Sunday, October 19, 2008

Vanity (Un)fair

By Sunil K Poolani

Vanity publishing is today an inevitable and dominating phenomenon worldwide — and a multibillion dollar industry, to boot. It has had existed from ad memoriam. Take the Vedas or the Ramayana to the Holy Bible and the Koran… they were all sponsored trips; by word of mouth or by somebody patronising them to get to the masses.
It is another matter they were done for spiritual (then) or materialistic (mostly now) reasons. Almost all the texts of writing (well, novel-writing was a very eighteenth century occurrence) were all funded by patronising kings or dukes.
Now, a nostalgic trip. I was a kid once and I, even today, lucidly recall how a failed poet tried to get his work published by local magazines; he was a bit successful in that effort. Then he dreamt of compiling his collection of verse in a book. For which, there were no takers in the fledgling publishing arena in the then Kerala.
His cousin, who had made his fortune from the oilfields of Persia, helped fulfil the poet’s dream. The poet used to pedal his bicycle, peddling his ware, from house to house, village to village, and finally from town to town; and in just three years’ time he had almost sold more than ten thousand copies — a quite surprising incident even by today’s standards as even our Shobhaa De does not sell that much. I still preserve the poet’s book; then priced a mere Re 1.
From the backwaters of Kerala to Andhra Pradesh and then in Delhi and Maharashtra I have witnessed, and sold too, copies of several amateur writers’ ambitious works. Some of them, I can proudly claim now, are today household names. And, I have to cheekily admit that my first two books, a collection of poems in Malayalam (when I was sixteen) and a jointly-written booklet on the Narmada movement (in the early nineties), were funded by either my dad or from my meagre salary as a hack.
Personal vignettes apart, in the present days vanity publishing is not an unashamed for business to indulge in, as it used to be, say, a decade ago. With an increasing number of publishers only catering to a clientele who are mostly cretins, a good literary work would not have seen the day of light if not for vanity / subsidised / sharing-costs publishers.
By hook, line, and sinker many aspirant writers want to get their works published — and around half of them feel deceived after self-styled publishers lure the poor hopefuls by offering them instant stardom and high royalties in return, but, alas they eventually get fleeced. Should the writers bite the bait sans thinking aloud? Never.
Writers should be careful about what they are getting into before shelling out hefty amounts to the tricksters in the game. And it is also advisable to think twice before paying money to unknown ‘publishers’ in the US or the UK who just send you ten copies of ‘print-on-demand’ books, and you can kiss goodbye to the ‘rest’ of the copies.
As a publisher I had, and continue to, publish certain books through the subsidised route (mainly poetry and fiction) as these titles, in all probability, would not assure much returns, forget making profits. I had always made it a point to clear whatever royalties the writers are entitled, too. But the problem with subsidised or vanity publishing is the writers sit in the driver’s seat as they think the publisher is at their mercy. And they do not realise that no publisher — and that includes the best in the profession (Penguin, Rupa) — cannot assure which book would sell and which one would bomb.
Discretion is the name of the game, here.

A couple of years ago, a big Indian publisher brought out a book which they termed the biggest thing that has had happened in the Indian literary history. Printing of a book is pittance, but not the PR costs. Since this young and handsome guy from Mumbai had enough khandani money to indulge in this tamasha, his PR firm, in tandem with the publisher, roped in several ‘intellectual’ books page editors of reputed magazines and newspapers to write favourable reviews.
One of them flew down from Delhi, was accommodated in a five-star hotel in Mumbai, interviewed the author, and devoted three pages for the book (interview; excerpts) in his magazine and called the twenty-something as the next inheritor of Marquez. The book bombed, thank you. But not after he becoming a household name in Malabar Hill families and in Page 3 circuits.
— Deccan Chronicle / The Asian Age

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,
your weekly column on Vanity publishing in Sunday issue of Deccan Chronicle of 11th October,08, was very informative and inspiring. Its words of caution, information and suggestion will be of great help, to all the unsuspecting first timers, who want to publish books, spending their hard-earned money. (Hope you remember my previous communication on VIJAY AND VIJAY.)
Actually one day, in not very far future, I too will like to publish a book of Hindi poems(Geet and Ghazals) of mine. Needless to say, at that time, I will contact you, solicit your guidance and if things get mutually convenient, I will like you to be the publisher.
Before that, of course, I will like to shift my base to Mumbai, from Hyderabad. Actually I am trying for that, for last few months. But somehow things are dragging. If situation favors, by the end of November,08, I should be there in Mumbai.
Your review of Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan's debut novel 'YOU ARE HERE' inspired me in a different way and I have bought a copy of it. But I am yet to start it.
With warm regards
Tulsidas Mishra, Hyderabad (