The Indian market is replete with hundreds of authors, some good, some not so good, and some downright terrible. Nonetheless, the market continues to grow, and the audience is spoilt for choice. Which also means there are several books floating around and it’s that much more difficult to break through.
After years of struggling and learning some hard lessons, I have tried to put together a handy guide for the new Indian author trying to break through i.e. make a mark in this business. Because business it is. What I have discovered in the short while I have written and published is—writing a book in India is 30% getting a good story to connect with the masses + 70% marketing it right.
Write well, but market even better.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Write a book
You need a good product first. Something you will be proud to call your own. Your baby. How do you start and finish a good manuscript? Let me give you some tips I’ve learned by hours of scouring the web and putting it to practice. Apportion 6-8 months from start to finish to complete your manuscript’s first draft.
Get an outline up first
I write in Microsoft Word setting up the skeleton before—a chapter number on the top of each page with the gist of the story below. There are fancy softwares which can help you write (Scrivener, for example), but I’ve always found a simple pen and paper or in the modern case, Microsoft Word and keyboard, works best.
Know the ending before
This helps tremendously. I write a skeleton of the final chapter and work backward. Writing the ending before helps waste time trying to figure out different plot endings and how to get there. Once you know how it ends, it becomes easier to write. There is a single track to follow. Also, I believe, readers remember the end, not so much the middle, and only occasionally how a novel starts. An ending stays with you for a long, long time.
Write a few words every day, even if it is just for 30 minutes. A page is 250 words, so if you can write that many every day, you’ll finish a book in 8 months! But it is never really that simple. Sometimes, imagination just doesn’t strike. And you may land up writing only 50 words. Sometimes, you flow, and easily get out 2000 words at one go. But take my advice and simply sit daily, fingers hovering over the keyboard and write. Write anything.
The story is more important than the language
At least, that is the God’s honest truth in India. No harm in that, a good story needs to be written and read. Get a good story out on paper, with rich characters that speak to the populace, a clever storyline, of relatable lives. The big question is, should you follow the masses and write what’s popular? I don’t think so. Write about what you know and what you are good at. Before Amish and Chetan Bhagat became famous, their genres were largely unexplored. They wrote what they knew about closely, and that worked for them. You can pretend only so much.
As yourself, would you pick up and read what you just wrote?
Write quickly, revise, revise, revise
Let your first draft be a vomit of words (sorry to put it so crudely but I wanted the intent to be clear). Do not try to self-edit. Get the story out. The first draft is usually terrible. Fret not.
Revision is what matters.
Take a print out and read your manuscript aloud. This helps bring out pain points you’d never realized when mentally reading them.
Take out all the fluff, kill your darlings. As in, don’t be attached to any character, episode or a set of words. Creativity is never wasted. Keep the discards aside. Reuse it later. Take out everything that makes you cringe or doesn’t add to the story.
Do at least 10 revisions. It is a painful process but needs to be done.
Keep it short; within 60-70k words
Bigger books cost money to print. And volume sells in India. Attempt writing a tome only if you have a prolific background and can sell the story (a.k.a Arundhati Roy or Vikram Seth). Most publishers will ask you to reduce your manuscript size to make it profitable for them. Why waste time re-editing and nursing your bleeding heart to see the words cruelly felled away?
Get it beta read
Start by asking your friends and family. But give them a finished product. Never take either their time or criticism lightly. It hurts to be criticized, but better their critical feedback now than brickbats in public.
There are professional beta readers as well to do this job for you. They charge money but I believe they’re well worth it. Try looking for #betareaders on Twitter and Instagram. Other options are:
- Frostbite publishing
- Writerful Books
- Bookhub online
- Quiethouse editing (Have used them myself)
or search on
Get it professionally edited
I cannot emphasize this step enough. Especially for first-time writers. Unless you are a popular figure whose manuscript mistakes can be easily forgiven, make your manuscript the best it can be.
Look for #bookeditors on Twitter and Instagram, or try the following:
or search on
Editors cost a ton of money and charge by the word or by the hour. A ‘by the word’ charge is more reliable.
Editing costs, depending on the type (Types of editing: Proof, line, copy, or development) range between INR 40k and 2 lakhs for a standard 70k words book. Anything cheaper may not result in great quality. The editing cost also depends upon the status and readiness of your manuscript.
Proofread and keep the manuscript ready
Do a final check yourself to see if all the dots and commas are in the right places. Keep the best possible version of the manuscript ready to be sent over to publishers. Ideally, the manuscript should be formatted but strictly follow the rules in each publisher’s ‘SUBMIT’ page when you come to it.
But wait…we are not there yet.
Build your Instagram presence
Instagram is a thriving channel for book publicity and engaging with your readers/ reviewers. Try to build up your profile beforehand. Upload snippets from your book to garner advance interest. If you don’t have enough followers, build them using services like Upleap, Sencillo, or SocialPilot. Here are a few others. A 6-10k follower base is a good number. Try to build a real follower base (and not BOTs) and engage with them regularly.
