Introduction:

Many years after the first e-books appeared, a large number of publishers are still in the dark over the numerous factors that they must consider before investing in digital book (or e-book) development. This paper attempts to shed some light on some of these factors.

Let us start by listing what makes an e-book different from printed books. This exercise is important because it not only points to a change in the way that publishers should think about, and manufacture, e-books, but also because it points to a change in the way in which books are read.

This article is for publishers who wish to make, or confirm, decisions on e-book development and distribution. The goal of the document is to highlight the important factors that determine investments in e-book development.

E-books:

  1. Are read primarily on computer and mobile screens
  2. Are stored on digital devices. This renders them rather intangible. Just as storage of printed books involves investments in space, storage of e-books involves investment in ‘digital space’
  3. Like printed books, e-books too are susceptible to pilferage and spoilage
  4. Once prepared, e-books cost nothing to ‘copy’. This fact has several ramifications:
    1. Consequently, customers feel that e-books should cost lesser than printed books
    2. Illegal copying (and distributing) of e-books is an inexpensive exercise.

From the above points, it is easy to see that digital book development needs an approach different from that used for printed book development.

Devices and Formats:

E-books are ‘read’ on devices. These devices include e-readers, which are used only for reading e-books, or tablets or smartphones, which , while used for other purposes also, facilitate reading of ‘ebooks’ through computer applications, called apps. Examples of e-readers include the Kindle™, the Kobo™, and the Nook™. Examples of apps that facilitate e-book reading are many. In some cases, e-reader manufacturing companies have developed apps, like the Kindle app for smartphones and tablets.

Many devices allow users to purchase e-books using the device itself. This device is then the only device on which these e-books can be read (see the section on DRM for further explanation of this point).

It is important to note that while the content of the e-book may the same, they are developed in different ways, called formats. Many devices (and apps) are structured to allow only certain formats to be read. For example, the Amazon Kindle™ will only read the .azw format, while the Kobo™ will only ‘support’ the .epub format. When publishers have limited resources to invest in digital books, the challenge before them is to decide which format they should invest in.

The major file formats currently in use are:

Format Pros Cons Can be read on:
PDF
  • Can include fonts, videos, audio clips, etc.
  • Can be tagged with file specific information (metadata)
  • Can be read on most devices
  • Has weak security built around it, making it easy to copy and share
  • Not particularly good for small screen reading
  • Not recognized as an e-book format by many vendors.
Almost every device including personal computers, most readers, tablets and smartphones
EPUB
  • Uses technology similar to that used for websites, making them easy to develop
  • New technologies allow inclusion of video and audio clips
These files are “rendered” differently by different readers and apps making their appearance inconsistent across devices Almost all readers and apps except the Amazon Kindle. Some common readers include the Nook and the Kobo.
AZW
  • Amazon’s own (proprietary) format. Hence files developed in this format will render without error on the Amazon Kindle
Other readers do not support this format. The Amazon Kindle and the Kindle app, and on others like the Apple Ipad. The Kindle is used more than any other reader globally.
Note: Files developed in the MOBI format are converted into the AZW format by the Kindle before they are read. Hence these two formats are discussed together.

There are other formats also used, which are not discussed here. Any format, including a text file, that allows a book to be read electronically is an e-book file format. However, every format has its limitations. For example, one cannot use multiple fonts or display images in a text file. Hence it is important to choose a file format with the end goal in mind.

When contacted by vendors, publishers will hear a lot about the XML format for e-books. While not used in itself as an e-book, developing a book in the XML format allows special software to then “reflow” this book into other formats, including a print-ready PDF file. XML (which stands for eXtensible Markup Language) can define, via what are called schemas, how the text and images should be stored for easy retrieval and flow into other formats. For this reason, many publishers prefer to develop e-books in XML format, that can be then re-configured for other purposes.

