On 22 March one of our authors called me to ask if we had enough copies of her book in stock. Over the next three or four weeks most people would be home with the lockdown, and there would be a surge in reading and book sales, she insisted.
Sadly, the lockdown has ensured otherwise. With bookshops closed and online deliveries of books taking a backseat until recently, authors and publishers have taken a huge hit. There has been a small increase in ebook sales and readership, but with insignificant financial impact.
The good news is that self-publishing enquiries have not stopped being made. Authors have been calling and asking various questions about different aspects of self-publishing, from book formats post Covid-19 to new methods of publicity and promotion.
History of self-publishing in India
Self-publishing in India is as old as publishing itself. Publishers may scoff at this, but deep discounts to authors, subsidy publishing and buyback arrangements have always been available and used. And these terms have always guided publishing decisions.
A lot changed in early 2008, when Amazon launched Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP); this opened up the market to anyone who aspired to become an author. The growth in print-on-demand installations expanded the market. The creation of platforms like Lulu and Createspace (now part of Amazon), among others, resulted in further expansion. They provided authors with tools to format books, design covers, and convert PDFs to ebooks.
Lulu and Createspace also provided enhanced services such as editing and marketing for a fee. This allowed authors to not only publish without the involvement of agents and traditional publishers, but also make their self-published print and ebooks available globally. The rising influence of social media further provided them with an affordable and dynamic solution to promote these books.
‘All you need to do is pay for it’
The term “self-publishing” once carried a stigma, but with the commercial success of several self-published books over the past few years, that perception has changed somewhat, and many authors in fact now choose this path voluntarily and not as a last resort.
Self-publishing platforms democratised the dissemination of writing and earned a dedicated audience. EL James (Fifty Shades of Grey), Michael J Sullivan (the first three books in the Riyria Revelations series) and Ashwin Sanghi (The Rozabel Line) are just a few of the writers who went on to hit the big time after self-publishing their first books.
Traditional publishers have always had limited bandwidth to cater to the burgeoning market of aspiring authors. There are alternatives now. Given the reach, speed, revenue upside and the control it allows, self-publishing has become an important avenue for many aspiring authors.
The many markets of self-publishing
In late 2013, after completing twenty years in media and publishing with leading organisations such as Encylopaedia Britannica, Disney Publishing Worldwide and The Times of India Group, among others, I wanted to go independent and start my own venture. During my last assignment at Popular Prakashan, I noticed that often a traditional publishing company struggled to publish in a timely manner despite the work having been submitted and approved by the editorial. Authors were unwilling to wait indefinitely and I realised that some of them were even willing to invest to publish their works.
I saw a space in the market for assisted publishing that was aligned with the aims of self-publishing and, at the same time, provided quality intervention in development areas of editing, cover design and publicity. AuthorsUpFront was launched a few months later, with Arpita Das as co-founder, and published its first work in early 2014.
I have always thought of AuthorsUpFront as an independent publisher with an author-supported business model. Quality intervention in editing and layout and design were two aspects that we always felt strongly about and made integral to our service.
We believed that our editorial and design services could go well beyond first timers writing just fiction or self-help books, and decided to target a segment of writers that needed serious developmental support, such as those writing in the genres of biographies/autobiographies, food, art, business research, and so on. We also found out that some established authors – who are well aware of who their audiences are and how to reach them – were also looking at self-publishing to reduce the turnaround time between books and increase their revenues.
One of the first books that we helped self-publish was Gas Wars by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. The book is about the pricing and allocation of natural gas found in the ocean bed of the Bay of Bengal, in the Krishna and Godavari river basins. It exposes how government policies are shaped to help large private corporations at the expense of the national exchequer as well as the public at large.
Subsequently, we developed a separate imprint with him, called Paranjoy, and have published more than 20 books under this imprint. Some of these were Calcutta Diary by Ashok Mitra, Sue the Messenger by Guha Thakurta and Subir Ghosh, The Modi Myth by S Nihal Singh and Kashmir: A Noble Tryst in Tatters by BadriRaina. Clearly, self-publishing is much more than an author paying to see his book get published.
