Monday, February 22, 2010

A Novel Business Plan by Avantika

Today, self-publishing has become a viable option for many aspiring authors. In theory, self-publishing allows the author to keep all the profits and have absolute control over the entire publishing process. In reality, instead of making money from their work, many self-published authors have sustained financial loss. A possible reason this occurs is because self-published authors are not aware that, fundamentally, the publishing industry is a business where issues like profit, loss and risk play as important a role as the quality of writing in the manuscript. Therefore, if you aspire to self-publish your work, you would be wise to create a business plan before you begin the publishing process.

To make more sense of the steps described below, assume that you would like to self-publish 2,000 copies of a manuscript for a novel you wrote. In addition, for ease of reference, your business plan will be called ‘novel business plan’.

The Executive Summary
Normally, the ‘Executive Summary’ is no longer than one page. It is written in clear and concise terms and contains a short description of your business, who you intend to sell your product to and what is special about your product. In your novel business plan, think of the ‘Executive Summary’ as the blurb that will go on the dust jacket of your novel. Therefore, write a paragraph of no more than 500 words that contains the following information:

• Name of your lead character.
• What your lead character does for a living.
• The lead character’s main opposition.
• The main conflicts the lead character faces.
• Where the main conflicts will take place.
• What the main theme of the story is.
• How you want the story to feel to your readers.

Description of Business
This is the part of your novel business plan where you prepare an in-depth analysis of your novel. Start by writing a 1000-word synopsis of your novel. Then, think of the kind of readers you envisage reading your novel and provide as detailed a profile of them as you can. Factors to consider are your readers’ gender, age group, income bracket, location and whether or not your readers have internet access. Next, which genre does your novel fall into? Some examples of common genres for novels are:

• Literary fiction.
• Commercial fiction.
• Historical fiction.
• Crime Drama.
• Suspense.

Before you finish this step, add in details of legal requirements you will need to adhere to. For instance, many bookshops refuse to sell books without an International Standard Book Number (‘ISBN’). To get your novel stocked in bookshops, you will, therefore, have to obtain an ISBN. In Malaysia, you can obtain your ISBN for free from the National Library of Malaysia.

Finally, make sure that your manuscript does not flout any intellectual property laws. If your manuscript incorporates material that is protected by copyright, make sure you have the original author’s written permission to use his work before you begin to self-publish.

Market Strategies
Now that you’ve identified who your readers are, go ahead and provide a detailed analysis of how you plan to sell your novel to them. Divide your ‘Market Strategies’ into ‘Before Publication’ and ‘After Publication’.

Under ‘Before Publication,’ list details of any plans to enter into an agreement with a distributor to help get your novel into major bookshops. If you’d like to convert your manuscript into an eBook as well, explain how you will go about setting up a website to sell your eBook. Under ‘After Publication,’ consider preparing a press kit for your novel. This press kit can be used to invite reviewers to review your novel.

Do not go overboard and list every marketing option you can think of. Instead, choose no more than three options and work out a detailed strategy of how you are going to market your book effectively.

Competitive Analysis
In business, people use what is commonly called a ‘SWOT’ analysis when preparing a ‘Competitive Analysis’ for their product. ‘SWOT’ stands for:

• ‘S’ – Strength.
• ‘W’ – Weaknesses.
• ‘O’ – Opportunities.
• ‘T’ – Threats.

When applied to your novel business plan, think of the strengths of your novel. What makes it special? What are its weaknesses? Would your readers want yet another novel in the same genre? What opportunities do you have to maximise sales of your novel? Maybe, your local library or bookstore will sponsor an event to allow you to read from your novel and meet the public. You can host a tea-party and invite a few friends over. Ask them to bring along suitable people who might be interested in purchasing your novel.

As for the threats you could face, think of the worst-case scenario for your novel and consider what solutions are open to you. A common threat for a self-published author occurs when he first approaches a printer and is told that the more copies of his novel he prints, the lower his printing costs will be. Keen to minimise his costs, the self-published author agrees to have 3,000 copies of his novel printed. However, later, the self-published author finds that he cannot sell more than 500 copies of the novel. In the end, he will have the added expense of paying storage fees for his unsold novels.

