Mrinal Bose has been a physician for many years. He has been an aspiring writer for even longer, waking up early every morning to write his blogs. But last year, he fulfilled a dream: he became a published novelist.
The story of Kolkata-based Bose, who dabbles in medicine and literature in equal measure, is typical of many literary stragglers who juggle their bill-paying jobs and writing. But what sets Bose apart is the route he took to publication.
With mainstream publishers showing little interest in his novel, Shadowland, Bose displayed admirable self-reliance by not taking the vanity publishing route. He did not, for instance, take his manuscript to the publisher of last resort for permanently aspiring Indian poets, Writers’ Workshop, which, conveniently enough, has its offices not very far from where he lives. Instead, he elected to publish it himself, online, as an e-book. And all you need to do, to be able to read it, is to download it on to your computer or laptop.
Why change the platform?
Of course, Bose did write the book hoping to get it published by a traditional publisher. Some literary agents did show interest in his book, which was about a doctor battling the Communist regime in Bengal in the 1990s. Months turned into years, and Bose felt a shiver of excitement when an American agent assured him that a deal had been snagged with a US publisher. However, after some weeks, the agent got back with the news that the publisher had found the book “too audacious” and so backed out.
Fed up, Bose uploaded his work on Smashwords.com, a self-publishing platform. His pipedream of several years was fulfilled in a few minutes, though without much fanfare. He was now a published novelist, his e-book complete with a price tag of $4.99. Bose does admit, reluctantly, that he has sold very few copies.
And therein lies the rub: there are just too many e-books to choose from, and most of them are either free or priced too low to generate much money for the author, notwithstanding the higher royalty percentages vis-a-vis traditional publishers.
So why publish them at all, if fame and money continue to elude? For Bose, it was his only option. “The fact that I did not make much money from it does not concern me. I wrote the book because I wanted to be an author. So when I could not become the author of a conventional book, I took what was the next best thing,” he says.
But he isn’t the only one. Quite a few authors, rejected by and fed up with publishers, are taking to the free e-publishing platforms that have sprung up.
There is Amazon Digital Text Platform, Smashwords, Scribd, Lulu, and Sony’s Publisher Portal, to name a few. A writer just has to upload his/her manuscript as a Word document on these websites, and within minutes they are e-books, ready for downloading; ready to be read either on a PC, an e-book-reader like Amazon’s Kindle or Sony’s Reader, or even on phones with e-book-reading applications.
Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, says he founded his publishing platform on the belief that every author has the right to be published. “Most publishers select books based on their potential commercial merit. But authors should be allowed to publish their works, independent of this commercial filter.”
Not at publisher’s mercy
The reality is that a writer’s dream of becoming a published author depends not only on his writing ability but also on the publisher’s decision, which is but subjective. What the likes of Smashwords do is to remove this factor completely.
Coker started Smashwords when his novel Boob Tube (a roman-a-clef set within the US television soap opera industry), co-authored with his wife, was rejected by publishers on the ground that soap opera viewers do not read. “I realised how a single person was deciding what people can or cannot read. And I wanted to change this,” says Coker, whose Smashwords, started in 2008, has more than 4,400 original e-books by over 2,000 authors.
Though the popularity of e-books in India is not comparable to that in the US, a number of Indian writers have attained authorship, thanks to these platforms.
Jeff Tikari is a 72-year-old resident of Gurgaon who spent 35 years of his life in tea and coffee plantations in Dooars (West Bengal) and Papua New Guinea. The day he retired, he decided he would do what he had always wanted to: write. But the Indian publishing industry did not offer much succour to this retired man. His first book, Future Intelligence was published in 2000 and he earned a paltry Rs8,000 from it.
When he stopped receiving any more royalties, he made enquiries and discovered that the publishing house that had brought out his book had shut down. Then he approached Rupa, which promised to publish his Episodes Of Ecstasy (a collection of short stories). But six months down the line, Rupa told him that his book was not commercially viable. He then approached a friend in Penguin, who sadly informed him about the long queue of manuscripts at India’s top publisher. “They were going to take a minimum of two years to publish my book. And for all you know, when the time came, they too could just decide against publishing it,” says Tikari. “Besides, they were offering me only 6 per cent of the selling price as royalty.”
Tikari has so far written four e-books, all of which are available for download on Lulu and Smashwords. “My dream is to be read by as large a number as possible,” he says. In the past year, though, he managed to only sell about 20 e-books. “Unfortunately, not many in India are aware of e-books,” he states, candidly. “All my e-books have been bought by people in the US, Australia and the UK.” Tikari now places advertisements in local newspapers informing people about his books.
Praney Deb claims he is India’s first e-book author. His novel, Triple Trilogy, about a 16-year-old’s journey of self-discovery, was published on Lulu. He turned to the online platform after his book, on which he had toiled for five years, was turned down by publisher after publisher. “Today, I have sold over a 1,000 copies, at $10 each,” he says. But if he managed to sell 1,000 copies, which is more than enough for a publisher to make a profit, did all those publishers get it wrong when they rejected his book? After all, wasn’t even JK Rowling rejected by 25 publishers before she found one ready to take the “risk” of publishing Harry Potter? Who knows what would have happened had she, like Deb, gone in for e-publishing out of sheer frustration?
The commercial angle
Publisher and chief editor of HarperCollins (India), VK Karthika admits that some books may not get published despite their being good enough, either because “they will be too expensive to publish or because we think they might not sell well.” She adds, “In such cases, getting them published as e-books would be a good idea.”
However, she is quick to defend the publisher’s perspective. “We are trained readers and though our decisions to publish or not are subjective, we usually do a good job of correctly identifying which book would work and which won’t. We not only ensure good content by editing and giving feedback to the authors, but also help in distribution, promotion, and ensuring that the book looks good.”
But it cannot be denied that the attractive economics of e-books make them a potential rival for the traditional model: almost zero distribution costs (which eat up a big chunk of the offline publishing budget), quicker turnaround time, and what’s more, a bigger share of the commercial pie for the author.
“Manufacturing an e-book is so much more efficient, that eventually, perhaps in another ten years, the publishing industry is likely to see a great change,” says Karthika. “Most books will probably be e-books, and we traditional publishers will be dealing with the content of e-books, and seeing how best we can improve it in this new form of reading.”
For now, however, writers taking the e-publishing route have no escape from two of its biggest drawbacks vis-a-vis offline publishing: obscurity, and little money.