This is a great overview by Sriram Subramanian. Reposted with permission.
This is in response to a post last night, where someone was ranting about the environment abroad for full-time writers being much better than in India. I don’t agree – it is about as tough everywhere, but I think I can help aspiring writers by pointing out certain similarities and differences.
I started writing in June 2011 (almost exactly 5 years ago). Completed the first draft in about 4 months, then spent another 2-3 months editing. I wanted to get my novel published abroad (London / NY) for certain reasons. So along with the editing, I started reading up about agents, publishers, query letters, how it works etc.
Jan 2012 – submitted to 100 plus agents. By March, I had about 60 form rejections (which are the boilerplate 1 line), about 3-4 wrote a bit more saying they kind of liked it, but not enough to request a sample, and another 3-4 asked for a partial (first 3 Chaps). Never heard from them again. The rest were ‘no responses’.
Hmm…sanity check. Clearly, while I thought I could write well, it wasn’t good enough. So I started reading books, learnt about plotting, character building, Pov, voice etc. etc. I also got in touch with a friend who’s a professional book critic / reviewer in the US, who’s published work in Us literary magazines. For a small fee, she went through my entire MS and pointed out things I needed to work on. Devilishly detailed, reflecting actual experience, stuff you can’t look up online…
I also joined a couple of really active forums / communities in the US (like this one) but way more organized…picked up lots of tips out there.
Armed with this new toolkit, I sat and revised the MS in June 2012. Turned it upside down. Changed the plot, the storyline, add / modified / deleted characters and scenes. This took another 3-4 months, then 2 more months for editing.
I was ready to submit again in Sep 2012. 150 agents this time. The hit rate was better – fewer no responses, 10 plus requests for partials, of which 3 agents (2 in NY, 1 in London) asked for Full MSs. Those of you who know how few full MSs top agents request as a %, will realize this was like ‘almost there.’ Any 1 out of 3 took it, and I was home.
In Dec 2012, all 3 agents got back, saying ‘we really, really loved your work, you write well, etc. etc. BUT…’ The ‘But’ was basically – a) tough publishing environment, publishers / editors don’t want to take ANY risk, b) you’re a debut novelist, c) you don’t have a pre-established celebrity platform, d) you’re based in India, so have no direct connect with readers here and e) you’re writing on themes /topics that are highly relevant to an Indian audience, not so much to people here (though I did argue that the themes were universal). If 1 or 2 of these 5 conditions were not in place, we’d sign you up immediately.
Ok. Now what?
I figured in all this, there was only one thing I could control, and that was the quality of my writing. Basically write a novel that would knock their socks off and make all these factors non-issues. Make an agent feel what David Godwin felt when he chanced on Arundhati Roy’s MS, read it and booked a flight to Delhi the same evening – he called it ‘a shot of heroin up the arm.’
So I archived Novel 1 and started Novel 2 in Jan 2013.
This time I had a problem. With the first one, there was an easy confidence in my writing. Now I was second guessing everything I was doing, looking over my shoulder to imagine how an agent would react. I was torn between what I wanted to do and what I believed others would want me to do. I was unclear about my plot, my characters, my storyline – the chaps kept doing stuff on the page that I didn’t expect.
Wrote for 3-4 months, gave up in disgust. Didn’t write at all for 3-4 months, said ‘screw it, it’s not going to happen anyway, why am I killing myself.’ Then got a burst of inspiration, attacked it again, turned it upside down and got much further…then stopped again. No inspiration. Then left it for a while, then picked it up in summer 2014, and in another 3-month burst finished the draft MS. By Dec 2014, I was ready to submit. This one had taken 2 years start to finish.
Jan 2015 – 150 agents. March 2015 – full MS requested and rejected by another 2 agents (One London, One NY).
But I was convinced about one thing. This second novel, the one that I had spilt blood over, was bloody good. I was dead sure about it. It’s my favourite, still.
