Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Snake Pit Called Publishing and Other Stories

By Sunil K Poolani

I started publishing with just Rs 2,000 in hand; was fed up of journalism and I ventured into it as I loved books, wanted to be with books and wanted to hold books on to my chest.

It was a tough game; it is even today. And as I ventured into it I realised what a murky dog-eat-dog world it is. I am not ruing, thank you. In my initial days, I did vanity publishing, and I did cover some bit of the damages. But all these things did not help in the long run. The question of getting money from the intricate corridors of the distributors’ and bookstalls’ moneyboxes was not at all easy. And I eventually learnt that there is only one tribe that benefit from publishing: distributors.

I am not complaining, though. I am skin deep into this and no way can I get out of these murky waters, at least till that time I clear all the dues. Nevertheless, I do enjoy what I am doing. And I love, every time, when I take a whiff of the newly, and painstakingly-produced book that appear from the printer’s shop. Ahem.

Some thoughts on publishing, if you wish. I know that in a country like the US, a new and unknown author can aspire to sell 30-40 thousand copies of a novel, whereas in India, a new home-grown Indian author is considered successful if the book sells just 1,000 copies. Is it because the many citizens of our great country are disinterested and dull, or is it also because good, original and interesting Indian books are not published and marketed in the right way?

My answer is thus: Who says books do not sell well in India? Trash brought out by Shobhaa De, Robin Sharma, Chetan Bhagat sell. Ditto books on cookery, cinema, self-help (due to growing mental insecurity), and travel guides. What does not sell is meaningful and path-breaking literature. So an aam janata does not know who a Kiran Nagarkar is or M T Vasudevan Nair is. The scene is the same in the US, too, where thousands of books come out every year. If a work of fiction has to sell, in India or in the US, hype and hoopla are important; get a Booker, get dragged into controversy, voila, then your book is in the best-selling list. Yes, volume-wise, there is a chalk-to-cheese difference in the US and India as almost all Americans read English — that is not the case here.

And does an Indian author writing in English have to taste success abroad first? Why the market is dominated by East meets West books, but the home-grown Indian books are hidden away in the back shelves? That is due to our colonial mentality; if we were the slaves of the British, now the neo-colonialists are the US. The mentality is thus: ‘Wow, he got a US award (however unheard of it could be), so it should sell well in India.’ Then in a day’s time you will find a pirated Kavya Viswanathan ‘magnum opus’ on Bombay’s great streets. Also to be blamed are the Indian media which is perpetually lick up the western ‘success’ stories.

It is also true that home-grown Indian writers in English cannot turn out much more than run of the mill masala stories or the same old, hackneyed Panchatantra tales retold for the umpteen hundredth time. Do Indian writers lack originality? What stops them? Yes, Indians are lazy. They do not think. They hardly polish their (so-called) talent or style. They do not imagine. The do not think, plainly. Also to be blamed are poor payments, the lalas of the trade, lack of funds for research... Look at the kind of money British or other writers are besotted for the research of their works. So, save our Ramachandra Guha, the best history books on India are written by British writers. Gregory Rabassa is paid as much as Marquez for translating the latter’s work.

Writers like Hemingway were great storytellers, used language and literary techniques beautifully, created art with words and told great stories which resonated with the masses. Why do Indians cannot aspire to write such stories as well? Why not a combination of great artistic techniques, rich emotional, philosophical and other nuances, and also a great plot and narrative that people can understand and relate to? Hmmm, I do not fully agree with the viewpoint here. The best of the Indian writing is not in the English. A Vaikom Muhammad Basheer or a Sarat Chandra Chatterjee is any day equal to a Marquez or Umebrto Eco. They are not famous because they were not properly translated like their western counterparts. And the problem with us is that we did not rekindle our skills though we claim to have a rich and varied culture. It’s bullshit. We had. But what do we have today?

The case is that most Indian publishers, including multinational biggies, push the burden of marketing and publicity entirely upon the author. No matter how good a book may be, if it is not publicised, people will not know about it, and not buy and read it. How can a first-time Indian author compete with bestsellers without adequate support from the publisher?

Well, it is simple. That’s the tragedy one has to suffer, no matter how talented you are. Like their western counterparts, not a single big publishing house entertains new talent unless it has sex appeal and/or probability of selling. I will not name names. “The best magical realist after Marquez,” that’s what a ‘great’ books page editor of a national weekly called a 20-something Bombay guy who wrote a trashy book. He paid the publisher nearly 10 lakh for launch, pitching stories, interviews and reviews. The publisher got a good deal; the scribes were paid; and for the author, belonging to a rich business family, got instant stardom. What if, if the book sank without a trace.

A rich Malabar Hill lady sent me an unsolicited manuscript, written in ink on paper. The book sucked, so I put it in my favourite dustbin. Few weeks later, I got a call from the lady. Asking me whether I am publishing this book or not. I said, ‘Sorry’. She said, “Ok, can I have the manuscript back.” I said I junked it. “Ooops,” she said, “that was the only copy I had.” So? You did not even take a photocopy of it, I asked. She said: “No.”

— Asian Age / Deccan Chronicle


Anonymous said...

I agree..

Anonymous said...

Your question - Does an Indian author writing in English have to taste success abroad first? Is a very debatable question. I think it should and at the same time his success in his own land is the biggest success. I would like to share with you that Indiaplaza is organising Goldequill award in which 5 best Indian authors and their books are nominated. It is one of the most awaited awards you can find it at These ceremonies do encourage the authors a great way and the success they get here will automaticaly spread all over the world. I also agree with you that books of our authors do sell very well in India and its just a misconception that books dont sell here. Hope I was able to answer that question