Anita Nair, Best Selling Author of 17 Books Shares Tips For First Time Authors
Kiruba: Hello and Welcome to the First Book Podcast, India’s first and only Podcast dedicated to helping first-time authors. In this podcast series, we have conversations with bestselling authors and business leaders to understand how they successfully crack their first book. This discussion helps us get a sneak peek into their journey as an author. This podcast is done in association with Notion Press, one of India’s largest publishing ecosystems. In this episode, we will get to meet the awesome Anita Nair, one of India’s most acclaimed authors. Anita is a prolific writer and has authored 17 books and counting. Her best sellers include Ladies Coupe and Mistress. She has won numerous awards, such as The Sahithya Academy Award, Ficci Flo Women Achievers Award and the Arch of Excellence Award in Literature by the All India Achievers Conference. Anita will share her authoring journey and give first-time authors some tips. Let’s now listen to the conversation with the charming Anita Nair. Here is a great podcast for writers to begin their publishing journey.
Kiruba: Anita, it’s such an honour and pleasure to have you on our First Book Podcast.
Anita: Thank you for having me. I was quite looking forward to this.
Kiruba: So first off, congratulations on your latest book, Chain of Custody. If I remember correctly, you bibliography said that this is your 16th book. So congratulations Anita.
Anita: Thank you very much. I actually have another book coming out in a couple of weeks. That would be the 17th book then.
Kiruba: That would be awesome. So tell us about your 17th book?
Anita: The 17th book is a book of stories for children. It’s supposed to be confidential because the publisher wants to announce it. It’s a big book for children. And I think there is nothing like it ever before because it’s absolutely drawing stories from a religious text and I don’t believe there is anything like it that’s been published before and that’s all I am allowed to say at this point. It’s called Mooza and Baby Jaan.
Kiruba: Alright. Mooza and Baby Jaan, you’ve given the right teaser to tickle our interests. I will keep a look out for it for exactly 2 weeks time. So Anita lets get started. I would love to trace your authoring journey to the beginning. You were an advertising professional with a full time job. How did the author in you wake up?
Anita: Well, you see, I think I always knew I was quite sure that I wanted to write and I was not certain about anything else ever. I was never sure of where I was going to be, who I was going to be or if I was going to take on the various roles that a person takes on in their lives, but I was very certain that I wanted to write. There is a difference between wanting to write and wanting to be a published author. Writing is primarily all I wanted to do. And if I was going to turn writing into my profession, I knew I would have to make compromises and that was something I didn’t want to do, I was very definite about that. So I started working in advertising because it helped pay the bills. I didn’t particularly like advertising very much, but I was very good at it. I worked in advertising for almost about 8-9 years, and during that time I built my reputation as an advertising person. I consciously chose to work with smaller companies because it allowed me to maintain work-life balance and secondly, allowed me to find the time to devote to my writing. If I was going to get on that career roller coaster ride, I knew my writing would suffer at a point. So these were quite consciously taken decisions and at the back of my mind, this whole thing, I didn’t want anything to affect my writing in any way. So I chose to work in advertising because as I said, it funded my passion for writing.
Kiruba: So how did this passion for writing start? I am sure it started very early. Did you have a fascination for the written word? Were you a voracious reader?
Anita: Yes. I was a voracious reader. It’s like one of those things you don’t know. Why is that somebody who can sing bursts suddenly into a song and you realise that you can do it? Similarly, when I was about 7, I started writing poetry, and I knew certain stands of belonging with the pen or paper and all those set and the way those words happened in my head. And I knew, this is what I wanted to do and I mean this was the one thing that gave me joy at that point, and I knew that it would continue to give me joy. And at this stage in my life, it is one thing that I think about, no matter what goes wrong, as long as my mind is alive.
Kiruba: Got it. Now everybody knows Anita Nair, I’m guessing the publishers are queuing up outside your house. But that would not have been the case with your first book. So when you started to write your first book, did you even know it will get published?
