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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.