When author Siddhartha Gigoo self-published for the first time, it wasn’t really a planned decision. Gigoo has gone through the traditional publishing route (his book in January this year was through a publishing house), and while that took him a good one and a half years, he self-published Love in the Time of Quarantine in 21 days. It took technology, Kindle Press, and determination. This is a conversation with authors that have self-published, platforms that allow self-publishing, the pros and cons of both forms of publishing, and India’s most important literary agent weighing in. Brace yourself.

Kindle Press has a lot to do with how self-publishing became even more accessible. In 2008, Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) launch meant writing is now open to all. KDP provided authors tools that can help them do the head-to-toe of a book on their own — writing, editing, formatting, designing a cover, and making an ebook. Gigoo’s experience with self-publishing has been good, because he’s sick of people asking him, “Who is the publisher?” How does it matter who is the publisher, he retorts. “When a movie is announced, does anyone ask who the studio is? I find this question extremely baffling, as if the publishing house decides if the author’s work is good. People have this mindset,” he adds.

One of the limitations of traditional publishing is enormous delays. Gigoo explains that traditional publishers have loads of book proposals coming to them. “When I was writing my first book in 2011, it took 18 months for me to get a response from a publisher. That’s just the beginning — a yes or no. Then comes scheduling the book. Their line-up is so packed that your book will be scheduled for the next year, or the year after. By the time the process is done and the book is out, five years have already passed,” he says. “When it comes to traditional publishing, there is no budget to even market your book, you have to pay for it. They are also cash strapped, they are in the business, so other than the initial bit of a quick sell, they aren’t invested in marketing your book. If you self-publish, you market it yourself. You have complete creative control too. When it comes to cost, there is zero cost in self-publishing and no issues of royalty,” he adds.

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Author Amish — yes — the one who made mythology cool, self-published his first book, the very well received Immortals of Meluha in 2010, after being rejected by every publisher he went to. “It was a necessity,” he says. According to him, self-publishing has now become easier, as compared to the past two decades. “Back then, the biggest problem was the minimum print runs because you had to print a minimum of 3,000 copies. Printing was a lot more expensive as well. Now, you have print-on-demand for as little as five copies. You can reasonably sell online, whereas earlier, you just had the offline models, and bookstores would not take the books of a self-published author,” he recalls. Even though he fought the odds, Amish feels being published by traditional publishers is a lot easier. “Publishers get you proper distribution, which is difficult for an individual to do. So, if there’s a choice, one would obviously prefer to be published by a mainstream publisher. Self-publishing is a route you take if there’s no option,” he clearly states.

So is self-publishing going to get bigger post the pandemic? “For now, physical bookstores aren’t completely open. So distribution is much more online, which works for authors who are at the top. People go on an app looking for a particular author, Digital can be difficult for an average author — the one in the middle — who used to sell 5,000 to 15,000 copies. These authors were normally discovered in physical stores. The average author, which is the heart of any industry, faces these challenges in the online space. That’s how even I was discovered, through bookstores, because if no one had heard of me, how would they discover my work? The hardcore reader visits bookstores, and sees the book displayed there and picks it up. Then they start talking about it,” Amish says.

Tarun Grover, a new author, recently wrote The Tale Of A Would-Be Father. He self-published the book with AuthorsUpFront, a self-publishing platform. He has worked with publishers, and a publishing house before. “While the traditional route does give you certain advantages, in today’s time, self-publishing as a concept is growing, and other than smaller authors like ourselves, some big authors have also taken this route,” he adds. Grover says that the first reason behind affiliation with a publishing house is, like Amish also pointed, the distribution and selling. But it’s very difficult for new authors to be heard by publishing houses. “The amount of effort that goes into getting your first book out, small authors sometimes don’t have the bandwidth,” he adds. There are more such self-publishing platforms, namely, there’s one called Buuks, and another called Zorba. Shalini Gupta set up Zorba eight years back. Zorba has packages with different price points, so that authors can decide what suits them. “Our costs range from Rs. 6,000 to Rs. 90,000, so it’s quite a range, and you’re paying for people’s skills,” she informs.

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Manish Purohit is the co-founder of Authors Upfront, a self-publishing platform. With both him and co-founder Arpita Das coming from decades of experience in traditional publishing, the idea was to bring quality to self-publishing. “We are not a CreateSpace, we believe that while everyone can publish, you need a certain level of intervention in the form of editorial quality or marketing and design support. The process is — people write to us, and we look at the manuscript, to decide if we can work with the author,” he explains. So what makes a self-publishing platform different from a traditional publishing house? “Traditional publishing houses have to look at it from a commercial viewpoint, whether the book will sell or not, because they are the ones investing in the book. But in our case, since the author is investing, we can look at the quality. That is the difference,” says Purohit. While the common misconception is that authors self publish because they’re rejected by traditional publishers, Purohit is seeing a reverse trend, he says. “Authors are very sure that they don’t want to go through traditional publishing because it would take a lot of time. Also, the benefits that traditional publishers used to bring to the table of marketing and very widespread distribution, are now diminishing because of Amazon and online buying,” he says. Explaining the money module, Purohit explains in the traditional publishing model, the author gets 10 per cent of the MRP, in the best case scenario. In self-publishing, his return is not 10 per cent, it would be upwards of 10. It could be between 20 and 25, depending on the price. “Commercially, too, a publisher would pay the author royalties on a yearly or half-yearly basis. In self-publishing setups, the credit period is between 30-45 days. So it’s not only more money, it’s also timely payments,” he says.