In April 2015, I had the idea for a third novel, and this one didn’t even have a genre. In fact, if it ever sees the light of day, it will create a new genre. In a flash, I had the start, the middle and the end of the novel clear in my mind, the rest was easy. 3 months start to finish plus 1 month editing. Aug 2015, submitted again (this time to about a 100 agents…
Got a lot of ‘wow, this looks really out-of-the-box, and beautifully written’ but they weren’t going to create a genre for me, were they?
Along with the 3rd novel, I also then started looking at publishing in India (finally)….but that’s a story for another day.
So 5 years, 3 full novels, 400 rejections across India, UK and US – those are my credentials.
Coming to what’s similar and what’s different, just a few points for your consideration:
1. First big difference: Publishers in India accept unsolicited, un-agented MSs; in UK and the US, they won’t even give you the time of day if you don’t come through an agent (this is true for 99%; there are 1% who do accept, good luck finding them)
2. This means the Literary Agents are the gatekeepers, the filters. It also means if you get a (reputed) Agent abroad, you are more than 95% likely to get a deal with a publisher within quick time.
3. The process of querying an Agent is different in the US and UK. In the UK, standard requirement is Query Letter (QL) plus short bio plus sample chapters (1st 3 Chapters, or 1st 50 pages typically, but they vary agent to agent). In the US, most agents want only a 1 pg QL. No attachments, no details. Your QL also has to be much more of a blurb-type pitch in the US. So basically, after you’ve spent a year on an MS, you’ve got exactly 100 words to convince an agent not to trash your mail. If the US agent likes your QL, he / she will request a partial, then after a longish gap, a full MS. If the UK agent likes your QL plus sample chapters, you get asked for a full. You at least have some hope with UK, given you’re sending a sample rightaway.
4. Agents get INUNDATED with QLs from unpublished writers. A top agent gets more than a hundred QLs a day. The task of screening through the ‘slush pile’ is often delegated to unpaid interns, who are given clear algorithmic instructions. Debut novelist – Reject. India – reject. First line contains a grammatical error – Reject. Can’t get a sense of story within 2 lines – Reject. Author makes tall claims about his abilities – Reject. Can’t pronounce Author or Title Name – Reject. Author does not follow submission guidelines to a T (eg. you sent a doc file instead of a pdf) – Reject. Author doesn’t understand Querying Etiquette – eg. Your title is written in quotes or in Caps and not in italics as it should be – Reject. No kidding. I’m not making this up. Some years back, when Borders and Barnes & Noble were still around, they did a survey of Borders customers – apparently 50% of Borders customers either had an MS already, or were going to have one ready within the next 3 months. There are a LOT of aspiring writers out there.
5. All over the world, there are dodgy Agents and Publishers, and the US and UK are no exceptions. The difference is, there are a lot more resources available to newbie writers to help them understand, identify and navigate these traps. Sites like Publisher’s Index, Absolute Write, Writer’s Beware etc. have absolute gurus who write articles, blogs, maintain an index of reputed / shady agents and publishers etc. The literary magazine market is also well developed and in fact that is the path that I would suggest others take, rather than the direct novel route I chose. Publish in small weeklies, newspapers, literary magazines, participate in submission calls and contests, basically build up a list of credentials, before you query your first agent. That 1 page QL – this is one of the things that they look for, and one I never had. It is easier done if you are based abroad, not from India.
6. There are also a lot of courses available to learn Creative Writing, which you can sign up for. Summer camps, writing retreats, events where you can meet a few reputed Agents and pitch to them in person. All of them involve paying out good money and I am not sure they are very useful. No direct experience to go by.
7. There are also Manuscript Doctors available, who will read and edit your MS for a fee and help you make a strong Query etc. Caveat Emptor on this one. Writer’s Beware is loaded with scam examples from this section of the trade.
To sum up, the overall environment is definitely more organized abroad. Easier? I’ll leave you to decide that.
#Publishing #Traditional #SelfPublishing #India #US #UK
Check out Victoria Strauss’s post on Writer Beware on why it is critical that writers read the fine print carefully before they submit their writing to contests or publishers.
