Publishing blues

December 23, 2018

Do we need great writers or awareness of new avenues like self-publishing online?

Publishing blues

As I write this, I am reminded of a conversation from years ago.

I’d just started at college when an old classmate emailed with big news -- he’d found a publisher! I knew how much work he’d put into his debut novel -- the long hours and emails fleshing out his world and his characters -- and I was just as excited as he was. During the next few days, we stayed in touch, talking about drafts and development, and during that conversation, he asked me to help edit the book.

Not that I minded (if I got to read free fiction, who was I to complain?) but wasn’t that his editor’s job?

In this case, apparently not, he explained, saying that the publishers had asked him to arrange for that on his own. And really, he was just happy someone was publishing his work.

Fair enough, I thought.

And then things got strange.

It’s considered difficult to become a published author. Self-publishing is costly, with no guarantee of sales. And dealing with copyright laws and publishing guidelines is a task not many young authors are prepared for. Ask any hopeful with a manuscript if they know what their local laws are regarding publishing, copyright infringement or even what ISBN stands for. Mostly, you’ll come up blank.

Coming back to my friend, the debut novelist, the publishers -- who also own a renowned Pakistani chain of bookstores -- took his manuscript, left him to his own devices regarding the editing and then informed him that he would only get to see 10 percent of sales revenue. The remaining revenue he was informed, would go to the printers (which they owned), the distributors (them again), and publisher’s own pockets. He didn’t get to see a contract until right before they were going to print the books. And he wasn’t allowed to use another distributor.

These publishers went as far as to tell him that if he didn’t agree, they could take his work and publish it under a false name.

For a lot of young writers, this is the make or break moment. If they’re passionate, they may hold out, hoping for better circumstances. And for some of these young writers, if they’re desperate enough, even changing what they loved most about their work for the sake of that bottom line isn’t that big a sacrifice. In the end, as he pointed out: "I just wanted to sell my book." He ended up with maybe a hundred copies of his book that he had to try to sell himself.

Enter a new wave of writers -- those who understand the game, and know that it’s not about how many years of love and dedication went into the book -- it’s about how marketable the publisher thinks it is.

They understand that the only way to avoid compromising too much on their work is to ensure there’s a demand for it -- to build their own audience. Which in turn, will guarantee sales, making getting published all the easier.

Some have managed this by using existing platforms, like YouTube (YT) content creator Kalyn Nicholson, who makes vlog style videos about healthy living and mindfulness. Nicholson used her platform to fund her dream of writing; the 1.4 million subscribers meant she had a better chance of making her self-published novel a more reasonable risk -- one that could pay off. Her first novel, Catcher, is available on Amazon.

Vivien Reis is another YT creator who did go the self-publishing route. And her strategy was a little different: her channel is exclusively about writing tips, character development ideas, self-publishing guides etc. She’s established herself as a guide for other writers and used that platform to help market and sell her own book.

And then we have stories a little closer to home -- like that of ‘Bookay’. Bookay is a Facebook community with over 10,000 members. The upcoming Bookay "book" is actually their second print collection, but the first with Urdu and English writers. It’s being published by Dastan.While I couldn’t get in touch with Reis or Nicholson in time for this article, Hassan Saeed, one of the administrators for Bookay was available for comment. I asked him the same thing I’d been wondering since the unfortunate experience of my friend, the debut novelist: Does it matter how good the book is? Does having an existing audience translate to sales and better terms for the writer? And if so, does that work for both the traditional, book-deal route and also for self-publishing?

"That is an age-old debate," responded Saeed, "should the writer write for the sake of writing or should he write to please the audience. I think it’s a grey area because the authors I know, they write for the sake of writing and have found an audience that loves them; there is a bit of everything for everyone."

As for getting younger authors noticed in Pakistan, Saeed pointed out we had to be realistic:

"In our part of the world, it is difficult to be noticed, represented and published using the traditional route. There is a dearth of publishing houses along with the scarcity of literary agents, I know writers who are self-published or have gone the digital route because it was easier. Having an existing audience makes it easier because the author knows they have a market that is already reading their work and will buy the published book."

Saeed explained that when it started out, the group hadn’t even considered publishing. But from just a platform where "students would upload research papers, the community has turned into a 10,000+ strong community with members from all over the world and physical meetings almost every month."

People discuss the books they are reading, while budding and local writers post their writings to receive critique on them. Quite a few of the writers on the forum have never been published before -- which is why the new Bookay book comes as such a pleasant surprise.

In a fiction writing workshop I attended in Lahore, the lecturer, himself a recently published author mentioned how the only way he was picked by a major publishing house on his first try was that he had an agent -- and the only way he got one was because of a writing competition he’d successfully won. But, he got published -- and that was after making major changes to the plot of something he’d poured his heart and soul in to for years. Meant to be social commentary, it found itself with a sub-plot -- terrorism -- because the publisher insisted that that was the kind of Pakistani literature that would sell. Still, he said, "I got lucky."

Not everyone is that lucky. And even among authors, agents, publishing contacts and resources of the like are a preciously guarded commodity.

Pakistan and Pakistani writers have a long, long way to go. Will the Bookay community and other social media authors serve as a success story to be emulated or be ignored? As Saeed pointed out, a lot of it comes down to awareness.

Translation: Only time will tell.

Publishing blues