6 things you should know before publishing your first book

There is nothing quite like the debut novel for an author. It feels like the culmination of all your life upto that point, the result of, to paraphrase Curchill, blood, toil, sweat and tears.

But now that your completed manuscript is nestling nicely on a corner of your hard drive, what next? Publication, of course. Get that novel (or short-story collection or non-fiction) out into the world!

So what are some things you need to know before taking that step?

Traditional publishing is slow and challenging

Until fairly recently, most books in the market were put out there by ‘Publishing Houses’.

This model still exists. Consolidation and a slowdown in readership base has reduced the number of large publishers, but the big 5 of the publishing world are still there. These are :

  1. Penguin Random House,
  2. Harper Collins,
  3. Macmillan,
  4. Hachette , and
  5. Simon & Schuster.

In the Indian context, Rupa Publishers can be added as a large publisher as well.

An aspiring author sends his outline and sample chapters to these publishers, either directly or through an agent, and if accepted, the publisher takes on all the costs of editing, cover design, marketing, printing and distribution. In return, the author gets a share of the sale price as royalty.

While this sounds like the best option, it is also known to be very slow and demanding. Unless you are a celebrity, sportsperson, actor or socialite, the odds of getting published by one of the big publishing houses are low. Worse, they are known to take inordinate amounts of time to even respond to a query. A 1-year response time is not unheard-of, and even after acceptance, when your book will actually be taken to publishing and distribution is a matter of another 12 months at least. (Big publishers do not release more than a book or two per month).

So unless you have the patience (and a day job or generous parent to keep you funded), think carefully before you decide you want to wait for a traditional publisher to get back to you.

Self-publishing is not as easy as it sounds

So if you are not going to hang around waiting for that traditional publisher to respond to your query, what are you going to do? Self-publish, of course! This is deceptively easy to do. Amazon even provides easy tools to format and upload your manuscript into their e-book format, as does Apple (if you have an OS X computer).

But hang on – getting your book ready is not as easy as that. You need a book cover – which means paying an artist or doing it yourself. You would want to get it line-edited, which also costs money. And you would want a professional marketer to make your marketing plan and help distribute your book which also – you guessed it – costs money.

You will have to develop a thick skin

In Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister, he states that a politician can be a great many things, but the last thing he should be is thin-skinned. Writers are no different. Criticism will come your way. Even before you release your book, publishers will reject you, editors will scold you, beta-readers will tell you your approach is all wrong – and most of them would be speaking in perfectly good spirit. So develop a hide like a rhinoceros, and listen to all they say. It will only make you better. Your book is going to be judged – and so are you.

Avoid vanity presses

Sooner or later it is going to become known that you have written a book. That is when you may be approached by a publisher offering to publish your book, place it for sale in various websites, perhaps even brick-and-mortar stores, all for a very “reasonable” price. Throw some more money at them and they will even do cover design and editing for you.

These, my friends, are vanity publishers, so called because their job is to do very little other than take your money in exchange for putting up your title on a glossy printed novel. There is no quality control here, editing is very slipshod in most cases, and the cost of your printed novel will invariably ratchet up so much that casual buyers will avoid your book for its cost alone.

Marketing is a reality

Whether you publish traditionally or yourself, you need to prepare for putting yourself out there. Your book is now a product and it is your job to sell it. Even the traditional publishers have expectations from their writers in terms of promotional appearances and use of social media to spread the news about the book. Sending out advance copies to reviewers, spreading the word on Facebook on Twitter, making a promotional video, perhaps – all these need to be done, and the odds are, you are going to have to do it yourself

You (probably) won’t make money out of it

Harsh? Yes, but it is a harsh reality. Very few writers sell enough to make money out of their books. Traditional publishers – the one’s I mentioned in the first point? They pay about 8-10% as a royalty for first-time writers. Consider that in the Indian market a traditionally-published book sells for about Rs. 200/- and you’re looking at Rs 20/- a book. That means even if you sell 1,000 copies over the book’s lifetime (and if you do, trust me, that is a significant achievement in itself), you make only Rs. 20,000. Which is what a chauffer working for a private individual makes in South Mumbai makes in a month. If you sell 5,000 copies (which would make you a national best-seller with mentions in major newspapers) – congratulations, you just made Rs. 100,000/-, which is how much a pimple-faced engineer makes in two months fresh out of college.

Discouraging?

Good, because it was meant to be. Becoming a writer is not for the faint-hearted or the money-minded. Selling books is not what you should be looking at to pay your bills and keeping your life going. You write because you must. You write because it is a calling. If your books sell, it is a dream come true. Do all you can to make that happen. But remember that in if you have chosen to make writing your profession, all-too-often, the work needs must be its own reward.

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