It has been just over two years since we launched Bye, Bye, Motabhai!. We are amazed how time has just whooshed past! Later this year, we will be moving towards becoming a small press, bringing in new authors and illustrators under our imprint. Things are heating up very quickly and this just seemed like a good time to pause and take a deep breath. We must warn you, dear reader – you are about to be subjected to a rambling discourse.
The question that keeps us awake at night is – have we been successful so far? This is a complex question to answer. Publishing is a uniquely challenging industry to be in today and Yali Books is a product of the times. We owe everything to the growth of print-on-demand technology and the massive proliferation of online book shopping. Without the two, we would have to print our own copies and hawk them at the local supermarket. However, what made it easy for us to press ‘publish’ also makes it easy to just about anyone to do the same. This is the Long Tail era, with millions of little niches and thousands of good and bad books in each tightly-defined genre. Going in, we knew that we are only going to sell a modest number of books to readers who wanted a connection with South Asia. We hoped we would have a good book, guided by our own ideas of quality and appeal. We just wanted to write and draw our hearts out, hoping that a small number of people would find our stories to be interesting. What we didn’t know is that the task of selling even one book would put muscular Greek heroes of myth to shame.
First off, we needed to actually create a book. Having a brilliant (okay, even moderately interesting) idea for a book is the fun part. This is the stage when we have a very broad outline or a theme in mind and get disproportionately excited about its potential to generate a Potter-esque reader mania. The actual process involved in translating that idea into a book is long, tedious and downright tortuous. It took us close to eight months to complete Bye, Bye, Motabhai! and over a year to finish our second, Jaipur Jamboree. Balancing writing and illustration with our day jobs has been particularly challenging. Our internal success-o-meter gives us big points for putting in the long hours and actually publishing a book or two. Book publishing suffers from terms that trivialize the process – putting out a book, for example. It is closer to giving birth to a book, with all the ensuing agony and ecstasy.
After months of perfecting every little detail in a book, you reveal it to the world and prepare to bask in all the glory and limelight. Everyone will see how wonderful it is! The orders will come pouring in! Ah, the naivety of youth.
Much before you can actually sell a book, you need to get reviewed. This is somewhat like handing over your baby to a stranger and asking them to honestly rate its appearance. The odds of being picked up for a review by the big gatekeepers, ALA for example, are so minute that it wasn’t worth sending out a copy. We chose publications we felt would be more welcoming. We picked South Asian diaspora magazines and blogs that supported multi-cultural diverse literature. We were fortunate. Almost all our reviews were extremely positive and encouraging. The highlight of our journey was the Honor Book mention from the South Asia Book Award for Bye, Bye, Motabhai!. We couldn’t believe it! We felt kind of giddy with success. We thought we had made it into the big leagues. Another youthful folly. Nowadays, just so we stay grounded, we look at our balance sheet every now and then. This is not a business for the fainthearted. The bottom line clinically reminds us that conventional success is laughing at us from a faraway place.
After excitement from the reviews and the award died down, we still needed to keep in touch with readers. As an indie publisher with almost no money to spend on advertising, we realized early on that we needed to harness the wild energy of social media. We just didn’t know what to do with it. To a reticent and introverted duo, the idea of posting thoughts and opinions ten times a day (or worse, peddling our books) seemed unimaginable. We began with a Facebook page and poked everyone we knew till they pressed the ‘Like’ button. We opened up a Goodreads account and ‘read’ a few books. We blogged when we felt like it and very soon, ran out of ideas. Maybe social media was just not our thing.
Till we signed up for Twitter.
On the face of things, Twitter seemed like the worst of the lot (Constant chatter! Inane musings!). However, the hyper-speed at which information flies around Twittersphere actually makes it less intimidating to post messages. The half-life of each tweet is so minuscule that it feels okay to be spontaneous and random. The best part is the sheer number of interesting people in the publishing universe who seem to have wholeheartedly embraced tweeting. Twitter helpfully suggests profiles based on our interests and we have found publishers, authors, illustrators, reviewers and curators in staggering variety of niches. Another highlight is the lightning-speed Twitter chat, a fascinating way to ‘meet’ people. We are still very, very new to Twitter but it has been an exciting ride so far.
Each social media platform is unique and requires significant effort to cultivate. As an indie publisher with a marketing staff of one, being on more than one social network is sort of like having a tiger by the tail. One needs to keep the beast well-fed and happy on schedule and cater to its constant demand for attention. You can’t let go. Have we been successful with our social marketing efforts? We think it is too early to tell.
In our attempts to define success, this year has been a revelation. We now have authors and illustrators expressing interest in our imprint. Talented people are sending us their manuscripts and portfolios. We are in the process of bringing in two authors under our umbrella and we will be launching their books in the near future. It is a wonderful feeling, standing at the edge of something unknown and eagerly anticipating the future. In our book, this is worth a zillion success points.
Indie publishing is a beautiful thing. You have the unique responsibility to bring odd, quirky and the really strange tales to life, the ones that a more commercially-minded publisher would be afraid to touch. You are guided only by your deep love for books and a brave disregard for profits. Your only reward is the spontaneous laughter of a young curious reader. Here at Yali Books, we consider ourselves to be very lucky.
This post is the first in a series called Cutting Chai, a place for musings on indie publishing.