MEET THE WRITER

Can a start-up strategy sell a book more successfully than a big publisher can?

An interview with Vineet Bajpai, who not only self-published his novel but is also marketing it as a start-up would.

Here’s a new model for self-publishing. Picture a writer bringing together resources, after a book is written, to market, promote, talk up, use social media, manage retail and tackle every aspect of business after a book is published. That’s exactly what Vineet Bajpai – a serial entrepreneur – is doing with this first novel, Harappa: Curse of the Blood River.

It’s early days yet, but the novel has already broken into the top 100 on Amazon and the top 10 in the historical fiction category (where Amish holds five spots). In an interview with Scroll.in, Bajpai talks about why he decided to self-publish after successfully publishing three books traditionally, why self-publishing is like a creative start up, and the important dos and don’ts for aspiring authors.

You’ve already published three books through traditional channels that have collectively sold some 50,000 copies. You also share a very good rapport with your publisher. Then why did you decide to self-publish your first work of fiction?
You are absolutely right. My first three books Build From Scratch, The Street to the Highway and The 30 Something CEO were published by Jaico Publishing House. Jaico is a sought-after, grade-A publisher (and the promoter Akash Shah is an excellent human being.)

But when it came to fiction, there were several considerations that were different from management or non-fiction writing. The first and the foremost was the scheduling of publishers. In a genre as competitive as historical and mythological thrillers, waiting for several months for your turn in a publisher’s long list of books for the year was something we were not prepared to do. We wanted Harappa to be in readers’ hands as quickly as possible, given that it is the first in a series. Now we will be releasing the sequel Pralay: The Great Deluge by the time Harappa would have been released by the publisher. So we gain speed.

The second aspect of this decision was purely commercial. Harappa was a winning manuscript, according to whoever read it. We knew it was going to be a mass-market seller. Without going into details, it made much more financial sense to become an independent publisher for my work rather than going with a publisher.

This is a good time to ask you about the book itself.
Harappa takes you on a journey spanning 3,700 years, right from 1700 BCE Indus Valley to modern-day Delhi and Paris. It spins a thrilling tale around some of the unanswered and haunting questions of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Was there an Aryan invasion of white-skinned riders galloping into India through the Khyber? Did the Saraswati river really exist? Why is the Harappan script undeciphered till date? What was the truth behind the fall of the mighty civilisation?

But, more excitingly, the story traces the bloodline of the greatest man of Harappa. There is a deeper, darker conspiracy around the fall of the civilisation, which connects several dots from Harappa, to Kashi, to 5th century Constantinople, to 16th century Goa, to the Vatican. The story oscillates from history to mythology, from occult to religion, from exorcism on one side to gunfights on the other, from tantriks to warriors, from love to ambition.

The research was long and arduous. It ranged from beautiful, old NCERT books to long hours on the web. But it was also most gratifying. It took me about two years to complete Harappa.

You have compared self-publishing to a creative start-up enterprise. Why?
Let us first clearly separate two kinds of structures here. First is self-publishing understood in the conventional sense. Which is where an author either goes to a service-provider who offers a turnkey solution to produce a book, or the author goes directly to a cover-designer and a printer and churns out copies.

What we are doing is completely different, and we like to call ourselves an independent publisher. We have brought together a massive team which comprises editors, creative artists, typesetting experts, production specialists, PR, marketing, retail consulting, distribution and social media marketing. This large and cohesive team works together towards the success of the book. We look at Harappa and its sequels as a beautiful, gratifying and creative enterprise – which we will build over the coming years. The excitement is similar to the teams that would have made Game of Thrones or Baahubali! This confidence has also grown after the tremendous love Harappa is receiving from all quarters – from its readers (most importantly), from the media, from the trade and more. And believe me, we are having a lot of fun!

Harappa is already a bestseller on Amazon and you expect to sell out your entire first print run of 10,000 copies within two months. How are you handling the distribution of books to brick-and-mortar bookstores?
We have partnered with an excellent distribution company, Prakash Books. They are one of the largest distributors of books in India, and they are driving the distribution nationwide. We are delighted to be working with them. We are also getting rich support from the wonderful team at Amazon India.

You will be happy to know that within just 20 days of launch, we have sold over 2,000 copies. And this is when the books are still in transit for distribution and have not reached all stores. We hope to accelerate significantly by mid-July.

Most of the major self-publishing success stories such as Amish Tripathi and Savi Sharma went on to sign with established publishers. Do you plan to do the same thing?
We are open to all possibilities, as long as they boost the franchise and help bring the books to every Indian home and reader.

You have the advantage of having published traditionally and earning goodwill and credibility. What about authors who are compelled to consider self-publishing for their debuts?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Most publishers today, barring the really big ones, outsource most of the value-adds. Editing is outsourced to empanelled freelance editors; creatives are made by freelance designers; even distribution is outsourced by most. So if a first-time author has the wherewithal and the energy to envision this project herself, bring a team together and execute, why not?

The bigger issue is the prejudice of some sections of the media and retail, who look down upon someone who has self-published. This is bizarre! Supremely successful authors like Amish Tripathi started-out with self-publishing. And yet, there is prejudice.

Having said the that, here’s a word of caution for debut authors. A publisher is a great filter, a primary monitor of quality. All authors believe their work is brilliant, which is unfortunately not the case for 90% of them. So publishers bring in a wonderful screening intermediation that filters out poor quality content. I could take my decision [to self-publish] because I had three successful books behind me. But for a debutant, I would recommend extra caution.

A majority of self published authors don’t have the kind of access to resources and networks that you have. Would you still recommend they go down the self-publishing route?
Most certainly not. It would be a big mistake and a sureshot way to kill the potential of your book.

Please please do not make the mistake of undermining the publisher’s role. Publishers are the lifeblood of books, and I repeat – I am a publisher too! I am not self-published. I urge you to understand the difference carefully. So please do not try and emulate this model if you do not have all the resources I have described in the previous answer. Publishers remain your best way forward.

How important is marketing for a self-published author? What is your marketing budget for the book?
In today’s competitive environment, where a very large number of books hit retail every week, marketing becomes critical in the initial days of the book. You may be an excellent writer. But if your book stays hidden in one corner shelf of bookstores and reaches no readers, how can you hope to achieve the true potential of your work?

Some very mediocre writers have become big names simply because they pump in millions of rupees every year in promoting their titles. That is a sad thing to happen to an intellect and creativity based ecosystem, but it is a harsh reality. Yes, in the long-term it is only the merit of the book that will make it sell. But the initial impetus is important.

As for Harappa, we have not fixed any budget. We will go along as time progresses. I am getting many messages and mails from. Interestingly, a lot of female readers are telling me that they have fallen in love with Vidyut (the main protagonist), that they are unable to get him out of their minds. What more marketing does one need?

In your opinion, is there any genre that self-publishing is best suited for?
Not really. It will depend on each project, the author, the target market etc.

Are you planning a sequel to Harappa? If so, will that too be self-published?
Yes, the sequel of has already been announced. As for publishing, we have not taken any decision so far.

As a successful entrepreneur, what do you make of the publishing business model?
It is most challenging. While it is creatively very gratifying, financially it is a hard business to make money in. Which is why I have immense respect for publishers. The cost of production is increasing, digital content is challenging book-readership numbers, retail prices are not going up significantly…so generating profits is a hard thing to do.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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