Traditional or Self Publishing – in India, which is better for the first-time author?

(Note: In this blogpost Publishers are male and Authors are female. This is purely for simplicity, not sexism.)

If you want to publish your book in India, you have two options: Self Publishing & Traditional Publishing. To choose the right kind of publisher, first we need to understand these two creatures. Who is a traditional Publisher, and who is a Self Publisher? How does each one work?

Let’s start with some perspective – they’re both businesses, and both have to earn to survive. They both print and sell books but do it in different ways. Neither is good or evil. Both are trying to make money.

A Traditional Publisher makes money from selling books. The more readers this publisher has, the more money he makes. The publisher pays the author – first a signing advance of some sort, and then a royalty on each book sold. Understandably, Traditional Publishers are hyper-selective in choosing the books they publish. They’re putting their own money on it. They only want to publish the books they expect will become winners. Consequently, they reject a lot of manuscripts, and print a tiny percentage. The bulk of their income doesn’t come from first-time authors but from established, big-name authors. “The next Chetan Bhagat will definitely do well. Based on that I can sign-on a few newbies and hope one of them makes it big,” the publisher says to himself. It’s all an imperfect best guess. They can handle some books failing. But if all their books fail they won’t be able to pay salaries, will shut shop and go home. The Traditional Publishers job includes picking great books. They then work to make them better when they get to market. That includes editing, layout, cover design and collecting praise from well-known people. Award-winning books mean more sales so they enter their books for awards as well.

Unlike the Traditional Publisher, the Self Publisher makes money from the author. They charge the author a fee to print their book. They offer authors a range of packages (think Bronze, Silver & Gold) to accommodate different budgets.  Most Self Publishers will happily publish complete gibberish because they lose money if they turn an author away. Their lowest “bronze” package may include the minimum services like high-level editing, book layout and a basic cover design. As you keep going up the ladder, you keep paying more and also getting more services. Self-published authors often hire specialists from outside to edit their work and design great book covers. Since the Self Publisher’s life doesn’t depend upon how much your book sells, they don’t care about your cover design or your book layout the way a traditional publisher does.

We said earlier that Traditional Publishers print a very small fraction of manuscripts submitted to them. Let’s say 5 %. How do they decide which 5%? They use their judgement and understanding of market trends to accept or reject books. For example, right now publishers are most interested in non-fiction / self-help books, but not in short-stories or poetry.  Within each genre, they evaluate each book that comes their way using their understanding of what readers are looking for, and their own gut feel. Thus the 5% are picked. (I’ve picked the number 5 for convenience. That number varies and can be a lot lower.)

So what about the 95% the Traditional Publisher rejects? Given the imperfect, backward-looking selection process, there are many great books in that lot as well. There are many stories of books rejected by Traditional Publishers eventually making it big, like “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” & “Fifty Shades of Grey”.  That is where Self Publishing has value. Today isn’t a one-zero situation where you either get published or your work goes into the bin. That was a generation ago. Today that barrier is gone. Everybody who can afford a Self Publisher can now publish their books.

But then why is Self Publishing looked down upon?  Why do so many people pooh-pooh it? Isn’t it the “open source” movement of the book world? It should be cool. Well, not really. Open source is all about freedom. About love and passion. Writing can be all those things – freedom, love and passion. But Self Publishing is still about money. Also, the Self Publisher doesn’t publish the top 20% or 30% of the rejected 95%. He publishes the entire 95%. That includes a lot of lazy, terrible writing. The Self Publisher doesn’t do much to improve a bad manuscript. Even if the he can tell good writing from bad, he will never turn around and tell a writer to her face that her writing sucks, or needs major rework. He sugar-coats his opinion, prints the book, and laughs all the way to the bank. Ergo, the bad rap.

