Shawn Syms Takes (Some) Vanity Out of Self-Publishing


Toronto fiction writer and book critic Shawn Syms responded to our questions by e-mail on Jan. 5.

1) How come nobody uses the phrase “vanity publishing” anymore?

Sometimes when no one wants to publish your work there’s good reason. But that’s not always the case. The term “vanity publishing” suggests the primary or sole motivator of an author is ego-gratification, and most of the time I think something more complex is going on. The growth of self-publishing is part of a greater democratization of the means of access to communication tools kick-started by the Internet. Many people want to participate in a cultural conversation regardless of their relationship to the standard gatekeepers of literary production.

That said, a literary press will say no to a bad idea but a vanity press won’t.

2) Why does the music industry accept and even celebrate “indie” artists, who self-publish their music, while the book publishing industry tends to view self-publication with hesitation or even disdain?

All cultural production is about relationships and reputations as much as the work itself. But it is often also about degrees of access to power. I think that many artists who are considered culturally “indie” have more backing than most of us realize. But if we’re talking about underground, unconventional musicians and artists who self-produce, I think the comparable phenomenon on the lit scene is zines. And the musical equivalent to vanity publishing is probably Rebecca Black’s pop song “Friday,” which was paid for by her mother.

The creation of songs and albums is often understood to be inherently collaborative while literary work is seen to be, and in some specific senses is, a solitary endeavour. Of course some people are self-producing multi-instrumentalists. And in the best circumstances, many people contribute to the shape and form that an author’s words take on a page.

But for all my talk about democratization, anyone who has seen a collection full of typos or a novel that’s poorly realized knows why self-publishing has a bad name. Though to be fair I’ve seen those things in literary press offerings as well.

3) What do you take from the fact that Penguin recently (before the Random House merger) acquired the self-publishing company Author Solutions?

I don’t see why this should surprise anyone. At large commercial publishing houses (and at some mid-sized literary presses) the lion’s share of decisions are based on business and financial drivers. Corporations exist primarily to make money, so they go where the money is. Penguin will make money off its traditional program and from Author Solutions. Any Author Solutions writers who appear likely to generate more revenue on a Penguin list will be switched over. But virtually no one who has cash — and we’re talking anywhere from almost $1,000 to $20,000 for the services of their various imprints — will be turned down by Author Solutions.

4) Do you think professional writers should consider self-publication? If so, under what circumstances?

Sometimes literary presses say no to a good idea because their resources are limited. But sometimes a writer’s work is great but stands outside the aesthetic and cultural constraints of what any of the smaller and larger presses are willing to accept. If your work is at all unconventional — and not in a trendy, au courant sense — getting good work published can be very hard.

In such cases, sometimes considering either self-publishing or the likelihood of acceptance by existing small presses can feel like treading water between Scylla and Charybdis. The struggle feels more intense when it’s your first book. I’ve recently had conversations with a very talented writer I know, who, despite the help of a well-known agent, has had a lot of difficulty placing her debut and has wondered about self-publishing.

You can jump through all the hoops — multiple lit journal credits, big grants, shortlisting for major awards — and it doesn’t get any easier unless you have a powerful champion, or your work is very marketable. The sad thing is that I know the process can be just as emotionally draining sometimes for brilliant writers who have proven themselves with multiple well-received titles under their belts.

I think if a talented, professional author has a work that they and their respected peers think is worthy of publication but it’s in an unpopular niche, I’d say go for it. Or if the content of the work is time-sensitive for whatever reason and they can’t bear for it to sit at a publishing house for two years waiting for a yes or no, I’d say go for it — as long as they ensure that the work is carefully considered, effectively edited, appropriately revised and well-designed.

Often writers who have built a reputation can balance their efforts between mainstream publication and self-produced works. And some respected online literary publishers use low-cost solutions like CreateSpace to add a paper-based distribution channel for their writers’ work.

5) Now that self-publishing in either paper or electronic formats is more accessible, what areas do conventional publishers have to improve on in order to distinguish their products from self-published ones?

Literary presses offer access to talent: editorial, design, marketing and promotion. And their reputation, and a sense of belonging. And a particular aesthetic that a writer may fit into with varying levels of ease or discomfort. And often they are full of people who really care about literature and community — so an author can focus on their core competency and know that they will be supported in all the other pieces involved in getting their work onto the page and in front of people.

(All that said, I have a friend who had a non-fiction book with significant sales potential published by a financially successful mid-sized commercial Canadian press who felt he got virtually no post-publication marketing support.)

I think conventional publishers should maintain and strengthen what they have to offer as best they can — bearing in mind how stretched small presses can be. Of course, some of these services a writer can seek out herself if she’s well-connected and knows freelance editors, book designers and publicists.

Vanity presses are supposed to consolidate those offerings for greater efficiency, but I’ve seen some atrocious books come out of them. I think it comes down to the profit motive. When I think of the knowledge and care that goes into a book published by, say, Coach House Press, I find it hard to imagine the same experience with a vanity publisher.

To be fair though, a while ago I was commissioned to review a self-published book for a Canadian literary journal, and its quality and production values were quite comparable. I had some problems with the writing, but the same is true of many literary-press titles I read.

6) What do you think the impact and importance of e-publishing in various formats by authors themselves is going to be on literary publishing?

I’m greatly in favour of a work being available in any form a reader wants it. I think Canadian presses should be funded to develop the resources necessary to expand into e-publishing and access related distribution channels, and offer this for authors in ways that are competitive and fair. Otherwise they will see increasing numbers of authors retaining their own electronic rights or selling them off to another publisher. Self-publishing for authors involves either a steep learning curve or costs along the same lines as vanity print publishing. I’d love writers to instead be able to devote more time and resources to our own writing!

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Shawn Syms

Shawn Syms is an Associate Editor of the Winnipeg Review.