This is what Victoria says of the Write India contest run by the Times of India: “I’ve rarely seen such a greedy rights grab in contest guidelines. If anyone had contacted me to ask about this contest, I would have advised them not to enter.”
If you’ve not heard about the Times of India writing contest debacle (or even if you have), you should check out this excellent post by Sharath Komarraju.
This all started when Sid Balachandran wrote an emotional Facebook post on the rights grab by The Times of India (see previous post on this blog).
#TimesofIndia #RightsGrab #SidBalachandran #SharathKomaraaju #WriteIndia #WriteIndiaContest
I’m reproducing blogger Sid Balachandran‘s post with his permission:
Dear TOI Write India team,
I am upset.
Upset, is perhaps a very loose term to use here. I am frustrated, agitated, pissed off and gobsmacked – all at the same time. Do you know how it feels to be sucker-punched in your gut when you least expect it? No, how would you? Not unless someone did it to you.
Do you know why I’m such a bundle of emotions at this moment? Yes, it is because of you. It is because of the so called ‘campaign’ you ran to make India write. And if I’m going by the number of entries that you’ve mentioned – the number is about 30,000. That means, you are currently sitting pretty with over 30,000 almost unique stories based on the prompts that you gave India.
So, yes, you did make a whole lot of India really write. Well Done!
But then, this happened.
The first time I saw this tweet yesterday, I was a bit taken aback. Surely, most publishers wouldn’t both reject your work and keep rights to it, at the same time. At least, I haven’t heard of this happening before. So, I went back to the TOI Write India page and started hunting around for the T&C’s. It took some time for me to find it, but yes, staring back at me were these words – under Other T&C’s, which was well down the bottom half of the page.
So, I think it’s pretty safe to say that most of us (At least the ones in my circle of writers and bloggers) were not aware of the fact that ‘once we submitted our stories, regardless of whether we won or made the short list, we were in effect, signing off the rights of the stories to you.’ Oh, and not just the right to that story alone, but also the rights to modify and commercially exploit it in any way you see fit. Oh, and you don’t need to give us any credit for that either. Or payment. Nope. Nada.
Sounds, fabulous? If you’re TOI, perhaps.
See, here’s the thing. All of us, yes, every single one of us who contributed to the program, did so because we believe in writing. We believe in the stories that we weave. We believe that we had a fair shot. Of course, we were aware that there would only be a limited number of winners. And if I’m honest, most of us are probably not even that upset about not winning. What we’re upset and angry about is the audacity that you have to claim these stories – even rejected ones – as your own. Some of those prompts – they made us relive some really personal moments, and we incorporated them into the stories that we submitted. Some of us, toiled day and night to come up with those stories that made you laugh, cry or kept you on the edge of your seats. We perfectly understand that a lot of us lost to perhaps better deserving winners. That’s the nature of it – we’re okay with that. And yes, we do agree with you wholeheartedly when you say – all of us who wrote for any or all of the prompts – we’re all winners. Yes, we are. Because it got us writing and made us go beyond our comfort zones at times in order to write.
But saying this – “THOSE STORIES ARE NOW OURS. WE KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH THEM” – have you no conscience? Ah yes! Big names and brands – why would you? We’re all little pawns in your quest for world domination, isn’t it?
I have to be honest – I can’t remember seeing the clause anywhere when I submitted my stories. In fact, as a general rule I do go through T&Cs when I submit anything. Of course, I skim through them at times, but I’m counting on my sensibilities to having picked up something as ‘odd and sneaky’ as this so-called clause. It didn’t help much either that the part of the T&Cs that contained this clause was on a separate page and buried deep in the legalese that would put most of us to sleep.
I admit – ignorance or overlooking something is not an excuse. That is, if the clause existed in the first place. Or even if you’d given us an alert message as part of the actual submission process. I’m sure you’re counting on most of us not spotting it. Because, if we did, I can assure you, you’d have had far lesser entries that what you are currently sitting with.
