Books

Me Author: Desi Writers Step into Self-Publishing

A growing number of Indian American writers are turning to self–publishing. But can the voracious Indie-authors break through the traditional book industry?

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Becoming an author is usually a long-drawn and fraught process. A potential writer painstakingly develops a manuscript or an expanded idea and pitches to scores of agents or publishers. Reputed publishers, often buried under an avalanche of submissions, select just a handful to commission as books and offer advances. The books may be years in the making and the authors spend months, even years, working diligently on their tomes to earn the coveted title of published author. The odds of making it as an author for a storied publishing house are perilously low.

Cut to the present world of easy digital platforms, which enable writers to churn out books in a matter of a few days, then self-publish, promote and market them, mostly online, but also sometimes printing physical copies.

Self-publishing or Indie-publishing, which is gaining ground, bypasses established publishers. Digital platforms such as Kindle Direct Publishing on Amazon, CreateSpace, Kobo, Lulu, Smashwords and many others, allow writers to publish their books online with just a few clicks on their home laptops.

Indian American authors too are taking a leap of faith into Indie publishing.

Rubina Ramesh, an Arizona based Indie author and founder of “The Book Club,” an online book publicity group comprising writers who offer tips and help each other conduct book publicity tours, says: “In the past one year the number of Indians in America who have taken the Indie publishing way has significantly increased. Every day we get requests from at least five new writers who are exploring the self-publishing route.”

Ramesh estimates that there are between 500 to 1,000 Indian American Indie authors already: “Sometimes they also use pen names making it difficult to track their origin.

“However, not all of them are successful, because they don’t edit their work or take help of professional cover page designers.”

Dipankar Mukerjee, founder, Readomania, an online publishing format for budding authors, says: “Traditionally, the role of a publishing house was to act as a basic filter for readers — to sift through the good, bad and ugly and publish the best. Many may say that such an approach is not correct, is elitist. This discontent with the system brought about the concept of self-publishing. However, with self-publishing the onus of selecting the right content has shifted from the publishing house to the reader. We may call it ‘choice’ but it may also be a burden on the reader.”

He adds: “In general, authors who do not get selected in the traditional circuit try self-publishing. So the content is sometimes suspect and many a times poorly presented/edited. Rarely does it match up to the output from a good publishing house. This in turn gives this industry a bad name.

“Most (not all) of the authors in the self-publishing industry are driven by vanity rather than the merit in their work. So they write something and send across to publishers, which mostly gets rejected. The entire spill over, rejected list now accesses easily available self-publishing services and gets published. However, it would be wrong to say that all authors who get published via this route are bad. We do have some good authors in this category too, but far and few.”

Trumpeting Stars

Indie authors such as Amanda Hocking, John Locke and E.L. James, who have displaced traditional authors on bestseller lists on Amazon Top 100 and The New York Times, serve as inspiration to budding authors.

A handful of Indian American Indie authors have also created ripples. Rasana Atreya’s debut novel, Tell A Thousand Lies, has been on the Amazon U.S. and UK bestseller list in Eastern fiction. The book was also chosen for the 2012 Tibor South Asia award and has been adopted in a course at the University of Albuquerque, New Mexico. New York based author Falguni Kothari, who self-published her third book Soul Warrior in the United States in 2016, was signed for a three book deal with Om Books, India, on the same series.

Several other Indian authors have been successful in their own right. Texas based Lopa Banerjee’s debut novel, Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey, received an honorable mention at the Los Angeles Book Festival 2017.

Although the fast growing industry is still waiting for that breakout commercial star to announce the arrival of Indians in the Indie publishing scene, interest from readers and the fraternity is ticking up.

Indian publishing houses are beginning to pay attention. Chiki Sarkar, publisher and founder of Juggernaut Books, a new ebook publisher in India, says: “I believe that publishing today will be a mix of traditional ‘curated’ publishing run by publishing companies and a world enabled digital, where writers who haven’t been able to enter this world or want to bypass it will be able to find their readers. Both will exist beside each other.”

For both Indian and expat Indian writers the primary readership market remains India. Sarkar says: “At Juggernaut we’re trying something bold and new — sitting a self-published world at the bottom of our curated world. So readers can read both books our editors have bought and published and the books people have uploaded. We will also give these writers from our platform a contract if they get a certain number of views and reviews on the app. What we are doing in essence, is taking all the elements that are swirling in the books universe and joining them up in a single model.”

Expat Writing: A Pastime or an Emerging Genre?

Most first time expat authors stumbled into writing and don’t have writing backgrounds. Many took up the pen as non-working spouses after they found themselves with a lot of time on their hands or because their new lives gave them compelling perspectives they found important to document.

Since the stories emerging were either set in India or of protagonists balancing outlander lives, the readership tilted toward Indians. Denver, Colo., based Reshma Ranjan, who came to the United States on a dependent H4 visa with her husband, admits that she looked at self-publishing as she was stuck without a work permit and it offered a way to keep herself engaged. Ranjan who authored her second book Blind, Certainly is Love on Kindle felt the medium empowering, as it reduced the stress of finding and researching for a publisher and she could focus on her writing instead.