Shalini adds, “Taking a book through a publishing process is long and expensive. At the end of the day, everyone is doing a business. Sometimes, traditional publishing will pick a more money-yielding manuscript, and might ignore another good manuscript. This way is for those who don’t want to keep waiting for their book to see the light of the day.” Foreseeing the future of self-publishing in India, Shalini says that the self-publishing industry is set to grow, even if you take the pandemic out of the picture. “In a smaller way, it gives people choice and creative freedom, and people want that,” she affirms. Now, for some insight by traditional publishing. Yogesh Sharma, Senior VP Sales and Marketing, Bloomsbury India, explains the key difference between the two forms. “The traditional model is about finding the best content to publish and partnering with the author to do whatever is necessary to realise the true market potential of a book or manuscript. In the self-publishing model, you are on your own, even if the content or writing is of high quality. The services or efforts, which are a given at traditional publishing companies, are charged for at every step of the way, even though the company or people you work with may not necessarily be domain experts,” he explains.

One cannot talk about publishing without talking about Kanishka Gupta, a very prominent name in the agenting space. Gupta, an author, literary agent, and consultant, is the founder of Writer’s Side, a very large and popular literary agency and consultancy. Gupta recalls how traditional publishing was when he started out, and the bureaucracy involved. “Back in 2002 or 2003, there was no culture of sending out mails. We had to send a hardbound manuscript, and they were returned back to you by courier. First time writers hardly ever got a chance. Publishing was an exclusive world, where nobody had access. At that time, I was a terrible writer, I wasn’t even a good editor. I just kind of slowly worked my way towards setting up this thing, and in 2008 I became an agent without really knowing agenting,” he says. There were fewer publishing houses when Gupta started, but eventually, more of them, like Bloomsbury, Simon & Schuster etc. came in. “I like to think people like me have democratised publishing. If it’s a good book, it reaches the publisher, and they make you an offer,” he says.

Gupta has been around for almost 11 years, and remembers how self-publishing became even more prominent when Amish was rejected by everyone. “Even Ashwin Sanghi, who went on to become a huge success story, was rejected at first. There were international success stories as well, like the Fifty Shades of Grey writer E.L James. That has given people confidence,” he says. However, he adds, even in mainstream publishing houses, there’s a separate section of self-publishing, called customised publishing, where they will take money and publish your book under their imprint. “Also, unless you’re on a platform as good as Manish Purohit’s Authors Upfront, going with an MNC’s customised publishing is a safer bet. Purohit and such publishers do quality checks, which all self-publishing houses don’t. Another big problem is credibility. Reviewers, for instance, don’t tend to take self-published books seriously,” he states. Gupta says that as an agent, he works with authors who have worked with big publishing houses, so he can’t recommend self-publishing. He wouldn’t self publish either, because he feels it lacks credibility. “I may not recommend self-publishing, but now there’s so much backlog in regular publishing, printing costs have increased, and presses are not working at 100 per cent capacity. Obviously, these things won’t last forever, but I don’t know if people would be willing to wait for 20 months to get their books,” he adds.

And as a literary agent, how has his role evolved in the process? Literary agents are doing a lot, he tells me. “I do B2B, if someone is looking for a publisher or collaboration, then I step in. Now because of this explosion of OTT and interest in audio and ebooks, we are in a position to sell audio rights. The biggest money generator is OTT. Suddenly, everyone in Bollywood is interested in books. And that money is five times more than usual,” he says. Sharma details why self-publishing is growing (he doesn’t deny it is). “The self-publishing business is growing because there are only a few well-respected traditional publishing companies, and they find it difficult to go through every proposal. Some publishing companies also follow a hybrid model where a manuscript is considered good, but not seen as a good fit in the overall scheme of things. The author is then given the option of buying back copies for a fee, which covers cost of publishing services,” he informs. Grover sees more opportunity in self-publishing in the future. “If you look at publishing as an industry or look at the market from an author’s perspective, it has changed drastically. The digital world has evolved, and it has made the process of becoming an author much easier. There will be more evolution on this front,” he adds. So go home, write that book, and be the author your Instagram bio says you are.

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