Monday, October 3, 2011

The Higgledy-piggledy Publishing Biz: To Begin or Not to Begin

[Published :]

I want to publish my own book. How do you start a publishing house? What do you think of vanity publishing?

In the recent days, I have come across a lot of people asking me these questions. If they are your questions too, beware. You may be confusing issues. If you want to get a book published, by all means – do. But if you feel that starting a publishing house will be an answer to your problems, you’re grossly mistaken. Please note: self-publishing is different from setting up a publishing business.  (Yes, I do make a distinction between self-publishing and vanity publishing, and the distinction is based purely on the quality of the product you produce – whether it is content or production; whether you do it yourself or get somebody to do it for you).

Though it may seem that setting up a publishing house is child’s play in today’s world (there seem to be clusters of them at every street corner, so it must be easy), let me assure you it’s not.  Publishing is not like any other industry. One: we do not deal with consumer goods. Two: it’s not a money-minting machine as many people seem to think. Three: it needs constant investment, the risks are huge, and the gestation period is astoundingly long. Four: like any other profession, publishing needs some knowledge/specialisation and a certain set of skills. Five: everybody today wants to write; nobody wants to read! There are writers galore, publishers galore, and few book buyers!

The supply seems to be much more than the demand; the competition is fierce. The book review space is shrinking; so is shelf space. More book shops are shutting down. The existing ones are spilling over. With so much on offer, today’s reader is perhaps more confused than ever, and only opts for tried and tested things – or products that come cheap.

If you feel publishing is easy, you’re assuming that there are readers out there dying to buy your books, that distributors would be falling over themselves to pick them up, and retailers would empty their shelves to make way for yours. In the end everybody would make money and be happy. A deadly mistake. The process is neither so simple nor butter-smooth and linear, even if you have a good book in hand.

The reality is quite contrary to your assumptions, and it’s pretty grim. Beyond family, friends, and relatives, buyers are generally few and far between for most authors unless he/she is already well established. People today spend willingly on other, more glamorous sources of entertainment such as movies, restaurants, games, gadget accessories, etc rather than on ‘old-fashioned’ books. The few who still do, usually don’t like to take risks with a new book/author. Hence, to put it very simply, the retailers are reluctant to stock such a book. Hence the distributors are equally reluctant to take it on. Hence the publishers are hesitant to publish him/her. And the established writers offer no guarantees of success either. Often enough they lose their buyers to music albums, a pizza, a new haircut, and other such sources of instant gratification. 

Setting up a publishing house implies putting several processes together. Once you’ve published your book, you need to churn out more titles regularly.  That means attracting good authors, doing them justice, and selling the books. You’re dependent upon several other cogs in the giant wheel, who are in no mood to oblige you. It becomes a process of publishing and waiting; producing a good book and waiting for a miracle to happen – bracing yourself for the same challenges again and again and again. In the end, unsold books return to you by the truck-load.

So, when you wonder why things are the way they are, look at people’s book-buying habits before jumping to the conclusion that the publishers are the villains in the entire gamut, and you would do well to start off on your own. Publishing is a tough business and needs, apart from resources, the nerves of a warrior and the patience of a sage.



  1. Hi Divya,

    While the option of vanity publishing may be encouraging, I am not for it. For me as a serious reader & collector of books, it's a strict no-no. For a writer's own growth, I think it should be a no-no.

  2. 'Publishing is a tough business and needs, apart from resources, the nerves of a warrior and the patience of a sage.'

    Divya Ma'am your these words are the most insightful. Thank you so much for sharing the inside story of the Publishing world.

  3. You have written a very balanced and realistic account.

    Whenever I think about it, I think publishing is one of the most difficult businesses. Unless one is passionate about publishing (and hence would tolerate the setbacks) it will be difficult to sustain it. Also, printing is different than publishing. You are right that selling books is also very difficult unless one is an established author.

  4. Dear Divya,

    Well written! I remember discussing these issues with you when Gyaana was taking birth! I Have been following all your posts, book launches, talks, columns with avid interest and cannot tell you how proud I feel of you and the incredibly long, lonely and hard road you have travelled and continue to travel with such gusto! Hats off to you, my child, you have the courage of a lion and the perseverance of an ant! God bless you! Lots and lots of love and blessings, Bandana Aunty

  5. Hi Divya....first of all, thanks a ton for all the guidance u provide to first time writers.

    I wanted to know the exact time to send my manuscript for review to the publishers. (Or is sending to literary agencies like jacaranda a better option).....See i have completed till around 48000 words of my novel. the first draft wud be around 60000 words (one more month of slogging, i think) which i'll later edit n bring it upto somewhere around 75000 or a little more.
    So What do u suggest - shud i try my luck from now only or wait a little longer?

  6. Dear Moni,
    It's better to finish your entire script first and then send it to a publisher/agent so that they can respond to it properly at one go.

  7. But Divya....i've heard the publishers(or the agents) take a lot of time reviewing n getting back (that is, if interested) wudn't it be time-saving on my part if i send them now (lets say the first three properly revised n edited chapters) n in the next 5/6 months if they come back (hopefully)...i'll have the entire thing ready by then?...

    Thanks for ur time,

  8. Yes, they take time to review because there are a lot of scripts in queue waiting to be reviewed. :) No, it will not be time-saving because they'd have to do the exercise twice (once with half the script and then the complete script). Since they're reading all the time, nobody will remember your script six months down the line. They'd have to do it all over again, so it'll be a waste of time instead. In any case, I don't think anyone accepts half a script.

  9. Hi Divya....just chanced upon ur blog n loved it.....i have a completed manuscript...but whom shud i send to -- i mean, I have heard that the publishers r a really tough nut to crack.....and i have also heard stories (few though) of how after getting rejected from multiple publishers, a novel gets ultimately published somehow n then ends up getting very gud reviews by those very publishing people.........

    If true, then its a little scary - dont u think?and is sending directly to the publishers better or shud i send to some good agents instead (so chances of getting published r high). Personally, what do u suggest?

  10. Hi Rehan,
    If you're confident you have a good manuscript in hand, you can send it to a publisher directly. In India, publishers still accept unsolicited manuscripts. I gave a list here:

    Alternatively, if you feel your script might need professional assistance, you can tap GWC: You could also tap an agent. In either case your chances of acceptance would become better.

    A novel may be rejected by a publisher on several grounds. Again, if it's published by a good publisher, the publisher would've made sure to bring it to a certain level by his/her inputs. In that case, good reviews are not surprising.

  11. Hi Divya madam,

    You have mentioned in one of your blogs that an average novel varies from 40,000 to 65,000 words. But elsewhere, i have come across that an average debut novel should be around 70,000-80,000 words. Please elucidate.

    Also, i m writing a memoir-based fiction. The story spans for one-and-a-half year of the protaganist's teenage life. And i m done with the first draft at around 55,000. Do u think the complete debut novel at around 70,000 words is a fair catch?

    Many Thanks,

  12. Dear Prakash,

    Usually, anything over 30,000 words can be considered a novel. A novel of about 60,000 words translates into about 200 pages. Of course, we do also have novels with 500 pages or more. It really depends on what your story demands.

    Don't write a novel with a word count in mind. That's the wrong way to go about it, because then you'd be increasing the word count just for the sake of it. That's a bad, BAD idea. One of the most important things in a novel is its tightness -- to use minimum words to say the maximum. That's the art of the novel.

    Publishers don't go by the word count. They go by content and quality -- whether you have a strong story, how different it is, how beautiful your language is, etc. Focus on those.