A casual study of the book market suggests that a large percentage of e-books are developed in the .mobi format. This is primarily because Amazon provides self-publishing services to a large number of customers, and, as part of these services, develops e-books in their own .mobi format alone. However, by choosing to develop in just one format because it is popular, a publisher runs the risk of excluding all other readers who prefer other formats. On the flip side, developing costs increase with every new format that the publisher chooses to develop in.

Often during discussions with vendors, publishers will hear of the “fixed-layout format”. This format is recommended for books where images have to be placed in a specific position relative to the text, as in a children’s picture book, or a cookbook. The “fixed-layout format” is not a separate format by itself, rather a subset of other formats.

Support for Indian Languages:

The absence of “unicode fonts” (rather, “unicode-compliant fonts”, which ensure consistency in the way characters and symbols appear across various devices) for many Indian languages has hindered the development of e-books that are truly cross-platform (i.e. those that can be viewed in the same manner on all devices). Indian language publishers must therefore ensure that the e-books they develop are developed in fonts that can be viewed in the same manner across most, if not all devices.

The absence of Unicode fonts has also prompted some device manufacturers to refuse support for certain Indian languages, like Kannada. This means that, while readers may or may not be able to read Kannada texts on such devices, the Amazon Kindle in this case, the device manufacturers will bear no responsibility for texts that cannot be accurately read.

Metadata:

Metadata is the data that publishers record to catalogue their books and ensure that they can be found by readers searching for them. Meta Data will not only include the title, author and ISBN for the book, but will also include other information, like important keywords within the book, names of important characters in the book, and other such information.

Metadata is usually recorded and shared using MS Excel sheets or in the ONIX format, which records this data at a granular level to meet the needs of buyers, readers, distributors, retailers and other such stakeholders in the book chain.

For more information on metadata, follow this link.

The importance of metadata cannot be emphasized enough and publishers must pay as much attention to it as to the development of digital books.

Digital Asset Management Systems (DAMS):

Digital Asset Management Systems (DAMS) is software you can buy from a vendor or develop yourself that will allow you to manage your digital book collection and provide meta data in the ONIX format. Note that these systems are expensive to develop, so feel free to choose or develop one with enough functionality to meet your needs.

Digital Rights Management (DRM):

Simply put, DRM, allows publishers to control who can read and access their digital books. In other words, it prevents unauthorized viewing, or piracy.

DRM costs money to implement and adds to the cost of the book, and while many publishers have invested the money and implemented DRM to protect their books, many others have taken a different approach and made their books DRM-free.

The way DRM is implemented varies widely. There is “social DRM”, where unauthorized viewing is not prevented, rather the origins of the file are recorded. This is done by registering the buyer, for example, through the use of a watermark, or some similar tracking mechanism. In case of illegal sharing, this information is then used to track the origin of the file.

As opposed to social DRM, “Hard DRM” prevents the viewing of an e-book altogether, if the copy in question is deemed illegal. This has prompted a backlash from genuine buyers, when they, for instance, would like to share a book they have purchased legally with family or friends, or would like to view the book on a device different from the one used to purchase the book. The jury is out on the use of DRM and publishers should consider all issues before implementing DRM for their digital books.

Royalties and Contracts:

Author contracts these days specifically mention the royalty rates for e-book sales. While the actual royalty rate is left to the publishers and the author to discuss and decide, the general agreement is that authors should receive at least half of the net proceeds from sale of e-books.

Many contracts also state the retail price for the e-book, or its price in relation to the printed book. Publishers must consult the websites where they intend to retail their books, for guidelines on how these e-books will be priced (as these prices often depend on the price of the printed versions).

While deciding to develop e-books, the publisher has to decide whether to develop going forward, or whether backlists will be converted into e-books also. The contracts have to be revisited in the latter case, to ensure that there is no ambiguity and that the authors have agreed to such conversion. The publisher also needs to take a pragmatic view on which books from among the backlist are converted to digital books. Conversion is an expensive process, so the publisher may decide to a) convert only selected books, or b)convert all books into e-books in the PDF format, which is a relatively cheaper format to convert to.

