Sandra Kasturi on the Advantages of Small Furry Animals in Publishing


Sandra Kasturi, poet, publisher and editor extraordinaire, answered the TWR questions by email on March 11, 2013.

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

Probably because “vanity publishing” as a phrase sounds so obnoxious. Obnoxious and faintly Victorian. As if you’d just written a monograph on the seven habits of highly effective butterflies and now you needed to find a press to bind it and print it in a limited edition of 300, because the Royal Society of Naturalists was, as usual, ignoring your newfound scientific discoveries.

And things have changed. Almost overnight. Before people using “vanity publishing” were usually people whose books were so terrible that no “real” publisher would touch them. Or poets. Nobody ever wants to publish poets. So poets have been self-publishing pretty much from the Year Zero, and it doesn’t have the same, ah, stigma that it does in fiction.

But now it seems like everybody and his brother is doing it. Sometimes because they can’t find a regular publisher—which is possibly even harder now with the massive fluctuations in the publishing industry itself—given that the big publishers and even smaller presses want to publish books that sell. Which sometimes seems like they only want James Patterson, Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer and J.K. Rowling.

And why settle for 10% royalties when you can get 100% royalties? When publishing as an individual is so very easy, and even producing ebooks is easy. If you can build your own fan base and self-publish? You’re golden. And people have done very well out of it. So it’s less “vanity” than practicality. Hey, remember “desktop publishing”? Sounds so adorable now.

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?

Interesting question. You’d think music and literature would operate in similar ways, but in many respects they don’t. Perhaps it’s because most of us are raised to read and write, so everyone thinks they can write—and they can, in that they can draw or type letters on a piece of paper and a computer screen. And our own egotistical inclinations toward thinking that everything we do is just as good as anything anybody else does lead us to believe that whatever we put on a piece of paper is just as good as whatever W.B. Yeats put on a piece of paper.

Whereas with music, you (theoretically) have to learn a whole other language, and maybe an instrument. It seems more like work. I can clearly see that learning to play the piano takes some work. So even the most delusional of us have respect for those who have done so. You see it with music and dance too—singers, or those who want to become singers, like on American Idol always seem much more in Lala Land than, say, people auditioning for a dance show. We can see the physical effort dance takes, whereas everyone thinks they have a good singing voice.

So maybe it’s the same principle in operation between music and writing. Writing looks easier than playing with a band? And you can write with a minimum of tools.

Maybe it’s that indie music artists have been around a lot longer than indie writers have. Maybe it’s just nomenclature. If we call people “indie writers” maybe that’ll have more cachet and sound less masturbatory than “self-published writers.”

If self-publishing keeps going, though (and why wouldn’t it?), then presumably the wheat and chaff will eventually separate themselves. And let’s be frank—there are any number of shitty writers being published by perfectly legitimate publishing houses. John Grisham, anyone?

3) Now that self-publishing in either paper or e formats is so inexpensive, what areas do conventional publishers have to improve on in order to distinguish their products from self-published ones?

The gap is closing much more quickly than we’d like to think, isn’t it? But I think there are four key areas where conventional publishers can distinguish themselves: (a) distribution; (b) money/marketing, (c) design/appearance; and (d) quality. Though of course with (d), as I mentioned earlier, plenty of presses still produce crap.

With respect to (a) distribution—that’s one of the biggest stumbling blocks to self-published writers. How do you get your books out to your audience? How do you convince an audience that they should buy your books? If you wanted an aspirin, would you buy it from Bayer, or would you buy it from the guy on the street corner who says he’s giving you a better aspirin than a big drug company, except he’s making them in his basement? People want to buy things from someone they trust. So writers need to convince readers to trust them. And there’s so much stuff out there, that it’s difficult to know what to buy. Which is where a traditional publisher is helpful—they can get books into stores, they can get them online at places where people know they’re not going to get screwed. Maybe you won’t like the book when you get it, but at least you know that Random House or Amazon is probably not going to take your credit card number and fly to Aruba. And the better/bigger the distribution, the more likely it is that your potential readers will find you.

