All of us have a dream, or at one point we all did.
Along the way, we stumble, we hit hurdles, we get tired and sometimes, we just sigh and give up on those dreams. Or sometimes, we simply look to our children to bear the weight of our expectations and to fulfill those dreams we gave up on.
The 1st of May 2015 marked a significant milestone in my life. It was on this day that I finally realised my teenage dream of becoming a published author – a dream I nourished from the time I heard about Arundati Roy winning the Booker prize for her debut novel, way back in 1997.
Of course, I do not consider myself anywhere in the league of Ms. Roy - that suave, sophisticated intellectual who can paint vividly beautiful scenes with the power of her words. The essence of my writing has been inspired from another great Indian writer though – the late R K Narayanan – the author of some beautiful little books such as ‘Malgudi Days’ and ‘Swami and Friends’. R K Narayan’s characters were of the kind anybody could relate with – simple commoners and the stories of such characters is what I tried to accomplish while writing Kaleidoscopic Lives.
Writing Kaleidoscopic Lives
Though the bulk of Kaleidoscopic Lives had been written between Jun and Aug, 2014, I had written a handful of short stories with the intention of compiling them into a book someday as long back as in 2006 – I eventually discarded almost all those stories and retained just one from that lot after considerable editing.
When I started writing stories and blogs first, I practically knew nothing about writing. I only had the advantage of an above-average command over English – thanks to the reading habit I had acquired in my childhood, but nothing more than that.
Yet, the urge to write always kept simmering in the background and I satisfied that urge by frequently writing blogs and articles (for my old company’s magazine). And I did that for almost a decade. I wrote senseless trash at times –but I kept writing whenever I got the opportunity.
“If you trust in yourself. . .and believe in your dreams. . .and follow your star. . . you'll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren't so lazy.”― Terry Pratchett
One valuable thing I have learned is that talent is overrated (I have often endorsed the book by that name, written by Geoff Colvin). What really matters is the effort and time built in building a skill. A natural advantage or talent will never result in something productive unless you put effort and time to practice, develop and hone that talent.
Over a period of many years, I learned (and I am still learning) what resonates with readers and what makes for compelling reading. I also learned that that the way a story is narrated matters as the story itself as much, if not more.
In Jun 2014, I finally put an ultimatum on myself to complete a book and created an outline for my book and what stories it would contain, created a calendar for writing each story and then started typing away, for hours, almost every day, till my butt went numb (and I’m not being figurative here) or till my stomach grumbled inconsolably.
That routine went for weeks and months, till I had my first draft ready.
Writing a book is not an easy task, but the sense of exaltation on seeing a complete draft is indescribable! The bulk of my work was done, or so I thought it was.
The Publishing Process
When I finished my first draft of Kaleidoscopic Lives, I knew that I had work remaining. What I didn’t know was how much work was remaining.
The time I tried to evaluate and approach various publishers for my book, I spoke to other people who had been published authors or were on the verge of publishing. I also read countless articles on the various publishing options available. From all these sources, I got to know there were 3 primary ways of publishing my book
- Traditional book publishing - This process takes the longest time and can take anything between 6 months to years. The main advantage of this kind of publishing is that the author doesn’t have to spend any money once a publisher agrees to publish the book and generally, the marketing and reach of such books is the highest of all forms of publishing.
- Self Publishing – Self publishing takes only a fraction of the time taken by traditional publishing, but the cost of publishing is borne by the author. To have a professional quality book, one will need to spend money on editing, design and marketing. The ostensible advantage is that a greater chunk of the sales profit goes to the author in this kind of publishing. The author also retains all rights to the book and has a lot of control over the publishing process unlike traditional publishing. The disadvantage is that it is unlikely an author will get the market reach of books published the traditional way and of course, it costs money.
- Direct to Kindle – The cheapest and fastest way of publishing with the greatest percentage of profit also. Disadvantage is that the book will only be available in an electronic format – and while a kindle is great, nothing can really substitute the feeling of holding a real book and reading it.
Despite all the advantages of self-publishing, there are some things about it, that you would only learn when you start getting involved deeply into it. For example, despite having an editor, I had to read each story in my book and edit it at least half a dozen times. You would not agree to everything that an editor says and sometimes they may misunderstand the context – there was this time when I used transliterated words in Malayalam for dramatisation – the editor didn’t get it (but a reader who knows the language would).
Even for a cover design, I had about 4-5 iterations before the designer and I got it right and in between we had a conflict too – part and parcel of the game. To be completely honest, it took me more effort and time in the editing process than it took in writing the first draft.
