Recently, I self-published a children’s story, “How Two-Legged Su Saves The Day” by paying a rather meagre amount to get it printed, bound in saddle-stitched binding and glossy pages, with full color illustrations that are registered under the creative commons license agreement.
That was the easy part. My euphoria at getting my first story published – or rather, printed – was short lived, as a close friend proclaimed, “But, what’s the big deal! Anyone can get his book published via Print On Demand! What’s your credibility as a writer compared to any con artist who puts together a 10-page account of his life as a master chef in the Taj Hotel and gets it printed as a memoir?” Indeed, what’s my credibility, if my comparison was to be made with a con artist! But the fact of the matter is, today, even con artists get their books published and make a decent living out of it.
I was rather taken aback by this unexpected attack and didn’t know how to respond to her rather rude barb. Later that night, I did some rudimentary research on the publishing industry pondered over concepts such as the credibility of authorship in literary and academic streams, and the revolution in the publishing industry in the digital age. To sort the issue in my mind, I Googled the definition of the terms publish and print and got this: publishing happens when a publishers pays for the work of an author and secures the right to print, distribute and market that work. He gets a percentage of the profits for his efforts. Printing is when you take your work and go to a printing services company and pay them to get your book in print.
The model that self-publishing follows is that of Print On Demand (POD), where you send across your work to a publishing services company, and they print the first copy for you at a price, following which, successive copies will be printed only on the placement of order from buyers. On the other hand, the author can bulk-order a number of copies and then sell it across using various means – door to door selling, online sale and book exhibitions are some of the common ways.
My friend’s comment got me wondering: was I not good enough as a writer unless some hot-shot, New York-based publishing company took me under its wings? Did I need to have the sanction of a multi-million firm, which consistently regurgitated best-sellers from equally repeated white, California-dwelling celebrity writers? Did I need to go through the agonizing ‘trial by fire’ – the submission of a manuscript, the endless wait, the heart-breaking rejection slips, and the process repeated again with pathological accuracy for several hundred different publishers across the world?
Yes, the public demands that, didn’t it? The iron-clad image of a best-selling author and his moneyed publishing company have so successfully got the public eating out of their hands when it comes to the credibility factor. In fact, if you have less than a million copies in print concurrently in 18 different languages – as any Dan Brown, David Baldacci or Sidney Sheldon books claim – you have definitely not made the cut as a legit writer.
When did this entire business become more about the packaging, branding, advertising and marketing and less about the story itself? This leads me to attack the question of credibility. Who decides if my writing or the con artist’s is NOT GOOD ENOUGH to be published? Who has given commercial conglomerates like Penguin Books, Harper Collins, Bloomsbury or Avon Books the right to be the judge and jury on “good writing” and “good writers”? Can the reading public trust that these companies will bring out the best possible stories that need to be told? Wouldn’t the firms rather promote page-turning thrillers and international assassination plots that will keep the average bored reader up at night and salivating over the suspenseful ending? After all, money has to be made, it is business!
So, the real point emerges. If a bunch of business houses have commercial interests in selling “a” particular type of book, how does the common reading man trust them to give them the best of stories that are waiting to be put to words and print? May be, I want to read about a remixed version of the Ramayana, but there isn’t any author willing to take on such a risque subject because he knows the ‘market’ for it is pretty niche. And it’s niche because the big shot companies don’t market such niche genres to the public. Worse, even if the subject and theme gets approved, the manuscript languishes on the tables of the copy-editor and won’t see the light of day for another two years!
The writing movement has undergone a revolution. The Internet has given a billion people the potential to rewrite history or history as they see it. It has leveled the playing field to a small extent. It’s a start though. Farmers in poor villages in southern India have access to the net to check out stock prices of agricultural seeds. It’s not a giant leap to imagine that some day in the future, they would have the power and capability to express opinions on genetic seeds, industrial farming and all the burning issues that affect them, and put it across to the world. In India, a tiny portion of kids from under-privileged backgrounds, are being taught how to use the Internet and the various creative things they could do using it as a platform.
