By Samragngi Roy
Disclaimer: I shall begin with a rant so I can conclude on a happy note.
So, here’s the unfiltered truth about the self-publishing industry in India. If I said that what I experienced as a self-published young adult author was rather unpleasant, it would be an understatement. It was traumatic! A nightmare! It was so exasperating that I was in a writing slump for almost two years after I got my debut novel published. It wasn’t the process of writing per se, but the process ‘after’ writing which was unnerving, upsetting and ultimately futile. The process of writing was everything I could ever dream of and those were the best days of my life!
Why did I opt for self-publishing my debut novel I’m Yours Forever (2017)? This is a question I often get asked which also happens to be the kind of question that can be adequately answered only with a 1500 word essay. But I will simplify it here for convenience’s sake. It was very difficult for me to find a traditional publisher who would be willing to publish an inexperienced sixteen-year-old nobody with a weirdly spelt name writing a clichéd love story. To put it bluntly, my work and I were not exceptions. It would be equally challenging for any sixteen-year-old to get their first big break in the publishing industry unless they are a prodigy or a protégé. But I was neither so I opted for the self-publishing method, partly out of ignorance of publishing methods and partly because self-publishing guaranteed that my book would be launched within a few months. It further implied that this nobody could become somebody while she was still in school. A super tempting possibility! I was also in a hurry because I had my board exams the following year and getting published just before my boards would be a sureshot way to jeopardize my ISC results and by extension my college admissions. I couldn’t afford to monkeywrench my future prospects for some temporary glory. Hence, the sooner I could get my work out the better. And thinking like this was perhaps the gravest mistake I had ever made! I should have taken time to think things through, to go through my manuscript several times, talk to experienced people in the field, get it professionally edited, received some constructive feedback, spent some time away from my work, looked at it again with free eyes after several months and only then taken the decision of seeing my book in print. But like I said, I was in a hurry! I was greedy for some recognition after all those years I had spent in the shadows being neither an athlete nor a dancer. I spared no time to think about the aftermath of this hasty decision and the work that was finally published a few months later was an epic disaster.
Why? There were several glaring errors in my manuscript which the editors didn’t bother to point out (because after all, it was not the publisher’s funds that were at stake). The typesetting and formatting were sloppy. There was barely any proofreading. I had used bombastic words and complex sentences at the most unnecessary places and they accepted it. There were some internal contradictions in the manuscript which also somehow managed to escape their notice. All of these taken together went on to make my work look extremely juvenile and unprofessional. I received no critical opinion on my work, no feedback, no reviews, absolutely nothing prior to the publication. My few friends in school and family members who had been my only readers had always been extravagant in their praise. The publishing team egged me on and were more than eager to sell their package irrespective of the quality of my work. Furthermore, they had charged my parents an enormous amount of money to print and distribute my books but never updated the dashboard, nor revealed the correct number of sales. As a result I had several people come up to me after the book launch saying that they had read my book, posted reviews of it online and got their copies signed by me but there was no corresponding change in numbers on my author’s dashboard based on which the royalty would be calculated. It was clear as daylight that they were not being transparent with me but there was nothing I could do about it! So, I got in touch with the other authors who had had their titles published by the same publishing house and it was really eye-opening for me because most of them had the same story to tell. I got a host of positive reviews online but several negative ones too which affected me deeply and hampered my self confidence just before my boards. Eventually, I came to know that it was quite the standard scenario of the Indian self-publishing industry, and no matter which publishing house I had approached back then, I would have had a very similar experience.
Over these last five years, I have grown so much as an individual both intellectually and emotionally that I cannot quite connect anymore with the teen who got published back in school and made the headlines. And since 2018, which was after I joined college, I took up English Literature which expanded my horizons, made me much more socially and politically aware that I have only ever looked back at my teenage years to cringe at my juvenilia and tremendously regret the hasty decision of self-publishing. But what’s done cannot be undone and once a work is out there in print, it’s very difficult to take it back, unlike old embarrassing posts on social media. However, what is surprising is that I still have people coming up to me saying that they loved my work! Juniors from school who are now in college have still kept in touch with me and they often affectionately bring up certain aspects of my novel in course of casual conversations and while I squirm with embarrassment, they ask me to stop belittling the work that they have been so immensely fond of in their teenage years. Some of my friends in college, who have either read my book as teens or more recently after they got to know me have told me that I should not be embarrassed at all because that is exactly how they felt as teens too and reading my book after so many years actually helped them get in touch with the unadulterated little joys and thrills of those liminal years when they were neither children nor adults. So, I did something I never thought I would do. I went back to my author’s copy and started reading my novel all over again after more than half a decade and in the process I laughed and cried but what I mostly wanted to do was to go back in time, hug my little self and tell her she was not alone; that she would get through whatever she was going through while she meticulously wrote, rewrote and then typed out these two hundred and seventeen pages alone and friendless in her room but with a head full of friends, adventures and happy dreams. It also helped me go further back in my childhood and analyze why I came up with such a storyline in the first place.