Make or Buy:

The main goal of this paper is to educate publishers in the process of digital book development so that they can decide whether to develop these books in house or outsource them to 3rd party developers. In the case of the latter, the publisher must specify the formats in which the books must be developed, and ensure that metadata is properly recorded for each book. Developing the books in house implies creating an IT team, if one does not already exist, or developing the competencies required for digital book development in an existing IT team.

Whether you choose to develop your books in house or have development outsourced, it is important for publishers to know exactly what they want, communicate their needs, and ensure that the books are delivered according to specifications.

While publishers will track sales based on already established practices, it might be a good idea to track the sales of each format of a title, and thus establish if a particular format is profitable or not.

At the beginning of every decision-making process, find and discuss the international standards that must be adhered to. These could relate to metadata standards, file formats, XML schemas, catalogue distribution formats, prices, DRM decisions, and so forth. If publishers do not follow generally accepted standards, they run the risk of locking themselves out of future opportunities to integrate with new sales channels.

Publishers are advised to consider developing their e-books in the epub and/or azw(or mobi) formats if they wish to take advantage of complex e-book retail systems, and in fact invest in e-book development. Paying vendors money to develop PDF versions of your printed list is both a waste of time and fetches little returns.

ISBNs:

Ideally, a different ISBN must be assigned for each e-book format i.e. the ISBN for the PDF version must be different from that for the epub version of the same title. It has been observed that a few publishers assign the same ISBN to different e-book formats of the same title. This practice defeats the objectives of an unique ISBN number.

Workflow:
The print and e-book workflow is basically the same as explained in the diagram below.

The PDF mentioned in the above diagram refers to the print-ready PDF and not to the PDF digital book format.

Distribution:

A quick search on the Internet for “e-book aggregators” or “e-book sales platforms” will provide you a list with companies that allow you to sell your e-books on their platforms. Many publishers have also developed their own websites, that facilitate the sale of their e-books.

Some of these aggregators offer to convert publishers’ lists into e-books and sell them on their own, proprietary, platforms. Often these are exclusive arrangements i.e. while they will bear the cost of conversion, the e-book will be available for purchase on their platform alone. Often, the publishers are not given copies of the e-book file in such a case. Selling on another platform is either prohibited or involves incurring the cost of development.

Some of the well known e-book aggregators / online retailers are:

We also allow the sale of different e-book formats on our own online platform: http://www.dogearsetc.com

Global Trend

A quick Google search indicates that there is a stagnation in e-book sales globally. Nonetheless, many publishers are investing in e-book development, at least for a few titles. The decision to invest in e-books is purely a business consideration, and must take into account the genre of books, the readership for a particular title and the price at which the e-books are sold. A cookie-cutter approach will not work in the case of e-book development.

In Conclusion:

In this article we have attempted to enumerate for publishers the various factors that impact e-book development. We hope this article will be of use to them while they consider investing in developing digital content for their establishments.

 

The dangers of losing out to e-book piracy is a real one. It can mean hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars in lost sales and little to show for the author’s efforts. In situations where the authors themselves have seen rampant piracy affect their books, a debate on whether or not DRM should be employed is in itself a futile exercise. Employing social DRM or the complete absence of DRM makes little sense in such a context.

At CinnamonTeal we have advocated the absence of DRM and have partnered with channels like Smashwords that think likewise. Our belief is that DRM is a costly investment that will, in any case, be tampered with and rendered ineffective. If a hacker wishes to get a book pirated, he/she will find a way to do and the presence of DRM will be but a mere irritant. In the case of people who have genuinely bought an e-book and wish to read it on multiple devices, the presence of DRM might actually dissuade sales.

Therefore the space between a rock and a hard place is a very real one for exponents of digital books. On the one hand, digital book sales are expected to grow manifold judging by the sales of e-book readers last Christmas. e-Books also present new authors with a very real chance of reaching out to new readers at a fraction of the cost it might take in the case of printed books. However, the threat of piracy negating all such expectations is equally real and must be dealt with.