Today, I have the power to convert this blog to an e-book, put it up on Amazon.com, and reap in the royalties. I also have the option of putting up previews of my stories on any online platform and when sufficient interest is generated, approach a small but respectable publishing house and strike a deal.
Today, I also have the option of having an entirely online approach to authorship and readership and not really think of writing as a business venture, rather as a means to creating a larger audience for my work – free of charge.
So, in a sense the Internet has revolutionized my idea of writing and readership. The blog has helped me connect to an audience who WANTS to read what I am putting up. The topics are niche, and so are the responses. But, I have the opportunity to access this platform at my convenience and without overhead costs. There’s no stigma or selective discrimination or any limits to what I can write and distribute online. This also comes with its own set of pitfalls, which I will discuss later.
There’s also the printing press, which has appropriated power from the hands of a few and distributed it to a selective mass of people, who in turn will disburse their power equation to the larger masses one day via transfer of technology. There are hundreds of creative people who are pooling in their resources – time, energy, money – and setting up printing presses to publish niche works that won’t be touched by the Big Brothers of the publishing world. The niche genres of gender studies, art and architecture, built environment, culture and society, film studies, etc, needs such an outlet to make their presence felt.
Note here, I am not talking about people’s reading habits here. You might argue that gender studies as a genre might not excite half a million people as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter might (It excites me as well), so why should companies print 50,000 copies of some vague research book by an even more unknown author! Because, in democracy, everyone has the chance to voice their opinion, in any medium they chose to, and without the burden of having to pay for it. And that’s where Print On Demand and services such as Self Publishing come into the picture. It gives everyone an equal opportunity to get their voices heard, state an opinion in print and see themselves as legitimate holders of that opinion.
In essence, the Internet allows me to do just that. But since the World Wide Web is not considered a credible source of literature and information, the seriousness of my opinion could be lost. And this is the pitfalls I was referring to. Scholars don’t take the Wikipedia seriously because it’s an online collaborative effort by the masses and not work done by a bunch of scholars sitting in the hallowed libraries of Oxford, Harvard or Princeton. There’s also the question of quality brought up by many. The grammar, language and syntax of written, literary and academic work put up online is not scrutinized by editors or experts, so a lot of riff-raff gets passed on.
The printed word is taken seriously because it is seen as bound in paper and reprinted to several editions across the decades. Age gives it credibility. As for quality, there are far fewer language errors in the products that come out of the stable of a reputed company, rather than from the small printing presses of an individual. Also, a company, having spent considerable resources on said work and promoting it to the hilt with a blitzkrieg of advertisements and book launch gimmicks, wouldn’t put out a poor quality product on the market, would it?
This raises another question. If only quality were the criteria to judge a written work, then we would certainly not be able to give the masses a level playing field. Because quality is what the editor, the grammar enthusiast, the linguist and language expert bring to a book, not the author. The job of the author is to craft stories, be inventive with the narrative, spin tales told a hundred times before but in a different style, and basically, help the readers to bring their own contexts and perspectives to the text.
In the grand scheme of things, Perception Management is an art and the publishing companies have been doing it successfully for years. I heartily admit that I would want my little story book to be on the New York Times Bestseller List for 30 weeks and hordes of people flock to the bookstore to buy my book. However, there’s a crucial point that gets lost in this highway to publishing stardom: the surrounding buzz and book tours and media publicity is so blinding that the ordinary book browsing individual feels somehow compelled to pick up the best-seller. What else choice does he have in a giant book shop where half the aisles are covered with best-sellers?
I hope people with a love for reading are able to perceive that the system is faulty. Only a few credible books reach the hands of an even more niche audience. Given the circumstances, when I enter a bookstore – online, physical or exhibition – I want to see more authors represented and more choice of subjects and books without it being told to me that these are worth reading or credible. I want the common man to decide what kind of books should be published and put up and talked about or peer reviewed rather than a single business entity.
The Internet has the power to change the equation. We need to find more acceptable avenues for putting up creative works and legitimize it with the support of people. Power to the common man!