Erica Raley sits at her desk, hunched over a notebook, putting down a stream of consciousness that fills up lined pages. Later, the sound of her keyboard fills the room, with edit after edit, as she refines her poems.

Writing is cathartic, she says.

“I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, so it is kind of about that,” Raley explains.

She would write about her flashbacks, turning her inner turmoil into poetry. 

What began as a way to understand her state of mind has turned into You Are Here, a collection about mental health.

When she decided to publish the collection, she started with traditional publishing options.

“I started sending it around to some publishers, but it was right at the beginning of COVID-19 and a lot of them were not taking on new projects,” Raley explains.

So she turned to self-publishing.

Raley decided to use Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, after finding out about the service from her roommate. It was easy, she says: “You just upload your manuscript, then they give you all these options for book covers. So you can design your own book cover through … Amazon.” 

With the advent of Amazon’s e-reading platform, Kindle, in 2007, self-publishers have swarmed the site, taking advantage of the low cost of marketing and the visibility the platform provides. Other e-reader platforms have proven to be equally popular.

One in four books published for Kobo Inc.’s e-reader comes from the company’s self-publishing platform, Kobo Writing Life, according to a 2020 report published by the U.K based Alliance of Independent Authors, a non-profit organization for self-published authors. In 2016, self-publishing accounted for $1.25 billion of the $6-billion book industry in the United States, according to the same report.   

While the self-publishing industry has grown steadily along with the rise of e-books, the trend skyrocketed when the pandemic hit, as would-be writers found themselves in lockdown at home, their day jobs on pause. Meanwhile, demand from readers – many also off work and at home – soared.

While the self-publishing industry has been growing steadily along with the rise of e-books, the trend skyrocketed when the pandemic hit, as would-be writers found themselves at home during lockdowns, their day jobs on pause. Meanwhile, demand from readers – many of them also off work and at home – soared.

Canada’s largest self-publishing service, FriesenPress Publishing, saw a 60-per-cent rise in the number of new authors from the start of the pandemic through to July 2021, company president Tammara Kennelly told The Vancouver Sun. In fact, demand was so high during this time that the Vancouver-based outfit had to hire 15 additional staffers, she added.  FriesenPress releases around 1,000 books a year, but this number is expected to rise because of the pandemic, she said.

So why are so many people self-publishing?

For some, the main motivation is financial. Ellen Violette, the founder of Books Open Doors, an online organization that helps authors self-publish, says many of her clients have had traditional book deals and found them exploitative.

“They hated it because they don’t get paid very much, if at all. I have a client right now who saw a cheque that was ridiculously low, and he said, ‘This is crazy, I am not doing this again.’ ”

A 2017 study commissioned by The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) found that “English-language Canadian authors typically earn a royalty rate of 10 per cent of the publisher’s retail price,” although many are pressured to accept a lower rate.

In contrast, platforms such as Amazon and Kobo pay up to 70 per cent of book revenues to the author, according to a report by the Alliance of Independent Authors If the author sells directly from their own website, they make up to 96 per cent of the revenue, the report found.

Many authors also like the amount of control self-publishing gives.

A sense of greater agency is an important motivation for authors who choose to self-publish, according to Elizaveta Poliakova, a PhD candidate at York University who wrote her 2019 Master’s thesis on self-publishing, called The Black-Sheep of The Canadian Book Trade: An Exploration of the Current State of Self-Publishing in Canada. Many authors who self-publish want to have more control over each aspect of the publication process, she found.

“The publisher has lots to say in how the final book comes out and I didn’t want that because the book is based on 10 years’ experience . . . . I didn’t want someone else to tell me what should be in that book or not.”

— Gabriela Casineanu, author and founder of the Immigrant Writers Association

That is what prompted Gabriela Casineanu, an award-winning, self-published author and founder of the Immigrant Writers Association, to try self-publishing. An engineer and professional coach based in Toronto, Gabriela helped thousands of clients by applying coaching concepts to employment counselling and career development.