Lot of people overestimate the amount of money that an author can gain from self publishing. In fact, one tends to miss the fine print till one gets into details.
If a publisher offers you an 80% net sales royalty, that doesn’t mean you are going to get 80% on the price of the book. That only means after paying the distributor’s cut and the printer’s cost, you will get 80% of what remains. Technically speaking, the returns one would be getting on the sale of a book sold at full price (with an 80% royalty) would be no more than 15-16% (unless you are pricing your book ridiculously high).
Self publishing firms follow a print-on-demand method for catering to customer sales and that means, cost of printing is much higher than what one would pay for a Chetan Bhagat book (that’s unfortunately the benchmark for pricing by a layman these days). And the irony - no matter what the book’s selling price, Amazon/Flipkart takes a 33% off the sales price (that is exclusive of the delivery cost). Additionally, these huge online retailers can cut the cost and sell at will ; which means there is a point at which you might end up making a loss for each sale made because the printing cost and the retailer’s margin could exceed what is remaining of the sales price.
For Kaleidoscopic lives, a discount of 25% from the current paperback/hardback price is the break-even price. So if at one point you see a 25% discount for the book, do realise that the author and publisher get 0 profits from the sale!
But then, as a first time author, I wasn’t worried about how much I would make, I was worried about striking a chord with readers and finding an appreciative audience.
Were there challenges? Plenty!
So you are a writer and want to write a book pretty soon. What are the challenges that you think you will face during writing and at the time of publishing? Here is my opinion from experience.
1. Time, Effort & Motivation
Without a doubt, writing a book is time consuming work. Even with a full time job, you just have to find time to write. And one of the best tips I can give you is to be systematic. Keep a calendar and keep a target of writing ‘X’ words in a day or keep a target of finishing a chapter ín ‘Y’ number of days. There is a good chance you may never meet that target, but you will still go a long way and it’s better than procrastinating indefinitely without a target.
You will have to put in magnanimous effort and there will be days when you feel that your brain doesn’t work (some call it the writer’s block) and when writing seems like torture. On other days, you won’t find flow in your writing. My advice is to take small breaks when it gets too tiring (I used to go play my guitar or read) but keep writing without skipping days in between. You can always edit written work in the end even if it’s rubbish– it’s better than having nothing to show after days.
2. Managing Finances
If you are going the self publishing route, you will need to shelve out some money for the process and to self publish with the option of editing and a cover design which are definitely needed.
The time I gave my book for publishing, I was facing a serious financial crunch. Despite the monthly salary I was earning in my full time job, I had huge educational loans to pay back in EMIs and my savings had dried up. And to add to my woes, my organisation did a U-turn quoting budgetary constraints and refused to pay for an expensive professional certification for which I shelved a large amount from my pocket.
A sum of around 60,000 Rupees might not sound much for somebody working in my line of work, but when you have precious little left in your bank account, you tend to think twice before spending it.
Sometime last year, a close friend of mine, over lunch, talked to me about my situation and whistled, “So are you telling me that at 33, you are unmarried, broke, have a huge financial liability, no house, no car, no more savings and no real asset??”
He was right, I had nothing. BUT I had my dreams.
I once dreamt of studying in a world class university and worked hard to get that elusive admission. I sacrificed every last coin in my life savings, sacrificed a great job, risked a huge borrowing from a bank to realise that dream. And I’d still do it again, were I go to back in time. For had I not risked so much, I would have never seen the year that was the happiest in my life.
Becoming a published author was a dream I had nurtured from the time I was 17 years old, would I give it up because I had a cash crunch?
No, I wasn’t going to and nor should you, were you to find yourself in a similar position!
3. A Support System
If you ever get to read Malcollm Gladwell’s famous book ‘The Outliers’, you would understand that behind the story of almost ever great person who excelled in his realm, there were 3 basic things involved – outstanding hard work, the right opportunities leveraged at the right time and a sound support system.
I come from an average middle-class South-Indian family. Now without having to elaborate, a lot of you would know that in most such families, the zenith of achievement is obtaining a well paid corporate job. The standard social rule book for my community also follows the get-great-grades->get a great job -> find a family approved bride/groom -> get married/settled rulebook. Anything that doesn’t fall in place with this is either scorned upon or ignored. My father till date doesn’t know I am a writer and my mom only got to know because she wondered where I squandered my savings lately. Your life is much easier if you have a mentor to guide you towards your goals, but when you’re the first in your extended family to try something new, you need to look out for support and encouragement.
And that support came from unexpected quarters.