As we said earlier, the Traditional Publisher makes money from readers. The Self Publisher makes money from writers. It follows that the Traditional Publisher has distribution. Their retail reach is critical for them to sell books. They are in all bookshops – From Crossword stores to the Relay and WH Smith at the airports. The Self Publisher, on the other hand, is done the moment he prints the book. Selling the book is the author’s problem. Also, because the Self Publisher indiscriminately prints anything that comes his way, the retail trade doesn’t expect quality or sales from them. Retailers prefer the curated books coming from Traditional Publishers. The recourse left to the Self Published author is online retailers: Flipkart and Amazon. But selling books successfully and profitably through them is not something all authors are good at.

Hmm, so Self Publishers in India don’t sound like a fit for everyone. Let’s look a closer look at the Traditional Publishers.

Traditional publishers live on a pedestal. They know that many people would walk on fire to get a book deal with them. Some of the newer ones maybe a little more approachable, and most seek new talent. But still getting through the door and getting a deal with a Traditional Publisher can mean getting your ego stepped on and thrown in the mud. It takes a thick skin, lots of persistence, and luck. Traditional Publishers are stodgy slow. They’ll take months to take decisions, and after that they don’t even come back with a polite rejection. “Please allow at least three months, and do not follow-up on your submission. We will get in touch with you should we wish to discuss your proposal further. In the absence of a response in three months, please assume the manuscript is not a fit for us.” is the sort of language common on their websites. The author doesn’t even know if anyone read her work, or why it was rejected. Traditional Publishers are like a black hole into which emails and phone calls go. Even if you happen to sign up a Traditional Publisher, they can be quite erratic – especially with first-time authors. They won’t communicate for months, and then will send you a list of changes which you have to make to your manuscript in two weeks. And those changes effectively mean rewriting your whole blessed book.

By now your two choices of Traditional Publishing Vs Self Publishing in India are starting to look like this.

Image by Susanne Jutzeler, suju-foto from Pixabay
Image by Susanne Jutzeler, suju-foto from Pixabay

Okay, what about money? Which option is more profitable for the author?

Authors make money in two ways: one is from book sales. The other is the ancillary benefits of writing, such as getting speaking gigs, growing your business, film rights, and much more. We’ll only talk about the economics of book sales here.

(Note: We’re also not considering ebooks here. Amazon gives a much higher royalty on Kindle but numbers are still small in India and data is hard to come. Internationally, a Kindle-only model is well-proven, but we haven’t come across any strong case studies in India so far. If you know of any, please share/connect us.)

The math in Traditional Publishing is pretty simple. The author gets a certain % as royalty on each copy sold. The industry norm is 8%.

With Self Publishing, it’s a little more complex. To understand it we spoke to two authors who recently published their books with a leading Self Publishing company. Their deals were very different. The first one bought a basic package for which she paid Rs. 68000 upfront. Her book is 200 pages, 5X8 inches in size, and has an MRP of Rs. 250. The second one bought a premium package from the same Self Publisher for which she paid INR Rs. 165000 upfront. Her book is 300 pages, 6X9 inches in size, is printed on better paper and has an MRP of Rs. 400. Most Self Publishing companies have an “author income calculator” on their website. The online calculator of their publisher churned out some numbers and the Author Earnings look like this:

 Package

No of pages

Book size

Book type

Book MRP Suggested

Book MRP picked

Author Earning- direct sales

Author Earning – Amazon etc.

Self basic@250

200

5X8 inches

Paperback

195

250

85.83

33.33

Self Premium@400

300

6X9 inches

Paperback

315

400

135.95

51.95

Each Self Publishing company’s online calculator varies a little bit from the next (we tried four). Some give bulk prices on bigger print runs. Others fix the price & don’t allow you to change the MRP in the calculator. But the underlying model & economics don’t change. Each calculator delivers roughly similar returns. Some seem to offer a much better margin, but that is because they deliver books to you instead of selling them online themselves. Once you factor in Amazon’s margin & fulfilment costs, it works out to the same.