An author once told me how she thought that her friends would each buy a copy of her new book only to discover that they had bought just one copy and passed it on among themselves. One man’s sharing is another man’s piracy (which is how ebook publishers would describe it). Effective DRM means that a father reading on a iPad cannot share a book with his daughter reading on a Nook. Expecting users to agree to such controls is maybe expecting too much. There has to be some middle ground found.

This debate over e-book piracy has certainly questioned some age-old assumptions we have had. While it seemed okay to borrow printed versions of the book at the library until they were tattered and torn and forced the purchase of another copy, publishers have questioned the logic of extending this practice to e-books (whose condition does not deteriorate over time). HarperCollins recently announced that libraries could lend an e-book only 26 times before they had to purchase it again. How the publisher arrived at that number is anyone’s guess.

Borrowing and sharing aside, piracy has always been a thorn in the publisher’s side. Music industry veterans will remember an eerily similar situation that occurred when digital music, originally seen as an additional sales channel, proved to be a menace that allowed easy piracy.

There are no easy answers. As e-books proliferate, sometimes at the expense of printed versions of the book, publishers will try and err in their quest to find what works best for them. One only hopes that publishers take decisions that are in everyone’s interest, those of the publisher, the author and the reader.

In a rather interesting blog, Jürgen Snoeren, Manager Operations and Digital with Amsterdam-based publisher MeulenhoffBoekerij, exhorts small publishers to establish relationships with their customers rather than with retailers. Obvious as it may seem, it is a step not too many publishers think about. In this blog, Snoeren asks publishers to focus on developing a digital infrastructure so that they can publish quickly and in all formats and to exploit every sales channel available to them.

There are two aspects to this, though both may not be altogether mutually exclusive. One is to develop a digital infrastructure, the other to engage directly with the customer. Indian publishers would especially do well to heed the latter. Most retail chains follow volumes and ignore niche markets. The books they stock also follow bestseller lists, which is in itself a self-feeding phenomenon. It becomes important, therefore, for publishers, especially those who publish non-fiction and forms of fiction that haven’t quite found their feet in India, like horror, to engage directly with its audience. There seem to be several ways to do it:

a. Experiment with retail: Be in places that your readership frequents. New Horizon Media has tried this approach and seems to have enjoyed success. Book stores are currently, for the most part, cluttered with many other products vying for the customer’s attention or too crowded to facilitate leisured browsing and purchasing. fivex5 is one such experiment that we intend to pursue in 2012.

b. Develop a good website: In these days where the natural inclination is to “go and google” for every sound we hear, having a website has become a non-negotiable imperative for every publisher. Publishers should consider it as an investment rather as an expense and be involved in its development rather than allowing website developers a carte blanche in its design an execution. Publishers must decide what they intend to achieve with the website: whether they intend to make their audience aware of its list or if they intend to extend the purpose of the website and also offer sales. They should also be aware that customers are an impatient lot so it is important to get the information to them in as few clicks as possible. Understanding and developing metadata is also important as it allows information to be accessible when the customer uses a search engine to find a book.

c. Work with schools: Unfortunately, perhaps because of the logistics involved, schools and children haven’t figured much in publishers’ plans to market their books. PTAs provide a conduit to reach out to parents for books that are not suitable to market to children. Books pitched to children might result in larger sales when done in schools as children might buy what their friends are buying. Besides, such activities will help achieve the longer term goal of attracting children to the joys of reading.

These are the obvious steps a publisher could take. I am sure the marketing whiz kids at the publishing behemoths have better ideas. It’s the independents who, short of resources, need to be creative about their marketing. And, for the most part, they have managed to do a good job there.