As for (b) money/marketing—well that’s pretty self-explanatory. Most regular people don’t have the spare cash to spend thousands of dollars promoting their book, and might not even know how to go about doing it. They might not have the money for actual physical printing either (which is where POD comes in so handily for the self-publisher). But a big house, or even a small house, knows how and where to spend their money, and they have the money to spend in the first place. Although, given the way publishing is going these days, where even the giants are no longer sending their authors on tour or doing book launches…well, who knows. But still—John Smith is probably not going to buy a subway ad. But HarperCollins can and will.

Design and appearance (c) are a huge thing. This is precisely where if you compare a self-published book to a traditionally published book, you can usually very clearly tell the difference. The self-published book, a big percentage of the time, looks like exactly what it is—something the author “designed” and printed herself. I’ve seen a lot of people who have probably written perfectly decent books and have put them out through POD, and then told me that they “designed” the cover, and it makes me sad—because they look awful. Weird layouts, terrible fonts (too many fonts), hokey art, clichéd images, the lot. I rarely see a self-published book I’d want to pick up, because their appearance tends to look cheap and tacky. If you’re self-publishing, pay a real designer to do the cover. Not just an artist—but a person who actually understands design and layout. It makes a big difference.

Lastly, we come to (d) quality. Theoretically the publisher is there as quality control, or the gatekeeper. A book that is published in a traditional way has had a lot of people look at it. There have probably been slush readers, editors, acquisitions editors, copy editors, proofreaders, maybe an agent as well—all of whom have looked at the manuscript, and have (again, theoretically) improved it. If it’s just you—then you’ve written it and have done several drafts (maybe) and then your friends and your mom have read it and told you what a genius you are. That’s not real feedback. That’s not a genuine critical process. But if you’re determined to go the self-publishing route, then, for the love of God, get into a genuine writers’ group and workshop that novel. Your own opinion of yourself is probably not the clearest one to go by.

If every publisher thinks your work is crap, you know—maybe it is crap. But nobody wants to believe that. And sometimes it’s not true either—you may be writing something so innovative that others can’t see it, and you just need to find a publisher with vision. Or maybe your writing style and spelling are so terrible that no one could get past page one, so the fact that you had a genius idea becomes irrelevant.

But I’ve digressed massively…I guess traditional publishers need to improve on the product they’re putting out there. If everyone’s out there publishing, then presses big and small need to put out books that are great—they look good, they’re well written, they’re easily available everywhere, and they’re clearly a superior product. Can traditional publishers do that in this crazy climate? Who knows. Maybe the whole publishing industry needs an overhaul in how the business operates. Let’s start with how book returns work.

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

I think if you’re a professional writer with a track record who has already been traditionally published and has a fan base—why wouldn’t you do it? Stephen King doesn’t really need a publisher. He could just put up his latest work on a POD site or as an ebook, and everyone would buy it. Easy-peasy. Much harder for regular people who don’t have millions of adoring fans at the ready.

If you have a day job, and you’re just trying to get your work out there—it’s probably difficult for you to spend the time needed to get your book some attention. In some ways it’s easier now than ever—you can build your own website, you can be all over Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, your own blog, various message boards, the boards and listserves of writers’ organizations (if you belong to any), and maybe you can build your audience. But there’s the signal to noise ratio: everybody else is doing the same thing you are. So how do you boost your own signal? That’s where a traditional publisher can certainly help you.

But if you’ve got the money, and you’ve got people who you think will buy your book, and you can spend some effort on some real design (not just what you think looks good), and you’re willing to get someone else to edit and proofread your manuscript…and you’ve gotten real feedback on whether or not your work is any good…well, why not?

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

I think Penguin looked at the publishing landscape and very smartly stuck their flipper in a lucrative pie. I think the other big publishing houses should do the same. These days, you never know when things are going to go balls up. Best to have a backup plan.