We took this raw data and created four scenarios. We took the two Self Publishing scenarios above and added two traditionally published books priced the same: 250 and 400. This is what the chart looks like:

(*Data and detailed scenarios at the bottom of this article)

The author who Self Published with the basic package breaks even at about 2000 copies. The premium Self Published author breaks-even at about 3000 copies. Self Publishing earns the author more than Traditional Publishing only after 5000 copies of the book have been sold. But there is one big thing we haven’t factored in – the cost of selling. This chart assumes the self-published books sell on their own. There is no expense factored in for book promotion. Without that, the book stops selling once friends and family are done. Based on the workings above, your budget to sell each book on Amazon is only INR 33 (basic) and  INR 52 (premium). Anyone who has tried will tell you that it is almost impossible to sell a book in that much money. But even the Traditional Publisher – while offering good distribution – does little by way of marketing. The author still needs to push the book as much as she can.

When it comes to money, many of us want transparent, real-time information. For control and transparency, self Publishers are much stronger. They offer a clear picture. The author knows how many books were printed, how many sold, through what channels, etc. She gets an author dashboard where she can track progress. The Traditional Publisher, on the other hand, is a black box. The author has no real-time information on how many copies have sold, through what channels, and for how much. You have no way to audit or verify what’s going on. Many publishers – even big-name ones  – are also suspected of cheating on authors. I’ve heard of authors getting no money or information after the book is launched. This is despite them getting complimentary emails from complete strangers. In my case, Penguin still deposits some loose change in my account 5 years after “The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail” was published. Maybe respected international publishers are better in this respect.

Despite the transparency bit, the numbers make a pretty strong case for Traditional Publishing. The catch is signing one up. But if you can snag a deal, the traditionally published author cannot lose money.

Okay, so we understand our options and also the math. Neither looks easy, but since there isn’t another option, what does it take to work well with either?

First, whichever path you choose, start with a good book. A book is a product which can be very hard to advertise & sell, and yet if the word-of-mouth catches, it will sell itself. And that kind of word-of-mouth only comes from awesome writing.

To work effectively with a Self Publishing company, you need to be a smart business-person, designer, and marketer. Basically, you have to ensure quality in all the areas that traditional publishers are good at.

Design is important and the author needs to be savvy about the “packaging” of her book. The title, cover design, layout, etc., are all her responsibility. While Self Publishing companies offer this stuff, they publish hundreds of books every year from similar templates. The author needs to ensure that the books has the elements required to cut through the clutter and succeed.

 The author also needs serious Internet Marketing chops. Self published books have little or no physical distribution. And Self Publishing companies are pretty dismal at selling. That means the author has to sell. Maybe she has a cheaper way to sell the book. For example, if she has a strong blog or social media following.  Or if she is well-known and followed in a niche where she’s an expert. Then she can sell a larger number of books without spending much. In such cases, Self Publishing can work well. Actually, if your niche strength or you following is strong, it can also help you get a Traditional Publishing deal.

A few writers don’t care about how many copies their book sells. They just want a book with their name on it. Some will get the “amazon bestseller” tag which is becoming increasingly meaningless, as you can read here. If a billion tons of gold was found, would gold be as precious? Or would we be using it to make farm tools?  It’s the same story with the amazon bestseller tag.

But I digress. This kind of author doesn’t care about sales or readers. Just being published is enough because she has a secondary way of making money from the book, like speaking or training. The book is her business card. She doesn’t expect people to read it. She may not even want people to read it. She simply wants the “published / bestselling author” tag. Again, Self Publishing fits right for such an author.

Now, what if you don’t have these skills of design and internet marketing? Or, you do, but want to write instead of doing all that? Maybe you want the distribution or recognition that comes with Traditional Publishing. Signing on a Traditional Publisher puts a different set of demands on a first-time author.

1.  Confidence. Start with deciding how much do you believe in your book. In simple English that translates to “How much are you willing to suffer for it?”. If your answer is “A lot”, then dig your heels in for a the long struggle. If you aren’t ready for the school of hard knocks, maybe you should self-publish.

