Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A New Publisher's Angst

(Published in 'Book Link' November 2010 issue.)

You could be a literary mosquito buzzing around annoyingly in their ears. Who knows you aren’t one? Who cares? Who are you anyway?

Of course, you had always heard about the difficulty of penetrating the literary circles. What you hadn’t anticipated was its impossibility. No matter how wildly you flail your limbs, you’re still the Invisible Woman.

Mission Impossible II: the distributors – the so-very-polite, so-very-cordial gentlemen towering over you. You realise when you meet them in person, that ‘towering over you’ isn’t simply a figure of speech.

Either they don’t register your presence at all, or, if they do, they tell you they cannot help you. Very nice books, ma’am. Great show. Houseful. Thank you for visiting.

Never in your life will you get a better bug’s eye view, or be caught in a truly Kafkaesque situation, right to the ‘e’. That’s the moment of epiphany, when you fully comprehend the meaning of a hitherto confounding word.

Eventually, you do manage to get some of the formidable gentlemen to accept your books.

Respite at last?

Of course not.

These Laputa inhabitants constantly need their attendant flappers! It’s impossible to function without. Did you ever guess that Swift was actually thinking about the Indian book distribution system when he produced his magnum opus? Quite a farsighted gentleman.

The horrors of seeking book reviews in the mainstream media are pretty familiar. Ah, the media. Beg, borrow, steal their attention somehow. The question is – how? How do you finally stop being a beetle and go back to being human again?

You’ve faced a million and twenty humiliations from every quarter already. You have waited on book shop assistants, been lectured on what kind of books to publish by people who can barely spell their name, eaten at the CPWD canteen while waiting for your papers to be processed on the second floor, stood in long queues, swallowed your pride and waited in offices where the person is question never bothered to offer you a chair.

And while you’re still trying to wipe away your tears, huddled in some corner, there’s good news. Media attention – finally! You happily grab the paper and read the article – and then re-read it not so happily again. You’ve been listed as a new budding publisher of young adult fiction books.

Amazing, really, considering you’re yet to publish one. So far, you’ve only been thinking of venturing into that genre.

And one fine day, somebody with all the right management skills, insists on advising you about publishing.

‘Have you ever heard of crowd sourcing ma’am?’

‘Afraid not, sir.’

‘Groups of people online, you know. Why don’t you upload your novels over there and ask for their suggestions?’

‘I’m sorry?’

The omniscient gentleman nods, smiling.

‘Turn it around to their tastes. They should buy.’


Are you listening, trade publishers?

Erm… excuse me, Mr Seth, I’d like Lata Mehra to marry Amit Chatterjee, please!

Ah well … a bizarre industry you say?

You can say that again.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Utterly Bitterly Un-delicious

The world of publishing is a minefield.

No, I’m not talking about books, genre, production, printing, distribution, marketing, technicalities, legalities, or even sales. I’m simply talking about managing to wriggle amongst a world of established or aspiring writers, without accidently stepping on someone’s toes.

Think it possible? Hmm.

In quite another incarnation, another avatar, when I did not know (or imagined) I would be a publisher someday, just to distract myself from the dreariness of my daily job, on another one of those drowsy, tedious afternoons, I joined Facebook.

It was a new thing those days, and there were only a couple of friends on my list, mainly colleagues from office. We used it in our spare time to suggest books we had read, to each other, writing two or three lines about what we thought about them.

There was a title someone had suggested I should include on my must-read list. It was supposedly a brilliant piece of work. I was keen to get hold of it, since I had already read and enjoyed a short story by that writer earlier.

I searched high and low for days, found it triumphantly at a shop one day, and bought the hardback immediately.

Then I tried to read it. I tried, and I tried, and I tried. I tried going back and forth; I tried re-reading sections in case I’d missed something; I tried asking others how they’d managed to get through (some never did). I found it impossible to keep myself awake in spite of all my best efforts. After page 150, I quit. I found the book dead dull and told my friends as much over our little book review section, using two concise lines of beautiful adjectives.

And I forgot all about it instantly, as usual.


Switch to Incarnation Two (two years later): a new, aspiring publisher fighting against all odds, to establish a place for herself in an apathetic and opaque world.

Some family friends, wanting to be helpful, direct me to an ‘established author’, ‘a very good friend’ for help and guidance.

‘You MUST write to her; she is very sweet and helpful,’ I’m told twenty times over in six months.

Eventually, I do.

And of course I cannot understand the prickly, bristly emails, fuming and frothing from the opening word to the end, I receive back every time.

I wonder and wonder, and the mystery deepens. For the life of me I cannot guess what’s wrong. At last the lady cannot hold herself back any longer, and sends me the copy-pasted two lines about her book posted online two years ago.

