Culture | Cutting out the middleman

Canadian writer Andrew Smith chronicles his efforts at self-publishing

Walking through a big library can make one a bit shaky in the knees. So many books, so little time – and then one realizes that new volumes are constantly being added to the already full shelves.

It’s dizzying, and one wonders how the sheer number of books in existence doesn’t deter all prospective authors. It seems as though it would require an extraordinary amount of self-confidence to try to add one’s own work to the huge collection of great (and less great) literature that’s out there. But there is no indication that contemporary writers hesitate to promote their creations. In the shadow of big publishing houses’ crises of waning readership, and their desperate search for a saviour in blockbusters from the likes of Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer, another branch of the business is thriving: doing it yourself. Today, almost anyone can surpass the hierarchical gatekeeping structures that characterize publishing companies through self-publishing, a trend that may be called the democratization of the literary field.

Andrew Smith, a Canadian-based writer who keeps a day job as a book designer, got tired of slow dancing with publishers who took years to give him a straight “no” about his book. He decided to go a different route and self-publish his novel Edith’s War, a process he documents in the blog

“There definitely was interest, but nobody who’d actually commit to trying to publish the book,” Smith recalled. While it is his first novel, Edith’s War is not the first thing Smith has written. His short fiction and non-fiction have previously appeared in magazines like Descant and Real Travel, and he has been shortlisted for both the CBC Literary Award and the Journey Prize. Extracts from Edith’s War that have appeared on the blog give a promising glimpse of a tale about the second World War, projected onto two generations, in two different settings, through two modes of storytelling.

Still, it’s hard not to be hesitant about a work when the term “self-published” is attached to it.

There is a definite stigma surrounding self-publishing, a fact that Smith discusses on his blog. In an interview in the New York Times last January, Robert Young, CEO of the self-publishing house Lulu Enterprises, said that his company had “easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind.” While Young’s comment was both disrespectful and ill-advised, self-publishing is nicknamed vanity press for a reason, and it’s impossible for such associations not to affect a serious writer with self-publishing in mind.

But the question still remains, should writing even be democratized? Or are there certain markers of quality that only professional editors can recognize? Smith notes that he had his initial doubts, but felt encouraged by the interest expressed by prospective editors before they turned the book down. After critically reading it through, he decided it was worth a try, and has found an independent editor to help him, called J.D. on the blog.

“I honestly don’t still have doubts about the quality of the book”, Smith wrote in an email. “Now that a well-respected editor with lots of publishing experience has read it and pronounced it definitely of good enough quality, I don’t doubt for a minute that the book stands up really well against other published works of fiction.”

Smith’s remarks suggest that self-publishing, then, might not be an enterprise to take on completely by oneself; it’s possible that the absence of a discerning editor is the issue at the root of all the bad poetry Young claims to have helped publish. But with the aid of an editor, why shouldn’t somebody like Smith go ahead and publish a book himself? The decisions made by publishing houses are often based on economic factors, a reality that Smith himself faced when a couple of his works were rejected because of his age – at 62, publishers thought, he wouldn’t be able to give them the additional two to three books that would justify the costs of publishing and marketing the first. Not only do such decision-making processes value profits above all, they’re also often flawed. J.K. Rowling was rejected twelve times before Bloomsbury picked up Harry Potter. Thanks to the Internet, a private person today can sidestep these concerns and take care of most of the functions of a publishing house themself, streamlining the process and perhaps publishing a work that really does deserve to be read by the public.

“Publishing seems to be a very cumbersome endeavour and one wonders if there isn’t some way to make it less ponderous,” says Smith. “I can’t help but feel there’s loads of really good writing out there that falls through the cracks because of the way in which the industry looks at new work and the way in which it sells (or doesn’t sell) new work.” Smith, for one, doesn’t seem fazed by library shelves buckling under the weight of books. He’s probably right. After all, censoring great ideas just because there are a lot of them already out there would be ridiculous, and with self-publishing’s decreased economic imperative, we might see less of the big houses’ safe cards and more quirky, weird, and unique novels that really make us think in new ways.

Follow Andrew Smith’s progress at