Development Timeline
The ‘Development Timeline’ will give you an idea of how long you will take to reach each milestone in publishing your novel. Possible milestones can be any of the following:

• When will you obtain an ISBN?
• When will your manuscript be sent to the printer?
• When will the first print-run of your novel be completed?
• When will your novel start selling in the bookshops?
• When and where will the reviews of your novel be published?
• When are you going to be interviewed for the local newspaper?
• When can you expect to receive the first payment from the bookshops?

This is the ‘Who’s Who’ of any business plan. In your novel business plan, you need to prepare your biography. Do not tell your whole life story here. Instead, stick to details which might be relevant to your novel. For example, the main theme of your novel is about saving the environment. Now, consider writing a biography along the following lines:

‘Joe Blogs was born and brought up in Madagascar. He read law in the United Kingdom and now works as a solicitor in one of the most prestigious firms in Manchester. He has an interest in horticulture and is a strong proponent of energy conservation. He is working on his second book.’

Then, prepare a list of the people who will be involved in getting your novel printed and sold. Include people like the typesetter, printer, distributor, family members and friends who have agreed to help you with this project.

Most business owners spend a lot of time preparing this part of their business plans. However, as a self-published author, you don’t need to trouble yourself with things like balance sheets, earnings projections and capital requirements. Instead, prepare the following cash-flow forecast to know where you stand for 2,000 copies of your novel.

• The first step is to ascertain just how much money you could make (‘Total Cash In’). For instance, the cost price for your novel is RM1.20. The publishing industry standard is to fix a retail price that is nine times more than the cost price for your novel. This means that you should fix a retail price of RM10.80 for each copy of your novel. Multiply RM10.80 by 2,000 to get a total of RM21,600.00.

• Next, determine how much money you have spent publishing this novel (‘Total Cash Out’). This will include fees of editors, typesetters, lawyers, accountants and artists. Add the percentage of sales that will be given to the distributor, office supplies, postage, transport, website development charges, storage fees and advertising costs.

• To know exactly how much money you will make from your novel, subtract the ‘Total Cash Out’ from the ‘Total Cash In’. If you get a negative number, you’re losing money and should consider trimming some of your expenses. For example, not every author needs to pay for a fancy website. You can still have a web presence by creating a free blog from

Now that you know all the steps to creating a viable business plan, you will be one step ahead of the majority of self-published authors. Stick to your business plan and you might find that, instead of losing money, you’re quite likely to make money from your self-published work.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Celebrations of a Stay-At-Home Writer by Avantika

Yesterday, being the 1st day of Chinese New Year was also Valentine’s Day. For a long time, like a lot of people, I planned my holidays, trips to see relatives and parties around the days when these festivals such as these occur. I looked for cheap flights, offers for cut-price accommodation and, where possible, travel to nearby places. In the years since I started to write full-time, I have come to realise that my holidays no longer coincide with these religious festivals. Instead, I keep an eye out for festivals of a different kind – festivals within the publishing industry. For instance, last year, I planned my holiday after the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. That Diwali was around that time was an afterthought.

What, then, makes something like a literary festival become more important than a religious or cultural one? What goes on in these festivals? What benefit does an author derive from these festivals? For this story, I thought I’d share with you some of what I’ve learnt from the few literary festivals I’ve attended.