This note will probably never get to you. I’m a nobody. And honestly, I don’t think you’d care anyway.
If I’m frank – there isn’t any dearth of stories or writers. All of us who submitted those stories – we can write equally good or even better ones again. We’re not one-trick ponies. But what we have done, is pour our sweat, days, nights, sleep and everything into those. And yes, it hurts – almost as much as if someone you trusted drove a knife into your back and continued to twist it – when you say that you can do whatever you want with those stories, without having to give us even a mention. To say that we’re not even worth the space of a footnote on a book – that’s a horrible feeling.
To those of you wondering ‘So, it’s a story – what’s the biggie?’.
It isn’t just the matter of a story or hundreds of them. It’s a matter of principle. A matter of trust and faith. A matter of knowing that your work means something. And not get even the slightest credit for that – well, we wouldn’t wish that on even our harshest critics.
As for you, TOI Write India – this won’t stop us from writing or publishing our work in the future. Yes, it might make us read the entire T&Cs properly before giving someone our work.
What you won’t get, are any more of our stories. Ever.
Enjoy YOUR 30000 stories!
A fool who was stupid enough to write for this campaign.
Update: If anyone from the TOI Write India campaign is reading this:
Yes, this is an emotional post. It reeks of anger, of helplessness, of frustration, of having lost faith and much more. Because, that’s how we all feel right now. Oh, and you could possibly claim that that was just ‘legal speak’ and you do intend to credit us. Well, let’s just say, we all have our doubts. Trust, once broken, is very difficult to regain.
Update 2: If you see this thread: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?…*** you’ll all realise that it wasn’t just a case of ‘one person having missed the T&Cs’ but a large majority of them. So, no, it wasn’t very ‘evident’. *30000 is a rough estimate based on a figure revealed on a Twitter chat.
***This is what Sid’s referring to:
PublishingNext 2015 roundup. Part 2
Vanity publishing has arrived at publishing conferences and literary festivals, and this should be of great concern because vanity publishing is less about emulating trade (also called traditional) publishers, and more about convincing gullible authors to pay for services they do not need. Aspiring authors attend these conferences and festivals. The more they hear about these publishers, the more it gets legitimized in their minds.
You, as an author, owe it to yourself to be well informed. There is plenty of good information available on the Internet. Plenty of bad information, too. Learn to tell the difference. If you want to be a published author and have your book available for sale – either submit to trade publishers, or self-publish. If all you want is print copies of your book, go to your local printer. It works out much cheaper, and you also retain rights to your books. Stay away from anyone who wants money to publish you.
I cringe when vanity publishers call themselves ‘self-publishing’ companies. When you take the ‘self’ out of self-publishing, i.e. you – the author – do not upload the book yourself, it is no longer self-publishing. All that remains is vanity publishing.
I was a panelist on the nuts and bolts of self-publishing on Sept 12, 2015 in PublishingNext, Goa. This post is a combination of my take-away from there (a fabulous conference, btw), my comments as a panelist, and also my own impressions.
It getting harder for UK- and US-based vanity publishers to get naïve authors to fall for their ‘publishing packages’ – which can run into tens of thousands of dollars. This is thanks to activism on behalf of authors by platforms like Writers Beware and Preditors & Editors. As a result, vanity publishers have moved operations to Asia and Africa. That includes India, of course.
During my session, a lady from a self-publishing company took exception to my comments, saying it was unfair to malign vanity publishing because it is just another business model.
Here are reasons why I think vanity publishing is more than ‘just another’ business model and is, in fact, author exploitation:
- Unethical behaviourIn this new world of self-publishing and digital selling, many trade publishers are struggling to survive. As a result they are coming up with their own versions of vanity publishing, no matter what they call them – subsidy publishing, self-publishing platform or custom publishing.
This is unethical and exploitative in my opinion because packaged ‘publishing’ offers from these vanity publishers go out under the letterhead of their trade publisher owner, leading authors to believe – erroneously – that if they signup with this vanity publisher, somehow they are being endorsed by the trade publisher.
