I invite comments on the advisability, feasibility and necessity for self-publishing
on my blog under Justifying Self-Publishing. By self-publishing I mean in the tradition of Samuel Butler (Erewhon), Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn), Marcel Proust (Remembrance of Things Past), et al., not vanity publishing by which an author pays a publisher to print and distribute his/her book under the vanity press’s imprint.

Writers’ organizations devoted to increasing the incomes of their members do not recognize this distinction and are hostile to self publishers, whom they consider lacking professional status. On the other hand, organizations of self publishers also refuse to recognize this distinction and welcome vanity published writers as members. The subject gets more complicated.

Large commercial publishers do issue books secretly financed by authors who value the cachet of a reputable house backing their book, and there are small presses which publish relatives and friends in order to receive financial support for their books from government which denies it to openly self-published works.

My comments below may be of interest to a reading public who wonders that some books are hyped and widely distributed while others which were praised by word of mouth can be found only with difficulty.

A SURVEY initiated by Antanas Sileika, Director, Humber School for Writers, Toronto, asked writers of book-length prose (fiction or non-fiction) who have published in a traditional manner, at what age they were first published and their experience, if any, as students in creative writing classes.
[“Self-published books, poetry books, textbooks and other academic books are not covered in this survey, although I recognize they are all worthy.” ]

Mr. Sileika wrote: “Back in 1987, I read a New York Times Book Review essay which stated that the average age of a first-time published writer in the USA was 47. Is that true in Canada? Much of the Canadian literary press says younger and younger writers are being published in this country, so I wanted to test that anecdotal information and sure enough, it turned out to be not exactly true. 42 is not all that young.”

The results of the survey are at

Comments by David Beasley to Antanas Sileika, 30/11/10,
in a reply to a survey of writers at Humber College.

I see that most writers cannot publish their first book until in their 30s or 40s. This reveals what I have suspected. Publishers today do not take young writers and nurture them to bring out their best works. Before the WWII, back through the 19th century, publishers would recognize writing talent and encourage writers by publishing their early work. Since 1950, most publishers are looking for profit; they are part of a conglomerate of different products; or they are small publishers without much distribution, in which case a writer should self-publish. University publishers can distribute well, but often they do not pay good royalties [McGill-Queens will not pay more than 5%—which is why I withdrew a book from them that they wanted to print but were reluctant to show me a contract].

I glanced over the results [of the survey]. One remark struck me as very relevant—from someone who had taught creative writing—it would be better to see how many attendees at creative writing classes actually published articles and books. I went to a creative writing class once—a bad experience, but I had been writing books for some years before then and feeling depressed because I could not find a publisher [I was in New York City]. Eventually I self-published all those early mss and they all received good reviews. But this was after I had had my first book accepted and published because it happened to be extremely relevant at the time. The trouble with publishers is that they don't really want to publish unless it is on a subject they are keen about or has an obvious potential as a formula for best seller profit or someone else pays for it, i.e. government or the author. Those who read mss are usually unable to distinguish good writing from bad [Bill Styron when he was a reader rejected Heyerdahl's Kon-Tikki, so even good writers can make horrible mistakes]. I wonder how all those publishers in the English-speaking world feel after having rejected the Harry Potter books. I wish you would do a study of publishers and demonstrate that they prefer to publish junk rather than good writing, or publish the writing of those who attended writing schools they patronized, or refuse to publish as a form of censorship, or many other possibilities. As for agents, most are almost illiterate in the sense of recognizing good writing.

David Beasley

Reply from Antanas Sileika

Thanks for this - I couldn't agree with you more, and the whole publishing world is beginning to follow your lead, or if not the publishing world, then writers. At my school, we keep stats of traditionally published and self-published writers, and we have just begun to keep stats of articles and poems published as well, but as you might imagine, the workload is huge and the accuracy spotty.

Antanas Sileika

in a message to a writer:

I joined the Writers' Union when I returned to Canada in 1993. Then it was vibrant [so different from the Authors' Guild of which I was a member in NYC]. There was a kerfuffle over the representation of minorities. Many members resigned. The Union has not been the same. I have been very disappointed in its grievance power, etc, but since I am an old union man [I organized the library workers union in NYC and was its president] I stick with it in hopes that it can do something more for writers. What I dislike is the attitude of many members who want to use it as certifying their professionalism as a writer. When they deny self-published authors membership, they are lining themselves up with publishers against other writers when all writers should be unified.

Letter to Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean
Governor General of Canada

August 3, 2006


I write to ask you to reconsider the restriction of awarding literary prizes under your name—I speak of the Governor-General’s Awards and the restriction forbidding self-published works to be submitted. I have written books for fifty years, beginning at a time when Canadian publishers were rare. Some authors in the past persisted in sending manuscripts to several hundred publishers [and even in the present, witness J.K. Rowling] while others after a rejection simply put the ms away. Now that self-publishing is technically feasible, authors have been liberated from the control of the “insiders”, the “guardians-at-the-gate” style of publishing. Small presses and self-publishers do not have the resources—advertising, distribution contacts, etc—of the large publishers [who are usually part of conglomerates]. One method of recognizing and publicizing worthy works is to award them prizes.

