Publishing Speculative Fiction (in India): Frequently Asked Questions

I compiled a list of FAQs for those who want to publish their works of fiction. This is mostly for the benefit of clueless first-timers. You are welcome to circulate the list as long as you don’t change or modify it.

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1. What is publishing?

Legitimately, a piece of writing is considered ‘published’ if it has gone through an editorial process of selection – i.e. if someone other than you has independently decided that the writing is worth publishing. This means even a small magazine with only one editor (i.e. Helter Skelter) is a legitimate publisher, as long as it actually selects its publications (i.e. does not publish everything it receives). If you receive payment for such a publication, it is a professional publication. If you do not receive payment, it is an amateur publication. (Sometimes there is an interim stage called semi-professional publication, depending on how much money is paid.) But all of these are legitimate publications. And, if you want, you can put them in your writing CV.

Publishing houses, big or small, are professional publishing companies. (There are no amateur or semi-professional publishing companies.) This means, if you give a publishing house a manuscript which it decides to publish, it will draw out a contract that pays you an advance and enlists a further payment of royalties for your book. The publishing house will give your book an ISBN number and enlist it as its product. The amount of advance or royalty you get may vary according to the size of the publishing house and the potential of profit it sees in your book, but this pattern will not change.

The publishing house will not take your money. If this does not happen, it is not a legitimate publication.

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2. What is vanity publishing?

‘Vanity publishing’ is usually a derogatory term, which falls in the grey area between ‘publishing’ and ‘self-publishing’. It means you publish your book from a publisher that looks like (or masquerades as) a legitimate publisher, but will publish anything you want for your money. A vanity publisher will usually not pay you an advance (rather, you may have to pay it for its services) and may or may not pay you royalties later.

Vanity publishing is a somewhat shady business. It’s hard to find examples of vanity publishers, because most of them don’t use the term. But if you come across a publishing house that looks like a legitimate publisher but asks for money to publish your book, you have found a vanity publisher. Beware of them, unless you know this is exactly what you want. (You probably don’t.) Rather, choose the self-publishing route.

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3. What is self-publishing?

There are no self-publishing houses, only self-publishing platforms and services. Let me explain. Self-publishing is the act of putting up your writing to a wider audience without the intervention of an editor or selector, so the ‘self-publisher’ is the author him/herself. This is not a legitimate form of publishing, but many authors choose this for various reasons – they have not found acceptance at legitimate publishers but nevertheless want to share their works; their writing is groundbreaking or experimental; they’re building an easily accessible and goodlooking resume of work to show to a publisher before getting a contract, and so on.

The most basic kind of self-publishing platform is a blog. You can put up your writing neatly typed in a font you like, against a background you like, and anyone who finds it can access it; but it is not considered a legitimate (either amateur or professional) publication. The same will be true for other, more complex forms of self-publication.

Self-publishing services like Lulu or CinnamonTeal help you do the same in a more organised manner, for which they charge you money. For your money, you can have a goodlooking cover, a copy-edited manuscript, a printed and bound book and even some distribution. If you want, you can put a price on the book and sell it. On Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, you will be able to put your book on the Kindle Store and sell it. For many self-published authors, this is the perfect system.

But remember, through this system your book will still be a self-published book. What are you missing out by this? For example, your book will likely not have an ISBN number and will not be archived in national libraries. (Did you know that national libraries archive every single book published in a country? The national library of India is in Kolkata.) It will not be cited in an academic paper or article as a ‘real’ book. Besides, many newspapers and professional reviewers only review professionally published books, many distribution networks only carry them as well… and they will give your self-published book a miss. But if you are a self-aware self-published author, these may not be factors you care for. Then, self-publishing is ideal for you.

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4. What really are the problems with self-publishing?

You have to understand, it is not the printing or even the book cover that delivers your favourite book to you – it is marketing and distribution. Once a book is published by a publishing house, it’s the marketing department that takes over, sending the book to newspapers and magazines to be reviewed, arranging for book launches and literary festival appearances and other ways the book becomes visible. Distribution networks send the books to both online retailers and the bookstores in your city or neighbourhood. Without them, even the best books would be simply non-existent to you.

