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(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Russell Smith: In an age of DIY publishing, why have a Writers’ Union? Add to ...

After months of divisive debate, the Writers’ Union of Canada has voted – overwhelmingly – to admit self-published authors.

The qualifications for entry to this professional association for people who write books used to be simple: You had to have had one book published by a commercial publisher. Vanity presses – publication paid for by the author – did not count. The Internet and e-books blew apart these old distinctions between professional and amateur, however, as blogs and e-books acquired audiences as large as newspapers. Self-publishing is now seen as a respectable and possibly lucrative challenge to the restrictions and tastes of the old-fashioned publishing houses.

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This had to happen. It’s happening to writers’ unions all around the world: The U.S. Authors Guild has made a similar decision, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is currently debating it. (The Romance Writers of America group has always accepted unpublished writers.)

The debate in each country is the same: If anyone who declares herself to be a writer is one, then what is the point of a professional organization? Will the group be taken at all seriously?

In Canada, some have announced that they won’t be renewing their membership in the Writers’ Union. They liked the stature that membership gave them, and they are unwilling to share it with people who have not passed the most difficult hurdle – receiving actual cash money from an old-school gatekeeper.

There are still conditions to joining the Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC), however. The group’s administrators want to assure that all the members are “professional” writers, and are doing their best to define that idea.

So, the books that prospective members have published must show “commercial intent” (that is, they must be available for sale rather than made simply as mementos for family members), and they will be peer-reviewed. That is, they will be sent to a committee of existing TWUC members for evaluation.

The group has not yet determined exactly what literary or commercial criteria the membership committee will consider, nor even how the evaluation process will work. Who will have to read the hundreds, possibly thousands, of terrible submissions? Nobody is signing up for the task. I’m guessing nobody will be reimbursed for it.

Unavoidable as this change was, it emphasizes the question that has always nagged prospective members of this organization; namely, what is it for? What benefits accrue to someone who obtains the title of “professional writer” as decided by an association?

TWUC is not actually a union in any normal sense (and if you are wondering, I am not a member). It does not do the most fundamental and important task of any union, which is to negotiate wages and working conditions. It has no negotiating power with publishers. It sets some suggested rates for editing, posted and ignored on its website, but it doesn’t even suggest minimum book advances. The business is too varied and fragile to bear any minimums.

It was founded in 1973 as an advocacy group; its main role is to lobby the government for changes to laws that affect writers, and has had two great successes in that vein.

It lobbied for a fund to reimburse writers for the electronic reproduction of their work, in a program known as Access Copyright.

It also lobbied for a public fund to compensate writers whose works are widely available in libraries. That fund, called the Public Lending Right, has been in existence since 1986 and is administered by the Canada Council. Last year, it disbursed $9.7-million to more than 18,000 authors. (I receive a cheque from that fund every year.)

If you ask anyone associated with TWUC what it accomplishes, they will mention the Public Lending Right in the first breath. It was indeed a gain for Canadian authors. But it was a long time ago.

There have been no other great leaps forward since, although there have been lots of little things. TWUC offers some services, such as reading contracts; and it sells some useful flyers about publishing. It administers a couple of minor prizes. It rails every now and then about some policy or other, but recent governments have been less inclined to pay any attention.

In the main, TWUC is a social group. It has an annual general meeting at which a lot of elderly people gather to remind themselves that they are writers.

So why is membership important? And why are people arguing about the definition of author at all? Opponents of the broader definition point out that anyone who comments on a blog posting could be called a writer. Well, yes. That has always been true. There has never been any certification process for writers – no test, no diploma. And quality has never been assured by the traditional stamps of approval; a contract with a major house is no guarantee you aren’t a dull or sententious or flash-in-the-pan writer (even the Giller Prize is no guarantee of that).

Paradoxically, it’s the very dissolution of old hierarchies that makes membership in something called a union so attractive to first-time authors. In a world of instant, easy, public expression, a world of open microphones, people are looking for status, for some kind of validation. It’s naive and a little bit desperate to think that a membership card will effect this.

Sadly, this forward-looking, landmark decision to admit self-published authors will have no impact whatever on the efficacy of TWUC. Mass subscriptions to writers’ unions will do nothing to increase the public role of such organizations around the world, and will only increase the sense of irrelevance and impotence that always plagues long, dreary meetings about inclusiveness.

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