You don’t need a book deal or a big publisher’s contract. All you need is a manuscript and some money. A look at the self-publishing phenomenon.
For Rasana Atreya, giving up a publishing contract was a conscious choice that stemmed from her desire to exercise complete control over her own work. An IT professional, Atreya quit her 9-5 job and went back to her first love: writing. The contract, offered by one of India’s largest publishing houses, was a result of her unpublished manuscript being shortlisted for the 2012 Tibor Jones South Asia Prize. But Atreya chose to go a different, and previously uncharted, way.
Embarking on a journey that promised to be both exhilarating as well as daunting, Atreya took on everything from her book’s pricing to cover design to marketing. Once published on Amazon, Atreya’s first novel, Tell a Thousand Lies, was downloaded by over 17,000 people in the first week. By the end of the month, apart from free downloads, 900 copies had been sold. Since she had chosen to self-publish, Atreya was entitled to 70 per cent of the royalties, a figure that would have been much lower had she gone the traditional way.
Once considered the last resort of authors, self-publishing — also called vanity-publishing — has rapidly become a viable choice. Stories from outside India paint pictures of overnight self-published sensations — like Amanda Hocking, author of the My Blood Approves series, and Joe Konrath, author of the Jack Daniels series — who emerged from obscurity and rose to best-selling status in a matter of months, armed with no book deals and contracts; only a manuscript and, yes, the funds to back them.
Big publishing houses have slowly begun to pay closer attention to self-publishing, and the most recent example is Penguin’s $116 million acquisition of self-publishing platform Author Solutions from Bertram Capital, a venture-capital and private-equity firm based in San Mateo, California.
Today, several self-publishing houses dot India’s literary landscape and the numbers are constantly on the rise. A few names have already made a place for themselves doing what Penguin and Hachette have done in the world of traditional publishing. Cinnamon Teal, the country’s first self-publishing house, started in 2007 in Goa, its second-hand bookstore segueing into a publishing house. “We published three books by a London-based author, Gladys Hobson. I think, based on her orders, the books sold around 30 to 35 copies, all of them in the U.K. It was a slow start and, at that time, we didn’t get involved in the sales and marketing. In fact, we started playing a role in that only about four years ago,” says Leonard Fernandes, co-founder of Cinnamon Teal, which made a name for churning out quality books and providing what one of its authors, Ohio-based Aryanil Mukherjee, calls “value for money”.
Pothi.com, another such publishing platform, was started by two IIT-Kanpur alumni Abhaya Agarwal and Jaya Jha. It has published over hundreds of titles since its inception in 2008. “We let individuals and organisations publish their books in print and/or as e-books at no or a very low investment. For print books, the platform is backed by print-on-demand technology, which can produce even one book at a reasonable cost, thus reducing or eliminating the need to invest in bulk printing and storage of copies,” says Jha. She adds that, as a concept, self-publishing has always been around. “A lot of regional-language publishing — in some languages, all of it — is author-financed. A large number of books published in English (apart from those from the top publishers) also falls under the same category. Even though they carry the name of a publisher, they are really self-published. However, self-publishing is now coming out of being seen an under-the-table act. Many people are proudly and openly self-publishing their books.”
Of course, a publishing contract remains, even today, the holy grail of the literary world. Some things haven’t changed, with readers still placing their faith in a big publishing house’s stamp of approval. Self-published books do not carry that stamp, and the question thus arises: why would an author voluntarily turn to self-publishing? And, the more important one, is it truly voluntary?
For Subbaram Danda, the former chief of the news bureau at The Financial Express, the answer is yes. “I did my research and realised that self-publishing had several advantages. In self-publishing, the author retains the copyright of his book. The other thing that impressed me was how fast it is. From the moment of submitting the manuscript to getting the finished product in your hand, it takes little over a month. Traditional publishers take anything from three to six months just to get back to you after you submit the first three sample chapters.” As a result, Danda turned to self-publishing with Cinnamon Teal.
Traditional publishing takes a much larger percentage of the royalties from the author, since they incur additional costs like publicity, book launches, distribution and warehousing. In contrast, self-publishing means a one-time cost; after that, the major chunk of royalty payments belongs to the author. The publisher becomes the facilitator but the book stays in the author’s control and is his/her property. Basically, the author strives to do what his publisher would have done. The author has to bear the cost of printing and selling but also reaps the rewards if the book does well.
Pinaki Ghosh, founder of Power Publishers, a Kolkata-based self-publishing firm, says “We have packages of different services that an author pays for. This is a one-time cost. Even if the first edition is sold out, we reprint at our own cost to keep it available. The author receives 15 per cent royalty on sales. All authors receive royalty once every three months”.
When Brighu Chadhha, a marketing executive with a keen interest in music, wanted to publish his book, he knew that the manuscript that had taken him four years to write could easily be chopped and altered by a traditional publisher. So he decided to shell out almost Rs. 50,000 to publish and package 100 copies of his debut novel, The Dead Metalhead. Of course, once the book is published, its distribution and sales determine if he gets his money back.