I know of cases where vanity publishers hound authors who contact them. If the authors don’t sign up, they are threatened via email and phones with messages like: I’ll make sure you’re never published again. The naïve author falls for this and parts with both his/her money as well as rights.
- Lack of transparency.They don’t tell you upfront what services you’re paying for – no breakdown of costs associated with editing, book cover designing, ebook and print book formatting. In addition, they grab all rights with no rights reversion clause.
When I mentioned that point, the self-publishing lady resorted to sarcasm. “Aren’t authors educated?” she demanded. “Can’t they read a simple contract for themselves?”
This is like saying that since I’ve been to college for an engineering degree, I should be able to do a doctor’s job. Because both are education, right?
Authors are not trained IP (intellectual property) lawyers. They do not possess the specialized knowledge required to evaluate a legal publishing contract.
- Charging hefty amounts for what can be done for free.Many vanity publishers will make grandiose claims of providing ‘world wide’ or ‘global’ distribution. Uploading to Amazon alone will make your book available in multiple markets. ebook aggregators like smashwords.com (and the newly launched, India-based instascribe from pothi.com) will also distribute your books to multiple platforms. Then there are iBooks, Nook, Kobo. None of these platforms require any sort of fee. You upload your book for free. These platforms make money only when someone buys your book. No matter where you upload – Amazon, smashwords, Google Play, Kobo, iTunes etc – there is never any expense upfront. The retailers make money only when you do.
- Rights grabThere is another danger to having someone else upload your book. If they create an account in their name and upload your book, they become your publisher. If you upload your book yourself (ebook or printbook), you become your own publisher.
Whoever is the publisher on record gets access to the dashboard. This is the place you upload the book, set the price, track the number of books sold, and also accept payments for books.
Vanity publishers own your ISBN too, so they’re the publisher on record.
They grab all rights they can, even if they have no intention of trying to sell them for you. They rarely have rights reversion clauses.
If you’re lucky, there might a clause saying your rights will revert to you if the book goes out of print. If you do ask back the rights, they’ll point to the ebook available for sale and tell you that your book is still in print. Even if it hasn’t sold a single copy.
- Empty marketing plans10,000 Facebook fan page likes! 10,000 twitter followers! Press reviews to X number of news outlets! Free video trailers!
Facebook fan page likes: there are ‘click farms’ in places like India (unfortunately!) which employ workers whose job is to click on ‘likes’ of their clients for as little as Rs. 2 (approximately 1 cent) a like. With Facebook limiting the number of fans who can view your posts (because they want you to pay to increase your reach), it doesn’t make sense to fill your page with fake likes.
Twitter followers: if your followers don’t care what you have to say, you might as well not have any.
Press release: unless you have a unique angle, news outlets will not care. They get tons of such press releases.
Video trailers for your book: by some estimates a 100 videos are uploaded each hour to YouTube alone. Unless it has the combination of compelling content and exceptional marketing behind it, chances are it will not go viral.
- Falsifying salesI’ve had people come up to me with stories of how they know for sure they’ve sold X number of books to friends and family, yet the vanity publisher claims there were no sales at all. This could be avoided if the author had uploaded the book themselves, thereby gaining access to the dashboard.
- No incentive to marketThe vanity publisher has already made their money by charging you upfront, so there is no reason for them to put in any effort on your behalf. Instead, they encourage you to put in the effort. When you do, they get a cut from those royalties as well (assuming they are reporting accurately).
- No risk for the vanity publisherTrade publishers don’t charge you to publish your book. Because they are taking a risk on you, they take a cut in your royalties. Vanity publishers not only take a cut (or all of it, sometimes, when they don’t report sales), they also charge you a large sums of money. When I asked the self-publishing lady from my panel’s audience what her risk was, she had no answer.
- Sell you your own booksAt the PubNext conference a publisher who is launching yet another vanity publishing company said a little condescendingly that if authors don’t believe enough in their own work to buy copies of their book, why would anyone else?
