How They Did It (Authors): Rasana Atreya

I’m happy to post the second interview in the How They Did It series, a series that will chronicle the journey of successful authors, freelance journalists and bloggers  from newbie to success.

Author Rasana Atreya’s first book was short-listed for the Tibor Jones South Asia prize, an award given to an unpublished manuscript that is seen as having potential, by a jury comprising publishing biggies such as Urvashi Butalia and Amit Chaudhuri.

Though the manuscript didn’t eventually win the prize, Rasana was offered a publishing contract. Where many writers would have walked away with the  contract firmly in their pocket, Rasana turned it down. In favor of self-publishing her first book. That’s right! (Read her piece explaining her reasoning in The Hindu Literary Review).

In the interview below, Rasana talks at length about her decision to self-publish and the pros and cons of doing it all yourself, with helpful advice for those considering the option. Mainly though, she advises having fun with the whole process, since you’re the boss!

How did your self-publishing journey begin?
Tell A Thousand Lies was ready. It had been beta-read, proofread and professionally edited. I’d been interested in self-publishing mainly because I’d been watching what was going on in the West. Writers were making a good living from self-publishing, but more importantly, whether the book sold or sank was completely in their hands. The ‘control over my destiny’ part appealed to me, but it was also scary. What if I completely messed things up and my book sank, never to surface again?

Then my novel was shortlisted for the 2012 Tibor Jones South Asia award. I also got a publishing contract. This was the impetus I needed to self-publish.

Was the Tibor Jones competition recommended to you, or did you send in your manuscript on a lark? Did you expect it to make the kind of impression it did?
I just happened to come across this award. Since there are very few awards for pre-publication manuscripts, and my book was ready to go (and I was happy with the way the story had turned out) I thought – why not?

I was stunned to know I’d been shortlisted. It was an amazing feeling. Writers can be amazingly insecure about their writing. I certainly was, so this was great validation for me, especially considering the caliber of judges – Urvashi Butalia and Amit Chowdhury!

Rasana Atreya
Rasana Atreya

The Tibor Jones prize experience must have been a huge morale-booster. Do you think this kind of mainstream acceptance is what gave you the confidence to opt for self-publishing? As in, you’d already kind of proven yourself.
Definitely! I figured if two eminent writers thought I deserved a shortlisting for the award, I must have some of what it takes. So I took a deep breath and declined my publishing contract. Then I self-published.

Is there a bias against self-published authors, as opposed to authors who are not? Do published authors/publishers tend to show step-sibling/child kind of treatment to self-published authors?
Yes, there is. I do see that quite a lot. There is this attitude that they are the chosen ones. But this attitude is changing, especially in the West because people are *choosing* to self-publish. Many are not even looking for publishing contracts since self-publishing – if you have a sellable book – can be so lucrative. Even the UK’s Guardian now reviews self-published books. A lot of prizes are accepting works of self-published writers. We need to see that change in India, as well.

Can a newbie writer hope to make decent money out of self-publishing? Or does the old advice about not leaving the day job hold especially true for self-publishing. How long does it usually take for a self-published book to start making a decent income for the author?
No newbie writer – self-published or not – should go in expecting to make money because no one, not even traditional publishers, can guarantee a book’s success.

Having said that, the royalties from traditional publishing are so small that it is traditionally published authors who cannot afford to leave their day jobs. I’m not talking about Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi, but the mid-list writers. Self-published mid-list authors, on the other hand, *are* quitting their day jobs because of the fantastic royalties (70% from Amazon, 65% from Apple etc). You may never hear their names – because they are so many – but they are making enough to pay mortgages and pay the bills. Here’s a link that confirms what I’m saying: http://www.thepassivevoice.com/06/2014/indie-authors-quitting-their-day-jobs/

It took me a few months to see good returns. But then I was still learning to navigate the self-publishing waters. This time I’ll see if I can shorten that time. I have two more books ready to go – The Temple Is Not My Father, and another novel tentatively namedGroom and Prejudice. I will self-publish these books as soon as the book covers are ready.

You’ve seen both sides of the proverbial coin — been offered a traditional book publishing contract and then chosen to self-publish. Would you advise a first-time writer to opt for self-publishing or to wait for a traditional publisher?
Just because you don’t land a traditional publishing contract doesn’t mean you’re no good as a writer. A lot of books are rejected for business reasons. Perhaps they didn’t think the concept would sell, or maybe they had already acquired a similar book so they didn’t want competition for that book, and so on. Remember how many *big* publishers rejected JK Rowling? If every traditionally published book were a literary masterpiece, you wouldn’t have Fifty Shades of Grey selling 20 million copies.

Regarding which form of publishing to go with – it is hard to say. The very things a lot of us love about self-publishing – the ability to control the pricing, the cover design, the content, the speed of publishing – is what scares others off. They’d rather have someone else take on that responsibility. Which is fine, except traditional publishers take such a long time to get back. And once they do, getting your book to market can take up to two years. And, if you’re expecting to make a living from writing books, you have the odds in your favour if you self-publish.

What, according to you, are the pros and cons of self-publishing?
Cons: there are a million and one ways to get scammed. A lot of people don’t understand the difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing. If you pay to get your book published – that’s vanity publishing. Unfortunately, a lot of self-publishing companies (backed by known publishers, unfortunately), are out to separate naïve authors from their money. I talk more about this on my blog. Other cons are that in India major prizes still won’t consider self-published books because of a lack of understanding about them – they lump self-published books with vanity books. Not to say there aren’t bad self-published books out there, but you wouldn’t say that about traditionally published books, would you, just because they’ve published a book by Snooki?

Pros. You decide the book cover, you decide the content (not what the editor thinks is ‘hot’ in the market), you set the pricing. And you get 70% royalties. Control over pricing is very important because the author can use that for sales and promotions. By uploading your book directly (instead of through the publisher), you can see how many books you’re selling daily, if you want. And you don’t have to wait up to two years to see your book selling – you can have it up in a day. I have more about this on my blog. And, it can be fun doing it all!

How did you go about hiring the services of an editor? And is that a must for every writer?
Join writers’ groups via email, Facebook or even one in your city. They will have this information. I list a few on my blog, as well.
Are editors necessary? Absolutely! Even editors need editors.

Should you hire one before your manuscript is completely done? No – that would be a waste of your money. Get a few beta-readers first. I have a wonderful group of people who beta-read for me – they read my book and give me critical feedback. I use that feedback to fix issues and then send my book off to a professional editor.
The beauty of the internet is that you can have people around the world in your group. My regulars are a mixed group – from India, Israel and the US. One British gentleman recently emailed me to tell me how much he loved Tell A Thousand Lies. Now, he’s proofreading my next book The Temple Is Not My Father.

Any amusing/interesting experiences/anecdotes related to your self-publishing journey?
My experiences aren’t necessarily self-publishing related, but more to do with being a writer in today’s world.

I once got an email from a Mexican woman saying Tell A Thousand Lies could have been set in her country – she identified with that heroine so much. It is wonderful to receive emails from around the world.

Did your family / close friends push you towards traditional publishing?
Never. They trusted me enough to let me do what I thought best.

Rasana blogs about self-publishing here.

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