Should not the Governor-General’s Awards recognize all published Canadian works, whether they are self-published or issued by large presses subsidized by government grants? The Canadian Authors Awards consider self-published works. My recent historical novel, Sarah’s Journey, won the Hamilton and Region best novel award, which did not discriminate against self-publishers. It is a popular historical book and I will wager that it might well have won the Governor-General’s award, if allowed to be considered. I want to submit my Canoe Trip, a young adult book, for consideration in the fiction section. Will you and can you make that possible? Will you recognize the hundreds of self-published writers whose talents may be greater than the present prize recipients and who should not be seen as second-class citizens?

I attach my catalogue [my web site is where you will find more about me and my books—in particular my biographies of the first Canadian writer, the first and best Canadian actor, a Canadian innovative curator, the novels of our first writer which have not been seen by Canadians (indeed Westbrook was lost for 120 years until I found it)]—so, you see, I am not some amateur scribbler; I have dedicated my life to writing and throwing some light on Canadian culture and history. But my contributions would be largely unknown if it were not for the new technology that promotes self-publication.

Yours sincerely

David Beasley

Letter to Mr Peter Stephens,
Writing and Publishing Section, Canada Council for the Arts.

January 26, 2007

Dear Mr. Stephens,

Thanks for your reply to my request that the Governor General’s Awards for literature include the consideration of self-published books for the awards. You put emphasis on the role of the publisher in creating a vision for the marketing of the publication and the development of the author. Publishers may help certain authors to develop but from my experience their main concern is to market books. The major problem that writers have is finding a publisher. Those commercial publishers who can afford to market books will not accept manuscripts unless through an agent. Agents rarely take on new authors and, like publishers, they handle only particular subjects and particular ways of handling subjects. I began writing in the mid 1950s when there was little market for Canadian novels. I blamed the disinterest on the lack of a tradition in Canadian writing. I stumbled on a footnote about the first Canadian novelist and spent years researching his life and tracking down his works in order to demonstrate that there was a tradition. The biography was issued in 1977 and contributed to our knowledge of our literary past at a time when Canada was awakening to itself as a nation. A small press issued it. A large commercial press would have rejected it because the writer was unknown and consequently the biography would be unlikely to sell sufficient copies to make a profit. Nevertheless its publication was significant. The critical acclaim for the book persuaded me to test the self-publishing method, and I chose a manuscript that I had written twenty-five years before. It was a journal of my trip through a remote part of Turkey by donkey, which a New York City agent supposedly had tried to sell back then. The reception of the book surprised me; one critic read it five times; a radio reviewer spent a half hour discussing it. I wrote a light detective novel and sent it to a publishing firm. An editor wanted to publish it but finally confided to me that she lacked the political clout on the editorial board to have it accepted. She left publishing in disgust. This decided me to self-publish my manuscripts even though I lacked the financial resources to market them competitively. When I retired and returned to Canada I published my books to good reviews in the main. But distribution has always been a problem for small presses. [My most recent distributor went into bankruptcy owing hundreds of thousands of dollars to small publishers and, in my case, selling all the copies of one of my titles, a rather popular book, the profits from which remain with the retail stores]. My point, which I tried to make in my first letter, is that the Canada Council awards would help bring recognition to authors who lack the commercial backing of commercial publishers to market their work. An award might even persuade a commercial publisher to take over the book from the self-publisher for better distribution. The Council would be better fulfilling its mandate to promote Canadian literature and authors without bias. Advances in technology are making self-publishing attractive to many writers—who prefer to issue a book in several weeks as opposed to the two or three years that a commercial publisher will take.

Winning an award does not mean that the book will be as welcome to the general public as it was to the members of the selection committee, but, by considering self-published material equally with commercially published material, the Council will be recognizing that self-publishing is becoming a large if not the greater part of the Canadian publishing scene. I have heard fears expressed, usually by authors promoted by commercial publishers, that self-publishing is inferior. If that is the case then they should not fear competition from self-publishers. I note your reference to the large number of books submitted and the heavy reading load placed on the “professional authors” reviewing them, doubtless without remuneration and out of dedication to developing our literature.
A new method will have to be devised, and, perhaps, it will take self-publishing into consideration. I trust that you and your colleagues will present my case vigorously to the Board members responsible for revising the program.

Yours sincerely,

David Beasley, PhD

cc. Janet Riedel Pigott, Director, Endowments and Prizes Section
Melanie Rutledge; Head, Writing and Publishing Section
Joanne Larocque-Poireir, Program Officer



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