My former GMAT trainer, Sandeep Gupta, unwittingly played a pivotal role in the past few years in my life when through his seminars and courses; I gained insight into countless topics of interest. I started reading extensively to gain knowledge of subjects (and not just for entertainment). And, I started to understand how to reach an audience much better than I knew previously.
And of course, there were a handful of very encouraging friends, who genuinely loved to read what I wrote who urged me on, and a supportive lady-love who stood by through thick and thin.
Everybody needs a support system, especially for those days riddled with self-doubt and disappointment and I was lucky to find a small but dependable support system that helped me.
4. Handling Criticism
You might feel that you have done a great job when you write a book, but most of us suck at self-criticism.
When my editor came back with sections for improvement, I realised how much of work I had remaining despite the 3-4 rounds of self-editing I had done before submission.
But I had to swallow humble pie and do the necessary changes because I realised that when I am writing for an audience, I need to make it easy for them to read, cut down on unnecessary details and make every scene in a story relevant and interesting.
There were also people close to me who took so much time to help me improve the narratives with their feedback. And one has to be open to comments and criticism for improvement.
The edited book in fact turned out to have about 15-20 pages less than what it would have been without editing.
Kaleidoscopic Live is far from perfection but it turned out to be much better than what it was from its first draft.
5. Selling Woes – A Reality Check
So you have put in months of dedicated effort, sacrificed so much of your time and have written a book. You have about 800 friends on Facebook , and plenty others outside it, who you think will help you in your quest for literary greatness. Think again.
Nobody owes you anything!
Nobody is going to jump up in joy and yell from the rooftops “Yeaaaa! My friend has published a book and ho boy I am so glad for him! Let me tell everybody I know and make sure the book becomes a bestseller”
The world doesn't work that way. And just because somebody clicks on the Facebook ‘like’ button, that doesn't mean you have made a sale. Statistically speaking, from my experience, only about 8-10% of those Facebook likes have converted into a sale!
You might think the cost of your book is probably the amount that somebody would pay for a coffee at Starbucks or Costa, but they don’t owe you that money. Do they?
You may have generous friends or people who genuinely love your writing and who will take the effort to promote your book or spend from their pockets to buy a copy and you should be thankful for that but not everybody would do it and that’s the bitter pill one has to swallow.
It might be heartbreaking to hear so many remarks like “Hey send me a free copy man” because only you know that even you don’t get your own books for free and you might feel that all your effort was undermined when people don't think it's worth paying for. But one needs to take it in his stride. It’s of course not possible to give everybody a free copy but I realized the hard way that it’s a mistake to rub off a friend by simply declining either – one friend actually stopped talking to me after that. In the end, I made a list of all those friends who had played a strong role in helping me write or encouraged me and decided to send them one of the few author copies I was due from the publisher and in a few cases, bought and sent friends a copy – some friends/family are worth it and it is not about the price.
When I suggested to my publisher to price the book too low thinking it would bolster sales, he told me, “Roji, you can’t price your book like a Chetan Bhagat book because it is not printed in bulk and production cost is much higher. But a genuine buyer will not be disheartened just because he had to pay around 300 or so Rupees for a book – which is hardly a cost these days. A genuine buyer will still buy and those aren’t interested will not buy anyway”
The 7 Most Important Things !
If you are somebody who loves writing and wants to write a book some day, here are quick pointers from my experience:
- Know what you want to write about – It took me years to decide what I wanted to write; your task is cut short once you have decided on the topic
- Sit and write, day and night – With a full time job, or with family obligations, writing is going to be hard, but you just have to get started – you will always have a nagging customer or a work pressure no matter what.
- Keep a schedule and a target – Like I said earlier, even if you don’t meet them, you will do much better than by not keeping one.
- Read, Read, Read – To be a good writer, you need to read too. Read about the topics you want to write and about how to write effectively in general and always try to learn something new to improve.
- Get Feedback and work on it – Working on feedback is the foundation of improvement; get somebody to always read and give you feedback on your writing. An outsider can always spot a fallacy in your writing that you might miss. And a good book goes through many rounds of editing before it’s really ready.
- Get a supportive circle – You will need them when you are having those days of self doubts.
- Be Happy when done – Draw happiness from the fact that you could push yourself to achieve something rare and valuable. If you managed to write a great book, its legacy is something that will endure long after you are gone and forgotten.
If you would like to know more about Kaleidoscopic Lives or purchase it, please do check the following link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B016YOCF44
Note: I will be glad to answer any questions or comments you have :)
[From the author's blog archives - originally posted on https://sixstringsforsupper.wordpress.com]