  1. During one of the first workshops I attended, the facilitator gave us twenty minutes to write a short story. Then, every one of us – there were only six of us there – was told to read our stories out loud. When we finished, the facilitator asked us to delete the opening paragraph of our story and start with the 2nd one. Although it hurt to do this, because I’d spent so much time composing the paragraph, I did as I was told. As I read the story again, I realised that the facilitator was correct – the effect of the story was phenomenal as I went straight to the point and the story began immediately.
  2. From the workshops, I made many few friends – writer friends – who understood when I said, “This is the 7th draft of the novel.” They did not come back with, “Oh, I’m so tired of hearing this. Will you ever sell your book? Will you ever make money?” I felt so comfortable talking with them. One particular writer said to me, “You submit your book when you are ready. Not before that. Even if it takes years, hang in there.”
  3. During another festival, I met a celebrity author from Australia. She was gracious enough to ask about my work. I told her that I had found a publisher interested in my work and hoped it would be published within the year. Ever so gently, she touched my hand and said, “Dear, you’ll have to be more patient than that. The publishing industry will take much longer than a year to publish a book.”
  4. I went to a book-signing session. As part of the crowd, I listened to the author speak, give advice and, eventually, I bought the book. Like all others, I stood in line and when I came face-to-face with the author, I gave my name. She looked up at me and said, “Oh, it’s you.” I was a little surprised. I asked her, “How do you know me?” She was about to answer my question, then smiled and changed her mind. She said, “Oh, no. It’s O.K. Sorry.” At that moment, I knew the answer to my question: she had heard about a nasty incident I had with someone who has hated me for years. This person’s very public condemnation of me and my work resulted in publicity I didn’t need to pay a cent for. I smiled at the author and told her not to worry. I was pleased that, at the very least, she already knew of me.
  5. Unlike some of my writer friends, I am not very good at public speaking. I am, therefore, very reluctant to read out any of my own stories. However, I once took up the challenge and introduced another author at a literary festival. A friend of mine, who had seen me read my work before, said to me, “I cannot believe that was you. It’s like two different people. Where did you get all that confidence from?” Clearly, I will need to brush up on my public speaking skills before I can attempt to read out any of my stories.
If you’ve attended literary festivals and workshops, what have you learnt? What would you like to know?

Here are some the interesting festivals, books fairs and events coming up this year. Feel free to add any festivals that you feel might be of use to readers.

April 2010
19th of April to 21st of April 2010 - London
The London Book Fair is advertised as the ‘global marketplace for rights negotiation and the sale and distribution of content across print, audio, TV film and digital channels.’

May 2010
The Asia House – Festival of Asian Literature – London
From 5th of May to 27th of May 2010, this festival is held with ‘talks, discussions and debates throughout May.’ Writers from all over Asia will converge to cover topics relating to many countries in Asia from Malaysia and China to Pakistan and India.

August 2010
Edinburgh International Book Festival – Edinburgh
From 14th of August to 30th of August 2010
An inspiring literary festival, the world's largest public celebration of the written word, right in the heart of Edinburgh: hundreds of author events, debates and workshops packed into 17 extraordinary days each August.

October 2010
Frankfurt Book Fair 2010
10th of October to 16th of October 2010
This event is touted as one of the largest literary festivals in the world and the most important in the publishing diary.

Ubud Writers and Readers Festival
10th of October to 16th of October 2010
While this seems to be the ‘baby’ of the festivals, in the past few years, it has gained much exposure and is very popular amongst people in the literary world.

If you attend any of these festivals, or have attended festivals in the past, do let me know what your experience was. Have fun!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Destiny and a Stay-At-Home Writer by Avantika

Almost everyone I know is writing, or at the very least thinking about writing. They’re writing their blogs, Facebook entries, websites, letters, memoranda, opinions, outlines, summaries, synopses, petitions and so much more. What are they writing about? A mother who recently lost her 2-year old son in tragic circumstances writes a blog to keep his memory alive. A journalist writes his blog to give so that what he writes is the whole truth and not vetted by editors. Lawyers prepare opinions for clients on whether they should pursue a claim or not. Politicians sweet-talk their way into getting as many votes as possible. A songstress writes about her beliefs and what inspires her. There’s the writer who chooses to make a living by writing full time. Some are experts in non-fiction work. Some have scaled the literary heights and become internationally published authors. Then, there are those who continue to dream of making it big in the literary world. All of them use words and this got me thinking about the concept of Transformational Vocabulary.

Anthony Robbins writes as follows:
‘The words you consistently select will shape your destiny. … The way we represent things in our minds determines how we feel about life. A related distinction is that if you don’t have a way of representing something, you can’t experience it. While you can picture something without having a word for it, or your can represent it through sound or sensation, there’s no denying that being able to articulate something gives it added dimension and substance, and thus a sense of reality. … But, is this just semantics? If all you change is the word, then the experience does not change. But, if using the word causes you to break your own habitual emotional patterns, then everything changes.’

Last week, I had reason again to think about the choices I made. My friend and I were at a local restaurant for lunch. This is how our conversation unfolded.

