The Literati’14 team recently caught up with best-selling author and entrepreneur, Sameer Kamat. Having completed his MBA from the University of Cambridge, Sameer is also the founder of an international MBA admissions consulting venture, and manages a website that provides tips on getting published in India. Having targeted to a niche audience though his writing, he discusses his experiences about the book publishing industry and offers advice to the young would-be-authors of the road ahead for them. Read on to learn what he has to say...
1 Please tell our readers a little about your books.
My first book is aimed at students and professionals who are contemplating an international MBA. In contrast to the many publications and websites that paint a rosy picture of how such a degree will magically transform their careers, Beyond The MBA Hype highlights the risks and pitfalls of the process.
My second publication, Business Doctors - Management Consulting Gone Wild is a fictional work on the bizarre concept of management consultants trying to turn around an underworld organisation. It presents the readers an unusual and entertaining acquaintance to the world of consulting and business analysis.
2. Indian students generally target IIMs. What made you choose otherwise, and how was the experience in terms of exposure and learning?
With due respects to all the brilliant folks who target (and get into) the IIMs, I feel it’s important to have real world business experience to really appreciate what a management degree has to offer. Otherwise there’s the risk of jumping from one theoretical degree (engineering) to another (MBA).
I started thinking of an MBA degree only after I had 6 years of experience in technical and managerial roles. At Cambridge, apart from the academic focus, I also got exposed to an entrepreneurial way of thinking. Apart from the management theories and case studies which I could easily relate to, I was also testing and pushing my own capabilities by dabbling in several extra-curricular initiatives that finally gave me the confidence to pursue entrepreneurship.
3. How did writing happen? Was it something you had always imagined yourself doing, or was it a more spontaneous decision after you felt you had something to inform the audiences about?
It was more of a spontaneous decision. While I was researching international programs, the primary message I got from the numerous articles and brochures was that an MBA is a magical pill to solve all career and personal woes. And as they say, if something appears too good to be true, probably it isn’t.
After completing my MBA, when I was informally helping out other applicants with their admissions process, I realized that the information asymmetry was still there.
The expectation mismatch was growing. So I started writing the first book to share many pitfalls that international students experience when they enthusiastically jump onto the MBA bandwagon without doing enough research.
I thought I’d write a few blog posts and be done with it. But as I began writing, the number of related topics increased and there was enough content to fill a whole book. So, I started looking around for publishers. But for a topic such as this, the audience was still pretty niche.
4. What were the challenges in targeting such a niche audience for your first book? How willing were the publishers to delve into this space?
Writing a book is the easy part. What happens after that, in case you decide to go down the traditional publishing route, needs far more patience and perseverance.
I didn’t want to make money from the book. But given the unconventional nature of the message it carried (it’s not a ‘feel good’ book), I did want it to be backed by a credible name in the publishing industry.
But convincing a credible, mainstream publisher to take on my book was the most challenging part. When you are a first time author with no track record or brand, irrespective of the quality of writing, most publishers would have serious apprehensions about the commercial viability of the book. It can be a tiring and frustrating journey.
After running from pillar to post trying to get publishers interested in the book, HarperCollins signed me up. From the time I completed writing the book to its publishing date, it took me 5 years.
From this I learned, that becoming a published author is as much about being persistent as it is about writing well.
5. From the point of view of a connoisseur of unconventional/categorical literature in India, do you believe there is simply not enough available on the platter?
I’ve heard many sharing those views. The problem, I believe, is that too many authors are chasing popular genres (like college romances) thinking it’s a big market. While the market is definitely bigger, there are also thousands of writers trying to carve a niche for themselves in an overcrowded space.
In contrast, having a niche book and positioning it in front of the right audience can be a better strategy. Unconventional may not seem sexy enough, but for new writers it’s a great way to break through the clutter and get noticed.
6. Genres like self help and travel though, are finally taking steady steps forward in the Indian Literary scene. Where do you see this going? How positive are these developments for budding young writers?
Bookstores are struggling to eke out a living. Many are closing down. Today, the fight for shelf space is more intense than ever. Success stories of superstar authors selling lakhs of copies and earning crores in advances, are but few. I’m not aware how well travel books are doing, but the self-help genre is definitely very popular. And as counter-intuitive as it may seem, non-fiction does generally offer better returns than popular fiction.
My advice; If you think you have a new idea, do experiment; even if the genre you seek to explore is unconventional.
For instance, Business Doctors roughly falls under what you might call business fiction; it is neither about crime or mystery or humour, nor is it a true-blue thriller. But, like a Bollywood masala movie, it’s got elements of everything. It may not appeal to refined readers looking for a literary masterpiece. But for students and professionals looking for much more than entertainment, there are some interesting insights in the book. I wrote is as a way to make a niche, mysterious and highly lucrative career like management consulting more palatable to a wider audience.
Here’s a little trailer you might want to have a look at.
7. What further can we expect from you in near future, with regards to your publications?
Business Doctors has been an experiment in more ways than one. Apart from the unconventional genre, the path to getting it published was also unconventional. Here’s the complete story of why I decided to get the book self-published.
My main focus at present is to help the book gain some traction. Without the resources of a bigger publishing house, it’s an uphill journey. Let’s see where it goes.
Apart from books, a lot of my effort also goes into publishing free career related advice, via the MBA Crystal Ball blog and forum. Just a little way of giving back to the bright but confused folks who can’t afford paid services and formal mentoring.
8. Is there a final message you have for students who switch over from engineering to fields like management, or to those more exquisite like writing?
Here’s the big secret if you are planning to become an author. Don’t leave your day job!
The publishing industry is extremely competitive. Most writers fail to recognize the business aspects of getting a book published. And unless you are writing on technical topics for online magazines (which provides a steady income stream), there’s very little money in regular book publishing.
For students wishing to switch from engineering to management, I’d suggest spending a few years building technical skills (whether it’s in software or engineering or anything else), leading teams, taking on leadership roles. Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Become an expert at something. Then move to the management, which is more of being a generalist.
Don’t get too concerned about building a perfect career. There’s plenty of time to tweak things over the next 40 years. Have fun along the way and make it a memorable journey.