Are you a bloody good writer?
Gone are the days when editors at publishing houses decided which books would see the light of the day. It's 2014, and the beginning of a new publishing trend is here crowdsourced publishing. Bloody Good Book, a new venture by author Rashmi Bansal lets readers decide whether they want a book published or not. Saurabh Datar finds out more
In January last year, Shubhra Rishi (29), Shantheri Mallaya (35) and Vinay Kumaar (23), all three of them technology writers, decided to write a whodunnit. After a month of continuous meetings, plot discussions, character development and writing sessions, the trio finally finished their manuscript. Tentatively titled A Game of Pawns, the book is a murder mystery with the interspersing lives of three people. That was the easy part. The real game had just begun. They had to try and find a publisher who would take a look at their work.
“I didn’t know whom to send it to,” says Rishi. Then came along Bloody Good Book, a new publishing initiative with a twist. Bloody Good Book (BGB) is a fresh venture by author and entrepreneur Rashmi Bansal (author of Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish, Connect the Dots). It’s a crowdsourced and crowd-curated publishing company. Unlike other publishing houses, BGB functions in a different way. “We let the readers choose the books they want to see published,” says Bansal, who describes her venture as a “not-for-profit platform to discover original, fresh and path-breaking writers.”
The mechanism is simple -- aspiring authors send their manuscripts to BGB. Out of these, the best ones will be picked and the first three chapters of these manuscripts will be uploaded onto their website. Here, readers will be invited to browse through the manuscripts and vote for the ones they would like to read further. Depending on the quality of the manuscripts and the readers’ choice, the firm will decide on which book to publish.
BGB is primarily an e-book publishing venture and plans to release a minimum of six and a maximum of 12 books a year. “If your book is published, that means it’s pretty good,” states the website. Apart from publishing, the firm also plans to give feedback and tips to budding authors to help them improve their writing chops, something which traditional firms never do.
Addressing the market
Bansal says she knows the pulse of young India as she travels to colleges around the country to give lectures on entrepreneurship. She was the founder of Just Another Magazine, a publication with a cult popularity. “Wherever I go, there are people who come up to me and tell me: ‘Ma’am I’ve written a book, please take a look at the manuscript.’ I keep getting emails of new books and manuscripts people have written. So there is talent and people do want to get published and be read widely. That’s how the idea for the company germinated,” says Bansal.
She believes no publisher really has their fingers on the pulse of the market. She says many books die a premature death because editors at publishing firms have a different view as compared to that of the market. This is not only in India. The first Harry Potter book (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) was rejected by 12 publishers. The 13th publisher picked it up only because his eight-year-old daughter insisted, “Daddy, this is so much better than anything else!”
“For a long time, we had this view that only ‘literary’ authors -- Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy etc -- were worthy of getting published. They were good books, but may not have been what the majority of the public wanted. Now you have Indian authors writing primarily for Indian readers,” elaborates Bansal, who promises to give manuscripts a fair and democratic process, in which readers can express their opinion on them.
While they’re open to all, BGB expects the yuppies (age group16 to 30 years) to hop on to their bandwagon the fastest. In fact, the only other person in the company is 24-year-old Niyati Patel, who has a couple of years experience in magazine publishing.
Bansal has deliberately chosen a younger age group as her target audience as she wants to give first-time authors a fair chance. “It’s very difficult for a new author to get published. Even if you send your manuscripts, publishing houses will, generally, not revert, because they get thousands of submissions. Even the ones they do publish, it’s hard to gauge whether the book will sell,” she explains.
Flipping the current model, BGB gives the power to the readers to choose the books they want to see published. It’s a community-driven publishing house, as Bansal calls it. “Most people buy a book and after three chapters, they stop reading if the book is boring. Instead, here, they get a chance to sample the book before it’s brought out. If they like what they read, we’ll give them the whole deal,” she adds.
The firm has its sights set on the e-book market, which is still at a nascent stage in India, but is set to explode, according to Bansal. “We believe e-books are the future and we will concentrate our whole and sole on them.”
AB Chakravarthy, another one among the 22 authors who have sent in their manuscripts, has similar views. Chakravarthy has churned out a thriller called Split Second. “It’s about an ad man who thinks he lives two lives and has caused the death of his favourite movie actress. This is being watched from two schools of thought - physics and psychiatry,” he tells me.
The engineer-turned-MBA self-published a novel called The Best Person I Met in 2007 two years ago. “That was a printed book, which sold around 6,000 copies. But, this time, I have decided to go the electronic way, because I believe the way e-readers and tablets are being sold, e-books are going to be huge,” says the effervescent author.
