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Is self-publishing a threat to traditional publishing?

  |   Literature

BENGALURU : Self-publishing in a simplistic analogy is to book publishing what blogging is to journalism. In short, self-publishing is an egalitarian way of giving every writer access to a readership. Eventually what matters, though, is the quality of the content ; the medium i s incidental. You might view self-publishing as either vanity publishing of a mediocre product or a means of liberation from the tyranny of publishers, but the truth lies in between. While there has been a three-fold increase in sale of self-published books in India in 2020 (compared to 2019), the absolute number of units sold were less than a hundred thousand. A large number was printed for private circulation, outside the monitored market.

Most are sold either online or through local independent booksellers. Self-publishing a book for the first time can be an overwhelming experience, especially if the author is a digital immigrant (as opposed to being a digital native), but avenues such as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing have made it easier for the author to seamlessly conduct the entire process, exercising control over every stage from revisions to cover design and tagging of the book. With some exceptions, most self-published books that went on to achieve fame and wide readership were rejected by regular publishers.

Amish Tripathi’s manuscript for The Immortals of Meluha was rejected by more than 35 publication houses, and Ashwin Sanghi had a similar experience with his bestselling novel The Rozabal Line which was self-published under his anagram-pseudonym Shawn Higgins. A phenomenal self-publishing success (though it was panned by literary critics!) was E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey trilogy. Conceived as fan fiction of the Twilight series, which James posted on fan fiction sites and her own website, it was later developed into an erotic trilogy. She then self-published the first book as an ebook and print-on-demand paper back through the Australia-based virtual publisher The Writers’ Coffee Shop. Similarly, Andy Weir started publishing excerpts of The Martian on his personal blog, and after a good reception from his readers he published the book on Amazon and sold it for 99 cents a copy-the rest is history.


Tom Peters sold more than 25,000 copies of his business book In Search of Excellence directly to consumers before he sold the rights to Warner; this edition sold more than 10 million copies! One of my favourite self-published books is The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, a first-person narrative of the author’s spiritual awakening. Redfield set up Sartori publishing, named after a Zen term for instant enlightenment, and sank his life savings of $18,000 into printing 3,000 copies which he sold from the trunk of his car! The buzz built up and Warner stepped in.

The selfpublished book sold 1,00,000 copies (23 million copies till date) and spent 165 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list! So, is self-publishing a threat to traditional publishing? Thomas Abraham, CEO of Hachette India, doesn’t think so. There are good reasons why trade publishing has endured since 1768, says Abraham. Authors, most of whom appreciate editorial intervention, realise the importance of imprints and the necessity of getting their work disseminated via the publishing framework structure of distribution, review mail-outs etc.


There’s ample room for both modes, with the bulk of self-published titles being noncompetitive- they are often for private circulation and a way for writers to see their name in print-a very legitimate right, says Abraham. But today they’re not just two separate worlds. Mainstream publishers go in for self-publishing as well. The fundamental differentiator for a traditional publisher is whether their editorial team said yes to it and acknowledged its being in keeping with their list and their imprint philosophy.

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