Twitter works for some
If have funny things to say daily, or are good at raking up controversies, by all means, try Twitter. Use services like Buffer or SocialOomph, or Tweetdeck to schedule your tweets and engage with your audience. Interact in conversations that relate to your book or join other’s conversations using tools such as Tweetchat.
Do NOT pay service providers to market your book on twitter. Waste of twitter space and your money.
Use hashtags cleverly, #amwriting #writing #bookmarketing #kindleunlimited etc. engage with readers and other authors. It is a useful way to make your presence felt, but do not expect to sell books. Unless you can become or are a Twitter celebrity.
Create a Facebook page for your book
Creating a Facebook page for your book is useful to use for Facebook marketing at a later stage. What should your page have? A promo video, book description, five-star reviews, about the author. Be authentic, post regularly, not just about your book, but about your life i.e. behind-the-scenes. Readers today want to connect with the author, to know more about her. It is the person they want to follow, rarely the book. A Facebook page builds the author brand.
Here is a great resource on how to build a good Facebook page and keep your fans entertained.
Build a website but that’s not critical
You can build a free site on WordPress or WIX. Alternately, if this is a long term game, as it should be, go the paid way.
- Choose a custom domain name. Create an author page, not a book page
- Buy the domain name. Use the domain registrar Iwantmyname
- Use a hosting service. My recommendation is SiteGround
- Set up the WordPress site using the hosting service. Use this step-by-step guide or this one.
Websites are basically used to build your brand as an author and more importantly, to create a mailing list.
Create a mailing list
I am not 100% sure if it works for an author in India. I, for one, would never sign up for an author’s mailing list unless she had interesting things to say every week. But it works for many people and can work very well if done right.
Email marketing is definitely more effective than social media marketing. It is a direct connection with the reader and doesn’t get lost in the melee of noise. People can sign up to get emails from you either through your website or through other media like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.
You can use services like Mailchimp, Aweber, or Infusionsoft to capture the emails of people visiting your website. Offer something for free (a free ebook, for example) in exchange for their email IDs.
Here is a great resource on how to collect those email IDs.
Get a sample query letter ready
A query letter is a one-page letter sent to literary agents or publishers to get them interested in your manuscript and demand to read the whole of it. The DREAM, right? Err…yes. Though it’s a thorny path, let me warn you. Be prepared for a LOT of disappointment, starting now.
A typical query is usually one page long or ~200-300 words and has the following elements.
- Greet with a personal address – helps to address a publisher by name directly if you happen to know it
- Start with a hook, maybe the book’s key suspense element
- Write a very brief synopsis
- Introduce yourself and your writing credentials, why choose you?
- If you know the publisher and what she has published in the past, you could tell her why your book is similar and why you need to be published
- Thank warmly for her time
- Proofread and correct mistakes before you hit send
Get the letter reviewed by a critical friend. Would your friend ask to read your manuscript?
It’s best to write a letter to someone you know or you have been introduced to rather than go blind. For that, go to LinkedIn and see who you know who knows an agent (second connect on LinkedIn). Or search for an agent by name on Facebook and see if you know anyone in common. Well, worth a try.
Most agent/ publishers’ SUBMISSIONS page has very strict instructions on how to submit a query (and later, a manuscript). Follow it to the T. Submission instructions sometimes also ask for three sample chapters, detailed author bio, and marketing potential of the book in addition to the query letter. Make a set and keep ready.
Ensure the following:
- Do not send an email addressed to one agent to another. This happens more than you know.
- Follow website instructions carefully
- Do not oversell or act cocky
- Make your pitch pithy and impactful
- Don’t use strange fonts. Stick to Times New Roman, the writer’s eternal friend
Here are a few examples of good query letters.
Find an agent
India is still one of those countries where authors can write directly to the publisher and pitch their manuscripts. But if you are lucky and they are willing, partner with an agent. An agent safeguards your contracting interests and also helps edit and polish your book for the market. Yes, it comes at a cost. usually, a percentage of your royalties. But they also help with placing your book at the right places and help you get the best value contract.
The top agents in India are:
There are others too but I haven’t heard much from them in the past years. Book placing is a hard business and you need to have deep contacts.
Agents may also ask you money to spruce up your manuscript in terms of editing, structuring etc. If the agent is reputable, it may be worth your money to invest in it. After all, you want the best product to go to publishers and eventually the readers, don’t you? But be careful how much you pay, who you pay, and know what you are paying for.
If above fails, do the below.
Find a traditional publisher
Here is a list of publishers who (at least claim) they accept unsolicited manuscripts.
