reliable it became. Now it is the first place most people turn to for information. Whether the increasingly virtual world of self-publishing will eventually learn to regulate itself is an open question. The appearance of various award programs for self-published books hints at the possibility.

Regardless, the line between self-published and conventionally published literature will disappear as more and more mainstream fiction is published as e-book or print-on-demand. Barriers to the mainstream marketplace will collapse as the physical bookstore disappears. Inevitably, medium-sized commercial publishers will gradually fade away, leaving an environment where a few entertainment megaliths battle for their share of the mass market while most serious books are produced by boutique publishers or are self-published.

Will new literary forms arise out of this transformed literary landscape? As Steve Wasserman argued in a recent issue of The Nation, it seems more than likely:

Perhaps the discipline of tapping 140 characters on Twitter will one day give rise to a form as admirable and elegant as haiku was in its day. Perhaps the interactive features of graphic display and video interpolation, hyperlinks and the simultaneous display of multiple panels made possible by the World Wide Web will prompt new and compelling ways of telling one another the stories our species seems biologically programmed to tell. Perhaps all this will add to the rich storehouse of an evolving literature whose contours we have only begun to glimpse, much less to imagine.

If so, the rambunctious frontier of literary self-publishing is where these new, experimental forms seem most likely to make their debuts, to achieve coterie acceptance and then gain wider readership. But will any of these future literary creations be works that last? The digital world has two cankers that constantly gnaw away at all notions of permanence: fragmentation and endless revisability. The former of these is our daily lament about our wired world: too much information, too many content providers, not enough time to begin to absorb any of it. The latter is less discussed. Yet the instant and infinite revisability of virtual text means that authors can continuously “improve” their work, perhaps in response to criticism, perhaps simply because writers are never truly ready to part with their creations. The notion of a definitive edition of an enduring work may soon disappear.

Is the rise of literary self-publishing the beginning of the death of literature, of works that become part of a culture’s DNA and pass from generation to generation? When the next Stone Angel or Fifth Business is published, how many of us will even know it exists? Will any of the fine novels now being brought into the world be read a hundred years from now?