“Do you know that Janet thinks I’m very brave to do what I did?”

“Actually, I think you’re brave too.”

I frowned. “No-lah. I’m not brave. I’ve told you, I just hated it so much. Hate, Pauline. Not dislike. Not bearable. Just hate.”

“Yes, but you’re still brave. Not many people can do what you’re doing. To write your books, your blog and continue with it.”


In the past few days, I’ve been pondering over this issue of being ‘brave’. I thought I’d plot my progress in the last few years. Here’s what I’ve jotted in my journal:

While in the corporate world: Glamorous job. Well-paying. Stress. Perpetually living in fear of what the boss is going to say. Working for someone else. Having no freedom to say what I mean. Forcing myself to respect a boss who deserves no respect (although a ‘happily’ married man, he was seen kissing a subordinate outside the ladies toilet during the company’s annual dinner). Losing hair but don’t mind paying thousands to companies who promise that hair will grow back fast. Have a secretary but she’s so stupid she sends confidential documents to the wrong client.

The first month after I left the corporate world: Uncertain of whether I’m going to get another job. Free. Getting up in the morning without a headache. Counting my pennies. No longer giving generous tips. Swallow pride and insist that friends pay their share when we go out for drinks.

First year after leaving the corporate world: Don’t give tips at all. Learning what words like ‘editor,’ ‘non-fiction,’ ‘line-editing,’ ‘structural editing’ and ‘mss’ stand for. Learning to dye, treat and style my hair on my own as it’s cheaper than going to a salon. Decided that people who go for pedicures do so because they have too much money and are just too fat to bend down and clean their own feet. Am becoming a good cook as can’t afford to eat out anymore – as a result, skin feels smoother and looks healthier. Envy those friends who go to Bali for a three-day break at Club Med.

First year of writing full-time: Poor.

First year and one month of writing full-time: Have been told by family that they see me less now than when I was working in corporate world. Wondering whether online publishers have misrepresented themselves when they make statements like, “You can earn big bucks writing full-time.”

Some time after getting into the swing of things with writing full-time: have adopted a pet. Have been told that it’s good therapy for those who feel depressed. Still, love the fact I was there to look after aged parent. Didn’t need to worry about asking boss for compassionate leave and wondering if I’d have a job to go back to after three weeks. Able to go to the mall when everyone else is working. Find that friends who used to be close are no longer close – very little in common between a full-time writer and working for someone else full-time.

After a long time writing full-time: Hair has grown back – looks absolutely lovely now. Am gaining recognition as a writer. Finally understand what it means to do something I love. Have found new friends in writing circle who can, at the drop of a hat, tell me how to find the POP information for my email account. Joined Facebook and read comments from friends like ‘…hate work. Bosses are so fickle/erratic. Can’t decide if they want to allow us access to Facebook or not. *?#**#!’ Pity them!

Established writer: after years, taking first holiday. Not rich holiday in Club Med, like before. But have found a writer friend who lives in a house by the beach in Australia. Lovely place. Will only have to pay for the flight ticket and gifts. Looking forward to many nights discussing books we’ve read. Had a fleeting thought that, maybe I could go back to the corporate world. Felt the bile rising. Now, that, would take sheer courage … and it’ll probably be an act of desperation!

Reviewing all of this, perhaps, my destiny lies in writing full-time.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Memoirs by Avantika

Like moths to a flame, they’re always the first to find you, even in the most glamorous party in town.

“So, you’re a writer?” they inquire. “You know, people keep saying that what’s happened in my life would make a great story. Will you write it for me?”

It’s at this point I paste on a big smile and say, “Oh, interesting …” Then, I pretend my hand phone just vibrated and I have to answer this call as it’s from my aged parent. As I tell a close friend of mine, if I had a ringgit for every time someone has asked me to write his tale, I would have enough money to go on the world-trip by now.

“You should just do what I do,” another writer friend of mine says. “Tell them you work for a dentist and they’ll talk about something else. No one wants to show you their decaying molars or chipped incisor in a party.”

