Truths about getting published in India

If you are a writer aspiring to get your novel published in India, here’s an image for you to mull over. You went to all those literary festivals where renowned Acquisition Editors took the stage and spoke into a microphone with elan and told you that, “Yes, we are always looking for fresh, new writing,” and you went home convinced that they were, in reality, looking for YOU. You went straight to your computer and typed away furiously, for days and with a click you hit ‘Send’ and it’s been six months now and you’ve been hitting the ‘Send-Receive’ button on Microsoft Outlook and you are back to being you — the waiter (er, somebody who waits). Recognisable?

Consolation (if there is any): All authors, including us, have been the waiter before getting published.

So, what’s the deal with publishing in India? Why is it so difficult to get a book deal?

Here are some facts about Indian publishing industry that you need to think about :

The Publisher’s Slush-Pile

That’s 700–2000 unread mails or more — each month! These are the unsolicited query letters or manuscripts (either electronic or physical) sent to a literary agent or a publisher, waiting to be read, waiting for a decision.

Statistics say that 95% to 98% of all manuscripts or query letters in the slush pile gets rejected.

Slush-piles are training grounds for fresh recruits in publishing; they are usually assigned to an intern or a junior resource to sift through. Even if this young 20-something finds your work from the pile and is convinced that you are the next big thing, s/he has to convince the person with decision-making authority — the Commissioning Editor. See, where I am going with this?

Book Rejection Rates

A 90% (or higher) rejection rate is the norm. The most common reason for rejection is the quality of written work.

Another reason for rejection is that sometimes there are too many submissions in similar vein. When Harry Potter and Twilight became a phenomenon more and more writers began writing books about magic schools and vampires and publisher’s slush-piles were flooded with these stories.

Some of these stories, editors admitted, were well-written but the plot was very reminiscent of what was already seen before. Sometimes even published authors face rejection if their first books have not done well.

Submission Guidelines

A lot of rejections occur simply because you have not followed Submission Guidelines of the publisher. Agents and publishers are particular to the point of being finicky about these things.

You have to look at an agent or a publisher’s website and read the Submission Guidelines very, very carefully.

If they ask for 3 Sample Chapters, do not send out the whole manuscript.

If they ask for a one-page synopsis, they mean one-page, A-4 size, normally double-spaced until and otherwise specified.

They don’t like fancy fonts; stick to Arial or Times New Roman.

They absolutely do not want pictures or visual art (unless it is a graphic novel or a children’s book for which the guidelines will be clearly mentioned as well), so please don’t design your own cover and send it off by email.

(It’s okay if you have managed to get yourself a one-to-one meeting with an editor and you hand over your cover.)

Literary Agents

There have been enough debates for and against the literary agent but many publishers have gone on record saying they’d see a submission from a literary agent faster than they’d see something from the slush-pile.

Why? Because, the literary agent has invested (wom)man hours and effort to screen these submissions.

But, here are two truths about the literary agent’s office:

• They have a slush-pile too
• They have high rejection rate of up to 90% or more too

So — what do you do?

Query and Query Letters

A query is an inquiry you send to a literary agent or publisher requesting representation from the agent or a publishing contract from the publisher. In some cases these are just ‘Inquiry’ dialogue boxes which form part of their website. So, be careful what you fill up in there!

When querying an agent or a publisher you have to provide a brief summary of your work (not to be confused with synopsis) as well as provide your author credentials. You should include the genre you are writing in and the length of your manuscript (in word-count until specified otherwise).

Synopsis of your work

We’ve written two posts on what the synopsis is (synopsis for a short-story collection and synopsis for a novel) and what it entails.

To summarize, the synopsis is a summary of your work. What it really is is that it is a marketing tool, an attention-grabber, a chance for your writing to get picked up.

Building a Writer’s CV

Publishers are more inclined to publish somebody who is known to some extent rather than somebody who is completely unknown. A known person, either a celebrity or somebody who has become famous online for their blog or tweets or somebody who has been in the news, is a brand by themselves.

Reprints, Royalties, Advances, Best-Sellers

For a first-time author, the standard market norm is that publishers will print 2000 copies (sometimes lesser) of their book. This is the 1st edition. Depending on demand and the way the book is received, a decision is made about subsequent prints.

A book going into reprint is of course good and publishers use this statistic (number of reprints) to publish subsequent books of published authors.

So, you can imagine what a best-seller looks like. Far from the one-or-two-million-copies-sold status of ‘phoren’ books our desi books are labeled as ‘best-sellers’ when they sell anything between 10,000 copies to 400,000 copies! Of course, this depends on the genre (literary fiction will sell far less than populist fare but that’s another story all together).

Book Royalty is a % of the cover price paid to the author. Sometimes it varies for hard-back books and paper-back books. They vary between 7.5% to 15% although some authors and agents with bargaining power (because of previous record sales or critical acclaim) negotiate upto 20% of the cover price.

If you are represented by a literary agent, they are entitled to a commission that ranges between 10% to 20% of your royalty amount. For instance, if the cover price of a book is INR 100 and you are getting a royalty of INR 10 for every copy sold (@ 10% royalty), you will be paying your agent INR 2 for every copy sold (20% of INR 10) as agent commission.

Advance is the amount paid to authors, adjusted against royalties normally, before book sales and after receipt of a manuscript acceptable by a publisher. Advance amounts vary from as low as INR 10,000 to INR 100,000 for first-time authors. Established authors with that elusive bargaining power are known to get INR 500,000 onwards.

Book Publishing Rights

When your writing gets accepted for publication, the process becomes a buying and selling transaction. The publisher buys out your right of distribution and dissemination but you retain the right of being named as the creator and the author of that work. When the publisher buys out your rights, it is normally for a particular territory, say, India.

So, in India only the publisher has the sole right to print and distribute your book and make money out of sales. If you have sold rights for only a particular region (say India), you then retain the right to negotiate with agents and publishers and sell your work in other territories (say UK, USA etc).

Publishers sometimes buy worldwide rights from you.

Rights also include movie rights, ebook rights, merchandising rights etc. These clauses can be built-in and customized to your benefit, depending on, yes, you guessed it — how much bargaining power you and your agent has.

Writing Quality

Nothing and absolutely nothing can replace the quality of work. Nothing can replace a strong narrative voice and a strong plot. Nothing can replace novelty and a good writing style and an evocative story. Often writers are unable to accept criticism for their work. It is necessary to divorce emotion from your work and solicit and accept objective feedback.

Recently, somebody wrote to us for a critique and we read the work and found both the writing and the storyline extremely mundane. When we told the concerned person that the work lacked in novelty and that it has a seen-it-before feeling, said person completely disappeared from the scene!

From personal experience, I can tell you that I was able to get a book deal only after I subjected the book to total brutality. 6 or 7 independent persons (professional editors as well as academic and peer reviewers) read my work and trashed it. I must have rewritten the novel at least thrice before it was accepted for publication.

You have to be receptive yet immune to criticism, ready to accept your own mistakes and be willing to change it. Sensitivity won’t help your cause!

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