Imagine a builder constructing an apartment complex, then paying someone huge sums of money to take it off their hands. And, if they want a couple apartments, they have to pay to buy them back. This was the first thing that came to me when when I heard the above.
The author puts in countless hours to create a product. Then, instead of expecting to make money off it, they have pay the vanity publisher for their own book – just to prove they stand behind their work? Stay away from such ‘deals’!
- Packages for editing, formatting and book coversAsk for a break down of costs.
If you have a book of 100,000 words and seek out freelancers, expect to pay Rs. 20,000 – 25,000 for editing, and Rs. 5000 for a book cover, Rs. 1000-3000 for ebook formatting. So a total of under Rs. 35,000 ($527). Leonard Fernandes from Cinnamon Teal (a Print-On-Demand – POD – company) tells me that his costs are even lower.
Services should be paid for with a one-time fee (when the author engages services for hire) or with royalties (trade publishing model) — but never both.
- Indian Writers BewareFor US-based vanity publishers you can Google them or contact a Better Business Bureau to see if they have complaints registered against them. In India we do not have as much awareness or internet-based activism. Another problem is these companies frequently change names. You may not recognize them by name. Learn to distinguish them by their unethical practices.
If you are overwhelmed by it all, check out reputable companies like Cinnamon Teal and pothi.com who offer services for a reasonable fee, with no rights grab.
If you want print copies of your book, and it will be only for local consumption, get it printed locally at a printer. If you want it for sale online on Amazon, flipkart etc. you can check out Cinnamon Teal or pothi.com. You will never be able to price your book for Rs. 99 rupees, like trade publishers do, because their price savings come from bulk printing. But, at least, you know upfront what you are getting into.
And stay away from vanity publishers
I happened to read (for the first time) The Hindu interview I did on August 7, 2015, and was aghast. The writer, obviously, has no clue what self-publishing is all about, despite the long email interview I typed up for her explaining how it all works. Here’s part of her article (obviously her interpretation of the state of publishing):
“We are all familiar with the story of an unpublished writer. He has spent a year or more writing a book, keeping it a secret from almost everyone. Then, he spends another year writing to all the publishers he can find. Soon after, snooty rejection letters start trickling in, and the story ends slowly with the writer getting himself a job.
However, the onset of self-publishing has pierced a severe dent in this clichéd story. Though the “serious” breed of writer will never want the ignominy of having to publish his own work”
Only ‘serious’ work from traditionally published authors? Really?
There are excellent books that traditional publishers have published; that goes without saying. But how do you explain the 50 Shades trilogy, all the ‘campus lit’ books penned by ‘serious’ authors?
I might be wrong, but I don’t recall them being complimented on the quality of their writing (or editing).
Serious Indies (Independent/self published authors) spend serious money on quality editing. To call us ‘non-serious’ is not only elitist, it is derogatory: not the kind of ignorant/disparaging comment I would expect from a newspaper like The Hindu.
I need to put in a note here: I *chose* to self-publish. I declined a traditional publishing contract in order to do that. So this downgrades me from serious to non-serious? Wow! Imagine that!
I have been noticing more and more that these reporters ask for interviews, then cut and paste things out of context. One of the interviews I did with The Times of India talked about self-publishing in the same breath as vanity publishing. This, despite the fact I took the time to explain the difference. That paragraph was just hacked off, probably because it didn’t fit in the word count prescribed for the article.
I don’t want to turn this into a battle between ‘us’ (the Indies) and ‘them’ (the traditionally published). All of us work hard on our books and deserve to be judged by the quality of our writing, and not how we chose to be published.
I’m seriously ticked off. I think it is time ‘serious’ Indies in India talked about this. I’ll be at the Publishing Next conference in Goa, Sept 11-12. If you want to discuss this, please find me at my panel and we’ll connect.
If you’re self-publishing a paperback or hardback, you can apply for a free ISBN. ebooks don’t require ISBNs. I found a post detailing the steps required. Very useful. Note the the address on the form has not been updated (it is a government agency. Use the one the site below provides).
Click here for the site.