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A woman reads outdoors with an e-reader.
Sales increases for self-published titles in the pandemic is likely related to the accessibility of ebooks during bookstore and library closures. (Shutterstock)

Self-publishing may be the answer to shakeups in the book world amid COVID-19

A large publishing takeover has many in the book industry concerned about the potential lack of content diversity in the future. In the fall, Penguin Random House announced it would be taking over Simon & Schuster.

This has prompted an investigation by the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority into whether the deal would mean a “substantial lessening of competition within any market or markets in the United Kingdom for goods or services.” In Canada, independent publishers have called for a similar review.

Meanwhile, last winter, Coteau Books reported that it entered into bankruptcy protection and closed its operations.

As reported by Stephen Henighan in The Walrus, its closure, and the folding of a Montréal bookstore known for its support of cultural events are “signs that the infrastructure for publishing and distributing Canadian books may be crumbling.”

Even before the pandemic, changes were afoot in publishing. Some authors had criticized the fact that it was difficult for entry-level writers to publish and make a living because a small number of cult-status authors dominate the market. BIPOC and queer authors have also been under-represented in traditional publishing deals, as have books that push the boundaries of mainstream genres.

Read more: Cultural appropriation and the whiteness of book publishing

The smash success of 50 Shades of Grey, first self-published as fan fiction and then picked up by a major publisher, was a game-changer for starting discussions about categories of literature traditionally assumed to not have the capacity to generate a large audience base. It also generated conversations about the future of independent publishing at large.

In the midst of a shifting publishing industry, some authors are driven to experiment with how they deliver their work to readers, which includes novel forms of book production independent from the traditional publishing gatekeepers.

A woman in a face mask walks by an Indigo store window.
Indigo reported last June that it had to close 20 stores. Here, a woman seen walking past Indigo in Laval, Que., in November 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Readership, sales

During the pandemic, under pandemic control measures, some are spending more time reading. An online survey by BookNet Canada found that 58 per cent of Canadian readers said they were reading more in the pandemic based on 748 online responses.

But who benefits from the apparent increase in reading? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had his net worth double to over $200 billion during 2020. Meanwhile, Canada’s most well-known book retailer, Indigo, reported last June that it had to close 20 locations across the country.

In Canada, book sales were down by 20 to 40 per cent at the start of the pandemic. BookNet’s research team surveyed 51 domestic publishers who flagged that with the sudden closure of retail spaces, the industry experienced a decrease in sales of three million units in the first half of 2020 compared to the sales data from 2019.

This is troubling for local markets in particular because oftentimes big-box stores, online retailers and international conglomerates do not promote homegrown talent. Small publishers advance local writers or foster writing and reading communities, and without them, it is harder for authors to become noticed due to the abundance of international competition.

However, there is a glimmer of hope as some small local bookstores are seeing a consistent drive of shoppers who have been buying local. With pandemic closures or library restrictions, it seems some readers do seek out books from local book vendors. However, there is no way of knowing whether this boom in promoting local businesses will continue.

Conglomerate growth

In contrast to the huge gap in sales that local presses experienced in the past year, Penguin Random House saw a drop in revenue by less than 10 per cent. The company is now in a position to acquire Simon & Schuster for over US$2 billion. In November, Vanity Fair reported that this merger would mean that one out of every three books would be produced by the publishing giant.

Logo of a penguin at Penguin Random House Canada office on a silver post outdoors.
Penguin Random House Canada office seen in Toronto. (Shutterstock)

If the merger happens, there will only be four main global publishers: Penguin Random House (and Simon & Schuster), HarperCollins, Macmillan and Hachette Book Group. Domestic presses will be affected by this merger who are already struggling to compete in the damaged marketplace.

The Association of Canadian Publishers, which represents more than 100 Canadian owned and controlled book publishers, says the potential consequences of the merger can include effects on staffing, lack of media coverage for domestic businesses and even shelf space in book stores..

Similarly, The Writers’ Union of Canada, representing more than 2,000 Canadian authors, highlights that writers will also face challenges related to their earning potential if the merger goes through.


One drawback of self-publishing can be both stigma based on the possibility that one’s work has been rejected by a traditional publisher and potentially missing editing and quality control of traditional publishers. But some self-publishers now employ editors both on a paid and volunteer basis.

There is a drive to alleviate some of the stigma surrounding self-publishing, with some writers expressing that their career should not be dictated by traditional mainstream publishers. For all these reasons, self-publishing is becoming a more appealing option for many writers. Self-publishing refers to authors taking on full financial responsibility of the production, distribution, and marketing stages of a project for which they can hire individuals on a freelance basis.

A number of self-publishing platforms like Lulu and Smashwords reported an increase in sales of self-published titles starting with March 2020 when COVID-19 lockdowns began. One reason for this rise is the production of ebooks. Electronic books are convenient to buy when a significant number of people spend a large portion of time online at home.

Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing boasts that in 2020, in India, “thousands of authors” published their work on the platform — reportedly double the number of authors from the year before.

Being a self-publisher means authors control when to publish books and make them available to the readers. For instance, summer releases were delayed by many small presses due to the pandemic. It may be that self-published authors gained audiences who were waiting for new releases during this standstill in the publishing sector.

Growth in the past 10 years

In the past 10 years, self-publishing has kept growing as an industry potentially due to ebook adoption and online publishing companies. It is difficult to trace the actual number of self-published books since some platforms like Amazon assign their own product numbers, making that data private.

But Bowker, a company which provides bibliographical information (such as ISBN data) to those working in the publishing industry, reported an increase of self-published titles in the last decade. Bowker registered 148,424 print self-published books with an additional 87,201 ebooks in 2011.

Only six years later, in 2017, the number of self-published books was more than a million, according to the company’s records. The numbers kept rising the following year, with over 1.5 million self-published books registered in Bowker’s system.

These developments indicate that self-publishing certainly has the possibility to have a permanent place in the publishing ecosystem. These new publishing practices might become appealing to authors who could produce their work and make it available to the public without any gatekeepers.

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