The call to develop a digital strategy must, however, be carefully examined. With all the buzz about e-books and the prophesies that publishers who don’t invest in them might soon sink, many such publishers feel compelled to develop a strategy for e-books. A hasty approach might be equally disastrous and publishers should therefore examine their markets before investing. E-books, by virtue of being easily accessible, do allow access to widespread markets but the readers in those markets have to be an advanced stage that allows them to properly “consume” these books. If they primarily prefer the print version, an investment in digital content development might be unnecessary. So also if e-books form a minuscule portion of the market and can be developed by outsourcing rather than developing in-house. Publishers should behave like business houses with a well-defined business plan that includes a comprehensive marketing strategy while deciding whether or not to develop digital content. In many parts of India, literacy itself is an issue that can best be tackled by the tactile experience of an e-book and publishers might do well to understand and address that need. While e-book channels do offer direct access to the reader, through fewer intermediaries than those for printed books do, the very nature of the end product does not, in our opinion, serve the larger purpose of inculcating and sustaining the reading habit among those for whom the book is a scarce resource.

In a world where attention spans seem to be on the wane, the wisdom of publishing thick volumes has often been questioned. Do people have the time to devote to these large tomes? Do these books, that typically run into 500 pages or more, fit in with the average reader’s daily schedule. With the Kindle and the iPad around and with people perpetually on the move, is it wise to ask someone to lug these books around? Is the era of fat books over?

Photo Credit : National Media Museum - Kodak Gallery Collection

The jury might still be out on that one. In the meantime, some innovative entrepreneurs have tried to address the demands of those more comfortable in a world where 140 characters are the norm. This is a space that Daily Lit quite made its own before others appeared on the scene. No novel was too big after Daily Lit made itsits presence felt. Everything could be digested – in amounts one was comfortable with. Daily Lit made it easy to access these “bits” too as they were delivered directly to one’s inbox.

Another such venture is Penguin Shorts. As claimed on their website, these books are “designed to fill a gap”. Perhaps of having something to read, on a device that is portable, during time that is too large to while away yet too small or inconvenient to engage in serious work. Like while waiting for a flight at an airport, perhaps. These books are available exclusively in digital form, which allows readers to download these books on their devices and read them that instant. An impulse purchase, if you will.

An earlier exponent of this idea was, of course, Amazon with Kindle Singles (seems like there is little creativity when it comes to naming these imprints!). It was positioned as a form that was “much shorter than a novel, but longer than a magazine article”. It attempted to appeal to those with little patience for the long form and that in turn spawned counter efforts such as longform.org and The Atavist.

In between them are services like Instapaper and Read It Later. These services allow you to mark content for future reading. Although this service is primarily available for mobile devices, hence subscribing to the idea that readers want their information to travel with them, it stems from the belief that readers prefer details.

In the end, one would take a risk making too general a statement. Books will still be bought based on one’s choice of reading matter and even by the service accorded to the reader at the bookstore. In this aspect, perhaps, online stores, especially those selling e-books, hold an edge. On such platforms it becomes easier to pitch the story to the buyer and prevent knowledge of the number of pages. Ultimately, content will remain king.

While attending the Goa Art and Literature Festival, I found myself, quite unexpectedly, invited to a panel discussion on the future of publishing. The panel’s brief was to examine if the publishing boom, that is currently being experienced, can be sustained. Others on the panel included Chiki Sarkar, publisher of Penguin Books India, Nirmal Kanti Banerjee, Director of K K Birla Foundation, New Delhi, Frederick Noronha, publisher of Goa 1556 and S. Anand, publisher of Navayana.

Chiki Sarkar was the moderator and she began by asking whether there was credence to the belief that there is currently a boom in publishing. Most answers to that question were in the affirmative but came with riders, that referred to the abysmal state of distribution as a major factor that dampened growth. So while sales were increasing and there seemed to be a visible increase in the number of people reading, many more readers could be had if there was indeed a well developed distribution system. Frederick, who publishes books that appeal to a relatively small audience, hastened to say that sales were not a benchmark, rather the variety of titles he published. Similarly, Anand and Nirmal pointed that although readers were buying more books, books bought per capita was a low, abysmal, figure of 1 book per person per year and then too this figure was even lower among some languages.