Aha. Enlightenment at last!

(So your past does catch up with you at the most unexpected moment; beware!)

Well, I tell her honestly that I enjoyed her short story some years ago, but simply couldn’t read the novel.

She is still fuming and frothing, but insists she’s always tried to be very nice and helpful. She asks me why I did not write to her with my criticism instead if I didn’t like her book.

What do I say now?

(a) I did not know her personally (I still don’t);
(b) Every time someone doesn’t like a book, does he/she sit down to write to the author?

I tell her I have written and published a book. I tell her she is most welcome to read and dislike it wholeheartedly if she wants to, and write a nasty review; I would not hold it against her.

(Some people have indeed read the book and not liked it. It doesn’t mean I hold it against them.)

Plus, I repeat that I enjoyed the short story she did earlier. I wonder why the ‘liked the short story bit’ never registers. I tell her she can discount my opinion anyway, since better-known literary figures have praised her work.

Guess what. It will not happen.

I try tapping her again online months later, thinking she must have got over it, being a mature and sensible adult.

No chance.

I have made an enemy for life.


Lesson learnt: Never say anything about someone else’s work, esp. if you have a latent desire to turn a writer/publisher someday. If at all you do, only take up books you can genuinely say nice things about.


Then there was an author on my network once who’d tag me on her book cover every time she did a new title. And thanks to my limited skills, I did not know how to un-tag myself, so that my inbox would be inundated with junk mail every day.

I made the mistake of mentioning it to her quite politely.

The seven plagues of Egypt were unleashed right away over my little account, with full fury. I was lashed for daring to stop her from doing what a networking site is meant for; I was rudely told off and ‘un-friended’ since, she said, I did not ‘deserve to be’ on her friends list.

Whew! Peace – at last?

No chance again. The professor-author continues to haunt the FB inbox of her un-friended non-connection to this day, with messages about her new releases.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Books Populi: Un-cut (original published in Hindustan Times, 15th Oct 2010)

Books Populi

The sudden boom in trade publishing in India these days has supposedly come about post Chetan Bhagat, thanks to the birth of a new genre of publishing. Call it young adult, college romance, or Bollywood style. But these titles are being churned out faster than popcorns, and sold at an ‘affordable’ price. Mostly, they’re aimed at university students.

Surprisingly enough, the same target audience never finds a three-hundred-rupee pizza ‘ridiculously expensive’, while a thousand-rupee pair of jeans is ‘quite reasonable’. But talk about a good book available for ‘two hundred bucks’, and you’ll see incredulity written all over their faces.

In our time (and that was really not all that long ago), books implied something almost sacrosanct, to be cherished and preserved.

Whereas book trade in India is considered a slow, non-lucrative business, these titles have been selling about forty to fifty thousand copies. A bestselling Rushdie sells about half the number in India. They have created such a storm that even the primary players have had to enter the fray. For the conservative ones, it’s Hobson’s choice – for retailers these days recognise only two kinds of books – the ones that sell, and the ones that don’t.

The young adult fiction trend seems to have altered not just the definition of books, but of creative writing as well. And – it doesn’t stop there. It seems to be redefining English as a language altogether.

An aspiring author mentioned (with some bewilderment) recently that his crime fiction script was turned down by an agent not because his English was awful, but because it was too good. The language wasn’t poetic or ornate; it was simply correct.

‘Too good to sell,’ his agent told him.

Some editorial service agencies have been receiving similar requests: ‘Edit this script the way you need to, but do leave some rough edges in there. Don’t make it into a book that reads too well.’

Hello? Did we hear that right?

The readers have every right to read the genre they wish to read. But why are the gatekeepers of the industry bent upon playing Kalidasa?

Some publishers have adopted the stance that it’s all right not to bother with editing such titles, since Indian audience isn’t discerning anyhow. Their argument is that we are not trying to teach the readers English; we’re simply offering them a story they can relate to.

Is it all right for the publishers aka gatekeepers of the industry to take such a stand?

Next, we just might have our Asha Bosles anointing singers who cannot hum a sa different from a pa as the next musical superstars. Who then fights for sur and taal? Are they also as outdated? Dumped into the bin like correct language and grammatical nuances?

Is it wise to mix up commerce with art? Has commerce become so important that the guardians of the written word are ready to compromise the art?

Like a tea-taster, a true book lover has a sensitive palate too. But today, correct English seems to have shrunk to being the prerogative of a few literary elite – the language Brahmins as it were.

Storytelling is no longer an art. Anybody can be a writer. And, so long as they sell, nobody’s complaining. If this trend is to continue, why should publishers pretend to be publishers at all? They might as well simply turn printers.

