Thoughts on book publishing industry

Note: Posted this on my blog the other day. Wanted to get opinion of a wider audience and hence posting it here.

There has been a recent spurt in the number of writers. 4 out of 10 people I know are either writers or are aspiring to be one. And similarly, the spurt in homw grown publishing companies. After all, all you need to be a publishing company is a couple of certificates and you are ready to issue ISBN numbers.

For a first time writer, the traditional way to go about getting a book published is to finish the manuscript, cold call all the publishers he can and hope to hear back from one or more.

Then, came the middle man – the literary agents. Now the writers wrote their manuscripts, went to a literary agent and slept in peace. The agent would identify the publishing houses that may be interested in the manuscript and approach these publishers. Ofcourse the agent would ask or a cut. A typical number, if I am not wrong is 10%. Could bi higher for a new writer.

So the game is heavily stacked in the favour of agents and the publishers. Publishers take a call on what they want to publish. The kind of books published and thus advertised on the mainstream are thus limited to the understanding of the publisher. Ofcourse publishers are learned men and know what they are doing. They run huge businesses after all. But then, if there was a way the audience, the junta, the aam aadmi could decide the kind of books they want to read, it would be awesome.

So here are the ideas. Three actually.

One. Discovery platform.

What if every first time writer gets to create an account on a portal. They upload the first three chapters (or 10% of the book online) and the platform is open for the audience to read these excerpts. If readers like what they see, they can indicate that they want to read the rest of the book. The books that get “likes” above a minimum threshold (say 5000 likes) are put in print and every one who has liked is notified about the print run. If the “likes” are below the threshold, everyone who indicated a like would have an option of buying the digital copy of the rest of the book.

So essentially, the process of identifying the “winners” is taken away from the publishers and literary agents and is given in the hands of the readers. If such could be the case, I am assuming that there would be lot more writers that would get published and a lot of books that have been published would be sent to raddiwalla.

Classic freemium model at work.

Two. Marketplace for writers and publishers.

What if there could be a service that got writers and publishers together on a platform. So all new authors login, see what kinda things do publishers want to publish and then accordingly submit their manuscripts. On the other hand, publishers see what kind of scripts are being uploaded and see if publishing those would make sense for their business.

Platform does one level of sanity and hygiene check and then lists the manuscripts to publishers. Publishers now decide if they want to publish or not.

This kills the literary agent but at the same time saves so much of headache for writer and publishers.

Three. Self publish on the digital medium

Alternatively (or may be concurrently), the platform that I spoke about in idea # 2 could enable and guide the new writers to publish themselves digitally. The platform could take care of logistics like issuing an ISBN number etc. Since digital reading devices are in vogue, there must be enough people interested in buying these digital books (at least numbers from Amazon tend to indicate this). And suddenly a new writer is no longer at the mercy of the whims of a publisher!

And if a book does well on the digital platform, they can be released in the traditional print run, and get sold on brick and mortar stores and flipkarts of the world! looks like a good place for such an idea but IMHO the execution leaves much to be desired.

Thats it. Its a pity that the business is stacked against the content creators. My estimates and interviews tell me that a new writer gets anywhere between 4% and 12% (if lucky) of the selling price of the book. The major chunk goes to the reatailer (flipkarts and Strands of the world) and the publisher. Isnt it unfair that the content creator actually gets the smallest piece of the pie? Something worth fixing!

Posted originally on sgSandbox.

9 Responses to “Thoughts on book publishing industry”

  1. Shitij says:

    I run a children’s content startup and it puts me in the shoes of a writer and a publisher.
    I think the biggest challenge to all these problems and new platforms is distribution. And that’s what publishers have built over the years.
    It’s kind of sorted with having online players but reaching thousands of brick and mortars stores still needs foot soldiers which the author or a new publishing house will take time to build. Once they invest in that and build it they will also charge appropriately.
    The other big problem is after reaching these stores. The retail margin for the shop is 40-50%.

    With those kind of distribution and retail costs, I sympathize with publishers as much as with authors. That also leaves the space open to disruption.
    For these reasons, I’m also very interested in this space. @Vishal @Abhishek: Do get in touch. [Email:]

    A random but interesting fact that the CEO of one of the largest and most respected publishing houses told me is that there are 50,000 libraries in India, all you need to do to make profit is just convince even 5000 of these to buy your book and you are a best seller.

  2. krish says:

    The big grouse faced by first time authors (and the not-so-successful repeat ones as well)is against the publishers.

    Authors depend on publishers to spend on the most essential feature, which is marketing but they never do it. Ok, authors could do some lecture tours or viral it up across their blog that has some extracts of the book – which is clearly not enough.

    Publishers also scrimp in printing enough copies on the first run. They strictly go by the pre-sale order data generated online and offline for which you need a robust readership base, that a first timer lacks.

    Publishers forget that books are a consumer discretionary and not a staple. Owing to their weak promos and printing fewer copies on the first run for the book stores, their on the rack visiblity is very poor. And in their anxiety to recover entire costs with fewer copies, the marginal cost of each copy is set so high by the publisher, mostly out of reach of many an aspirant reader but average earner.

    Publishers, while ridiculously pricing the books, also overlook the fact that digital copies of even classics are available free at sites like and the sheer number of classics downloaded will last a lifetime of a reader easily, given the pressure on his time. And then there are direct book and digital exchanges between readers to reckon with that no publisher can ignore.


    Refreshingly new approach to the publishing world!

    Incorporating the concept of ‘crowdfunding’ is an approach which has been attempted in some hues.

    I’ve got a publishing contract with Westland and an agency representing me..Redink..and my book is slated to be released in September ’12. Have been through the journey, and do concur it can be an excruciating process.

    However…the market reality in India is that the physical format is essential to achieve scale and for the author to build a brand.

    We must also acknowledge that publishers also offer distribution access, which is critical.

    The market is bound to change in the coming years with a greater salience of ebooks and readers, but in my view…that’s still some time away.

    But from a business opportunity….this may just be the right time to set off on a combination of the models presented.

  4. Hi Saurabh,

    All three of your ideas are interesting. My take on the matter is that currently “Publishing” encompasses a variety of content being delivered through similar distribution channels. As more and more technology enters the industry, it is going to splinter. So while travel guides, cookbooks etc will convert into beautiful, personalized digital products, textbooks will take on a lot of interactive features. They will look more like web development instead of traditional writing. Long form narrative will probably still play in the traditional realm of author, editor, publisher though it will also increasingly move to digital.

    However the question is also of market readiness. You need enough readers willing to engage in the new mediums before it becomes worthwhile for an author to explore. It is for tinkerers like us to build the new platforms and allow people to experiment without putting much at stake.

    Having said that I know we have a long way to go at I would love to hear where did you find us lacking and your thoughts on what can we improve.

    Abhaya Agarwal

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