In self-publishing, the onus of book launches, marketing strategies and publicity lies with the author, as opposed to a traditional publisher spending lakhs on a single launch and allocating a much higher amount for marketing.
Certain self-publishing houses have introduced more than just modern printing services. Cinnamon Teal offers all the traditional benefits to its authors, including editing and designing and even handholds the author through marketing, launching and distribution of the books.
“We do not have a reach throughout the country but we help authors as far as we can. There was this author who wanted a launch in Delhi, so we got in touch with a marketing firm there and invited Shashi Tharoor to launch his book.” Power Publishers distributes through Crossword, Oxford Bookstores, Flipkart, Infibeam, Indieplaza, Amazon and uread. “Most of our books are available through these outlets because of our distribution contract with them,” says Ghosh.
Today, the barrage of unsolicited manuscripts reaching publishers every day means that almost 95 per cent of them are either ignored or rejected. Self-publishing becomes not only a means for an author to see his work in print, but also a way to catch a mainstream publisher’s eye with a complete product.
Perhaps the best and most recent example is the E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy. Originally developed from Twilight fan fiction, the series was published on the author’s own web site and later released as an e-book and a print-on-demand paperback. On August 2012, Amazon.co.uk declared that sales figures of Fifty Shades of Gray had beaten the entire Harry Potter series and James had replaced J.K. Rowling as its best-selling author.
Closer home, Amish Tripathi self-published his first book in the Shiva trilogy through Depot, the books and music division of Pantaloon Retail (India), not wanting his A4-sized manuscript to get lost among thousands of others. Tripathi’s enthusiastic marketing helped his first book enormously. He printed sample copies of the first chapter and persuaded bookstores to give them away free at the cash counter. Presentations to retail chains, local distributors and stakeholders as well as an aggressive marketing campaign on social media web sites gave his first book high visibility. Tripathi made a trailer film for both his first and second books, and uploaded the first on Youtube. The second was screened in multiplexes. His marketing strategy, combined with word-of-mouth publicity, made the first two books a roaring success and caught the eye of publishers, both in India and abroad. Quercus, a London-based independent publishing company, acquired worldwide (outside Indian sub-continent) English-language rights to the Shiva Trilogy books in November 2011.
Several authors, today, have turned to online media, choosing to publish their work as ebooks, not only bypassing the work and time that is spent on printing hard copies but also ensuring that their book is available to a much wider audience. Atreya and Ashok Banker used Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing to publish their books, while others have used DIY publishing platforms like Blurb and Your Ebook Team. The Internet also serves as a free publicity platform, with social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and blogs allowing for promotions and advertising of a book.
Of course, success stories do not paint the complete picture. One common belief is that self-publishing compromises on editorial quality and marketing. A book from a traditional publisher would have been discussed, edited and pruned before being published, whereas self-publishing guarantees publication of every manuscript so long as the author is ready to take on financial and marketing responsibilities. Ritu Menon, of Women Unlimited, says that self-publishing today is an entirely self-contained venture. “Quality control is also up to the author. A lot of publishing firms today outsource their editing work, and an author looking to self-publish can avail of excellent editing services, as long as he/she is able to pay for it.”
Of quality control, Ghosh says, “We have a system of working that eliminates or minimises this possibility. We read all manuscripts that we agree to publish. If there are quality issues, we write to the author to try our optional editing or rewriting package. Most authors go by our advice and our professional editors edit, rewrite and refine the work.”
Other self-publishing firms take similar steps. Jaya Jha of Pothi.com believes that the very idea of quality is debatable. “Today, some of the best-selling authors in India, published by the largest publishers, produce work that will not be considered good quality by most serious readers. It doesn’t stop them from getting published, does it? A puritan’s concept of quality is just that; a puritan’s concept. So long as there are readers for something, it will get published. The only difference is that the economics of traditional publishing lets you publish only what can be sold in a mass market. Self-publishing, powered by e-books and print-on-demand, lets you publish even if there is just one reader in the world for your work.”
Whether driven by multiple rejections, motivated by the interest to keep your work solely yours, or stemming from the keenness on sharing a story with a select number of people, self-publishing has taken a firm hold on the literary market. It might still be looked upon with suspicion and reservations; and as with many other consumer goods, books too come with a brand value that self-published books quite clearly lack. But the literary world has seen self-published authors like Virginia Woolf and Rudyard Kipling. While the instances of diamonds in the rough are few and far between, it is undeniable that they are very much there.
Steps to self-publish
Submit the manuscript.
Await evaluation by editors.
Await confirmation of publication.
Choose a package (details like genre, dimension, number of pages, hard or soft cover, and number of copies. The author gets complete control of cover design, title, etc).
Make the payment, after which work on the book starts.
Hand the book over for professional editing, rewriting and page setup.
Design the cover.
Send book for printing and binding.
Await delivery. In certain cases, liaise with the publishing house regarding post-publication marketing and publicity.