What was most interesting, though, was Chiki Sarkar’s answer to her own question. She said that while books were indeed selling in large numbers, they belonged to a few categories. So the best sellers included diet books, cookery books, books that documented success stories like Rashmi Bansal’s Connect the Dots, self-help books and maybe books that belonged to a few other such categories. Among fiction, the books that have captured the readers’ imagination are books that are not necessarily well written but those that “connect with the reader”, now often collectively called the “Chetan Bhagats”. Suffice to say that the publishing boom did not point to an increase in readership over all kinds of books, or lead to an increase in literary output, but led to mounting sales of just a few kinds of books. These categories are now considered safe bets and publishers bet on them because they seem to reflect contemporary readers’ tastes.

The implications of this fact are many. For one, the sales of such books might lead publishers to concentrate on them alone much to the detriment of other types of books. At best, it might cross-subsidize the publication of these other types but a publisher would have to justify his/her decision to publish such a book. Moreover, the success of these diet and cookery books might lead publishers of books in the languages to mimic their English counterparts and concentrate on such books alone. This could indeed be harmful as these “language publishers” have so far been doing an excellent job giving expression to disparate voices and offering insights into the lives of a large percentage of the population.

Secondly, like Anand pointed out, the huge bookstore chains are concentrating on these “bestsellers”. Under pressure to improve their margins and increase returns on large real-estate investments, many of these stores have begun reducing the inventory they hold. More often than not, this reduction manifests itself as fewer titles being stocked. This while large numbers of the bestselling titles are kept in inventory for fear of stocking out in the face of large demand. On this blog we have often argued that the fact that online book stores have unlimited inventories mean little to publishers in terms of revenues since in most cases books are used as loss leaders.

The third implication leads directly to the surge we have seen in recent days, of authors increasingly interested in self-publishing. The ease that technology provides to allow easy self-publishing notwithstanding, we at CinnamonTeal have ourselves witnessed an increase in the numbers who have come to us with a wish to self-publish. While some may argue that these are not books that would have been taken seriously by publishers anyway, we have seen trends that show otherwise. Among our books, we have had a lot of poetry, sci-fi, paranormal thrillers and studies of mythology and oral traditions. Perhaps, this surge in self-publishing, and in subjects as varied as these, is because mainstream publishers just aren’t interested in some kinds of books anymore. Self-publishing aside, the increase in the number of independent publishers and a glance at their lists paints a different picture, of the need for platforms that will allow different voices to express themselves.

Surely a measure of the publishing boom would be a discussion on what is being written rather than what is being read.

Before we celebrated the boom in publishing, therefore, there certainly seems to be a need to introspect on the quality of our literary output and the means available to us to improve it.

Update: In related posts, Shobit Arya, founder and publisher of Wisdom Tree, argues for a balanced and nuanced approach to bookselling while predicting an increase in what he calls “paisa-wasool” (money’s worth) literature. David Davidar, founder of Aleph Book Company, sounds very optimistic when he states that Indian writers are charting their own course and are spoilt for choice with many genres yet to be fully exploited.

An unscheduled but much welcomed session by Anish Trivedi concluded proceedings on the first day of Publishing Next. This veteran of the music industry shared his experiences with the evolving music industry scenario over the last fifteen years.

Anish shared his opinion that within the music industry, it is not the music label, or the listener but a group of companies that own every radio station over the world who decide what is heard. “There are musicians who will never be heard because some software decides what’s to be heard on the radio.” he said. He put forth an interesting fact, “If there are 50 manuscripts that get trashed at a publishing house every week at one publishing house, there are probably 5000 tracks that get trashed everyday in the music industry,”  thus drawing parallels with the publishing industry.

The music industry had spent a lot of time plotting how they could be protected from the internet, stop piracy and eliminate peer-to-peer sharing. Ten years were spent trying to combat these “ills” (quotes ours) and all they realized was that it cannot be stopped. The consumer refuses processes that make it difficult for them to listen to music. Meanwhile, sites like emusic suggested that musicians put their tracks up for free. The way out was to collaborate with online mediums to make it easier and more convenient for music to reach the people.

