Monday, October 24, 2011

The Myth of a Chequered Career

Very often in publishing, when you apply for a job, and manage to get to the interview stage, your interviewer might ask you the question, Why do I see a chequered career on your CV? What he or she usually means is why your CV shows you have changed five jobs in five years, and why those jobs reflect academic, textbook, trade, coffee table, graphic novel publishing, and something else. Why couldn’t you stick to one job for five years? And, if you did have to change, why didn’t you stick to the same kind of books in another company?

Nothing wrong in sticking to the same job in the same company for years, or even switching to a similar job in another company. You hone your skills; you specialise in a certain kind of publishing. At the same time, there is nothing wrong in being the Jack of all trades either if you can manage to be the master of at least one.

There is another significant fact that your interviewer may have chosen to ignore – that the Indian publishing industry is really small and openings are few. For someone who needs a job quickly, it’s not always possible to wait until the right kind of opportunity turns up. So one opts for whatever is available. And, when someone begins his/her career with the wrong genre, it becomes even more significant. Sticking to a job that isn’t right for you can, and usually does, have its own consequences in the long run. Until you’ve tried a couple of areas, you may not be able to figure out where you fit in best or what really interests you the most. Once you’ve identified your niche, it makes sense to stick to it.

It is also important that while you’re hunting for your niche, you should be able to extract the maximum you can from whatever job you are in – whether it is knowledge, experience, or expertise. For instance, if I had never done academic publishing, I would never have learnt the significance of style and consistency. If I hadn’t done trade, I wouldn’t have understood the importance of flexibility. Exposure to different forms and genres of publishing helps in broadening your perspective and prevents stilted thinking. So it isn’t always a bad thing, as long as you’re sure it’s publishing where you belong.

A lot of people tend to confuse publishing with journalism. That is tricky business since publishing and journalism are two different vocations, with little in common. If you tell a layman you’re an editor, the first question usually happens to be, ‘Which newspaper?’ Often you have journalists applying for certain editorial positions in publishing, not realising that their requirements are very different. A journalist who does have those required skills may be able to make a smooth transition, but it doesn’t always happen like that. A lot of them find themselves disillusioned and prefer to return to the territory they are familiar with after a while.

Publishing is said to be a harsh industry. Tolerance levels are low; jobs are demanding and stressful; everything is subjective. And – you’re on your own. Swim if you can, or it’s Happy Sinking!  Yet, that’s precisely why it is so important to keep going. Never mind false starts; never mind your mistakes. In any case since you live only once, whatever you have to try you have to try right now. And, if you’re the kind of person who learns his lessons quickly and well, there is no reason why you should not be able to make a chequered career work in your favour.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Higgledy-piggledy Publishing Biz: To Begin or Not to Begin

[Published :]

I want to publish my own book. How do you start a publishing house? What do you think of vanity publishing?

In the recent days, I have come across a lot of people asking me these questions. If they are your questions too, beware. You may be confusing issues. If you want to get a book published, by all means – do. But if you feel that starting a publishing house will be an answer to your problems, you’re grossly mistaken. Please note: self-publishing is different from setting up a publishing business.  (Yes, I do make a distinction between self-publishing and vanity publishing, and the distinction is based purely on the quality of the product you produce – whether it is content or production; whether you do it yourself or get somebody to do it for you).

Though it may seem that setting up a publishing house is child’s play in today’s world (there seem to be clusters of them at every street corner, so it must be easy), let me assure you it’s not.  Publishing is not like any other industry. One: we do not deal with consumer goods. Two: it’s not a money-minting machine as many people seem to think. Three: it needs constant investment, the risks are huge, and the gestation period is astoundingly long. Four: like any other profession, publishing needs some knowledge/specialisation and a certain set of skills. Five: everybody today wants to write; nobody wants to read! There are writers galore, publishers galore, and few book buyers!

The supply seems to be much more than the demand; the competition is fierce. The book review space is shrinking; so is shelf space. More book shops are shutting down. The existing ones are spilling over. With so much on offer, today’s reader is perhaps more confused than ever, and only opts for tried and tested things – or products that come cheap.

If you feel publishing is easy, you’re assuming that there are readers out there dying to buy your books, that distributors would be falling over themselves to pick them up, and retailers would empty their shelves to make way for yours. In the end everybody would make money and be happy. A deadly mistake. The process is neither so simple nor butter-smooth and linear, even if you have a good book in hand.

The reality is quite contrary to your assumptions, and it’s pretty grim. Beyond family, friends, and relatives, buyers are generally few and far between for most authors unless he/she is already well established. People today spend willingly on other, more glamorous sources of entertainment such as movies, restaurants, games, gadget accessories, etc rather than on ‘old-fashioned’ books. The few who still do, usually don’t like to take risks with a new book/author. Hence, to put it very simply, the retailers are reluctant to stock such a book. Hence the distributors are equally reluctant to take it on. Hence the publishers are hesitant to publish him/her. And the established writers offer no guarantees of success either. Often enough they lose their buyers to music albums, a pizza, a new haircut, and other such sources of instant gratification. 

Setting up a publishing house implies putting several processes together. Once you’ve published your book, you need to churn out more titles regularly.  That means attracting good authors, doing them justice, and selling the books. You’re dependent upon several other cogs in the giant wheel, who are in no mood to oblige you. It becomes a process of publishing and waiting; producing a good book and waiting for a miracle to happen – bracing yourself for the same challenges again and again and again. In the end, unsold books return to you by the truck-load.

So, when you wonder why things are the way they are, look at people’s book-buying habits before jumping to the conclusion that the publishers are the villains in the entire gamut, and you would do well to start off on your own. Publishing is a tough business and needs, apart from resources, the nerves of a warrior and the patience of a sage.