MyTurn: Confessions of an Indie Author
When the announcement about Amazon’s decision to shut Westland, its publishing entity in India, first appeared, my feed was inundated with related news, opinion pieces, and feature articles speculating on the reasons and impact of this development. There were posts from authors lamenting about the fate of their books, editors looking for jobs, and bookstores displaying their available inventory of books published by Westland that would soon be pulped. The most genuine and heartfelt pleas were from devoted readers who desperately tried their best to spread the news, and exhorted fellow readers to do their tiny part by buying books.
I found this news interesting on many levels. As a reader I am dismayed at this development—at a time when more voices are required to be heard, shutting down a publishing house is not good. However, this news has no direct impact on me because I am an independent author.
In the hierarchy of the publishing industry, for a small-time author, the holy grail is a traditional publishing deal with a respectable, if not hefty, advance. While the financial terms of the agreement may vary, there is a certain prestige associated with being published by a reputed publisher. Westland was certainly in that category. There was a time when I aspired to be in that elite group. In addition to the reputation boost provided by the publishing house, there are opportunities for awards, invitations to panels and lit fests, and a blissful ignorance of what happens behind the scenes as the manuscript is turned into a book for readers.
My path was different—one that did not involve sending out query letters to agents or cold emails with sample chapters of my memoir to publishers in the hope that it would meet a kind advocate who would champion my cause in meetings where editors defend their pick.
After a few initial submissions—which led to either quick rejections with no specific feedback or reason provided (rare), or prolonged silence (common)—I had one memorable conversation with an agent who bluntly asked me two pertinent questions: (1) You are not a celebrity; why should anyone read your memoir? (2) How many copies of your book will you be able to sell?
Turns out there are tens if not hundreds of big and small publishers willing to take on a new author, but the crux of the decision lies in the author’s own ability to draw readers.
At the time of this discussion, I had zero social media presence. While I had a decent set of family and friends, I could not say with confidence how many copies they would be willing to buy, and certainly I had no godfather in the publishing industry. What I had was close to twenty years of writing experience. Many of my personal essays and opinion pieces were published in small print and digital publications, mostly in the U.S., where I won some awards and one early essay was featured in a college-level English textbook that had impressive pieces by stalwarts such as Maya Angelou and Anna Quindlen.
Like most authors, I began as an avid reader. Writing began as a hobby and soon turned into my preferred method of creative expression. Although as a trained scientist I had more experience writing research papers, as a self-taught writer, I learned by reading widely, writing often and by committing myself to an apprenticeship in observation. On a personal level, writing helped me make sense of my life. On a public level, it connected me with readers.
Cultivating a habit of keenly watching the world around me taught me that there was no one right way to a particular destination, including publication.Over the years as I developed my writing muscle, I also built the stomach to face repeated rejections until one day technology made it possible for a minimally tech savvy writer like me to convert her dream of writing a memoir about divorce into physical form.
After that eye-opening conversation with the agent—which convinced me that publishing decisions were often made based on celebrity status, follower numbers, trending topics and popular genres, and not necessarily based on talent of the writer or the merit of the story itself—I had three options:
(1) Keep trying my luck with traditional publishers, working my way down from big publishers to a list of small presses with varying degrees or reputation and reach. (2) Learn the ropes of self-publishing and DIY my first full-length book. (3) Drop the idea completely.
I was convinced about the merit of my book and its value for a small niche audience, so I ruled out option 3. Option 1 seemed like a long and convoluted path that required compromising at each rung of the ladder. Therefore, along with a writer friend, I decided to teach myself the basics of self-publishing. The upside of this decision would mean I could tell my story the way I wanted to, retain all rights to my intellectual property, and make all decisions including cover design as well as marketing strategies. On the flip side was the awareness that I would have to learn several new things that I had not considered before.
In the months since the release of my book, I have had many moments of doubt and uncertainty. And many more moments when I have felt validated and proud for sharing my personal story with readers. Turns out there is great interest in the topic of divorce, a subject that is typically ignored or spoken in hushed tones within the Indian and South Asian communities. Several readers from across the world have connected with me through social media and via email after reading my book.
As suspected, I did learn and create many new things besides writing. From venturing into social media, creating my own website, sending out biweekly newsletters and showing up for virtual gatherings, I have grown as a person and developed confidence in my voice and my intuition that my story deserves to be told, not held back for reasons related to fickle market forces.
I did not advertise my book, pay for reviews or use questionable tactics to increase my follower numbers. What I like to do is write. So I created a body of work, wrote short form posts for social media, long articles for publications that had supported me for years, and shared excerpts from my book. The point was to direct people towards my writing, not draw attention towards me. The focus was on making sure the book reached those who needed to read it.
Once I was clear about my motivations, things fell into place. Being authentic was far more effective than being market-savvy. It helped me draw the right kind of people and find the right kind of support system to keep me grounded and enthusiastic.
Would I recommend the indie author life to everyone? Not at all. But I would sincerely urge all writers who feel strongly about their story to follow their muse and invest the time and resources required to find their tribe. Believe me, they exist. And they are waiting for you. As Henry van Dyke noted, “the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.”
Ranjani Rao is the author of Rewriting my Happily Ever After: A Memoir of Divorce and Discovery. She lives in Singapore.
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