Given the success stories of Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi and others, it is evident that self publishing is here to stay. So if you have an idea and a keyboard, these are the outfits you will need to visit. By Surya Praphulla Kumar
In a billion-strong nation, there are millions of stories waiting to be told. But for every author in the making, there is no publisher waiting to roll out the red carpet. “Publishing houses like Penguin have a finite number of books they want to publish. So for every book that makes it to the list, thousands of others don’t,” says Andrew Phillips, former CEO of Penguin India, who took over the reins of self-publishing platform Author Solutions last year. Though figures in India aren’t very clear, author Ashwin Sanghi—who sent over 100 requests to literary agents and publishers for his first book, only to get rejected—says, “In the US and the UK, agents receive around 1,00,000 unsolicited queries a year. In one agency, only four new writers were taken on last year, putting the odds of an author without connections getting representation at roughly 1 in 11,111.”
This is where self publishing, once the butt of derision and often shrugged aside as vanity publishing, is fast catching up. “Self-publishing has democratised the publishing space, giving everyone the opportunity and the means to get their stories out,” says popular writer Rashmi Bansal, who didn’t go the traditional way with her first two books. With success stories abounding—take E L James and her 50 Shades of Grey series and closer home, Amish Tripathi, whose partly-self-published Immortals of Meluha created a national sensation before being picked up by Westland Publishers—people are choosing to invest a little capital and publish their manuscripts with self-publishing outfits. “Self publishers are giving people an opportunity that the mainstream has denied them. After all, you don’t want your book to die on your laptop,” says Tripathi.
Key players in the field are giving self publishing a face-lift now. Gone are the days of shoddy book jackets and bad copy. With algorithms and apps, marketing plans and editorial services, they are helping readers get their hands on well-crafted books. We look at five leading self publishing outfits in the country who, even while filling up bookcases, are trying to find a way to help their authors cut through the clutter.
With algorithms and automation, they have made the process seamless for newbie authors
In 2012, three school friends stepped into self publishing because they believed in the model, but thought that it could do with a complete overhaul. “We realised how pathetic the scene was in India when Bhargava (fellow co-founder) and I wanted to bring out a user manual for a task manager app we had developed. Traditional publishers wouldn’t do it as it was too niche and self publishers just printed whatever you cooked up,” recalls Naveen Valsakumar, an aeronautical engineer-turned IT professional who quit a cushy job to found NotionPress along with Jana Pillay and Bhargava A.
Giving each book a fighting chance and helping to bring out the next best-seller became their mantra. “Just like a traditional publisher, we try to maximise the success of each book. We get the authors to think about their target audience, their marketing plan, and then we work backwards to bring out a book that will suit the market,” says the 28-year-old, of their guided publishing schemes. But what sets them apart is their vision for the future. “There is a mountain of content out there, but mostly unfocussed content. We want to organise it, create a healthy eco-system, where readers can discover good books,” he says.
And they are doing this by gamifying publishing. “We have an algorithm that scores each book, based on points given by editors, project managers, sales reports, etc. As they score more, we incentivise authors to help them position their books better. Our most recent innovation is our incubation system, where we screen those books that are doing really well. We plan to acquire the best ones and publish them the traditional way—our next business plan,” says Valsakumar, adding that they are closely watching 22 titles currently. However, this doesn’t mean they have forgotten the haystack model (accepting all books coming their way). “There are many writers out there who can’t afford our packages. So we’ve launched an app with which they can publish a book for free,” he says, emphasising theirs is a technology-driven business where “everything that can be automated is being automated”.
The three friends who take off every month for a few days of trekking, where they cut themselves off from the world of connectivity, have quite a few plans for the future, including an app to help authors interact with their readers and incentivising young writers with their annual short story contests. Packages start from Rs.24,990. Details: notionpress.com
The Penguin connect could get your books noticed. And a broader language base is a boon for regional authors
When Penguin acquired self-publishing platform Author Solutions in 2012, it gave credence to the fact that self-publishing is a strong contender today. Then in 2013, they started Partridge, their first self publishing house in India. “It’s still quite nascent in India in terms of understanding. People still need to be told that with self publishing everything is in their hands—from the material and design to the marketing. We are merely the facilitators,” says Aparna Jain, country manager India of Partridge Publishing. “There are enough people out there who have ideas for niche books that can’t go the traditional route—like memoirs, poetry, cook books. This is a segment that will see a huge growth,” says Jain, a self-publisher author herself—she brought out The Sood Family Cookbook.