Anita: No I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t even think about getting it published. Like I said, I was somebody who just wrote because writing gave me joy. I was, in fact, a very secretive writer, I didn’t tell anybody that I wrote. Once in a while I know I would have an article or story published somewhere, but that’s about it. You know you just did that, but that wasn’t seen as a passion that fuelled my entire decision. I kept it very quiet, and it would have stayed that way, except for when a friend of mine read some stories and asked me if I ever thought of getting it published. At which point it was like, Oh do you think it is good enough to be published? And he said I think you should look for a publisher. So that was how it began.
Kiruba: And how did you proceed?
Anita: So this was the pre agent and pre google and pre everything time. I remember very distantly around 1996, I went into a bookshop which was very close to the advertising agency I was working in at that point and I went to the Indian section side, and I said let me start looking at the publishers in an alphabetical order and start writing to them. So I started looking and found a publishing house that was represented by two kinds of books one was called Alka paper back and the same people were called Haranand too. So their name was the one that appeared I think right at the top of the heap regarding the way it was listed on the shelf. So I note down their address and went back to the office and sent them three stories in a covering letter.And I just sent it out in a post. It was not like now, how people send emails and stuff like that. So then about 2 weeks later I actually got a contract back. And that came as a shock to me because I wasn’t prepared. I mean, I was prepared for that long haul of going through the book shelf alphabet by alphabet. And then you feel that when something goes right the first time, there is something wrong with them. This whole thing was about self-esteem, confidence all of that and you don’t know. I didn’t know, I didn’t come from an academic background, I didn’t have writer friends. I had no way of evaluating my own work or what I was doing. So then it was a question of doubt, should I speak to other publishing houses before I say yes to them, but if I kept these people waiting too long, would they change their mind. It was a bit of a dilemma, and then I decided to go with my instinct, and I decided I will publish with them. So that’s what happened.
Kiruba: And in Hinfide that’s a good decision right?
Anita: In Hinfide yes it’s a good decision because what happened is that it got me a lot of attention, good and bad attention. Because some of the stories had sex in it, which I had in all my writing, I’ve treated it very naturally because the Indian publishing world and the review world, all of them were a little perplexed. They didn’t know what to make of it because until then people were very covered about the way sex was written. It was like the bee and the flower and all. They didn’t know how to handle it. But for me, I handled it like food for instance or dance, it’s just another thing. There were people who of course said lovely things and there were people who said terrible things. But the long and short of it is that it got a lot of attention. The publishers started recognising my name at that point. The first one was a collection of short stories, so when I finished my novel, I think strangely, it had paved the way for them to look at my work with interest. The bad side of publishing in that publishing house was that their publishing wasn’t great. All these media, all this attention, but the book was not in the bookstore. So that didn’t do very well regarding sales. So that was the experience of being published, the first book publication. But I don’t regret it, I just think it was a blip, and that’s about it.
Kiruba: Got it. I get a solid lesson out of this which is, of course, it would have been awesome if your first book was published by the Penguins or Harper Collins, of course, that’s everybody’s wish. But for you, you went ahead with the first publisher who got your work done, which is a lot better than your manuscript lying in a drawer in your house, right? Your book got out, and because it got out, people were able to read through it, and word of mouth started to spread, and that got the attention of rest of the publishers, which then made your authoring journey a lot easier. The pattern I want to draw is that there are lots of people who are authoring books right now and instead of just waiting for the best publisher to publish their book which in reality is not easy because the publisher gets between 200 – 300 manuscripts a week, a big publisher. So might as well go ahead and self-publish, but use that as a way to prove your left note and then show that to a prospective publisher. Is that something a good base for a wannabe author Anita?
