Mathai Joseph was at his wit's end. He had visited six to eight publishing houses with his manuscript, only to receive lukewarm responses. "I realised that publishing houses weren't so interested in history and memoirs," he says. A friend then recommended the self-publishing service offered by Kolkata-based Power Publishers.
Within a few weeks of contacting them, Joseph had his book, Digital Republic: India's Rise to IT Power, published and ready for distribution by April 29. "Whatever they tell you on the website is what you get," says Joseph, who currently serves as an advisor to Tata Consultancy Services. Even though it's barely been a month since the launch, the team at Power Publisher says the book has sold "several hundred copies" and sales are picking up online.
Or take Amish Tripathi, author of the Shiva trilogy. He endured a two-year struggle to get his manuscript published. There would have been no bestseller if, after countless rejections by publishers, his agent hadn't gone ahead and published the book, and if Tripathi hadn't invested his own money in marketing and distribution. "We don't live in China, but in a country which offers freedom of expression. We have a right to make our voices heard," says Tripathi.
Like Joseph and Tripathi, many others are discovering the joys of self-publishing in the quest to become published authors. Nor should they be considered lesser writers: Pearl S Buck, Rudyard Kipling and James Joyce, to name a few, started out on a similar route.
Unlike the US, however, the self-publishing industry in India is still nascent - probably less than 20 per cent of all books available in offline and online bookstores taken together, estimates Pinaki Ghosh, president and CEO, Power Publishers. With 300 published titles so far and 24 new ones under consideration, the company has been leading the self-publishing market since January 2008.
Ghosh started the company as a popular ghost-writing service for clients from North America, Europe and Australia. "Our clients would ask for suggestions about how to get their books published. I was referring them to different publishers and various self-publishing services in the US. So I thought, why refer our clients to others? Why not come up with our own self-publishing brand?" he says.
Now, mainstream publishers have sensed the opportunity in this budding market. For instance, earlier this year, Penguin launched its own self-publishing imprint, Partridge, in partnership with Author Solutions. Author Solutions, which is based in Bloomington, Indiana, and has helped more than 170,000 authors publish 200,000 books globally, was acquired by Penguin in July last year. "Penguin India receives 200 unsolicited manuscripts every month, and a vast majority don't get published. It's a shame because people clearly have a lot of stories to tell," says Andrew Phillips, president and CEO, Penguin Books.
It is, however, difficult to say how well self-published books do well vis-à-vis commissioned books. "The success is content-bound. If it is a great story, it will do well, self-published or otherwise. Tripathi is a great example of that," says Renu Kakkar, spokesperson, Oxford Bookstore.
Thus, while one book may sell hundreds of copies in a month, like Joseph's, another may take a year to see even 100 copies move off the shelves. That's probably why, Ghosh says, "As a general rule, self-published books dominate online bookstores more than offline bookstores." There isn't much difference in the pricing of the books. For instance, Joseph's 220-page book in softback is priced at Rs 299, while a similar commissioned book may cost between Rs 300 and Rs 350.
Self-publishing is a win-win situation for publishing platforms as well which probably explains why mainstream publishers are heading there. For a self-publishing platform, the earning is from two sources - the initial investment of the author and book sales. For commissioned books, the publishers earn only from sales. "Publishing is an unusual industry that invests lakhs in an 'untested' product and the authors keep their advance, but the publishers stand to lose it all if the book or the author doesn't work," says Vatsala Kaul Banerjee, publishing director (children's and reference books), Hachette India.
Self-published authors, too, can cover their initial investment as they get a large number of complimentary copies - between 40 and 100. "Traditionally, published authors get fewer copies. Also when it comes to royalty from sales of books, we give self-published authors 35 per cent royalty, while commissioned authors earn royalty only between 5 to 15 per cent," says Ghosh.