Since there is no data available on sites, how do you find a track? In the Indian music industry, nobody knew the name of the song or singer; they knew the actor in the song. That made it easy for them to find music on certain criteria, by putting data together. Anish exhorted the audience to action saying, “It took us a long time to realize that things have changed. Don’t make the same mistake, because whether it is the ipad or iphone, the convenience of it will draw people to it.” His advice was to use technology to reach the audience, not to protect content against who might be genuine customers.

“The paradigm has changed”, he concluded.

The parallels are too obvious to ignore. The traditonal gatekeeper role that publishers have played, and sometimes importantly so, is being challenged by various options that make it easy for authors to self-publish. That said, it is sometimes difficult to believe that a few editors can decide, and will do so correctly, what millions will read. The need therefore is for independent publishing houses that will support alternate voices and opinions and independent bookstores that will pay lesser attention to margins, concentrating instead on providing visibility to lesser known titles.

Similarly, the desire to control usage of digital content is too attractive for some publishers. At CinnamonTeal Publishing, we believe in the author’s right to choose on which platform books can be read. We would rather appeal to the reader’s sense of ethics and discourage piracy. That may or may not work and less subtle forms of discouraging piracy (like social DRM) are now available and could be employed. However, to totally restrict usage to publisher-mandated platforms may be counter-productive.

This report was presented by Lianne Caldeira and Malaika Fernandes at Publishing Next, 2011.

A platform that offers an opportunity to hear the best and brightest minds speak is one we’d never pass on. So when just that happened, thanks to the Tehelka sponsored ThinkFest, we made sure we attended the entire programme, all three days of it. While the venue and some comments made there could have been avoided, the event in itself provided a lot of food for thought.

While laying out the agenda of the conclave, the editor-in-chief of Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal stated that Tehelka saw the need for ThinkFest because “India will grow not because it has a large number of consumers but only when there are more ideas”. He said that intellectual capability needs to be celebrated and that diverse ideas, from the sciences and the arts, need to be presented so that the human mind can then make most of these ideas.

In a strange way, I think independent publishing, and even the model of publishing that we at CinnamonTeal service, does quite that. It allows diverse opinions and ideas to be voiced. At a session on “The Difficulty of Selling Excellence”,  Kiran Rao(of Dhobi Ghat fame), actors Imran Khan and Abhay Deol and producer Dibakar Banerjee, took turns

Image rights reserved by chris8800/flickr

and spoke on how it was difficult to produce movies that “deviated from the formula”, yet were made by producers and directors who believed they had a story to tell. Ms. Rao lamented the lack of space that the creative arts had here in India, the space to express itself without being bothered too much about issues like distribution and budgets.

Although the speakers were talking about Bollywood, we felt quite familiar with the issues being discussed. Lamentable as it may be, it seems like the first issue that must be discussed by publishers deliberating on a book is the book’s marketability and its chances in the marketplace. The merits of the book, its intrinsic quality and the importance of the topic (or plot) it addresses seem to be of secondary nature. Publishers are quite unwilling to take a risk because the book might not find distributors, let alone buyers.

This conversation on stage, by Ms. Rao and others, came at a time when I was reading Aaron Schiffrin’s “The Business of Books“. He states how, increasingly in the United States, certain books are not being published either because a)they serve too small a market (and may therefore have print runs in the hundreds, not the thousands) and b)because the issues being addressed may be ideologically different than those that the owners of the publishing house believe in. While the second reason is something that may not happen in India (although I cannot attest to that), I am sure the lack of a “perceived market” for a title prompts publishers not to publish that title. So never mind that there might be a few hundred readers who might be interested in a particular book; since it may not result in a print run of a few thousands, the book is often not published.

Case in point: Mahesh Nair, a photographer by profession, with the permission of the Indian Army, authored a coffee table book titled “Iron Fist, Velvet Glove” that was published by CinnamonTeal Publishing. The book juxtaposed the military activities of the Indian Army alongside its other, humanitarian, activities in a format that had interesting visuals and even more interesting text. Every distributor we have approached has refused to distribute the title because they feel no one will be interested. With all respect to their wisdom in the matter, we feel it would have been better for the readers to decide that.

