Bestseller Author Ahmed Faiyaz on Book Publishing Business in India
I began my journey as a writer in 2009 and my first book, Love, Life & all that Jazz… got self – published in January 2010. The book became a raging success and a national bestseller, winning praise from its readers and getting more attention and accolades that I believed was possible. A big reason for the success of the book was due to the support of the retail bookstores back in the days. A close friend managed to share the book with the team at Crossword Bookstores; and after someone read the book and liked it, seeing the potential in such a book, they in turn help me bring a distributor on board (which led to me taking back the rights to the book); and got the book front and centre in leading bookstores across the country.
Sure, we promoted Love, life & all that jazz… very well (my weakest book as a writer if you ask me, and my most successful till date); but clearly none of this would have been possible without the likes of Crossword, Landmark and others ordering the book in big numbers and getting the book to its reading audience. Most of the authors who made their name better 5-10 years ago, received similar support and encouragement in terms of orders and visibility for their books in large format bookstores.
The support that a first time writer had back then, simply does not exist today. Partly, this is driven by the shrinking and decline of the brick and mortar bookstores compared to back then, and the rise of online bookstores, which in fiction account for 50-70% of the sales of the book today. When I started it was less than 10% of the total sales. Most publishers are still coming to grips with the new market dynamics in book retail, and there’s a varying degree of success and maturity regarding business among the publishing houses. Back in 2009/10, if you were a big publisher with an extensive distribution network, you could get the book into bookstores across the country, who had generous monthly budgets to buy and stock books for 6 months, and this got the book a lot of visibility. This was more of a push model, where you printed a sizeable number and got as many copies as possible into bookstores. With this, if you invested a bit to do a book tour and book reading events combined with press interviews and reviews for a book, you could succeed, provided the book was well written, positioned right for its reading audience and priced right.
Those days are long gone, and today publishers and writers have to invest significant sums in the early days to create a pull and generate orders from brick and mortar bookstores and through online stores, as the operating model for these businesses works differently. A failure back in 2009/10 would be a scenario where the book has failed to sell more than 1,500 – 2,000 copies. While today, selling 2,000 copies is a big achievement, and most first time writers who are self – publishing struggle to sell more than 50-100 copies in the paperback format, while even with big publishing houses, its common to have books that don’t sell beyond 500-700 copies with particularly limited uptake for the books from bookstore chains, and when the sales are dismal and returns begin to flow in, the rest of the first print run is ‘pulped’.
This though, is not the bigger problem. The bigger problem is the fact that bigger publishers have become very risk averse and do not support first time writers and new writing in the way they did back in 2009/10 coupled that we have a clutter of books, most of which are terribly written and edited, that find their way into online bookstores and on the shelves of retail bookstores. If you’re a celebrity who has written a new book (with the help of a ghostwriter in most cases), then it’s a different case. But for someone with talent who is young, and is trying to make it big, it has become as difficult as it is in the music or film business, as there is very little support, and it takes a lot of investment, courage and risk by the writer to put themselves out there and achieve what they’ve set out to do.
What has created this problem and why is it so difficult? We have a problem of too many, a new breed of writers, some with talent and most with very little, churning out books without any kind of quality check or control to get published combined with the lack of an eco-system to support writers who are publishing their books for the first time. Let’s explore the landscape of writers who are churning out books and hope to create bestseller. I would like to categorize these writers into five groups or clusters, although some could fall into a mix of two clusters/groups or more.
These are a breed of writers who are completely focused on the craft of writing books are thus storytellers, who for most part, spend much less effort on selling, marketing or promoting their books. They are not necessarily writing in English, and could be writing in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and other regional languages. They are more likely to come from a journalism or media background, but could also be anyone who loves to write, and have spent a number of years honing their talent.
Success comes when their book gets shortlisted for a literary prize or they win a prestigious book award. They engage with reading audiences at literature festivals and book tours, and shy away from most other types of marketing and book promotions. It is usually very difficult of them to get their book published, unless they are known editors or journalists, and more likely they work with publishing houses through literary agents who are strong supporters and believers in their talent.
Not everyone in this group though, is able to engage with the reading audience, and there are more failures than successes, although, success within this group quite often brings international recognition and distribution of their work to mature reading audiences worldwide. Bookstores tend to order and display their works prominently, once positive reviews are out there and the book has won a prize or received positive criticism. With online stores, the orders come from the readers and book lovers with little effort or promotion once the book gets noticed and gets praise and acclaim.
This is a group of writers who begin with the aim of churning out bestselling books. The writing could be good to mediocre, but efforts from the early stage development of the book are structured to drive success and sales for the book, and heavily focus and invest on marketing, publicity and mass distribution of their books. Usually the entire lot of books written are in a single genre and are quite repetitive in theme, setting and context. Most of the writing is in romance or mythology genres as these are perceived to be ‘safe bets’ and some of these writers have written 10-15 books despite being in their late twenties or early thirties, churning out a book or more every year.
The writer invests 5-10x times the publisher’s investment in the book (when it’s a new book, first time writer), and equally as much as the publisher when it is a well-established name. The books are usually priced under Rs 250 in fiction (most books at least), and the launch is usually supported by heavy promotions at retail stores and with publicity though review programs, social media buzz and PR, and are discounted heavily by online bookstores.