Partridge believes in accepting all the books that come their way (only pornography or derogatory subjects are rejected). “While we offer package deals, ours are richer. They have the backing of a 1,500-strong team of professionals, and every author that publishes with us is hand-held by six to seven departments,” she says. Another unparalleled advantage: there is a team at Partridge that goes through all the published books (400 so far) and selects the best ones to be shown to a team at Penguin for evaluation and possible acquisition. “Our USP is that we are high-touch as to how much time we are willing to spend helping each author on a personal level. In the days to come, we will be adding more premium services created for the Indian market, customised on genres and broadening the language base, so we can target local language authors as well,” adds Phillips.
Packages start from Rs.12,450 onwards. Details: partridgepublishing.com/india
Customisation of packages is their mantra. And with their ‘elite’ club, they’ll share some of the expenses, too
Husband-wife duo Leonard and Queenie Fernandes were pursuing careers in IT and banking services abroad, but they knew that when they returned to India, they’d work with books. In 2006, they started a website for used books (dogearsetc.com) and in 2007, to “make a living” they started India’s first self-publishing outfit. “Until then, the field was disorganised. We brought in structure—with signed agreements and a range of services,” says Fernandes, who is proud that many of their books—like The Start up Diaries, a self help book, and The Madness Starts at 9, fiction, have sold more than 3,000 copies.
Years spent bringing out quality books have earned them a name in the industry. And now they want to look further. “Everyone has a package business. What differentiates us is that we believe in customisable options—you pay only for what you need,” he says, adding that they are also taking up unconventional orders like coffee table books and board books for kids. Another unique approach: they insist on a round of editing. “Self publishing is a good vehicle, but the integrity of the book has to be maintained. So we reject any author who refuses editing,” says the 38-year-old bookworm and avid stamp collector.
As the publishing industry is still quite biased towards self-publishing, CinnamonTeal wants to make a difference. “As editing and marketing are their strong points, we also need to grow stronger there. When we believe an author is serious, we help him market his book—with blogs, Facebook pages, mailers, websites, lists of people who can review their books, and the like,” he says about their author-driven campaigns. They are also building their brand by organising Publishing Next, an annual industry conference that brings together all the big names for two days of discussions on trends and the future of publishing.
As for their future plans, Fernandes says, “We’ve started CinnamonTeal Elite, where we share expenses if a book falls into certain genres which we think will do well and need to have a presence in the market,” adding that co-publishing, developing more e-books, diversifying distribution (different services for print and e-books) and undertaking and investing in translations are also part of their agenda. They also have a store on their site where anyone can come and sell their e-books, much like Smashwords. Packages are customised, with editing starting at Rs.125 per page. Details: cinnamonteal.in
With editorial guidance and packages to produce a book that will sell, their emphasis is on quality
A love of books and a desire to start something of their own led Geetu Goel and Shalini Gupta to start Zorba Publishers a year and a half ago. While the former, a postgraduate in computer science, brought with her 18 years of experience in the digital space, the latter added her background in traditional publishing and the creation of academic material to the mix. “We tried going the traditional route first,” says founder director Gupta, “but realised that publishing was still mired in the old-school, especially the system of distribution, where they couldn’t fathom the idea of a woman distributor.” At Zorba, the emphasis is on giving clients honesty and transparency. “We want to bring in the ethos of a multi-national company, where there is trust that we will deliver a quality product,” says the 49-year-old, adding that they discuss everything with the authors before deciding on which packages to go with.
While they don’t see too many women getting into writing, they are surprised by the number of people who are 60-plus wanting to self publish. “We are currently working on a manuscript by an 84-year-old man who authored a book of poetry, written as an interaction with his daughter,” says Goel, adding that they publish in both English and Hindi. Packages start from Rs.9,900 onwards. Details: zorbapublishers.com
With a focus on enabling e-books, they are user friendly. You could give services a skip and just publish your book
Bored with her job at Google, Jaya Jha decided she wanted to do something creative and publish her poems. But after some research, she realised publishers wouldn’t take it up (poetry doesn’t sell) and POD (print on delivery) wasn’t popular in India. So she contacted a friend in the US, Abhaya Agarwal, who was interested in publishing, pitched the idea of starting a self-publishing platform, and Pothi was created in 2008. “Self publishing is not new here. Most second and third tier publishers take money from authors to publish their works,” says Jha, adding that when they started their USP was making this process seamless and transparent.
