Under its current eligibility requirements, writers “must have had a trade book published by a commercial or university press, or the equivalent in another medium” to qualify for membership in the 1,900-member organization.
Like other elements of the industry, however, the organization finds itself caught in a transition from a 20th century business model, where publishers and their editorial staffs controlled a writer’s access to the market, and a new digital model, where writers can become best-sellers by publishing their own works as ebooks or print-on-demand volumes, then distributing them through such popular platforms as Amazon, Kobo or Lulu.
While once the eligibility requirement might have been useful for separating the wheat of quality authors from the chaff of vanity scribblers, the success of writers like E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Grey) has changed perceptions. In April, for instance, self-publishers made up five of the 10 books on Digital Book World’s ebook bestseller list.
With those kinds of results, it’s difficult to cling to the notion that an author who has sold millions of copies of her books is somehow less professional than a traditionally published Canadian writer with sales in the thousands.
The landscape of Canadian publishing has also changed dramatically since the golden age of the 1960s and 1970s, when the Writers’ Union came into existence.
In recent years, Canada has seen the rise of multinational publishing conglomerates, along with consolidation that has consumed many home-grown publishing icons. At the same time, there has been a blossoming of small presses – some set up specifically to produce and market the works of only one or two authors.
Published writing and professional authorship aren’t what they used to be.
Writers’ Union members are scheduled to vote on the issue at their annual general meeting in Ottawa at the end of May.