Besides, the theory that publishers (or distributors) know what readers want is stretching the truth a little. Like Steve Jobs once commented, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. This self-delusion that publishers have, of believing that they know everything about customers’ tastes probably led many to believe that a story about a boy wizard would never sell. Many such stories are well documented.

Left with few alternatives, CinnamonTeal is trying hard to develop other initiatives to boost its sales. In many cases it might be about developing its own channels. In the meantime, we are taking quite seriously this exhortation to provide a channel that will allow other voices to be heard. We have been contemplating a publishing imprint for some time now, one that follows the “regular” model of publishing for books of a certain genre, and we can promise you that that will happen soon.

While many people choose to self-publish nowadays, authors are well advised to give it some thought before they choose this path to get themselves published.  As an author, you should not self-publish if:

a. You aren’t in it for the long haul: Authors who’d rather write about the book and not bother about the rest of the process are better off working with a mainstream, established publisher. Think about self-publishing as an entrepreneurial process. Like it makes no sense to open a store and leave it unattended, it makes even little sense to write a book and care little about the remaining stages that the manuscript must go through before it becomes a book that customers will buy. Every stage of the process is important: the editing process where the author must approve of or reject the changes made by the editor, the cover design process where care must be taken to ensure than an appropriate yet attractive cover is designed, the typesetting process where attention must be made to the most minute of details including the fonts used, the imprint page and other aspects like widows and orphans and the pricing which will ultimately determine whether the book sells in adequate numbers. Most importantly, you should be willing to market the book, something we discuss in the next point.

b. You cannot be bothered with marketing the book: No one, not even the publisher, knows the book better than the author does. The author knows the circumstances that triggered the book, each character depicted in the book and the intended audience for the book and is best suited to “explain the book”. It thus follows that the author can market the book best. However many authors feel that marketing is something they’d rather stay away from, sometimes even feeling that it is beneath them to market their own book. Since many buyers will search for the antecedents of the author, either by reading about it in the book itself or by researching it, before buying a book, it follows that when the book is spoken about by the author herself, it helps the marketing process.

 

Photo Credit: Zamburak (flickr.com)

 

c. You seek to recoup investments in a hurry: If you have calculated your costs and are now planning to price your book so that you can recover your costs within a few months, nothing will discourage you more. Self-publishing requires a great deal of fortitude and you must be there for the long haul. Like we mentioned before, self-publishing must be thought of as an entrepreneurial venture, doing what it takes to ensure that sales are sustained and costs are recouped over long periods of time. Instant gratification just won’t happen and must not be expected either.

d. You wish to quit your day job: This follows from the earlier point we made. While much has been made of success stories such as Amanda Hocking, it remains a fact that book sales by self-publishers are, at best, modest. That said, with enough marketing effort by the author, sales can matter, often enough to recoup costs. However, to expect book sales to replace your other sources of income might be stretching it a bit too much. We suggest you’d rather keep your expectations low and be pleasantly surprised.

e. You are doing it for the recognition: Again a bad reason to want to self-publish. Authors usually wish to self-publish because a)they have heard of the lengthy process it takes to get published and wish to circumvent that process, b) they wish to exercise total control over every aspect of the publishing process or c) they have approached publishers before and have been told to go fly a kite, although the book and the plot do make sense. It is never a good reason to wish to self-publish simply to see your name on the book. Or to aspire for a Chetan Bhagat-like moment. Or to hope someday that you will be approached by a Bollywood producer for movie rights. These things do not happen often and if that’s the reason you are writing a book, that book might not be worth reading and might not be worth spending a publishing effort on. You must want to self-publish because you have a good story to tell and because this seems like a good way of doing it. Note that ultimately content is king and if your book is short on good doses of that, chances are someone, everyone, will recognize it for what it is.