The trio of Rishi, Kumaar and Mallaya, too, prefer being published as an e-book. “It’s a platform we would like to be in, because it’s easy to discover and distribute e-books,” says Rishi.
By the community, for the community
‘Social’ is the buzzword for most ventures these days. With the penetration of smartphones and tablets in the country, everyone’s always online. The numbers speak for themselves. From January 2013 to September 2013, more than 3.1 million tablets were shipped, according to data provided by CyberMedia Research, a market research and consultancy firm.
IDC, an international analytics firm, reported that 12.8 million smartphones were shipped by vendors to India in the third quarter of 2013 -- phablets formed a 23 per cent share in this chunk. In the second quarter of 2013, IDC reports claimed vendors shipped 9.3 million smartphones. Phablets are smartphones with screen sizes between 5 inches to 7 inches -- good enough for reading. Then there’s Kindle by Amazon, an e-book reader that has seen vast popularity. With the entry of Amazon to India, the e-book market looks extremely promising.
Author Amish Tripathi, who himself had a tough time selling his first novel The Immortals of Meluha to print publishers, believes BGB is very interesting. “As of now, there’s a single editor who is somehow supposed to figure out what the readers want. They may get it right and sometimes, they get it wrong. What an editor is supposed to do is pick books that readers may like. But, they end up choosing manuscripts that they like, according to their own personal taste.
This is what we in the corporate world used to call a ‘job role confusion’,” quips the former banker, who has sold millions of copies of his Shiva trilogy. Tripathi is very interested to see how BGB works out, as it circumvents the ‘personal choice’ of an editor, as he calls it.
Karthik Srinivasan, the national head of Social@Ogilvy, the social media arm of advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather is fascinated by the idea, but is slightly apprehensive about how many readers will actually participate. “It’s a brilliant concept; no doubt about that. But, how many people will actually read three chapters? In this day and age of short attention spans, it’s difficult to get people to read your work,” he says.
However, Srinivasan believes if the incentive is good enough, the concept may actually click. Bansal agrees, “Yes, we will obviously have incentives. The mechanics and the logistics are yet to be figured out, but we will have rewards for those who participate. There will be autographed books, and meet-ups with well-known authors. “
Apart from editing, proof-reading, packaging, cover design etc, BGB will represent the authors when he/she approaches print publishers. “It’s easier to attract publishers if a manuscript can show it has potential readers. That’s the advantage for writers with BGB,” says Bansal.
When asked about the curated model of publishing, Poulomi Chatterjee, managing editor, Hachette India, says, “It’s an interesting model that has worked on/off for publishers. Fifty Shades of Grey was initially published online as a fan fiction of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight and because of its popularity, it was taken on by a publisher and sold with a huge marketing push.”
Diya Kar Hazra, Publisher -- Trade, Bloomsbury India, quotes Macmillan’s crowdsourced teen romance imprint Swoon Reads, and feels the model would only work with certain genres. “It would be particularly effective with mass market and commercial fiction. For the writers, it appears to be a one-stop solution for a manuscript -- they don’t need to shop around. Also, you’re publishing what the readers like, so it’s commercially viable.”
Traditional publishing works on lists or publishing programmes, Chatterjee says, and though the choices are market-led and market research is conducted, they are based on a hunch about how a particular genre or title will catch on and sell -- not on the established popularity of something.
Hazra adds, “One has to be careful about plagiarism, piracy and copyright. And a writer should be clear of what he wants. If they’re keen on a print edition, the print publisher will also want e-rights. If the book has been available for a while electronically or otherwise, it may not be as easy to get a traditional publisher interested.”
Would they consider such a model for their own firms? “Not as a conscious or an established model,” Chatterjee replies.Hazra opines that a publisher needs to create taste, readership and a market, while providing readers with what they like. “While it’s great to have commercial success, to only allow readers or the (mass) market to dictate what you publish is the end of variety, choice, uniqueness and identity,” she explains.
But, both publishers kept their options open, saying they would consider a manuscript, if it fit their publishing programme and adhered to their quality standards.
“The decision to publish would depend on how much I/the editor reading the manuscript liked it and whether it works for our list,” says Hazra. “If we do come across writing that is making waves and it makes sense adding it to our list, we would look at doing so,” states Chatterjee.
Meanwhile, Bansal and Patel are busy reading manuscripts that are pouring in by the day. “Twenty five years from now, we want to be known for being the first to publish the next Arundhati Roy, Amish Tripathi, John Greene or Suzanne Collins. That’s our mission and vision.”
If you think you’re the one, you know what to do.
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