2.  Persistence. Remember we talked about how only 5% of books get selected? Well, how do you figure amongst those 5%? Every new door you knock on improves the probability of your book getting published. Persistence means getting twenty-nine door slammed in your face and knocking on the thirtieth. Literary agents are also a path to a Traditional Publishing deal, but a good agent is equally hard to sign-on.

3. Time. Lots of it. It takes time to get such a publisher on board – especially as a first-time author. People go through years before signing anyone up. And even after signing you on, a traditional publishes works to his own schedule, not yours.  So if you’re in a rush – self-publish.

4. Grace. Publishers can question a lot of your work. They may ask you to change things around. They may tell you to rewrite – or even delete – entire sections from your book. You may agree. You maynot. You may decide to walk away. But with the Traditional publisher, you control a lot less. There are stories of how editors took a not-so-great book and made it a masterpiece. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one famous example. And there are stories of books which authors refused to alter, had their way, and these books turned out wonderful. What decision you take is your call. But expect demands to be put on you, and handle it all with grace.

We’ve talked about everything except for one minor detail. Fame.

If you think your book is award-winning stuff, then you have to go traditional. Most award won’t accept entries which are self-published. The Man booker prize website says “self-published novels are not eligible” in its FAQs (https://thebookerprizes.com/faq ). But a lot of good literature is finding its way into Self Publishing. So two things are happening. First, the Self Publishing world is coming up with its own awards, like these. Unfortunately, these are all from abroad – we hope India will have something comparable soon. Second, some traditional awards are changing and may accept self-published books with time.

Whichever path you choose, the quality of the book matters. It has to be the best book you can write. If your book is not a great read, all the marketing and packaging in the world is just putting lipstick on a pig. You can argue that Pigs are beautiful. We can discuss that offline.

(This article is based on collected wisdom. I have published with Penguin, and my co-founder, Dr. Vandita Dubey, with Rupa. We run the Himalayan Writing Retreat, where we host workshops and retreats for writers. Many of our participants have published with both Traditional and Self Publishers, and their experience has enriched this piece.)

*Data used in Scenarios:

We have created 4 scenarios. Two of them are based on the case studies of two authors we know who published with India’s top Self Publishers. This Self Publisher has different pricing for books they sell on their own platform, and books that sell through other channels. We have assumed 100 books sell on their platform, and the rest through other channels. The data (on which the chart above is based)looks like this.

Copies sold

0

100

500

1000

1500

2000

2500

3000

3500

4000

4500

5000

5500

6000

6500

7000

7500

Traditional 250

0

2000

10000

20000

30000

40000

50000

60000

70000

80000

90000

100000

110000

120000

130000

140000

150000

Traditional 400

0

3200

16000

32000

48000

64000

80000

96000

112000

128000

144000

160000

176000

192000

208000

224000

240000

Self-Basic 250

-68000

-59417

-46085

-29420

-12755

3910

20575

37240

53905

70570

87235

103900

120565

137230

153895

170560

187225

Self-Premium 400

-165000

-151405

-130625

-104650

-78675

-52700

-26725

-750

25225

51200

77175

103150

129125

155100

181075

207050

233025

[ratings]

17 Responses

  1. Liked the idea of making the book right rather than marketing it. The pig roast nailed it. So, Traditional Publishing it is! And, Persistence will be the key. It will be tough, agreed. But it will be worth it.

  2. Very good read and logical deductions. To add a comparison with Amazon-type free self-publishing (based on %age sharing and zero upfront costs) would be desirable.

  3. Hi Chetan,
    My feedback on your article…

    Your arguments on costs of traditional vs self publishing are logical. I liked how it was summarised on the chart, clarifying it instantly. Good going.

    However, self publishing is coming up in the world after years of being dismissed by the publishing world as an option no worthy author should touch with a barge pole.
    [Dismissing self publication was also a way for traditional publishers to safeguard their insular little world and continue to be picky gate-keepers, the initial books self-published were quite amateurish and did deserve to sink in the market, Amazon had not yet become the behemoth it is now and brick-and-mortar bookstores were still thriving.]