Anita: Yes. But the only line I would draw there is that one is very hard on one’s own writing. So, I run a writing program, and I realise that a lot of writers who come in, tend to fall in love with their work. And they fail to see why their work has holes in it. So ideally when you go to a publishing house, what happens is that you have an editor who is going to walk that journey with you and show all the little problem areas, not teach you but draw attention to the various one so that you can fix it. Now when you self-publish, the problem is that the publishing house you are working with is able to offer some sort of editorial input, the problem is that you might have a very choppy kind of a book. Which is not a great thing. For me, I came from a background of advertising where you realise the importance of how to use words, you realise how to make words work. So if you have a good idea, how do you transform them into words is something that I learnt on the job. So a lot of people who come from other walks of life may not have had that kind of exposure. So I do think that editorial exposure whether it’s from the publishing house or from the editorial agency, it is recommended.
Kiruba: Got it. That’s valuable advice. I completely agree with that. So next up in your writing schedule, what kind of technique or schedule has best worked for you?
Anita: I am a a very disciplined writer, I don’t believe in this thing about waiting for inspiration to strike me. So once I am fixed on what I am going to be working on. Then I work on it pretty much every day not because I am travelling or even when I am travelling, and if I am going to be in a place for 4-5 days consecutively, then I will try and write. I write on trains on planes or anywhere, that doesn’t matter. So once I start work on something, then I work. I think that’s very important that every writer works in a self-discipline into their lives regarding the output they create on a daily basis. So one of the things I tell my writers is that you can put in 400 words a day that’s good enough. This will keep you going day after day. Take a break on a Sunday or a Saturday or whatever, but 6 days a week you have to write like how you go to work.
Kiruba: 400 words is not much. You’re talking about 2 sheets of paper
Anita: It’s basically one side of the paper.
Kiruba: One side of the paper, got it. And I read through the FAQ, the frequently asked questions, on your website and absolutely fell in love with one piece of advice that you gave. You lie down on your bed, you close your eyes, and then you get into the meditative state where you visualise the scene in your head, and then you get up and then pen them down. What a brilliant piece of advice that is.
Anita: It works. All these years working with books, that’s what I have done, and it works for me. I don’t know if it works for everybody, but people should give it a shot and see how it happens.
Kiruba: So how did this come about? Is it comfortable for you doing this or what works in that state of the process in your head?
Anita: Well, I think it’s basically my writing that began after I had my son and the thing is the baby at that point, I would put him on the bed and lie down and I would kind of put him to sleep or whatever, I would close my eyes. And then think or work or what I wanted to write. And then I realised soon it became kind of a pattern that when I could lie down and visualise a theme, later when I wrote it, it worked out much better.
Kiruba: Any other technique that has helped you?
Anita: Well, the other technique, is well, what I do tell my writers as well is that when you are writing a scene for three-quarters of the scene and leave it there and then get to work the next day, so when you start writing you automatically move on, and you get a momentum. Whereas, if you tie up everything and you are going to get up the next morning or if you come to your place of writing, whether it’s a study or your dining table or you’re working on your laptop or whatever it is, you have been floundering around looking for where to begin. But if you have a point, you can just dive into it immediately because your mind will kind of look through all those stumbling blocks and allow you to continue with the same momentum that you’ve started writing.
Kiruba: How do you cut out distractions while you’re writing?
Anita: It’s a discipline. Being a writer is not easy at all. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifices, it’s a lot learning with to be stern with yourself. It’s like there is no alternative way of being a writer. So you basically have to say that “No I do not have to see that film, I do not have to go to that party, I do not have to attend that wedding, I do not have to lie on my back and gaze at my belly or whatever. I will just write, I will just soldier on.” You have to have the soul of a poet and a spirit of a soldier. There is absolutely no other way to it.
Kiruba: Beautifully said, that’s very inspiring Anita. You kept mentioning about the writing programs you conduct. Can you tell us more about it?