The ones you can send to but not expect to hear back from
- Harper Collins
- Simon and Schuster
- Pan Macmillan
- Grey Oak (agented)
- Bloomsbury India
- Speaking Tiger Books
- Hay House India
The ones you can expect to hear back from, at least with a polite no
(see next section)
- Rupa Publication
- Fingerprint Books
- Roli Books
- Jaico books
- Rumour Books India
- Niyogi Books
- Srishti Publishers
- Half Baked Beans
- Yoda Press
Partner with a publisher
Several of the above lists may revert to you to ask you to invest initially in the editing, printing or marketing and promise to pay royalties once you sell X number of copies. This used to be called vanity publishing before but has been sweetly masked to be called partnership publishing now. No harm in going ahead and doing it. Many bestselling authors in India began this way, either through investing in their books or starting their own publishing house. If no one believes in you, invest in yourself.
Typical partnership agreements (covering anything from editing, cover to marketing) ranges from 50,000 to 2 lakh rupees and largely only extends to paperbacks.
Most traditional publishers also have self-publishing arms (gotta make the moolah somewhere, and who better than aspiring, naive authors?!). Get a quote from everyone and see what works best for you. Some of the popular self-publishing houses are:
- Notion Books
- Cinnamon Teal
- The best – DIY at Amazon KDP + Createspace. The process is amazingly easy and if you need help with formatting, just head over to Fiverr. Why not do this and keep all royalties with yourself? The time-to-market is very short, and you have complete control over the creative process. See a handy article here. The only problem is the public perception about self-publishing and the fact that many reviewers do not review self-published books. Here are some self-publishing success stories. 1, 2, 3
The publisher-writer contract varies based on the mode of publishing. In the traditional publishing model, you get a singing amount or in the very least, a promise of royalty payment once 1000 books have been sold. In the partnership format, the author puts up an amount (anywhere from 50k-2 lakhs) for the editing, pagination, cover, and distribution of the book, and then gets paid royalties as the books sell. As a general rule of thumb, publishers in India pay 7-10% royalty on MRP for paperbacks, 10-12% for hardbacks, and 25% of the cost of e-books.
Tip: Try keeping the ebook and movie rights with yourself. Well, you never know if you strike gold, and then you will need to share the spoils with your publisher who might have done nothing to get you that opportunity.
Market your book
Get as many reviews as you can
Which will mean giving away plenty of free books at the beginning. There are professional and semi-professional individuals who can help you, often for a fee. Write to them to gauge how much they will charge. A list is below.
- Kalamos Literary
- Youtubers like bookgeeks or Lifeofmanpreet
- Instagrammers: Search for #bookstagrammersindia #bookreview to find reviewers or post a request in your feed with the hashtags and people will get in touch with you.
- A useful list of 75 reviewers in India. Note that most veteran reviewers will charge for their reviews. Keep your purse strings open.
Get a lot of reviews. 80-100 is a good number on Amazon and Goodreads to break the psychological mental barrier. In fact, do not do any type of marketing before you get these many reviews. And to get these reviews, you need to give away free books to people.
Do a book launch, but only for the photo
If it feeds your vanity, do it. But a book launch event, for all the effort you put, generates very little sales. I still suggest you do it because you can regurgitate the photo in all promotions throughout the year. And it does make the family proud.
Facebook / Instagram ad campaign
This by far has resulted in better sales and visibility for me than others, but it costs a ton. A good place to start is by taking the training or using the services offered by Author’s Unite. Or use a Facebook marketing tutorial to know what to do. DO NOT waste money without a target or knowing how to sell to the right audience. It is easy to go cheap, do piecemeal advertising/ marketing and get no results at all. Better to know your market, sell properly, spend and get the returns you really want.
What doesn’t work
Do not waste money on Twitter or Goodreads marketing, Goodreads or Amazon giveaways, and wasteful in-person PR exercises (like book-signings). If these are just for feeling good about yourself, and meeting some people, then go ahead. But the RoI is very low. In my experience, Instagram and Facebook marketing leading to Amazon sales work best. And constant reader interactions on social media to build your author profile.
Quick tip: Your reader group will largely be between 16 to 30 years old. Target your events keeping this in mind.
Err…now that’s really hard. Don’t give up your day job yet. At least not for a few years. If you are lucky.
Write another book, and then another
Do not write your first book and expect to make money, unless you are already famous and have an enviable social media following. Most authors take two or three books to really be known and start collecting royalties. Do not lose heart. This is a long term game.
Other things you can do
…to be paid and also to be known
- Give training on how to write. Look for book reading clubs and events that happen in cafes and pubs and offer your services for a fee
- Go for conferences and talks. Charge money to speak. You can speak about anything ranging from how to write a book or a specific book of your genre
- Send copies to indie filmmakers and studios. Cross your fingers tight
Keep writing. At least someone will read your story. In the end, a good story narrated passionately and marketed aggressively, always breaks through.