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 think of it as akin to what happened with other huge shifts in arts and entertainment. Like when silent movies moved to “talkies.” Or when TV came along and the face of radio changed. When people started downloading and streaming movies and music for next to nothing.

People keep saying that ebooks will replace “real” books, and that kind of shift certainly happened once you got sound in movies. Who makes silent movies now? Well, except The Artist, but that was an anomaly, and, frankly, kind of a gimmick. It’s not like Michael Bay or even Kathryn Bigelow is going to start making silent movies.

I think of e-publishing as more like TV vs. radio. Radio didn’t disappear once TV came along, but it sure as hell did change. You don’t often find storytelling in radio any more. And now, with Netflix and other services, TV itself is changing. My analogy is shifting as I write this!

E-publishing is also changing—how we view it now may be very different from how we view it ten years from now. It may well be unrecognizable. The kinks are still being worked out. If e-books improve and provide everything you get from a physical book, then traditional publishing will go out the window. But right now, there are still people who like the look and feel and heft of print books. We like turning the pages, we like the smell of books. When we hold a print book, we feel like we’re holding (and owning) a real thing.

That may well change as the first generation grows up who has never not known ebooks. How they view what is real may be very different from what we view as real. Electronic data is invisible—we just see the result of it being arranged in certain ways on our computer screens, on our Kindles and Kobos. But the thing itself seems almost mythical—untouchable and etheric. But I speak as someone from a generation who had a childhood without computers or cell phones or mp3 players. The younger generations perceive the world very differently, I’m sure. And perception, as we know, alters the universe we live in.

We’re living in interesting times in the publishing world, and it sometimes seems like every business decision leads to another minefield. This is why I think it’s easier for smaller operators to do well. They can shift more easily with changing technology and make decisions faster. If you have to wait a month for a CEO to sign off on something, you might miss the boat, especially given the speed with which trends and transactions occur these days. Maybe the small furry mammals have an advantage over the T-Rex? Or maybe the T-Rex will still eat us up in an eyeblink. Your guess is as good as mine.


  1. Carmelo Militano
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Sandra’s analysis. Being published by a small press or even a large press does not mean the work is sterling and the same applies to self-publishing. However, all three forms of publication require similar standards: quality design and writing. They also all face the same problems: distribution and making money. Self-publishing has the added problem that many writers, reviewers, and generally people in the literary world who should know better, continue to turn their collective noses up at self-published work.
    I have self-published for close to ten years now and although not making heaps of money I have received some appreciation( and awards) for my efforts as I have explained on a comment page devoted to Patricia Young. I did not need a small press editor-who often cannot write-tell me my work is unworthy or worthy. The literary community as much as the general reading public needs to see the possible worth and efforts of self-publishing. And editors, as much as some self-proclaimed writers, can be pretentious,vain, and full of crap( not to mention mean-spirited and jealous) and cannot distinguish a menu from a poem.

  2. Posted March 14, 2013 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Well said Ms. Kasturi.
    I recently met an author whose plan to make a living is by self-pubbing a lot of work quickly. She admitted to not doing much editing in favor of glutting the market. “The more, the merrier,” she said and then admitted what she put up at Amazon was bad writing. When I tried to explain how she was building a platform and reputation of crap, she looked at me like I was insane. She also didn’t understand there are other ebook sellers besides Amazon for kindle. That’s short-sighted for sure.

  3. Peter Chiykowski
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Phenomenal interview with some level-headed perspective. I spend more time talking to aspiring comic book artists/writers than proper text-wranglers, but most of the same publishing/self-publishing issues still apply.