We also discovered that in certain cases where a book might invite legal trouble, traditional publishers, despite their desire to support an author, are commercially and legally constrained. In such a situation, self-publishing is a viable option for authors.
We have also worked with companies with custom publishing requirements, as well as small organisations who need publishing support services. For instance, when the famous Mahatta Studio of Delhi completed 100 years, we helped them publish a commemorative volume, Picturing A Century. Recently we brought out Farming Futures: Emerging Social Enterprises in India by Vikas Anvesh Foundation, which is a collection of 15 contemporary case studies documenting social enterprises in agriculture.
We have also published books by school students, many of whom write and publish their first work before going to college. In the last three years I have seen some very interesting writing from this segment, such as Cold Brew by Sanskriti Ramachandran and The Fury in the Sky by Anavi Khosla.
In sum, there are a number of markets within the self-publishing sphere.
Business before Covid-19
Business was stable before the pandemic, with a new author usually selling between 300 and 400 copies in the first year, and established authors, more than 1000 copies. Most authors who self-publish understand that they are constrained by limited distribution options for their print books. Recognising this, and instead of spending their resources on offset printing, they print smaller numbers on demand, and use the available budget for the purpose of promotion and generating publicity.
There is no industry body in India or a group that tracks numbers in self-publishing, so it is difficult to make estimates. From what we can see on various local and global platforms including Amazon KDP and Lulu, there has been reasonable growth in self-publishing over the last several years.
Authors have a wide range of options, from using technology platforms to opting for traditional publishers offering custom or sponsored publishing with some distribution support. And then there are author services like ours offering assisted-publishing solutions. The entry of new players such as Buuks and Zorba, and more sophisticated offerings by Notion Press and Amazon Kindle, augur well for the market, signalling expansion of the business and sophistication of technology, as well as customised solutions within the assisted publishing model.
Many of these platforms are language agnostic, though most self-published books are in English. But this is going to change, for sure. A recent entrant named Pratilipi is likely to shake things up. Pratilipi is a storytelling platform accessed via a mobile app, and is similar to Wattpad. It is currently available in Hindi, English and 10 other languages from India. Its simple model of connecting readers and writers, and its effective technology, is promising. Google Play Store reveals that 10 million plus readers/writers have downloaded this app.
What next, after the pandemic?
The pandemic has caused most businesses to rethink their way of operating, given the changes in demand, the rise in work-from-home practices, and the limitations of social and physical distancing. Many may not survive unless they adapt to the rapidly changing market.
Any economic slowdown affects every industry, and will certainly have a major impact on publishing as well. In the current environment of rising unemployment, a cash crunch and general economic uncertainty, “indulgences” like reading may have to wait.
Some might argue that many first time authors are driven by a burning lifelong ambition to publish a book and may not want to postpone their decision just because of the pandemic. That may indeed be the case, but the size of this segment is not substantial.
Like other publishers, authors who choose to bring out their own book at this time will face the immediate challenge of managing the expenses. While the actual cost of printing-on-demand may remain the same, courier costs are likely to go up with the increase in fuel prices due to additional taxes and duties likely to be levied by state governments.
Most of the orders for self-published books are from individual consumers. These are either fulfilled by the author or through self-publishing platforms. Rising delivery costs will affect the total expense for authors. This will squeeze their margin unless they increase prices – not an ideal scenario when you are facing a demand shortage.
Changes in the retail environment
For every author – including those who choose to self-publish – it is always gratifying to see their book in bookstores. Over the past few years, authors and service providers in the self-publishing system have realised that this is easier said than done, as bookstores prefer to work with distributors handling large accounts over individual authors having only a few books to offer. But today, more and more authors are realising the benefits of e-commerce over the physical bookstore, and are happy to see their printed books made available through online marketplaces such as Amazon and Flipkart, and as Kindle editions. They work with this model and direct their energies towards digital marketing and promotional campaigns.