The writers here know exactly what they are doing, and decide to curate and write the book targeted for an audience, mostly within the 17-25 years age group, and engage very well with this reading audience to cultivate their brand, and are thus very commercially focused and driven to succeed with their assembly line produced novel. While they make sizeable investments early on, the efforts are to recoup 2-3x of these investments through the 1st book or the books that follow. They look at publishing and writing more as a business, and are relentless and focused just as they would be running a café or setting up a food delivery app that needs to start generating cash flows. They tend to work with the sharks, who are big agencies who promote and drive visibility for their books apart from representing these writers.
Anya Malik from Bestseller, is a character who embodies the same values, and is very focused on driving towards the same objectives. There is little wrong with this group of writers, beyond the writing being flat, and they tend to churn out the same half-baked plots time after time once they’ve made it, as clearly they see an opportunity and go for it. I have to say though that they also have to work very hard for their success, and take a lot of risk with their investment in getting their books out there and making their name. In reality they help publishing houses generate good sales and cash flows that can be used to sustain and support books written by an Artist or an odd Struggler, which come without the publicity muscle or support.
The Shrew gets problematic when they start pushing books into the market with fake reviews and demand five star ratings for their books by reviewers.
This is usually a writer who falls within the above two categories – The Artist and The Shrew. The writing is moderate to very good, and while they set out to write as the Artist does, the writing tends to be very contemporary and their audience is mostly those who read commercial fiction which is churned out by the Shrew. Their writing is usually rushed to the market, and needs to be polished, and they could be artists in the making, with more support or investment in improving their craft. They don’t make it like the Artist does for their writing talent, or they haven’t developed as much as they could as writers, while they also lack the resources and capabilities of the Shrew to invest in marketing, promotions and publicity for their book.
They could be writers published by one of the well reputed and mainstream publishers, but could also be those that have taken the self – publishing route. Quite often they struggle and find themselves frustrated as their book is slotted among several others published by their publishing house, and they don’t receive the push they deserve, while also lacking the editorial, cover design and distribution support when they go down the self – publishing route bringing heartbreak and misery.
These are a large segment of writers who are churning out books today. Their goal is to achieve the same success as their hero and role model, The Shrew, who they admire and want to emulate. They lack the writing talent and the resources to go any far, and beyond a few paid reviews, there’s little engagement or success for their books. They are easily swayed by glamour of the publishing business and are sucked in to spend money with the small fish who show them hope of making it big and living their dreams. The small fish are small time influencer and book marketing programs with questionable resources or following combined with a self – publishing platform, who claim to help these writers navigate the market, and enroll them with monthly programs, often combined with self – publishing deals that really get them no business.
The small fish at times turn into vultures when they know and are clearly aware that the writing is awful, and the book is going to fail, but string them along nonetheless to profit from the mess. The Nuisance quite often ends up fighting with the small fish, and anyone else they encounter in the publishing business. They are brash, aggressive and have a great self – belief and confidence in their work. Very similar to the character, Mihin, from my novel, Bestseller.
The Con Artist
These are bunch of writers who pretend to be artists, but clearly lack the same writing talent or gift for storytelling. They invest significant sums and efforts, working with the same sharks that the Shrew works with, big publicity and marketing machines to push them out there and create a persona of well intentioned, goody two-shoes writer. In reality, they fail to engage the reading audience unlike the Shrew who is much focused on tailoring the book to its audience, promoting the book and engaging with readers, they are focused on self – promotion and vanity.
They are notorious for buy back of their own book in big numbers, muscling their way into bestseller lists by hook or by crook, and lurking around at literature festivals pretending to be writers who believe in the craft. In reality, they are worse than the Nuisance, who is relatively harmless creature, despite their rude and obnoxious behavior, after being duped by the small fish and the vultures they tend to disappear after a failed book.
The Con Artist, however, tend to follow their ‘perceived to be bestseller’ by one book after another, and end up taking the same opportunity with the publisher that the Struggler should have gotten, and end up taking prime shelf space at a bookstore that the Artist or Struggler could get. They have big bucks and a lot of clout with a few mainstream publishers who like their kind and have overheads to recover, and are not averse to using their clout to get what they can. They make an appearance of being kind, charitable and being book lovers, but the reality is that they are slick operators who are in it for their inflated egos. Sudhir, one of the main antagonists in Bestseller is cut from the same cloth, and what is saddening is that this lot is encouraged and emboldened by publishers who are willing to look the other way.
Based on this, I have real concerns over the malaise that has spread though the publishing business where well written, engaging books written by talented writers (could be Artists or Strugglers) have to compete with the same run of the mill formulaic stories or half backed uninteresting books backed by big money and writers who are equipped to manipulate and twist arms to get what they want – from awards, speaking slots at literature festivals and even awards (usually the Con Artist). The mainstream media turns a blind eye to false advertising by these unscrupulous lots.
I’m not against advertising per se, but against someone paying off a newspaper or fudging the bestselling audit system through massive buybacks to masquerade as bestselling writers, just to save face and get more lucrative publishing deals in the bargain. And this has become the biggest risk for the publishing business, if people are gaming the system and there is no credibility and growing frustration among those with both integrity and talent who won’t do this, and don’t have the resources even if they could.
With this growing breed of Con Artists, you can put anything in a book, and get it up there without actually having any reader engagement or buzz. I think there’s a lot of complacency and there are willing participants in this publishing business (mostly a select few in retail trade and agencies dealing with authors) who collaborate with such writers for their own commercial gains. Hope that readers become aware and reject such practices, seeing these people and their work for who they truly are. This is part of the reason why I wrote Bestseller, to entertain readers but also to show who things really work and the manipulative practices that exist in the publishing business of bestselling books.