Self-Publishing: Look before you Leap

One of the few questions that your Publishing Consultant is going to ask is “What do you want to achieve as an author?”

If your answer points to writing a bestseller, and you are going for self-publishing, then you should have very deep pockets. I will try to explain why.

First, let us understand what is a bestseller? Well, it depends on the genre. If it is a non-fiction or a book of poetry, sale of 2,000-odd copies would make it a bestseller. However, when it is a fiction and a novel at that, the industry standard is set at 10,000 copies.

Now, let us assume that you have written the next Harry Potter novel i.e. an absolute winner in terms of both literary value and sales potential and yet none of the established publishing house could accommodate you in their busy printing schedule. Some of them use such polite language while many would be blunt enough to tell you that they don’t see enough potential in your proposal. So, what would you do with your prized manuscript with no takers? Here steps in the self-publishing guys. Their model works on acceptance of anything and everything that comes their way. So, once you are on board, you are almost sure to see your book hitting the virtual stands. I am saying ‘almost’ as I have seen people complaining about the self-publishing imprint of a very big publisher playing selective with the content, but under normal circumstances I have not seen anything getting rejected by these organisations.

The lack of any entry barrier, however, can have an adverse effect on the quality of your book leading to its dismal performance. Everyone would probably admit that the mistakes that we make while writing in foreign language such as English can ever be detected by ourselves. You need at least a pair of trained eyes to find these and no matter how good your friends or relatives are with the language under reference, it is better to entrust someone who will have no preconceived notions about your writings with the proofreading. A good proofreading service for a 50,000 word book will cost anything between Rs. 10k and Rs. 30k. We will set aside Rs. 10K for this essential service here.

Proofreading will ensure that your book is free from spelling and grammatical errors which can put off a reader to the extent that he or she may decide not to buy any of your books again. Add to that the negative mouth publicity. You can not remain sensitive to the cost any more.

Proofreading , on the other hand, does not deal with a downright bad narration. If anyone can help you with re-writing and restructuring your text to make it more marketable, it is the copy editors. If you are engaging a professional copy editor, you may dispense with proofreading services but the damage will be in the region of Rs. 35k.

Now that you have taken care of the interiors, the focus turns on having an attractive cover for your book. This is also very critical as a book by a newcomer can only attract the eyeballs of a buyer at a bookstore among literally thousand others if it has an excellent cover. Customised cover designing including an illustrated cover will cost Rs. 18k.

Having illustrations inside the book adds to the cost of interior designing. A basic interior designing which will help enhance the reader experience and not expose the readers to such irritants as poor placement of headers and footers, parts of words overflowing into the next line or chapters overlapping into each other, costs close to Rs. 6k.

As your book now appears to be ready for printing, you would start thinking about the making the available in electronic format also. After all, the readership of e-books is gaining in numbers and you would want to cover all market segments. The cost is a meager Rs. 6k.

Finally, after spending Rs. 65k, your magnum opus is ready for its launch. You happily announce its arrival on a given date to your friends over various social networks. Except for imperceptible data charges, thankfully, there is no other cost involved. There is a HUGE but hanging about here.

Ask yourself whether you are a social influencer. Do you have at least a thousand Facebook friends? How many of them are following you? The chances are only 1/6th of your Facebook friends follow your posts on a regular basis. So, even if you have hit the ceiling of 5k friends in FB, only 800-odd are going to see that update. We assume that you are so popular on FB, that all 800 likes the post. Great beginning, right? I do not intend to go on pricking the balloons but the question is how many of these likes are going to be converted into actual sales? Empirical evidence says, at the very best only about 70% will be willing to buy the book and in reality, with some goading from you that would require you to be shameless, the actual sales figure from your free Facebook post could be at 50% of the likes i.e. 400. Not all of us are crazy enough to have 5000 in our friend list though.

You would say, no problem, I give a damn to FB and i have few thousand twitter and instagram followers. Bad news for you is that only 2-3% of your followers on these platforms are likely to ever pay for your book. Even with 10k-odd followers, which in itself is a utopian assumption, you can not generate sales of more than 300 copies.

Now, these three platforms together conceivably covers 95% of your contacts of any kind. Those who are not present here include the all-important daily service providers. most of whom unfortunately do not read much. Relatives, in this age of nuclear families, can be counted on fingers and at least a few of them would expect that they get a complimentary copy of the book, even if they are going to sell it off along with old newspaper copies. It’s not a very good gesture to look at your relatives as potential buyers and hence you can only hope to barely reach the double digits in this segment.

Now some good news. Out of the 700-odd copies that your book would sell, it is possible that at least 70 would generate positive reviews on social networking platforms and online shopping portals. These just might help you to generate an equal number (70, not 700) of sales.

You are still a good 9,200 copies short of that bestseller tag.

Am I forgetting something? Oh, yes, your workplace. The chances are that you work for a pan-India organisation with a staff strength of four hundred thousand! The question is how many of them do you actually know? With ten-plus years of experience, you might be lucky to know and remember (impossible for a regular human being) and more importantly be remembered by 20k-odd people. Roughly 10% of these may turn out to be genuinely interested in the creative pursuits of their collegaue. Does it mean you will be selling 2000 copies inside your organisation? Not necessarily, but let us give you the benefit of doubt.

Now, you have practically exhausted all the avenues that were open to you for selling your book without incurring any ad spend. The cost of making the book available online has been 65k and you have sold 2.8k copies. As the royalties are high in self-publishing, you would probably just about break-even or even make a profit of 5k odd. But, you have to forget the dream of becoming a bestselling author.

A bigger problem is the assumption that you work for a corporate behemoth with a largely English-speaking employee base such as TCS. Even with a workforce thrice as large as TCS, the distribution and composition of the employees of the Indian Railways might not offer a larger reader base. For employees of organisations with number of employees hovering in the thousands, which happens to be the median, achieving a sale of 1,000 copies (including 770 outsiders) is itself pretty big. So, the probability of you losing money and sleep over a self-published fiction is pretty high- more than 90 per cent.

Does that mean you can not sell self-published work? The answer is no. But, you would require an effective marketing strategy to back a reasonably well produced book. In some rare cases, marketing can do wonders for a poorly written and curated book, but as Lincoln had famously said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Next installment: The Mysterious World of Book Promotion

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