    Hence I don’t agree with your allusion to self publishing still being looked down upon, so many years after self publishing started. Jane Friedman is a huge name in publishing and this is what appeared on her site. https://www.janefriedman.com/walk-away-good-big-5-publishers/ There are several other articles on the web on the self-publishing industry and the slowly changing perceptions.
    I agree that sometimes self published titles lack the polish in cover design and good printing standards which is sad, but like you mentioned some of the hugest recent titles have been
    self-published.

    The tide has turned and the line of demarcation between trad and self publishing is not as clearcut as it used to be.
    Hence my polite disagreement with your position on this.

    1. Savita, thanks for taking the time and effort to read through the post in such detail. Your point is valid and well taken. However, the self-publishing that is mentioned in the article you shared is a little different from what I have covered in this article.

      In that article Mr. Harry Bingham is advocating a Kindle only model. That model works great in countries with a high penetration of e-reader devices. Therefore Harry Bingham makes money by selling an ebook in the US and bypassing a publisher. E-reader penetration in the US is 52% (source https://www.statista.com/topics/1488/e-reader/ ). Even in the UK his strategy of ebook only is likely to fail as the e-reader penetration there is only 18.9%, although it has a healthy ARPU (Average revenue per user) of USD 65. In India e-reader penetration is a measly 5.7%. also the average revenue per user is also just USD 1.76. (source: https://www.statista.com/outlook/213/119/ebooks/india )

      What this means is that people in India are not reading or buying much on Kindle or other e-readers. Amazon & Flipkart are important in India, but as distributors of printed books. That is why I have not included an “only ebooks” model in my analysis. That is also why I included “in India” in title of this article.

      Besides, I do not have a negative position on self-publishing companies. The article highlights the problems with Traditional Publishers as well. The goal of this article is to help the reader understand the pros and cons of these options in India. The facts shared here are confirmed by many authors on both sides of the fence.

      I hope this explanation helps.

  4. Thanks, Chetan for an informative and easy to read article, simplifying the complex world of publishing for aspiring writers. Loved the humour in it!

  5. First and foremost self-publishing is when an author publishes their work themselves, in their name. What is marketed in India as self-publishing is actually Vanity Publishing. When you self-publish, the author owns the copyright as well as the ISBN. It means the ISBN is in the author’s name. Not in the ‘self-publisher’s’ name. When I self-published my novel I applied for the USBN, for free, from Raja Ram Mohan Roy National Agency for ISBN. This is a Government of India enterprise. I self-published on Amazon Kindle for the ebook (free) and I tied up with a Print-on-demand platform for the paperback (for a fee). The cover design for the book, and my website, I outsourced it to a professional. Everything was in my control including the budget, which is critical for a first time, self-published author. I was also able to invest in a book trailer. I had everything done in less than the ‘Bronze’ package budget of any ‘self-publishing’ company/publisher. I marketed the book myself, since that’s what any author has to do whether self-published or otherwise. You may look at my novel, The Sword with the Ruby Hilt, on Amazon.
    I have shared this so first time authors know what they’re signing up for when they work with ‘self-publishing’ packages in India.

    1. Thanks for the detailed comment, Mrudula. Yes Vanity publishing is often called self-publishing in India, and its probably a misnomer.

  6. Hi Chetan, astute and logical as always. Great article.

    Would agree with you to most extent as for the Indian market, all of this holds very true. While the population of e-readers in India is a measly 5.7% yes, but the medium of reading is also fast changing to short easy reads, on a mobile screen during a ride to the office or sitting on the pot at night. The average reading span has gone down ( hope somebody does a research on this trend in India!) And so a nice shiny book (paperback, or God forbid Hardcover) doesn’t make the cut.

    However, I am in for the long haul. Digging my heels in and steeling myself for all those 29 doors that will slam on my face, because hey hope makes the world go round. Finished 2 manuscripts working on my 4th one. Hoping for good news. ( And yes I do want to come for one of the amazing sessions of yours soon!)

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