Self-publishing | Sunday Observer

Self-publishing

The book publishing industry in Sri Lanka can be identified as one of the very few industries related to Art, which has the sustainability of an industrial nature. The enormous public participation every year at the annual Colombo International Book Fair is a live example to prove the industrial nature of the publishing industry which unfortunately is rarely experienced in any other Art mediums in the country. However, talking about the publishing industry, we cannot eliminate the continuous complaint by authors about the unfair and aggressive strategies of giant publishers who have comfortably eaten up a large share of the profit margin, while the true owners of the creativity get only a minimum share, despite the fact that the industry is dependent on their creative work.

In the backdrop that the malicious industrial mechanism works for the benefit of the businessman, self-publishing is one of the best avenues for the authors, if one is wise enough to understand its nature. Self-publishing is not a new medium in the Sri Lankan publishing industry. An eminent author of Sri Lankan literature, Martin Wickramasinghe was also a self-publisher at one time. He used to publish his work through his own press located at Mount Lavinia named Mount Press. Following in Wickramasinghe’s footsteps renowned author K. Jayathileka also took to self-publishing and was quite successful.

It is somewhat an exaggerated ‘half truth’ that Art can never be one’s bread and butter. The writers involved in the self-publishing industry have proved otherwise. Unlike those days, self-publishing is not considered as a route for those who couldn’t sustain in the mainstream. Highly acclaimed international as well as local authors are choosing to self-publish their books today. Of the many examples of the bold self-publishing industry in the country, award winning novelists, Shehan Karunatillake, Sumithra Rahubadda, Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, Mohan Raj Madawala, Navin Weeraratne are some, to name a few.

The biggest challenge an author faces after completing the manuscript would be whether to self-publish or seek an agent and thereby find a publisher. However, some authors have the luxury of choice to decide the best according to the market accessibility, while others don’t. Most of the time whether they agreed or not with the malicious exploitation of their labour and creativity, they have to opt for traditional publishers merely due to the less hassle and lack of exposure and knowledge of the industry.

Renowned novelist Sumithra Rahubadda got into the self-publishing industry decades ago from her very first novel Bumuthurunu and it is not hyperbole to call Sunethra the most successful woman self-publisher in the country. As she recalls, her first intention to opt for self-publishing was the rejection by traditional publishers for her first novel Bumuthurunu which later received the honour of being Sri Lanka’s first teledrama and South Asia’s first ‘colour’ teledrama directed by the legendary film director D.B. Nihalsinghe and the series aired on Rupavahini in 1982.

“There were limited traditional publishers at the time I stepped into the industry. As a writer I never had an intention to get into the publishing industry, rather, I wanted to continue my writing. As an amateur writer, I hadn’t any contact with established publishers or one who could recommend me to publishers to print my first novel. However, today I consider the continuous rejection as a blessing as I could establish myself as a writer as well as a self-publisher in the industry,” Sumithra said.

Being an experienced self-publisher for almost four decades Sumithra believes it would be wonderful if authors have both options of traditional publishing and self-publishing. However, she believes that it all comes down to the individual author’s personality and what they hope to achieve with the publication of their writing. “It’s a very personal choice; there are so many variables to consider, so that it’s essential to educate yourself in the pros and cons of both self- and traditional publishing,” she added.

So far Sumithra Rahubadda has self-published 64 publications including novels, children’s stories, short stories and translations. Her novels have won many literary awards and many have been placed under the best seller category. Although she distributed her publications through traditional distribution channels owned by traditional publishers, she was never demoralised, rather almost every distributor had welcomed her publications and supported her through their distribution channels.

“Throughout my career as a self publisher, the support I received from traditional distributors are enormous. However, it’s true that distributors can trash out a self-publisher overnight, as many self-publishers depend on traditional distributors. I’m lucky that my publications were well received by the distributors and they actually wanted my presence in their book shelves.

Shehan Karunathillake, well known for his mind-blowing debut novel Chinaman, is also a successful first time self-publisher who later got the opportunity to publish his writings through internationally well-established traditional publishers. As Shehan explains, he had to resort to self-publishing his book Chinaman, although he had one year after winning the Gratiaen Prize, as he didn’t get any response for the queries he made internationally or locally. “I was looking for a publisher who could help me edit it as the original version was over 500 pages. Locally or internationally I couldn’t find a publisher who was able to do an extensive structural edit. Therefore, I decided to do it myself,” Shehan said. Likewise, his wife Eranga Tennekoon did the cover for Chinaman and his brother Lalith Karunathilake, the illustrations and his dear friend Deshan Tennekoon did the typesetting and font design for the book. Veteran dramatist and script writer Ruwanthi de Chickera did the structural edit for Chinaman while Michael Meyler did the line edits while the sharp eyed Adam Smyth, proofed it.

“We printed Chinaman with Silverline Graphics and distributed through Perera-Hussein publishers. It was a lot of hard work and coordination. However, it allowed us to get the final product to a readable standard and out by the deadline. I did so because I couldn’t find a local publisher who would take such an interest and attention to detail with regard to the edits and presentation,” Shehan added.

However, a year later once he self-published Chinaman Chiki Sarkar of Random House bought Chinaman and shaved off 100 pages, redid the cover and font and released it internationally. Although the final version is a much superior book, Shehan still has a penchant for the self-published first two editions of Chinaman, which are now collectors’ items.

As Shehan correctly points out an author who decides to self-publish must have an entrepreneurial spirit, embracing and enjoying all that being your own boss entails. You must be the face of your book, treating it as a business venture, hiring the editor, designer, proof reader, printer and also doing the marketing.

Mohan Raj Madawala is also one of the best seller authors who runs his own publishing House called ‘Biso Publishers.’ Mohan got into the self-publishing industry in 2012 with his debut novel Magam Soliya. Mohan had marked his name in the field of Sinhala literature through his short story collections where he was well received by the audience at the time he stepped into the publishing industry as a self-publisher.

“The main reason why I wanted to be a self-publisher was because of the incapability of finding a reliable publisher for my debut novel. However, unlike those days, the monopoly in the publishing industry is huge and it’s too competitive and hard to sustain as a self-publisher. The giant publishers are crashing the small scale publishers as well as self-publishers and it is quite challenging to sustain as self-publisher in the industry,” said Mohan.

When asked why they are self-publishing, many authors say, “Because I can!” In the last two decades, digital technology first created print-on-demand publishing and then enabled e-book distribution, opening up what used to be a closed, elitist process to every writer: true democracy in publishing and almost every self-publishers are now slowly moving into e-books which is quite a progressive sign in the field of publishing. Most authors know how long it could take to find a publisher. And even if you find one, the publication cycle can take a year or more. If your book is time sensitive, it may well be out of date by the time you find a publisher. “Whatever the reasons for self-publishing, it’s important to make sure to enjoy the process by seeking out professionals to work with at every stage who share the vision of the book. For me that liberty is the most important thing as a self-publisher,” Mohan said. 

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