A decade ago, author Nicola R. White’s beguiling blend of urban fantasy and romance would probably have been deemed too niche to succeed – in the eyes of major book publishers. Today, she’s a rising star with one published title under her belt and a readership that spans continents.

Based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, far from Canada’s traditional publishing hubs of Toronto and Vancouver, White is one of many emerging writers whose success is based in part on new digital self-publishing platforms, such as Kobo Writing Life, that are offering authors a direct way to reach readers and upending the traditional publishing model in the process.

Launched by the global eReading service Rakuten Kobo in July 2012, KWL is a free, one-stop self-publishing solution that empowers independent authors to succeed on their own terms. Using the platform, writers can upload their work, prepare and submit a book cover, select the list price and then start selling – to potentially millions of readers around the world.

“What these authors have embraced is the concept of independent publishing," said Kobo Writing Life Director Mark Lefebvre.

“What these authors have embraced is the concept of independent publishing,” said Kobo Writing Life Director Mark Lefebvre.

There’s also plenty of help for developing writers, including marketing and promotional support, an author toolkit that provides assistance with the technical aspects of eBook creation, such as copyright and cover design, and a popular and informative podcast and blog.

So far, the service has attracted more than 55,000 authors from 166 countries and published more than half a million titles. This year, KWL represents 22.5% of Kobo’s book sales in the English language markets, making it Kobo’s largest individual “publisher.”

For White, the leveling of the publishing playing field brought on by digital hasn’t only been good for indie authors, but for readers as well. “Self-publishing has opened up the world for authors in a way that simply wasn’t possible in the past,” said White, who won Kobo’s 2016 Emerging Writer Prize in the romance category for her self-published novel Fury’s Kiss. “At the same time, it has led to a greater diversity of stories for readers. Everybody benefits,” she adds.

For Kobo, the secret to promoting KWL authors is to treat them like any other author.

“KWL titles aren’t segregated or called out in any way,” said Kobo Writing Life Director Mark Lefebvre. “They sit alongside books from the world’s largest publishers and effectively compete head-to-head with the largest authors in the world.”

As a self-published author himself, Lefebvre understands what independent authors are looking for.

“The term ‘self-publishing’ is actually a bit of a misnomer, because authors who take advantage of KWL’s free publishing tools understand that, to produce a professional product and make it the best book it can be, they typically need to engage professional editors, cover designers and other industry professionals,” said Lefebvre, adding that they can either do so themselves or by utilizing Kobo’s “author toolkit” and its network of trusted vendors.

“What these authors have embraced is the concept of independent publishing – bringing niche books into a market that the gatekeepers of traditional publishing might have said no to, not because they are not excellent books, but because of the economies of scale that a large publisher is typically restricted by – namely, a somewhat outdated print distribution model in today’s digital global economy,” he added.

A look at the Kobo Writing Life dashboard.

A snapshot from the Kobo Writing Life Dashboard of a self-published author’s global sales.

Naturally, it isn’t only indies who want in on the action. Writers who were once published by major publishing houses are increasingly choosing to go fully or partially independent, a practice referred to as “hybrid publishing.”

One such example is American author Bella Andre, whose editor at a traditional publishing house once warned that her romance series focusing on the lives of a single family would never sell. Andre eventually self-published “The Sullivans,” and it went on to earn her a seven-figure paycheck in its first year of release. Romance publisher Harlequin has since bought the print rights.

“Self-publishing is the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer,” said Andre.

British author Joanna Penn, who writes bestselling non-fiction under her full name and thrillers as J.F. Penn, shares Andre’s sentiments.

“I love how easy it is to publish and update my eBooks through KWL, and I’m super-pleased to have sold books via Kobo in 74 countries,” she said. “It may sound funny, but I’ve actually learned about new countries from KWL’s global dashboard; I recently made my first sale in the Northern Mariana Islands!”

As the eReading industry continues to grow and mature, more and more indie authors are likely see their maps expanding in similar fashion.