'It's no longer about the vanity press': self-publishing gains respect — and sales

Vancouver-based author Sharon Rowse was thrilled when after years of trying she finally landed a book deal with a New York publisher. 

"It had always been my dream to be published," Rowse said. 

Her novel, a historical crime story that takes place in her home town, had been "a bit of a hard sell" for the American market. 

But reality poured a big bucket of cold water on her dreams when the publisher was bought out, and its mystery section discontinued. 

"My book was the last one to come off the press, which meant that I was suddenly without a publisher with a book that had just literally come out two weeks before the publisher closed," she said.

Rowse searched for a new publisher for her book, but "nobody wanted to pick it up."

Instead of letting her writing languish, she decided to take control of the process and added it to the the growing trove of self-published works that are increasingly finding their way into the hands of readers.

Once the laughing stock of the literary world, self-published books are increasingly establishing themselves among the publishing heavyweights, spurred by the ease of online distribution and companies offering works tailored towards specific niches.  

According to data gathering website Author Earnings, self-published novels now make up 42 per cent of the fiction book market, offered via distributors like Kindle, Kobo, and niche websites like Smashwords. 

'Huge outpouring of self-publishing'

Writers like Rowse are the target of a pending new collection of local self-published authors at the Vancouver Public Library — and other libraries across Canada are doing the same. 

"Knowing that there's been this huge outpouring of self-publishing over the past few years, we want to make sure that we're finding that kind of content when it's coming from Vancouver," said Christina de Castell, VPL's director of collections and technology.

"We really want to give Vancouver authors an opportunity to have a platform to share their work."

Some of the biggest names in self-publishing include New York Times bestselling authors Hugh Howey and Jo Konrath. 

But de Castell admits that romance novels make up the majority of self-published fiction.

Authors of this genre are particularly prolific, she points out, and migrated online a few years ago — along with their audience. 

Other popular self-published genres include science fiction, mysteries and thrillers, not to mention ultra-niche genres like steam punk or even dinosaur erotica.  

Many of these books are remarkably affordable — some selling for as little as $0.99 — which de Castell says also helps the growing number of sales.

Lasting stigma

But for some, the cheap cost of self-published books is a reflection of a lower standard of quality. 

John Degen, executive director of the Writers' Union of Canada, admits there is still a stigma about being self-published.

"I think a lot of people — other consumers, other authors — think, 'Well you weren't accepted by a professional editor, and therefore that makes yours a lesser book,'" he said. 

Degen admits many self-published authors continue to feed the stereotype of self-published books being poorly written and badly edited.

But he says there's also an increasing number of new and established authors changing that perception by putting in the work to create a professional product. 

"There's a wonderful stream of new technology and new platforms and new businesses … that allow them to take control of their own publishing process," he said. 

'Massive transformation'

Helping authors through that process is Vancouver company Page Two Strategies, focusing on non-fiction.

It was founded in 2013 by Jesse Finkelstein and Trena White, who had worked in the traditional publishing sector before setting out for themselves. 

Projects they've worked on include This is That's Travel Guide to Canada and Wall Street Journal bestseller The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier.

Page Two offers services ranging from support to design to publicity, and everything in between.

"Everybody knows that publishing, like many other industries, has been undergoing massive transformation," Finkelstein said.

"And we know under that kind of transformation, it's often a moment where it's a bit of a sink or swim endeavour. And we were interested in swimming."

Their help comes at a cost — Finkelstein says packages are highly customizable, but a full suite of services can cost upwards of $10,000 per project. On the other hand, writers retain all the profit. 

Besides, she says, the final product they offer is indistinguishable from traditionally published books.

"It's no longer about the vanity press. This is really about the fact that there are more great book ideas and more opportunities for excellent book execution than there are publishers, so why not join together to make this happen."