Please to be listening, publishers! After all, the whole purpose of book publishing in India is being redundant little by little then, no? It is more better to have authors’ that sell, never mind what their skills might be, is it? They are like – the ‘in-thing’, eh? Their cousin brother's and cousin sister's can keep their proper English to themselves. If someday it returns back, it’s God will. Otherwise, who cares anyways...?


Book Re-whew! The Inside Story (Published in All About Book Publishing, Apr/May 2010)


A publisher’s ear instantly perks up at the mention of a book review, especially if it happens to be a new, independent one, devoid of deep pockets or deeper clout, trying her best to wrestle her way into the brisk and, er, rather brusque industry.

With no pretty face to hold the cover page up and say pretty things about the book on a TV screen, and no merry jingles accompanying the brand name echoing on FM bands, book publishing can be challenging proposition.
One would think the battle was half won once the books were done — after months of insomnia and last-minute hiccups; after restless wanderings and pleadings with distributors, when you eventually managed to get the books into the stores; and you accidently heard a stray reader or two fawning over the production quality, oblivious to your presence or the guitar strings stirring in your soul.

Alas, not so. The mammoth task begins now. How do you get people to buy the books? How do you promote them without further erosion of your already shallow pockets? (After all, you got into the business for the love of books alone. Who ever thought about ‘finances’?) How do you get people to look at your books amongst a thousand, if they don’t happen to be your aunties, uncles, cousins, or bosom pals?

Book reviews, of course. Book reviews in well-known papers and magazines would do the trick. The discerning readers scan the book review columns diligently and make their choices.

Thus begin the countless bristly interviews, and attempts to reach and entice the journos to look at your product. Some are uncomplicated; they do not deign to register your existence! Others nod and grin effusively… and then the body disappears mysteriously, leaving behind that Cheshire Cat grin still staring you in the face, in your dreams and waking hours, making you wonder what happened.

‘We’d love to do them, but there’s a huge backlog you know…’
‘You can send the books to us. Then let’s see…’
‘When did you send them? […] Oh, did we say that… ?’
‘Yes, yes, the review was supposed to be carried last week, but we didn’t carry the books page at all… No book section this week either… Perhaps it’ll be included next week …’

You’re going round in circles, calculating your mounting expenditure on courier services — sending out gratis copies to potential reviewers, panicking at the absent review every time.
Well, if there’s such a backlog, and so many books, why don’t the papers simply carry reviews twice or thrice a week instead of once? Or, perhaps make it an everyday feature?
There’s no money in it. The big ones take the lion’s share of the space anyway.
And what about us? The small independents?
A shrug. There’s no money in it, I say. It’s not sport, is it?
So what? It’s a beleaguered area, alright. Perhaps more in need of attention than Indian Hockey. Who will do it if not the industry-wallahs? Book review space, as good journalism, is shrinking in the newspapers like Pushkar waters. It’s suicidal!
A shrug again. That’s the way it is.
Ah, of course. That’s the way it is because that’s the way it is. That’s the way the industry wants it; and nobody’s interested. Right?
I hope not.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


There is a fine line of distinction between pornography and erotica. Simply put, I think erotica is beautiful, pornography is not.

Writing erotica is not only tough, it requires a certain sensibility. To be able to do it, and do it well, is a challenge for any writer aspiring to attempt it. Particularly so, when 'beautiful' is such a subjective term. Subtlety is the key.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review: Killing the Water by Mahmud Rahman (Penguin, 2010)

It's nice when I can genuinely say nice things about a book (okay, you may laugh). :)

Mahmud Rahman's collection of short stories set in Bangladesh, and the US, during the time of unrest in Bangladesh, is sensitively written. The language is simple and evocative, and beautifully portrays the bewilderment of the common man caught in such a scenario.

In spite of their realism, the stories remain non-cynical, and there seems to be an innocence about Rahman's central characters. Most stories end on a note of hope and positivity - the feeling that all is or will be well again.

My personal favourite would be 'Postcards from a Stranger', 'Killing the Water', and 'Interrogation'.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The small gods

It's strange really what some denizens of the literary-glitterary world, the most educated of our lot; the literate, polished, sophisticated, intellectual elite of our society -- the sensitive, perceptive, awe-inspiring trend setters -- have become.

They have become big. Too big to register the fellow, ordinary human beings around them; too big to notice a friendly smile, an extended hand, a warm hello; too big to remember the basics of good manners they were probably taught in whatever schools they went to(oh, but they must've been to the best!) .

They are big. So big that they are beyond good manners; beyond any 'please' and 'thank you'; beyond humilty and grace. They are the small gods of their own worlds, and nobody else has a place in their scheme of things.

And then they write papers, rue the lack of finesse in people, and tut-tut about dying humanity.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Happy to announce that I've finally taken the plunge into the blogging world! :D