All Is Not Vanity: The rise of literary self-publishing
September 18, 2012
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 publishedWave 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 OurExile 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…