When she was a child, reading books was a source of great joy for Sundari Venkatraman who's now 59. But sometime in middle school her school’s librarian took the fun out of it by prescribing exercises at the end of each reading cycle. However it also made Sundari realise that she enjoyed reading for the sake of reading.
By the time she was in her teens, she discovered Mills & Boons.
Nearly three decades later, when she started her writing career, Sundari knew exactly what genre she would pick. “I love to read romance and therefore prefer to write in the genre. I enjoy reading happy stories. And that’s exactly what I want to give my readers,” she says.
So far Sundari has written 52 books and she’s managed to do all of this in just a little over 13 years. “I started writing when I was a little over 39,” she recollects.
Soon after she got married, Sundari moved from Chennai to Mumbai. She had two children and when they were slightly older, she took up a job in a school as an EA to a school principal. Wanting to explore her options, Sundari quit and began blogging.
When Mumbai Mirror started operations in 2005, she joined there and set up the listings for the paper – a section that announced upcoming events in the city. She then moved on to a Bollywood entertainment website that Network 18 had started in 2007 as part of the company’s first serious thrust in digital.
All the while Sundari kept writing on the side, mostly as a passion she always wanted to pursue. “Honestly, there was a time when I didn’t even think I could write. But then one day I started and that was that,” she recollects.
Initially, she would publish her books in a series format on her blog till a Facebook friend pointed her to Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing.
“I thought it might be difficult to publish online and I may find it difficult to learn the ropes. But it was not at all difficult and I was overjoyed when I published my first book and there were readers who were actually paying to read my book. And I was making an excellent percentage of royalty,” she says.
At the time she began writing, self-publishing wasn’t a very respectable proposition. If a publication didn’t pick up your book, you were deemed unworthy. This was long before the digital revolution truly took roots in the country’s ecosystem, ebooks were and the publishing industry was blissfully living in a bubble and rejections were far more common.
“It was a horrible experience,” she says of her rejections, “I used to cry over the rejections each time. But every time I received a rejection, I went back to my novel and tried to find out what there was to not like in it. I couldn’t find any fault. To me, my story was really good. Not perfect, maybe, but definitely something worth reading. I sincerely believed that out of the English-speaking population, I should be able to get at least one million readers for my book. It was that belief that kept me going.”
And so, disregarding the norms, she started self-publishing.
She continues, “I can proudly say that I brought the ‘cool’ into self-publishing in India. It wasn’t as if I was the first Indian author to go the indie way. But yes, there were many, especially in the traditionally published authors community who heckled at me. I have heard whispers and more about why I must have gone the indie way as the reason was probably because no publishing house wanted to publish my book.
“I have no qualms about announcing (why whisper?) from the top of a building that ‘Yes, I went the indie way because there were no takers for my novels from the traditional publishing industry.’ That is but the truth. And I don’t shy away from it. Today, I realise that each one of those publishers had really done me a huge favour. I am not just an author but an entrepreneur thanks to their rejection and I am a slave to no one. I can tell the stories exactly the way I want to. It is the readers who know best. It’s for them to decide if they want to read me or not.
“With 20000-25000 (sometimes even 30k) pages read on Kindle Unlimited every day, I think the readers have made their preference clear. But still, I have a way to go, as I haven’t reached the one million audience who are definitely there for me (if not more).”
By her account, she’s made more than Rs 40 lakh over the last years or so by self-publishing on Amazon.
“When I started, I never thought I will make enough for a living. But with more books written and published on a regular basis, bringing me more and more readers and fans, I realise that it is possible. I went about the whole thing without having too many expectations. I just kept writing, publishing and marketing and one fine day I found myself in this happy space. I also realise that if I don’t publish over a period of three months, the income tends to fall. It’s the new title that pulls all the other books up,” she says.
Sundari’s latest book is in a different genre with the mythological character Parshurama has the protagonist. This is her 52nd book and has no plans of slowing down.
“I wish to keep writing till the end,” she says. “I have a muse in Nora Roberts and I keep chasing her numbers. She was 31 when she started writing and has 220+ books to date. I know I might never reach her total as she still keeps writing. But yes, her numbers motivate me.”