When you self-publish your book, even if it’s a fantastic book, the whole responsibility of marketing and distribution falls upon you. In my opinion (and I’m a humanities student with no knowledge at all of marketing or distribution), writing or publishing a book is far easier than making it visible to a potential reader or convincing them to actually buy it. In today’s world, we are swamped with too many books and too little time or too few people to read them. Why will someone buy your book instead of the latest Dan Brown bestseller? How will you convince a stranger that your book is actually better? I don’t know the answer, and nor does Charles Stross, and this is why neither of us self-publish.

(But some other people do, and get very rich in the process, and manage to get their books published from legitimate publishers as well. If you think you can become one of them, let the force… etc.)

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5. But why won’t a publisher buy the story I put on my blog?

Publishing is a smaller business than you think, and it is very hard to make profit even for large publishing houses. (I worked at one, so I know.) While putting up a story on your blog does not mean a legitimate publication credit, it means a potential loss of profit for any publishing house that prints it in a book that has to be bought for money.

This is not a hard-and-fast rule. Many self-publishing bestsellers – including The Immortals of Meluha by Amish and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy – were later bought and published as books by professional publishers. How does that work? It does because there is still a large amount of saleablity potential left in the book, despite many people having already read it. If your already available story does not have that much potential, unfortunately a professional publisher will consider it a loss to publish it.

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6. But why won’t a publisher publish my very good novel?

The hard truth is – publishing is a business, and often decisions about which book to publish are made on the basis of the potential of profit rather than the quality of the book. It’s especially hard for writers of speculative fiction to get a good deal out of a publisher, because speculative fiction isn’t a popular or profitable genre in India.

What to do in this situation? Of course, the long-term solution is to buy, read and visibly talk about other writers who are publishing in the genre. In that way, not only are you becoming aware of the current scenario, you are also helping to promote the genre, which will reflect back on your book when you publish it.

Then there is, of course, self-publishing, with all its rewards and its pitfalls.

But if you want to make your book a more attractive proposition for professional publishers, here’s what you can do – make yourself visible and relevant, especially on the Internet. Write short stories and sent them to magazines, both online and print. Write reviews, even on your blog. Write opinion pieces. Write a column. And more than anything, talk to potential readers and fellow fans. Speculative fiction is a wonderfully open community, and you’ll find a lot of people willing to talk if you are. Seek them out. Build a name and an identity. The book doesn’t come first. More often than not, the book is only a culmination of all these things.

Besides, try and get an agent.

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7. What is an agent and how can it help my book?

An agent or an agency is one of the aspects it is worth spending money on. Usually, an agent is a person (and an agency the office this person works at) who evaluates your manuscript and helps you find the appropriate publisher and contract for it. Since most writers don’t know the inner workings of the publishing industry, or the name of every publisher out there, or the standards of advance or royalty, it happens often that you end up with a contract not right for you. Or no contract at all. An agent will help you avoid these things.

Agents were not a part of the Indian publishing industry even a few years ago, but they are becoming increasingly common. You can even have a foreign agent who works with rights in India. Give this aspect a look.

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8. Where can I publish my short stories?

I halted at this question the last time. There are many literary magazines in India, but few of them are amenable to speculative fiction. I will make a list of those I know:

Hindustan Times Mint has published Kuzhali Manickavel in the past and is probably open to publishing more speculative fiction.

Helter Skelter magazine publishes an annual anthology of new writing, which often includes speculative fiction. Keep an eye on the magazine for the call for submissions.

– Kindle magazine (not related to Amazon) has published my own speculative fiction and is probably willing to publish others’.

– Jaggery, which is run by Sri Lankan American author Mary Anne Mohanraj, who is also one of the founder-editors of the speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons. 

Muse India is currently looking for science fiction and related articles, under the editorial of Sami Ahmad Khan, with a deadline of 1 April 2015.

Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana, edited by Vandana Singh and Anil Menon, was published in 2012 by Zubaan, a publishing house that often publishes speculative fiction. Keep an eye out for such occasional calls for submissions.

– On the other hand, there are many international magazines which publish speculative fiction, and it’s a good idea to publish in the online magazines, so that you can also share your stories with friends and readers in India. A useful and free guide to the multitudes of such magazines can be found at The (Submission) Grinder.

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