Anita: So I run this writing and mentorship program. I think the more important part is the mentoring part. It’s called Anita’s Attic. And I work with 12 writer’s maximum at a given point, where it’s a 3 month and a 12-week program. We meet once every Saturday, and it’s a full day program where I work them through live projects. So it’s not like where we sit down and do random pages of writing. So I tell them to figure out what is that you want to work on. Are you going to be working on short stories, or a novel or a series of ethics or whatever? And it’s entirely built on what I think is their strength. Because I might have a writer coming and saying that I want to work on novels, but that person strength might be short stories. Once I have identified that we collaborate on a project. So by the time they leave Anita’s Attic, they are at least quarter way through a book or so and it gives them momentum to take it forward. So every week I sit with them on what they have done, I appraise it, show them what the problem areas are, I show them how to improve it, I take them through various techniques and things like that. At the end of it, once they have finished their work, I also introduce them to literary agents, publishing houses, magazines, etc. that would lift up your work and set them off on their journey to being a full-fledged writer.
Kiruba: And where can people google to find more about this information?
Anita: All they have to do is log in to this site www.anitasattic.com
Kiruba: Got it.
Anita: In fact, we have done 4 seasons already of 45 writers, and most of them have managed to publish a page of writing somewhere or the other. Some of them are working on novels, a couple of them have finished work on their novels right now and ready for me to pick it to the next stage.
Kiruba: And it is very important for writers to take external assistance, for example coming to a program like yours or taking the help of a literary agent, or taking the help of a professional editor, I think that’s very important. Right, Anita?
Anita: Yes. I think you know the reason being that the lifestyle, the reading patterns have changed so much, so the kind of reading the people of my generation, the no. of hours we spent on reading, we didn’t have distractions like television and so on. Even if we did, it came much later, and it wasn’t like it is now with multiple channels and stuff like that and no internet and everything. So the affinity to the editing world was much sounder. Whereas a lot of people now, mostly the young writer, the hovers that they have grown up in is vastly different. So the affinity to the written word, yes it exists. But probably the foundation isn’t that strong. So I think what helps is when you work with a creative program like mine, basically, what I do is give them direction, provide them with a way of making their job better. Because sometimes it’s like a diamond. You have a diamond, and if it’s not polished, it’s not valuable enough, so it needs to be cut and polished and so on. So similarly that’s what I do. Whereas the literary agents or professional editors, the role that they are slightly different. Since you have a professional agency, they do not get into saying if this book is going to work or not work. Even this will soup up the manuscript and give it back to the writer. But it could basically be a delicate subject, to begin with. The literary agent will take a manuscript or an author on when they believe in the author and when they see the work can be placed. Yes, some literary agents do that, where they actually kind of lead the author or walk the author through the journey, their literary journey. But it may not happen all the time. So it is important for the writer to understand what is the level of their work. You might have a brilliant idea, but you don’t know how to take it forward. You might have a brilliant idea that has been around in a sexual prose, so what do you do next. So all of that has to kind of, this is where the writer has to be kind of hard to himself or herself to be able to create something that is brilliant.
Kiruba: Got It. Anita I am going to get into the subject of money and royalty. Typically when someone publishes with a publisher, what is the percentage of royalty that an author can expect?
Anita: Well, see in the industry practice that 7.5% of the retail price and usually in some cases when the 7.5% on paper back and 10% on a hardback and sometimes it goes about the certain no. of copies then the royalties might also rise. And generally publishing houses will look at the book and think, they kind of estimate the kind of sales it might have. Well, they do an initial print run, and the advances are paid based on that. So it’s basic math. So suppose you’re saying that I am going to publish a book at Rs.100 and I am going to print 500 copies. So 500 copies, if you were to look at 7.5% of what Rs.100 is, is Rs.7.5. So 7.5 into 500. So that is the kind of advance publishing houses will pay because ultimately people have to remember, writers have to keep in mind that it is a commercial enterprise and nobody wants to lose money, no publishing house. Even when publishing 500 copies they are taking a huge gamble because there is absolutely no formula for what makes the book successful and what makes a great book not successful.
