On Indie Publishing

1. What is your opinion of writing as a career option?

Writing as a career option translates to bringing in sustenance income. Which translates to selling millions of books. To sell millions of books you have to be an established author, a celebrity or controversial author, or write on controversy, or have your book optioned by a movie-production house. A debut author is often asked, “Why should I buy your book?” and that harsh reality-check question takes debutantes by surprise. They believe they have written the best story and that should automatically transform into mega-sales figures.
But no: unless you fall into the above categories, writing as a career option will not bring home the bacon.
For a debutante, the only thing that will get sales moving is word-of-mouth. And it takes a lot of financial investment on the part of the author (if you are with an independent publishing house) to send copies of the book out to reviewers, bloggers, magazines and newspapers or organize giveaways, advertise – all with the end goal of creating that ‘buzz’ about your book. It is necessary just as it is necessary for a graduate who has just entered the work-industry to figure out how to get noticed. Eventually this investment pays off in the long run because if your story is good, you will have created a ripple effect as people start recommending and talking about your book online and offline.
Anyway, I stumbled upon this quote by Mark Twain that assuages any financial pinch I feel, “Write because you want to tell stories, not because you want to make money”. It’s just a different perspective that will help you deal with the initial financial costs and get you to write the next book. Most authors I read were famous only by their fifth book going only on the strength of their books.

2. How has writing as a career option evolved in the India market in the past few years?

When I was researching the distribution chain my publisher had, I entered book stores with a different mindset: I searched for books by publishers and not by authors. And I was really amazed: there are SO MANY unknown authors out there all vying for attention. Yet only a few succeed.
So I believe that there are a lot of people who write at least 1 book. Quite a few go on to write more than 1 book. Fewer than those have good successive books.
I think off-late with publishing options (including direct eBook publishing and print-on-demand) opening up many people find it easier to publish, but do not make sufficient money of it. Success comes to a select few and in India – at least for books other than the genre I have experimented with – those select few write on current affairs, relationships, mythology, India-oriented fiction. I’ve heard of friends abroad also reading more Indian authors – maybe it has to do with Indians going all over the world.
Authors and publishers need to take certain decisions: a publisher may have a specific genre they wish to target for a year and the author can either write in that genre or find another publishing option. Of course there’s also the case where you have a fantastic story but it gets missed at all levels at the publishing houses in which case if you’re convinced about your work, go ahead and publish it online. If it works, you can re-pitch it to a publisher.
So in conclusion, I’d say the career option is opening up, there will be wolves waiting to make a fast buck from gullible and excited authors and there will be those who will rise as the publishing house, distributor or author of choice through careful strategy and right relationships between these three key-players. But beware, it’s not a career option that will pay you the equivalent of a blue-collar job within the same span of time; therefore it’s good to have another income source and then gradually move to writing full time if it brings you the moolah!

3. According to you, has it become easier for aspiring authors/novelists to get published? Why?

Yes, it has become easier. You now have online publishing. A Google search will return so many direct-publishing companies. But of course then you’ll need to discuss these companies and that’s made easy too by the wealth of information from numerous debut author groups on linkedin.com and other social sites. Online publishing is quick, easy, possibly zero upfront cost (read the fine print) but you bear the full effort of editing, cover design and generating sales. You also have companies that convert x number of copies into paperbacks or hardbacks depending on what you’re willing to pay for.
There are a number of good independent (indie) publishing houses that are in competition to the BIG 6 (Random House, HarperCollins, HatchettGroup, Macmillan, Penguin, Simon & Schuster) that do a very good production job. These indie houses will either partner-share the book production cost with you or go the traditional way and publish at their cost but then the royalty per book is justifiably less than the partnered option. Beware of publishing houses that accept any submission: Though it may hurt to be rejected, it’s better that you improve rather than put in all that money and face too much of a bad thing later.
There’s the self-publishing option where you bear the full cost alone. That’s not to say this is the bad. Like I said earlier, if your story is good and you believe in it, go ahead; you’ll be amazed and what can come of this in addition to self-satisfaction.

4. What are some of the hurdles faced by individuals attempting to get published?

  • Reaching out to big publishers or sometimes even indie publishers. You need to understand that publishers get a large number of manuscripts per week and so it takes time for them to respond.
  • The long lead-times that are projected by bigger publishing houses and the different style of working of the industry that may differ from the stricter SLA-bound processes and instant communication people are so used to.
  • Debutantes are excited that stories they’ve written are possibly going to get published that they may sign up for anything. There is a lot of fine print and clauses to read and a lot of questions to be asked because you are entering into this world for the first time. There is no formal literary agency (and I could be wrong here or it simply proves that these agencies are not easily visible and accessible) that can act as an intermediary and caretaker of both the publisher and author’s needs.
  • People are not ready for the direct and indirect costs they may incur with production of the book, setting up a website, blog, phone calls, electricity usage etc. Some of these costs are necessary, some can have alternates and some can be avoided.
  • Marketing and publicizing the book: This cost is large enough to be awarded as the most frustrating of all the hurdles because let’s face it; we know that companies spend millions of dollars on advertising campaigns. Where is a debut author to get that financial backing from? The internet with its social networks, blogs, online advertising has perhaps made it easier but you still need to invest strategically and carefully.
  • Deal with rejections and negative reviews objectively. You book isn’t going to be liked by everyone.

5. As a published author, if you could point out a few things aspirant should keep in mind while submitting their manuscripts…

  • Pitch your manuscript well; it should catch the eye of the review panel at the publisher. Make sure you put in your best excerpts to give the publisher a good idea of your writing style.
  • Read the contract carefully and ask as many questions. If the publisher is good they won’t mind you asking questions and in fact will welcome them.
  • Ensure that you have enough say in the manuscript production but keep in mind that the publisher also has valuable inputs.
  • Only submit the manuscript after you’ve signed a contract that can have legal bearing.
  • Ensure that you use file formats that the publisher can read/edit on their computers
  • Ensure that you use informative subject lines and ask for acknowledgements or confirmation of receipt for your submission emails.
  • Regular follow-ups.
  • If you’re not happy with something, speak out.

6. Why do you think aspiring author are skeptical or pursuing an education in writing. What are the advantages/disadvantages of doing so?

I think it’s well known that the arts do not get sufficient attention in India as a serious career option nor do they pay as much initially. I think that’s the reason for skepticism. But a lot of that is changing now with globalization and so many courses opening up. A lot of my younger friends are opting for what we would have termed ‘non-standard’ careers.
I wouldn’t know if there was an advantage to a writing course. Maybe you’d learn to construct better sentences. But I’d say the point is your writing should entertain and whatever it takes you to entertain, do it within the rules of the language. You’ll learn a lot about writing by reading books and watching movies – that’s how I did it and it’s worked well. I did need to learn how to edit and with my follow up books I’ve been brutal with my cuts. You learn as you go along.