But do Indian American Indie authors turn to self-publishing because American publishers do not value their work? Los Angeles based Sunanda Chatterjee, a pathologist by the day and a writer by night, says: “It may not make sense for American publishers, as most stories from South Asian writers are about their country and origins. It’s a natural phenomenon Americans want to read about America and Indians want to read about India.” Chatterjee took an online course in Indie-publishing before releasing her second book. She has published four books on Kindle and is currently working on a series.

Many Indian authors living in America say that the prospects of landing an Indian publisher too is bleak, as most publishers believe that an author based so far away would not be able to effectively market their books in India. Ranjan cites her own example: “When I came to the U.S. in 2014, my debut book Love Sees No Reason was on the verge of getting signed by a publisher. But soon as they got to know of my move, they withdrew.

I approached 20-25 publishers and all of them rejected it, until Pageturn publishers tied up with Sree Books to release my book. I got a paltry signing amount and book was also not marketed properly.”

Lopa Banerjee insists that the subjects of Indian American authors have wider appeal: “While our stories do interest Indians and the diaspora, but our readership is not limited to South Asians alone. For instance, my book Thwarted Escape, based on an immigrant’s experience, was equally well received  by other immigrant communities — the Hispanics, the Mexicans and all other people of color.”

In mainstream book circles, immigrant tales from Indian authors, such as Bharati Mukherjee, Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Divakaruni, have created enough stir and even been recognized as a genre.

Indie authors feel that they are able to connect to readers, because their books are available on a digital format, enabling them to reach continents they did not imagine. In addition, some Indian writers have dabbled in other genres and discovered that India is not their market. San Francisco based Indie author PG Van, who writes adult fiction and has authored six books, including A Reckless Night and Destiny Embraces, says: “I publish through Amazon and most of my readers are in the U.S., U.K. and Canada. Indians are still to warm up to the idea of adult romance, maybe.”

Undemocratic Trade Publising

It isn’t just Indie authors who are disillusioned with traditional publishers, particularly in India. Indianapolis based author Shikha Kumar, who has written two best-selling romances titled, He Fixed the Match, She Fixed Him and Logically Stupid, That’s Love, with traditional publishing houses, gripes that the publishing industry is extremely biased and calculating: “Unless you are a Twinkle Khanna, no one wants to publish your book.”

Citing her own experiences, she said, “While I was happy with my second publisher — Srishti Books — my first publisher was not honest about the number of copies sold and many other details. For a writer it’s difficult to say today whether going the traditional route is better than self-publishing, as it all depends on if you get honest people to work with. The market is blurring with even reputed publishers going the vanity way. If a writer is not asked to pay an amount to the publisher, they are asked to buy several copies.”

Rasana Atreya could be credited for pioneering the self-publishing movement amongst Indian writers after she turned down a traditional publishing offer to self-publish her first book. She says: “I was never skeptical about trade publishing, honestly. But I’d been following Amanda Hocking and J A Konrath, and their phenomenal successes in self-publishing. I was completely fascinated. However, I held off, not sure people would want to read my debut novel Tell A Thousand Lies. When the UK-based Tibor Jones South Asia Prize shortlisted my unpublished manuscript, I was also offered a trade-publishing contract. Ironically, these two events gave me the confidence to self-publish.”

On the growing disenchantment of authors with publishing houses, she says: “The general rule of thumb is that the money should flow from the publisher to the author, and not the other way around. Also not everyone who calls him or her a literary agent is legit. A lot of people have lost their life’s work by turning over their work to fraudsters.

To add to the problem, many vanity publishers are actually owned by reputable trade publishers, which make it all the more confusing. These vanity publishers send out mails on the letterhead of their parent company. So a writer has to be very careful on what they are getting into.”

Lopa Banerjee says that finding a publisher is difficult for most authors: “The manuscript of my first book Thwarted Escape was the first place category winner at the Journey Awards 2014 hosted by Chanticleer Reviews and Media. But despite this, I faced rejection from many publishers until Authorspress, a scholarly and literary publisher in India, agreed to bring out my book. I didn’t receive any signing amount and had to pay a minimal amount for my cover.” Many authors fear getting entrapped by agents and opt to self-publish to keep things under their control.

However, Readomania’s Mukherjee senses a problem of easy access: “The traditional publishing industry as a whole has a limited capacity and it can publish only up to its capacity. We are in a strange scenario where supply of content (authors) is higher than demand for content (readers). In such a case, the selection criteria is obviously very strict and hence rules out a lot of authors, who may get disillusioned with the rejections.

“Having said that, debut authors do not get a significant chance. Readomania is an exception here. It is our mission to bring many new authors to the forefront and hence we work more with debut authors. 70% of our authors are debutantes.”

The Bestseller Debate

How do Indie books actually fare in the marketplace?

