The Higgledy-piggledy Publishing Biz: To Begin or Not to Begin


By Divya DubeyI want to publish my own book. How do you start a publishing house? What do you think of vanity publishing?

In the recent days, I have come across a lot of people asking me these questions. If they are your questions too, beware. You may be confusing issues. If you want to get a book published, by all means – do. But if you feel that starting a publishing house will be an answer to your problems, you’re grossly mistaken. Please note: self-publishing is different from setting up a publishing business. (Yes, I do make a distinction between self-publishing and vanity publishing, and the distinction is based purely on the quality of the product you produce – whether it is content or production; whether you do it yourself or get somebody to do it for you).

Though it may seem that setting up a publishing house is child’s play in today’s world (there seem to be clusters of them at every street corner, so it must be easy), let me assure you it’s not. Publishing is not like any other industry. One: we do not deal with consumer goods. Two: it’s not a money-minting machine as many people seem to think. Three: it needs constant investment, the risks are huge, and the gestation period is astoundingly long. Four: like any other profession, publishing needs some knowledge/specialisation and a certain set of skills. Five: everybody today wants to write; nobody wants to read! There are writers galore, publishers galore, and few book buyers!

The supply seems to be much more than the demand; the competition is fierce. The book review space is shrinking; so is shelf space. More book shops are shutting down. The existing ones are spilling over. With so much on offer, today’s reader is perhaps more confused than ever, and only opts for tried and tested things – or products that come cheap.

If you feel publishing is easy, you’re assuming that there are readers out there dying to buy your books, that distributors would be falling over themselves to pick them up, and retailers would empty their shelves to make way for yours. In the end everybody would make money and be happy. A deadly mistake. The process is neither so simple nor butter-smooth and linear, even if you have a good book in hand.

The reality is quite contrary to your assumptions, and it’s pretty grim. Beyond family, friends, and relatives, buyers are generally few and far between for most authors unless he/she is already well established. People today spend willingly on other, more glamorous sources of entertainment such as movies, restaurants, games, gadget accessories, etc rather than on ‘old-fashioned’ books. The few who still do, usually don’t like to take risks with a new book/author. Hence, to put it very simply, the retailers are reluctant to stock such a book. Hence the distributors are equally reluctant to take it on. Hence the publishers are hesitant to publish him/her. And the established writers offer no guarantees of success either. Often enough they lose their buyers to music albums, a pizza, a new haircut, and other such sources of instant gratification.

Setting up a publishing house implies putting several processes together. Once you’ve published your book, you need to churn out more titles regularly. That means attracting good authors, doing them justice, and selling the books. You’re dependent upon several other cogs in the giant wheel, who are in no mood to oblige you. It becomes a process of publishing and waiting; producing a good book and waiting for a miracle to happen – bracing yourself for the same challenges again and again and again. In the end, unsold books return to you by the truck-load.

So, when you wonder why things are the way they are, look at people’s book-buying habits before jumping to the conclusion that the publishers are the villains in the entire gamut, and you would do well to start off on your own. Publishing is a tough business and needs, apart from resources, the nerves of a warrior and the patience of a sage.


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