Today, with publishing houses popping up dime-a-dozen, she maintains that they are not gatekeepers; it is still their strongest point. “We are a tool, a technology company in the publishing space—you decide how to use us. Though we have no packages, if you want editing or design services, we will provide them. And if you don’t, you are still free to use us,” she says, noting that a lot of technical publishing is moving to self publishing.Jha and Agarwal want to focus on e-books now. “The e-book format is evolving, but tools to create e-books have not yet evolved. We are working on an app, called instascribe, that will help in the creation of e-books. It will enable everything from importing from various formats, direct editing and one-click export to all formats,” she says. Packages can be customised, with cover design starting from Rs.1,500 onwards. Details: pothi.com
Bloody good idea
There are some interesting innovations online, like Bansal’s new concept in publishing. “Bloody Good Book is a disruption of the traditional model where editors decide what books should be published (and often fail miserably to spot what will actually work). Isn’t it better to let the people choose what they want to read?” asks the writer-entrepreneur.
The premise is simple: the democratic model uses the power of crowd sourcing and crowd curating to create a dynamic online community of readers and writers across India. “We invite authors to upload their manuscripts and we display three chapters on the site. At the end of three to six months, we’ll short-list the manuscripts that have attracted the most attention (through likes, comments) and then choose 12 books to publish a year—both as e-books and print books (through a partnership with Westland),” she says of the project that went live two weeks ago and hopes to identify new talent in fiction and non-fiction. Details: bloodygoodbook.com
Note to first-timers
- You must self-publish only if you are willing to invest the time and resources needed to get people to buy your book. “Self-publishing is like buying a lottery ticket. It’s easy to buy, but very difficult to win. When I started out as a self-published author in 2007, I’d send out a handful of my books each day to bloggers because they were the only ones willing to read and review
- Research the various self-publishing outfits, and choose the one that is right for you.
- Invest in professional editing. Many self-publishing projects fail because of poor editing. Also use a professional cover designer. It’s a fallacy that people do not judge a book by its cover.
- Set aside some hours each day for marketing. Leverage social media and low-cost online options to gain traction.
The writer recently collaborated with author James Patterson on Private India.
View from the other side
Traditional publishers feel the luster of going traditional will never fade. “Good publishing happens with team work. It will be difficult for self publishing houses to have the same all-round skills as a traditional publishing house,” says Pramod Kapoor, head of Roli books. However, Gautam Padmanabhan of Westland says that lessons have been learnt from the success of rejected manuscripts that have gone the self-published way. “Indian writing used to be literary, but with Chetan Bhagat and his ilk bringing in a different style, we are looking at this demographic of writers now—ones that are driven by an Indian idiom,” he says.
Be a schizophrenic. When you are writing the book, be clear in your head that you’re not writing for money, but for your soul. Once you finish it, however, you have to give the book a fair shot. So be committed to marketing it aggressively.
For marketing, don’t stick only to the plans your publisher has listed out. Be innovative.
Always have a job because you can make a fortune or nothing from writing, but you can’t make a living out of it.
The writer is currently working on his next mythology-based book.
Besides Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (or KDP), there is Smashwords, BookBaby, Barnes & Noble’s PubIt, Lulu, Booktango, Apple iBooks, CreateSpace, iUniverse, Xlibris, AuthorHouse and Scribd—all of which allow you to publish either as an e-book (for download on iPad, Kindle, Nook, SonyReader, iPhone and Android devices) or as print-on-demand hard-covers and paperbacks.
Build your book one step at a time. Grow it slowly and don’t finish off all your marketing at one go—this will leave you with nothing.
—Chennai-based Pinky Bokadia, author of Sex, Lies and Cricketgate, went with self publishing because she wanted to release her book in time for the IPL.
She’s currently promoting her book on Facebook and radio, and plans to approach bloggers next.