After a rough childhood riddled with diseases, deaths and unexpected departures of several loved ones, when I was fifteen I was extremely lonely. Raised by my grandmother with working parents, I survived mostly on her repertoire of myths, folktales and fairytales, which, surprisingly, I don’t remember. This part of my past has somehow been completely erased and it’s frustrating when I try hard to recall those days but just cannot seem to fill in the gaps in my memory. I never had a lot of friends growing up so I mostly dwelt in my head and wrote obsessively in my journals. I felt quite at home in my picturesque school when I was left alone. Being extremely studious, I hungered for the top score in every exam as though my life depended on it because it was the only place where I could shine. As an introverted kid, I was never good on stage and sought refuge in story books, particularly fantasy novels. But I wasn’t reading for knowledge. I wasn’t reading to improve my language skills or be at par with my friends in terms of intellect. I wasn’t reading to get all their pop-culture references at one go or to form strong bonds that extended beyond academics, shared spaces and shared miseries. I was reading to escape reality, to be a part of those clandestine worlds which I so deeply treasured.
From a very early age, I started writing short poems. I wrote short stories too and interestingly one of the most dominant themes in all of those stories, as I look back now, was escaping to other worlds, either via the timely intervention of fairies or aliens and so on. But as I got older and crossed the threshold between childhood and adolescence, the worlds in my head started to collapse. Perhaps because I was partially convinced of their sheer impossibility by then but after having been a part of so many worlds for such a major chunk of my childhood, the idea of creating my own world appealed to me, a world that I could control, where things would go exactly as I wanted them to, where nobody would abandon anyone else, where friends knew the value of friendship and love survived the test of time. There was no space for infidelity in my world, no scope for disloyalty, no third person interference between the lover and the beloved. So, my characters were largely one-dimensional because I found comfort in certainty and predictability. What helped me find confidence again was a novel that I had decided to write on my grandfather’s life. It was an impulsive decision and I didn’t initially think I’d be able to follow it through. It was an ambitious project too because if the story failed to find an audience, I would not be the only person grieving. It was a huge responsibility because the story of my grandfather’s life is closely intertwined with certain aspects of my town’s history. Hence I had to be extra careful about which parts I could fictionalize, which ones I could not. At various points over the last four years I felt like giving up but it was the hope in my grandfather’s eyes that kept me going, the way his face brightened every time I mentioned the book and his tireless recollection of events from his past, fuelled me with endless inspiration.
It’s 2022 now. I have successfully finished the book and this time my manuscript had the unexpected good fortune of impressing a famous literary agent who was eager to represent my work to a traditional publisher, leading to an email from Speaking Tiger Books saying that they wanted to take up my work because they saw some potential in it and were willing to invest in me. As with all Speaking Tiger books, it will be distributed by HarperCollins India. It is all too good to be true and I still find it hard to believe that my dream of being represented by one of the best publishing houses in the country is actually about to come true! I have definitely come a long way from being an insecure little teen clutching her journal close to her heart to being a PhD aspirant who, thanks to her excellent university education, has become so much more aware as a person, overcome her fears and insecurities, broken out of her shell and bravely presented academic research papers in various international conferences over the last couple of years. I hope, through this new endeavour, I will be able to reintroduce myself as an author and most importantly as a person who has grown from a tiny acorn to a slender oak sapling. There is so much more I’m yet to learn, to experience, and to be, before I become a mighty oak tree!
Samragngi Roy is a published author. Her debut novel, a work of Young Adult fiction, was published in 2017. Her upcoming novel, an autobiography of the famous light artist Sridhar Das, has been accepted for publication in 2023 by Speaking Tiger Books, and has also been selected for a subsequent book adaptation. After graduating from St. Joseph’s Convent, she is currently pursuing her Masters from the Department of English, Jadavpur University and working on a collection of ten experimental short stories, A String of Knots.
She has presented academic papers at various international conferences and her papers have been published in various international journals. Her research interests include Children’s and YA Literature, Gothic Literature, South East Asian Literature, Queer Studies, Feminist Theory and Dalit Literature. She works actively both online and offline as an English Language and Literature Coach for students across India. She also has her own little non-profit organization, The SHEILD, which conducts quarterly drives for the welfare of women and children. She can be found at @samragngi_roy on Instagram.