But she found the intensive interaction with clients overwhelming. In 2016, she suffered from burnout so severe that she was unable to talk for four months, she says. “At that time, I was doing workshops every day — to help job-seekers find jobs and build their careers — and it was too much for an introvert like me.”

This led to sleep issues and lack of focus, and escalated to panic and anxiety attacks. It was then that she turned to writing. After writing her book, her symptoms disappeared: “Writing was a healing process as well,” she reflects.

She has now written more than 12 non-fiction books, focused on self-improvement and self-help, drawing from her experience. In 2021 she also funded the Introverts Academy, which offers a range of programs and services.

Her first book, Introverts: Leverage Your Strengths for an Effective Job Search, was accepted by a publisher, but they wanted her to make changes to the content, and she did not want to.

“So the publisher has lots to say in how the final book comes out and I didn’t want that because the book is based on 10 years’ experience. … I didn’t want someone else to tell me what should be in that book or not.”

 Violette also found this to be the case with her clients. “Another reason is they do not have control over their copyright anymore. If you get a publishing deal, they are the publisher, they take the publishing, and they control it.”

U.S. author Timothy Laquintano, an English professor at Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College, argued in his 2016 book “Mass Authorship and the Rise of Self-publishing” that readers are setting standards that self-published authors must adhere to. [Image courtesy University of Iowa Press]

And of course, self-publishing allows authors to bypass the gatekeeping role of traditional publishers, who only offer book deals to a small fraction of the authors who submit manuscripts to them.

As Kate Edwards, the director of the Association of Canadian Publishers, explains, traditional publishers can only accept so many manuscripts during the two main publishing seasons: “Some of our members publish four books a season — four books in the spring and four books in the fall.”

This means a lot of manuscripts do not get accepted. This is what happened to Winnipeg writer Steve Locke, whose first manuscript was rejected by multiple publishers.   He decided to self-publish his novel instead.  

“I had this goal of writing and editing a book and I wanted to see it in print. I was still a young writer, still pretty green. … But it was something that I just felt like I had to do to validate my growth up until that point as a writer.”

Locke had 200 copies printed, and gave many to friends and family. Although he considered this a success, it was not the only benefit that came out of the book. 

“It helped me to get into … Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. It is a big feather in the cap; it is something that puts a stake in the ground that says, ‘I am a writer, I made a book.’ ”  

But with complete control, comes complete responsibility. Authors have to take care of — and often pay for — editing, proofreading, the jacket design, marketing and the print costs.

Edwards says it can be a challenge if you don’t have the time or expertise to put into editing, marketing and other tasks. If they have the financial resources, writers can contract out some of the work, but they still have to find people with the right skills, so “there is work involved in that as well,” she says.

And this expertise doesn’t come cheap: the going rate for editors is about $60 an hour, according to the website for Editors Canada, a non-profit that promotes professional editing.

“I had this goal of writing and editing a book and I wanted to see it in print. I was still a young writer, still pretty green . . . . But it was something that I just felt like I had to do to validate my growth up until that point as a writer.”

— Steve Locke, self-published Vancouver writer

Locke says writers have to be prepared for the time and expense of self-publishing: “You have the potential to make back more money, but then you have to put money into it, way more than you would submitting to a publishing house.”

Then there is the task of marketing your book, which is alien territory for most authors, Violette adds.

“Most authors, especially starting out, … don’t want to market, (and) don’t know anything about marketing.”

But good marketing is essential, she says: “A lot of people say, ‘I published my book and I got crickets’. Well, it does not just happen by itself. I mean, some people … think that they can just put (their book) in Amazon and people will come, but it does not quite work that way. You still have to market it.”

Another downside is that self-published books do not have the same stamp of approval that traditionally published books have.

In her thesis, Poliakova said research showed that “there is a perception that self-published trade books are of low quality and are not legitimate enough to be a part of a nation’s literary culture. It is assumed that traditional presses, who act as gatekeepers, do not publish these books because these works do not stand up to scrutiny by professionals.”