Rubina Ramesh says: “The bestseller count in Indie is different from trade publishing, because over here things change every day, even every hour. So it often depends upon who sold how many copies in a day. If a book is constantly number one for a certain number of days, then it gets the bestseller tag from Amazon. Also the Kenp (Kindle electronic number of pages), where the authors get paid also with the number of pages read, counts more than number of sales.” To be successful, Ramesh says, Indie authors must achieve at least 1,000 pages read per day and 50 copies sold daily consistently for months to count as a bestseller.

The criteria for inclusion on bestseller lists, such as the New York Times, is closely guarded, but book analysts believe that a book needs to minimally sell 9,000 copies in a week to make the list. Dipankar Mukherjee says: “However, there is no control on how one declares a bestseller, since there is no certification process. No official rules are laid out by any agency.”

Ramesh says: “An Indie selling 1,000 copies per month definitely is a bestseller, but currently India based Sundari Venkatraman may be the only Indian achieving that mark.”

Venkatraman, who began self-publishing in 2014, has authored 16 books, many of which have been on the Top 100 Bestsellers on Amazon India, USA, UK, Canada and Australia in both romance as well as Asian Drama categories.

Venkatraman says: “On average, I get about 18-20,000 pageviews every day. My first book The Malhotra Brides has sold more than 4,700 copies.”

While she would not disclose her earnings, she says: “I am glad that so many publishers refused me, because today by self-publishing my books I earn enough monthly to run a middle class household on my own.”

Compared with trade earnings, Readomania’s Mukherjee explains: “Author earnings consist of advances, royalty (net of advance), subsidiary rights. These days, traditional fellows print 1,100 to 3,000 copies for newbies. Assuming a MRP (Manufacturer Retail Price) of Rs 250 and a royalty of 8%, the earning for the author is Rs. 22,000 to Rs. 60,000 for sales of that whole print run (taxes deducted extra).”

Subsidiary rights include translation, films, TV, etc. However, authors have to wait a long time before such offers emerge, if ever.

Shikha Sharma, who received a film offer for her book He Fixed the Match, She Fixed Him by an Indian production house Emenox, is upbeat about the potential, although the project has yet to take off.

Other Indie publishers, such as Ramesh, have received offers to turn their books into web series, are weighing the commercial benefits: “Both my books, Knitted Tales and Finding the Angel began on an average sale of 345 copies every day and 1,000+ pages read every day. Slowly the sales dwindled, but second one continues to sell because it’s a romance.”

She says that Knitted Tales, which released in November last year, “sold 2,000  copies in five months, which may not be a great number as compared to trade publishing.”

However, the authors remain sanguine about their prospects. PG Van, with half a dozen titles under her name, admits that she averages only seven downloads a day and is not yet a success story, but she nonetheless hopes to get there.

Separating Wheat From Chaff

Many self-published authors counter the criticism that the Indie industry churns out mediocre writers by arguing that in the end only the good works get noticed. They also believe that they are catering to an emerging segment of Indian readers. Reshma Ranjan says: “There is a big boom in reading amongst Indians. There is no dearth of fresh readers exploring newer writers.”

Of this new crop of readers, she says: “Not everyone would enjoy Wuthering Heights or Jane Austen. Many readers are looking for writers who write desi English.”

Mitchell Davis, who helmed the first Indie Author Day across America last year, at which libraries across America hosted local and online events offering advice to potential Indie authors, says: “Anyone should be able to publish a book. There are many reasons why someone would want to have the experience of publishing a book, even if their book is not an award winning piece of literature. Personal memoirs, first-hand accounts, and just the ability to express creativity are all important.”

She is confident about the future of self-publishing: “The Indie author trend will work over the long term, because the means of production and distribution in the book publishing industry have been democratized by the Internet over the past 20 years. It is not uncommon for a self-published author to upload a book from their own home and sell millions of copies with no help whatsoever from a publisher. In this new environment, readers decide what is good or bad based on what they buy and read.

“Libraries can also be ‘curators’ of this Indie author content, using their editorial expertise to choose the best books and promote the best books to their patrons. Authors are now using libraries to help them build readership and some are going on to sign major book contracts.”

Many authors choose to be independent because they feel the medium is more transparent than trade publishing. Sunanda Chatterjee, who released her first book The Vision through a vanity publisher, admits that she had no control over anything. When she opted to go Indie for her subsequent books, she reissued her first book on Kindle as the trade format failed to do much for her book. She says, “I met agents who said that they are looking for authors who can sell 100,000 books.”

Few authors discover profits in publishing their books, however. Not unlike the book trade industry, a book is more a project of passion than a job that pays the bills. Nevertheless, there are rare success stories of Indie authors, such as Venkatraman, who with 15 books under her kitty is looked upon by many as a benchmark.

Author PG Van says, “Once you have a few books under your name, you manage a readership and you get money through books selling under Kindle edition. It may not be a lot, but if you are serious about marketing it’s not small either.”

But for Indie authors, writing is just one part of the exercise. They also have to promote it aggressively, otherwise it is bound to tank.

Says Ramesh: “We have to aggressive promotions through blog tours and social media. It is a lot of hard work and certainly not as easy as it sounds.”

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