Hot off the presses: new writers are increasingly choosing to self-publish

by Arnav Chandrasekhar

When Pune writer Ruchita Mathur completed her children’s book The Ship, she was faced with a dilemma: how was she going to get it published? The usual way would be to pitch it to a publisher.

But publishers also have their own priorities. “When you try to conventionally publish a book, you have to face the possibility that editors may ask you to change certain aspects. You also face the possibility of publishers not being interested in your work,” says Mathur. 

Mathur was unwilling to let her vision be altered, and so made the choice to self-publish her book, commissioning a print run from a local company and releasing it in the form of an e-book as well. Mrs.Mathur took the same path as some household names in Indian fiction – Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi started out as self-published authors.

Writers like Ruchita Mathur now have several options if they choose to avoid traditional publishing houses such as Penguin and Bloomsbury. They may opt to use Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program, which allows authors to publish their own ebooks, with royalties of 35 to 70 %. They may also choose to use the services of self-publishing companies, like the Chennai-based Notion Press.

According to Jana Pillay, co-founder of Notion Press, the  fast-paced digital age is partly responsible for the rise of self-publishing companies. “ With the usual publishing process, it takes many months or even years to publish a book. Now in the age of technology, writers want to speed up this process,” he says. He suggests that a slowdown in the publishing rate of books by conventional publishers has led to a boom for companies that self-publish.

 The available data seems to support Pillay – Notion Press went from an annual publication of 6849 books in 2019, to publishing 20,416 books in 2021. The phenomenon is a global one. According to a report from Bowker, the number of ISBN (International Standard Book Number) numbers issued for self-published books in the United States rose 263 %, from 461,483 books to 1,677,781. 

According to Rahul Badami, self-published author of Operation Dragon Strike, another reason for the rise of self-publishing is the way that it caters to different authors for different reasons. According to Badami, “ With conventional publishing, authors often earn very little in royalties. You sign on the dotted line, and you have to take or leave it.”

However, he does acknowledge that traditional publishing has its own draw. “ You do have to put in a lot of work to self-publish. You have to get the cover designed, you have to format and edit the book, and you have to promote it to readers as well. Traditional publishers are very helpful in this regard.” 

But with the advent of the pandemic, physical bookstores have suffered.Badami believes that the shift to prominence for e-books will help level the playing field for self-published authors. Jana Pillay agrees, saying that ,“ The advantage that traditional publishers have is the physical distribution to bookstores. Now with the rise of e-commerce, the field is leveled as you just have to co-ordinate at the e-commerce level.”

On the other hand, Shubhi Surana, editor at Penguin Random House, says that there isn’t really a competition at all. “ The average traditionally published book and the average self-published books are differently targeted. Often, self-published books are what the author wishes to see in print. On the other hand, traditional publishers are focused on what the reader wants.”

 Surana also points out that there is an element of brand recognition as well. “It isn’t that self-published books are bad, some excellent books have been self-published. But readers do have certain expectations of quality from traditional publishers,” she says.

 The traditional giants of publishing are here to stay. But the number of self-published books is on the rise, and readers will have the final say.