  4. Posted March 12, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Any writer who has lived through litanies about slush piles and rants about wannabes by professional writers, on panels, at conventions may automatically assume it’s necessary to address the “lots of bad writing out there” question. And anyone who has ever adjudicated or edited knows it can be true. But I believe there’s a lot more good writing than there is a paying market to support it, and this fact explains a great deal about the meanness of the professional writing world. I also believe everyone has the right to self-expression and to seek a niche. But let’s not trade “number of hits” as the new stick to lash each other with. The truth is we all want more audience and getting any audience is harder and harder in the busy, noisy world. I think it’s time to be kind and respectful to each other, in all directions, while holding on firmly to one’s own right to have standards and tastes suitable to our particular purposes.

  5. Posted March 12, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    This was a great interview. I was glad to see a voice of reason regarding the self-publishing issue, particularly by an editor. Thanks for providing this! :)

  6. Michael
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Astrid, I suspect that if you were a writer at all, you’d understand the points made in this piece. If you’re an aspiring one, take the time to learn your craft, and pay attention, instead of flying off the handle and ranting when truths are told in articles like this by professionals who know what they’re talking about. You might learn something about the business and craft of writing and publishing.

  7. Ales
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Well put! Thank you for the entertaining yet cogent insights. I particularly liked the analogy with the aspirin vendors!

  8. Posted March 12, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink


    As an enormous advocate of self-publishing, and not at all a fan of publishers, I think you might want to dial it back a bit. Sandra is a very successful small publisher who has taken all sorts of risks and marketed the hell out of the authors associated with her company. Her firm certainly isn’t guilty of any of the charges you’ve made, some of which apply more or less to different publishers.

    The reality is this: to most customers, “self-published” does sound masturbatory. They don’t trust it, and this is what she’s talking about — the legacy of decades of vanity publishing and the legacy publishing industry’s rightful response to it.

    I didn’t read any sarcasm towards writers in her post — quite the opposite. You, on the other hand, sound a bit bitter. Maybe projecting a bit?

    I very seriously doubt you’d find a stronger champion for dramatic change in publishing and indie authors than Sandra Kasturi. You might want to do a bit of research on who you’re blasting before you let the cannonballs fly.

  9. Astrid
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Why all the sarcasm when discussing people who write or want to write? What makes you think that nobody can have an honest opinion of what they have done or that writing is all about ego? I think the whole industry would benefit if people were treated with respect. Who (besides you) thinks the term “self-published” sounds masturbatory?

    And what makes you think that publishers know how to market? I think they’ve proven over the years that they have no idea how to market books. Their tactics haven’t changed at all — readings, signings, etc. You never see any innovative marketing techniques from publishing companies. You don’t even see any good web sites from them. And, these days, they just leave it to the authors to do most of the marketing. Some smaller publishers even ask writers to include a marketing plan with submissions. This proves, I think, that not only do publishers not know how to market, but they are too lazy to learn (or too scared to take a chance).

    • Carolyn
      Posted March 12, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink


      If you are in your 50s, like me, “self-published” does sound masturbatory. But, as Sandra says, that will change, once you’ve pried that hardcover out of our cold, dead hands.

      I’m married to a traditionally published author who would never turn in a manuscript to his editor without having a dozen people read it first — not for typos or grammar (although that is useful), but because their critiques make it a better book. If one of his readers has a great idea, my husband will change his book. It’s traditional crowd sourcing.

      You have some great points about traditional publisher marketing. Large houses don’t have the time to innovate, the publicist is handling 10-20 books a month. Small presses are often run by one person working two jobs with no money to spare and some unpaid interns (if they are lucky). So yes, authors must market themselves — whatever the size of their publisher.

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Sandra Kasturi

Sandra Kasturi is a writer, publisher and Bram Stoker Award-winning editor. She is the co-publisher of ChiZine Publications in Toronto. Sandra’s work has won several prizes, including the Whittaker Prize and first prize in ARC Poetry Magazine’s 10th Annual Poem of the Year Contest. Her second poetry collection, Come Late to the Love of Birds (Tightrope), appeared in 2012. See the book trailer here.