Patricia Bouthro, an education professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, N.S., identified the same issue in a 2014 analysis published in the journal, Studies in Continuing Education.

Although it is unfair to recognize only traditionally published authors as writers, Gouthro wrote, “indie-authors are generally not given the same recognition as traditionally published authors. While there are talented writers who self-publish, there is no screening process. Anyone who is willing to pay the couple of hundred dollars that it takes to upload their book to Amazon can do so. It does not matter whether the book is incoherent and poorly edited, or astoundingly brilliant and professionally presented.”

Self-published authors are also ineligible for  major awards, such as the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award.

However, with the rise of self-publishing, the role of gatekeeper might not be in the hands of traditional publishers for much longer, observers say.  

Readers are gradually starting to displace traditional publishers as the arbiters of which authors are destined for fame and fortune, as the buzz about a popular book increasingly revolves around the online following it gathers, through social media and online forums for book-lovers, Poliakova said in a Zoom interview.

“It is readers who are starting to take the role of gatekeepers,” she noted. 

In his 2016 book, Mass Authorship and the Rise of Self-publishing, author Timothy Laquintano found that, through online reviews and other forums, readers are setting standards that self-published authors must adhere to. Readers expect self-published books to be of the same quality as traditionally published books and “they impose professional standards through the intense power they can exert by influencing the recommendation systems, which largely determine whether a book will sell,” wrote Laquintano, an associate professor of English at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Another way readers are becoming the gatekeepers is through crowdfunding on websites such as Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and social networks.

This means authors no longer have to rely solely on publishing houses to foot the bill for getting their book out into the world. Instead, an author can start a Kickstarter page to fundraise for costs such as hiring an editor. At the same time, the crowdfunding campaign can help market the book by building some excitement around the project. In some cases, authors also use these sites to get people to pre-order their product, so that some of the costs are covered before the book even comes out.

“It is readers who are starting to take the role of gatekeepers.”

— Elizaveta Poliakova, York university PHd candidate and Author of 2019 Master’s thesis on self-publishing

Greg Ioannou, owner of Iguana Books, has seen this trend in action. The Toronto-based company produces self-published books, mainly through online platforms such as Amazon and Chapters Indigo.

Ioannou gives the example of a client who came to the company with $16,000 that he had raised in pre-orders through a crowdfunding site.

“It felt ethically cleaner. No one was taking a risk. He already pre-sold enough copies of the book that he already had the money to pay for it. We knew how many to print upfront (and) everything was in place financially.”

An impressive example of this is Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter page, where he raised a whopping $41 million U.S. in his latest campaign, which ended in April 19. The popular  American fantasy and science fiction author is best known for his Cosmere universe, where most of his novels are set. In this campaign, he pledged to send up to four “secret books” – ones that have never been published before – to contributors, who paid an amount that varied depending on the number and format of books they wanted. By the end of the campaign, the site had 185,341 pledgers

Innovations such as crowdfunding have taken off in recent years, as traditional funding models for writers continue to shut out self-published authors, observers say.  

“The government does not consider the self-publisher as a legitimate actor of the publishing industry,” Poliakova wrote in her thesis. 

 The federal Canada Book Fund, the biggest source of funding for the industry,  provides funding for booksellers, organizations and publishers, but not self-published authors. Although some provincial arts councils have grants for self-published authors, they are a minority, according to Poliakova.

“The self-publisher is left invisible in the eyes of the government, who presume that the exclusion of the self-publisher does not need to be explained,” Poliakova wrote. 

So are writers who decide to self-publish doomed to obscurity, their works languishing in a dusty warehouse, or in some lonely corner of Amazon?

Or are they leading the charge into a brave new world, where writers and the readers who love them are the kingmakers, not the publishing houses?

It depends who you ask. Some writers who have embraced self-publishing are aiming to find fame and fortune as authors, with fans flocking to review sites and readers’ forums to support them. Others are simply looking for personal satisfaction — a way to fulfil a long-cherished dream, Steve Locke says: “I would not discourage someone from (self-publishing), if it means something for them to do it.”