Indian author Rasana Atreya provides invaluable insight into the current state of self-publishing in India, and shares her views on opportunities and constraints for indie authors in her home country.
On February 16, Amazon hosted a self-publishing event in New Delhi, India – Amazon for Authors: Navigating the Road to Self-Publishing Success. Three KDP authors were invited, of which I was one. The session was moderated by Jon Fine, Director of Author and Publishing Relations, Amazon. This post is both a direct response to that event, as well as my thoughts on the publishing scene in India.
Jon Fine (JF) started off the formal session by showing the audience a video clip from the BEA (Book Expo America). Five indie authors were interviewed about self-publishing, including ALLi's founder, Orna Ross.
Misconceptions About Self-Publishing
The session continued with an introduction of the various imprints of Amazon Publishing (Encore, Crossing etc). Since this was a session on self-publishing with Amazon, I wondered about this.
It turned out that many in the audience didn’t realize that there was more to Amazon than self-publishing. Over dinner, I found myself repeating to various members of the audience that while Amazon Publishing does acquire books for its imprints using a formal submission process, this is completely separate from its self-publishing division. Many authors expressed confusion regarding self-publishing, and what vanity publishers tout as self-publishing.
Amazon's Challenges For Indian Authors
Prior to the session for the public, JF met with me and the two other KDP authors in a lively session in which we covered a lot of ground.
- I asked about integrating reviews so that all reviews across the various Amazon portals and Goodreads, the reader review site (which Amazon owns), show up everywhere collectively. I have over 300 reviews for Tell A Thousand Lies, but you couldn't tell if you were to go to Amazon.in because it only displays reviews written by customers of Amazon India. JF said Amazon fears falling foul of various country-specific free speech laws. I’m no lawyer (unlike JF) but this didn't make sense to me because, while reviews across the various Amazon portals might not be visible globally, Goodread reviews certainly are.
- I queried why Amazon offers only 35% royalties to authors on Amazon portals in India, Brazil and Japan unless the author goes exclusive with Amazon via KDP's ‘Select' program; the rest of the world continues at the 70% option even without ‘Select.' Setting aside the perceived unfairness, this be perceived as a problem for reasons discussed below.
- I also brought to JF's attention that having Amazon.in as the only portal for other countries in the Indian subcontinet (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, possibly Nepal and Burma) might cause readers from those countries to look for local vendors for reasons of national pride. This is already happening in many parts of the world. New Zealanders prefer not to buy from Amazon Australia, many French-speaking countries do not want to be directed to France. JF acknowledged this was an issue, but not something Amazon can control. No matter how many portals they open, there will still be countries who'd be directed to another country's site.
- I raised the issue of international surcharge – this is an additional charge levied by Amazon on those not buying from their designated Amazon portal, or for those travelling. This surcharge is pretty stiff. JF was unaware of this, and promised to look into it.
I was glad to be invited to the Amazon session and I’m rooting for them because what’s been good for them has been good for authors, thus far. But there are significant concerns, so I present to you my take on the Indian publishing scene.
My Take on the Indian Publishing Scene
India, as a market, cannot be ignored by Amazon or any other ebook retailer, simply because we're so big: we have around 150 million English speakers. While I'm excited that Amazon is taking India seriously, the market, as it stands, is fragmented.
- Last I heard Flipkart was in merger talks with Myntra, a fashion retailer giant. An Amazon executive at the Delhi event mentioned that that particular deal has fallen through. Perhaps. But the fact that they were even discussing merger, to me, was significant.
- Smashwords has inked a deal with Flipkart, so Smashwords e-books are now available in India.
- Then there's Google Play and Rockstand, ebook mobile app maker.
E-Readers Insignificant in India
Dedicated e-book readers have not really taken off in India. All the reasons that account for their popularity in the West don't apply here:
- The younger (under 40) set prefer tablets and smartphones.
- The 40+ set in the West has adopted e-readers because of the ability to increase font size to a comfortable reading level, in India a lot of readers in that age range are reading in Indian languages.
- Indian language books are not available as ebooks, so obviously, there is no incentive to buy an e-reader.
Having said that, Apple products (iPads/iPhones) are very popular in India (despite there being no India iBook store), as are Android tablets. In my opinion Amazon would sell more e-books not on their e-readers, but via cool/hip e-book apps. Rockstand has a headstart here. Kindle Fire, being a tablet, could possibly do better.
I've already mentioned the fragmented market in India. Since Amazon entered India less than a year ago, they are still building up a customer base (remember, Flipart already has an established presence). If Amazon doesn't make it attractive for authors to remain exclusive with them by offering 70% royalties, like they do worldwide, authors are not going to have any incentive to sign up for ‘Select’.
Local Book Pricing Issues
Which brings me to another India-specific issue. Books in India have to be priced lower; you simply cannot price in US dollars and expect to sell here – the exchange rate does not make it viable. In order to compete locally, self-published authors are forced to lower the price of the book.
- Now, even if Amazon were to reconsider their non-Select royalty option for India (and raise it to 70%), ‘Select' still requires that the book be priced in the $2.99-9.99 range in order to get that 70%. $2.99, at today's exchange rate, is Rs. 184.90. While this might be a reasonable price for a print book, it is not competitive in a market where ebooks are priced Rs. 99 or lower: another disincentive for authors to sign up for KDP Select. I did ask JF about this, and he said – how many traditional publishers offer you even 35%? But that's not the point, is it?
- CreateSpace, though based in the US, is available for use by the rest of the world. For print book sales in the US this works great, but shipping charges can add up if ordered from another country. This includes discounted copies available to the author. In response to my comment JF said UK-based authors often bring this problem up, especially the huge transatlantic shipping costs they incur even when they're ordering discounted author copies.
- This is a bigger problem in India because of the unfavourable exchange rates. From the reader's perspective, the books are priced in dollars, which make it very expensive for them; shipping costs from the US only add to this. For the author, also, it does not work out in terms of the pricing – despite the discounted rate for author copies, the exchange rate prices up the book. Add to that the shipping charges, and you have a horrendously priced book. JF's answer to this was to use local printers. For India, one solution would be to use pothi.com.
Which Books Sell Best In India?
This brings me to the final question in this post, this from a fellow indie writer – what kind of books sell in India? From my own experience – anything that sells in any other part of the world. Romance has always been huge, as have mysteries and thrillers, and spiritual books.