Though there are no numbers to chart the slow but definite growth of the self-publishing industry, the number of projects these platforms handle can be one indication. "We have sold probably just under 100 packages since we launched," says Phillips. Preeti Vyas, who runs a children's publishing company called FunOKPlease, also gives a thumbs up to this trend. She finds herself invited to many more book launches of self-published books these days. "This signals definite growth. And I know that platforms like Pothi and Cinnamon Teal are seeing more and more projects coming their way," says Vyas, who was earlier the business development head of Pantaloons' Depot Self-Publishing platform, which shut shop in 2008.
Some believe that it is only natural that self-publishing is on a rise. "It's a time of transition and transformation - at the least, change for publishers - and their lists are mostly getting smaller and tighter. Success of self-publishing, worldwide and in India, supported by self-marketing, creates an environment where everyone thinks that he or she has an opportunity," says Banerjee. In her opinion, this is the time when self-publishing will multiply.
Authors can choose from a host of packages listed on the websites of most of these platforms. Power Publishers offer packages ranging between Rs 14,990 and Rs 47,990, depending on the scope of marketing, promotion and distribution activities chosen by the author. For instance, Joseph paid Rs 58,000 in all to get his book published and distributed. "There is an additional charge if you cross 150 pages. My book was 220-pages long, that's why I had to pay extra," he says. "And I was happy with the final product."
Partridge offers five packages - Coral, Amethyst, Topaz, Jade, Amber and Diamond - priced between Rs 12,450 and Rs 149,950. The services include editing, design, illustration, e-book formatting, distribution on e-readers, print formatting and distribution through online retailers, publicity and marketing. And the author has complete control over every aspect of the publishing process. "The author can tell the editorial team that even though you have made these suggestions, I don't wish to incorporate them. Or that I will spend only so much on marketing," says Phillips.
Also, thanks to new technologies such as a print-on-demand, it is now cheaper to opt for small print runs. "You can print a minuscule number of 200 to 300 copies, without spending an exorbitant amount," says Tripathi. The rise of social media, too, has helped the cause of self-published authors. "Earlier there were gatekeepers within traditional media, who would keep out those not backed by a large publishing house. Now, thanks to social media, no one can block you," adds Tripathi.
Due to the success of books like the Shiva trilogy, bookstores across the country are waking up to the potential of self-published books. Oxford Bookstores, for example, has started stocking 12-15 self-published titles in every store.
With such benefits offered by self-publishing platforms, it is surprising that authors still prefer to knock on the doors of mainstream publishing doyens first. "Interestingly, all the hit authors (self-published) still go to publishers to break out even bigger. For example, the Fifty Shades of Grey books or even the home-grown Shiva trilogy. So, there is something to be said for having an imprint behind you," says Banerjee. Many authors feel that with a publishing house, you are assured of a certain level of editorial and production quality that helps the book stand out in the market. Tripathi, even with all his arguments in favour of self-publishing, transferred the rights of the book to Westland because of the enthusiasm and commitment they showed in taking the book to the next stage of development. "It is ideal if a well-known publisher picks up your book as the distribution is better. While publishing houses in India are not very savvy marketers, they bring to the table excellent distribution services," he says.
The biggest hurdle that self-published authors face is the popular perception that such books are low on quality. Some believe that with easy access to publishing services, now anyone and everyone is writing a book. However, such criticism incenses people like Mita Kapur, founder of the literary consultancy, Siyahi. "The problem with the Indian market is that there is still a question mark attached to the merit of creativity if an author is self-published. I wish this thinking could change. There are a lot books being published by mainstream publishers that are also mediocre and affect the quality of reading available. So why only question self-published authors," she asks.
What works in favour of self-publishing is the egalitarian and democratic environment that it offers to upcoming authors. "It creates a wider choice for readers - our customers - whom we would like to offer a range through our curated book lists," says Kakkar. Her sentiments are shared by Vyas. "Choice is the most important element in the books market. Let the readers pick up what they want to read. If you don't like a book, self-published or otherwise, don't read it. Just like you change the channel if you don't like a show or walk out of a movie half-way. But that doesn't mean that the TV show or film doesn't deserve to be made. We need to encourage self-publishing in order to encourage reading and writing in India," she says.