I’ve noticed that many non-writers see a writer as some sort of dichotomy. On the one hand, they cannot believe that anyone can make a living out of “stringing a few sentences together” (their words, not mine!). On the other hand, they assume that since we’ve written so much, there’s nothing left to write about and they need to tell us their stories so that “we can both publish a book and make lots of money.” Why else, I often wonder, do I have people giving me details of their ex-spouse’s sordid extra-marital affairs or describing their suppurating wounds from cancer treatment, so that I can turn them into books?

True, everyone does have a story inside them. But very few people, who are not writers themselves or related to one, understand the dedication and hard work necessary to write full-time. And, more importantly, very few understand that while their stories may be exciting, full of drama and emotion, it is only so to them; their stores are in no way commercially viable to a publisher, or, for that matter, of interest to a full-time writer.

The one and only time I took up the challenge of writing someone else’s story was a few years ago. Since I’d spent so long completing my novel, I thought it would do me good to get out there and meet people.

As it happened, one day, a woman (let’s call her Ms. Haughty), via her assistant, emailed me and said, “We found you on the internet and have been following your work. We like what you write and Ms. Haughty would like you to write a book for her. She’s very nice. She’s not like other corporate leaders. Would you consider meeting up to discuss things.” I was flattered and agreed to meet Ms. Haughty.

So, one hot day, I took the LRT, went across town, found my way to Ms. Haughty’s office and waited for another half an hour before she arrived. Since it was lunchtime, while I was still waiting for Ms. Haughty to arrive, I was offered a choice of char koay toew or fried bee hoon. I chose the former. When I finally met Ms. Haughty, although the meal was cold, the conversation was interesting – she came from my hometown, we had worked in the same industry and had some mutual friends, she loved politics and “had some fantastic connections”.

What gave me some comfort and, perhaps, courage to consider working with Ms. Haughty, was that, many years ago, she had a column in the local newspaper. The column was a serialised version of a journey Ms. Haughty and her family had taken over thirty years ago – a modern-day travel blog, but before the time of computers. When the serial ended, the stories were compiled into a collection and published. Ms. Haughty had, at the very least, some idea of what publishing involved.

The words “had some fabulous connections” should have been the first red flag. Still, I saw a chance to get a first-hand account of someone who had travelled during a time when there were still no direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to London. At that point, I was genuinely fascinated by the tale, and, let’s face it, what writer won’t be pleased when someone is willing to pay you to write her tale? Ms. Haughty was excited. I was excited.

In the next few weeks, we agreed a few terms. For a start, Ms. Haughty suggested I translate the collection of articles the newspaper had serialised from Malay to English. Once we finished this project, we would move on to writing Ms. Haughty’s biography. I agreed but added, “I hope you don’t mind, but if my initial reading of your book shows that there are some gaps in the story. I’ll highlight them and maybe we can work together.”

There was a “Yes, yes, of course,” and nothing more. I may as well have slapped myself there and then … perhaps, to wake me up to the reality of the situation.

Still, I opened to chapter 1 and started to translate the tale. This direct translation was ‘mental breaking’, as opposed to back breaking, work. I have never been so bored in my life! Still, I honoured my commitment and sent off the first draft of my translation with a report. I identified the weaknesses in the tale, the offensive and derogatory comments, ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude which would not go down well with modern readers, the factual errors and the illogical sentence structure. Some of the text was just incomprehensible.

In my mind, I thought that Ms. Haughty, having had some publishing experience, would understand that this was merely the first stage and there would be many more drafts of this manuscript before it was even close to being ready for submission purposes. I imagined getting the manuscript back with notes in the margin explaining the points I’d raised or giving me factual information.

I was summoned to the office. Needless to say, the reception I received was cold. There was no food offered and, this time, I had to ask for some water to drink. To cut the story short, I was told that I had misled Ms. Haughty, I did not understand what translation meant, I did not have a good command of language and I should, effectively, not bother writing again.

By the time we parted, I had learnt my lesson – stay away from people who tell you that their story is worth writing about. There are many other ways to meet interesting people.

The person who said it best was the reclusive and recently deceased J. D. Salinger: “I love to write, and I assure you I write regularly. But I write for myself and I want to be left absolutely alone to do it.”

Oh, and the next time we meet at a party, let’s talk about which dentist you visit.