Kiruba: Got it. So I have noticed there is a shift in the change in consumption where earlier people would only buy physical book slowly I feel shifts towards Kindle or people are feeling comfortable reading of their phones, so do you have an idea what percentage of sales happen on a physical platform, do you have a rough idea.
Anita: I still think dominant part is the physical books, that’s my belief I could be wrong.
Kiruba: And my next question is ….let’s fast forward from now to 10 years from now. There will be a shift for certain for someone like you who are branded by yourself. It would not make sense for you to ’self-published’ is not the term, people can no matter value published which publishers you go to readers are always looking forward to the author, would not make sense for you to go and put it straight on Kindle or any other platform 10 years back. You probably get 90 percent of the royalty.
Anita: Well it is not 90 percent of royalty it is still 25 percent of royalty on the digital format.
Kiruba: I meant if you went to Amazon Kindle there is at least minimum of 50 %
Anita: Oh yeah, if you go directly and publish with them rather than of through a publishing house.
Kiruba: Yes, so you think that is something make sense for you?
Anita: I do not know, I enjoyed editorial process I enjoyed working with a publishing house. Let me explain why writing is a very very lonely process. You have absolutely no way of knowing what you’re doing if it works or not work. So when you are working with an editor in a publishing house, what happens is that it’s a fabulous relationship. You know there is somebody who understands your work and who is looking at your work and at the same time is able to apply a critical eye, unlike family or friends who do not want to hurt your feelings, so they don’t say anything. But when you are working with an editor, there is someone who is able to tell you why you’re writing is working or isn’t working. And they actually pretty much hold your hand when you are stumbling. So when you start doing this on your own, when you go to a vendor directly, you miss out on those things. I love the editorial process, because you know I see my character coming alive in my eyes then I see my character coming alive in my editor’s eyes, and it’s a tremendous sense of satisfaction. You know when you are aware that something that you’ve created means so much to the other person with as much emphasis. And all of this I fear is something that I would miss out on if I went to a vendor directly. But as of now I would not consider it and who knows in 10 years’ time, things would be different.
Kiruba: That’s a very valid point you have raised. One final question before we wrap up Anita is, now that first-time authors have kludged through and finally finished their manuscript and got it published. What marketing techniques do you advise them?
Anita: Well, there are several authors, various published authors all of them pushing their books very vigorously on social media looking at in more and more interesting ways of getting attention through the contest and twitter chats and FB lives and podcasts and so on. As well as the physical interest they have, you know people doing city tours and stuff like that. So with every new book happening and with the bar raising it’s becoming more and more difficult for authors to keep their marketing techniques unique. Because everybody is thinking of new and different ways of doing things. So I think the first thing of all is if a book is well written or if a book is good you have a stable platform to build on. The thing to remember here is that there are certain kinds of books that come and they do not turn the reach of the reader, or they do not enhance the life of readers in any way. In the sense that they are a good read, maybe but that’s about it. They do not have a residual message. It’s like reading romances. You know you read them again and again, but it’s more like an escape from reality rather than what literature is committed to doing which is to enhance the human spirit. Unfortunately, the kind of books I like are the ones that are more literary rather than commercial fiction. The commercial fiction, of course, the bar is very high regarding commercial. It’s like what everyone is doing, get on to the social media and do what the other well-known names are doing and you will see some general round details. But the literary effect is something that grows on the reader. One once the reader likes an author, they will go back to that writer again and again.
Kiruba: With that Anita, what a fabulous conversation. Thoroughly enjoyed this. Thank you so much for taking the time out.
Anita: Thank you.
Kiruba: You were listening to the conversation with Anita Nair, author of 17 books and one of the most recognisable names in Indian literature. I hope you learnt something useful from this Podcast. To listen to the rest of the episodes with other bestselling authors, please visit notionpress.com/podcast. I look forward to seeing you in the next episode. Until then take care and Bubye.