Some of our books are filtered into traditional retail distribution like those of any other independent publishers’. At least 1500 copies of a book need to be produced in order to print affordably and get some visibility in the market. Our authors are made aware of the financial risks involved in this, and of the time it takes to get a response from distribution channels. For authors who have risked their entire investment in favour of this model, it has been nothing but frustrating, because they get an estimate of the sales only 120-180 days after actual publication.
I see this changing in the post-Covid-19 days, since retail bookstores, whether chains or standalone, are going to face many challenges – including their very survival. A recent Confederation of All India Traders study estimates losses of Rs 5.5 lakh crore for the retail industry in the past 45 days, which will lead about 20 per cent of retailers to close down completely in the next few months.
Book retail, even though it is relatively small, is not insulated from this demand downtrend. There are clear indications that some bookstores may have to close down, while the ones that will continue to operate will see a significant drop in sales due to compulsions of social distancing, or because they will be allowed to open on fewer days and for fewer hours. This will impact the buying pattern at these stores, and the share of the reduced buying budget will be even more skewed towards the big publishing players with major and bestselling authors on their lists. In such a scenario, mid-sized and independent publishers will find it more difficult to get their books into stores.
Technology tools and automation
There are several free do-it-yourself cover design solutions, typesetting templates, automated ebook developers and convertors, and basic grammar check tools available online. The quality of these tools continues to improve resulting in output that is both high quality and sophisticated.
In a post Covid-19 publishing world, large platforms offering such packages will have to alter their pricing, as free services may end up pricing them out of the market. Some of them have already begun to offer a few of these services at an exceptionally low, or even zero cost. We could be looking at a scenario where authors may pay only for editorial, printing and promotional services, while cover design, ebook development and typesetting are likely to become more automated. Thus, it will become increasingly challenging for platforms to differentiate their services from that of their competitors.
Self-publishing companies earn revenues by charging a fee for the services on offer. They also get a small share from the sale of print copies and ebook downloads. After the pandemic, I anticipate that these services will be offered at a discount. Companies will be forced to make up for these discounts by increasing their share of revenue from the sales of print copies and ebook downloads. This proposition is risky for the platform in case the book doesn’t sell well. For the author, it reduces the upfront service fee, which is an important consideration in the decision-making process.
In the last two years, I have referred nearly two dozen self-published authors to small digital public relations agencies who undertake digital and social media promotions on behalf of their clients. Some of these agencies have added traditional print media reviews, reviews by online bloggers, event-planning and invitations to literature festivals to their bouquet of services. The results, at least in some cases, have been rather encouraging.
Authors who are looking at self-publishingas a long term option are likely to spend money on such services. Established PR agencies do not find book publicity viable because of the low retainer fee involved.
Post Covid-19, I expect self-publishing service providers such as AuthorsUpFront to offer digital marketing services either directly or in alliance with independent digital marketing service providers.
Will traditional publishers lose certain advantages?
Physical retail spaces will shrink now and become even more elusive for small and independent publishers. Shrinking buying budgets at bookstores will also mean reduced width of the store catalogue; books are likely to lose out to products that can bring in greater revenue per square foot. This used to be one of the biggest competitive advantages for traditional publishers, even though they bring other crucial value-additions like professional editing, marketing and promotions, and, most of all, brand recognition.
There is likely to be a downsizing of full-time staff at publishing houses. This is likely to continue for at least two financial cycles.
Publishing companies – and this is not to anyone’s liking, ever – should be prepared to expect higher than usual inventory returns over the next two quarters, which will put immense financial strain on them. There will be delayed payments and defaults, and the resulting cash flow challenges may slow down their future publishing programmes. However, since it is essential to put out new books, publishing will continue, although the front list will mostly comprise safe, sellable titles.
All these factors clearly point to a strained system that will face serious challenges. Self-publishing for an established author is always a tricky choice to make, but post-Covid-19 those who have been on the fence may finally give it serious thought.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.