Monday, March 12, 2012

Pangs of Publishing

By T.P.Sreenivasan

Every creative person carries in his head a number of ideas about writing books. But only some manage to write books and fewer actually publish them. Still there are millions of books in the market on any conceivable subject under the sun. Had it not been for the need for discipline required to put things down in a systematic way and the hassles of publishing, there would have been many more authors on the face of the earth.

Writing is possibly the easiest part of publishing a book. It is a lonely exercise and the art of creation is exhilarating. Whether it is a memoir for which recollection is important or fiction, for which creativity is the key or technical or scientific books, for which research is of utmost importance, the author has to devote considerable attention. But the joy generated by the art of creation is reward in itself. The sense of exhilaration on the completion of a book is beyond words.

The scene changes the moment when the author begins looking around for a publisher. He realizes that publishers are ruthless in applying their standards before they accept a book for publication. Blessed are those who have publishers lined up before the books are written. It is even better if the book is commissioned and an advance of the royalty is paid. But for those who write their first book, publishing and marketing are harder than writing.

I had no idea who my publisher would be when I began to write my first book, inevitably an account of my life, including the details of the important negotiations that I was involved in. I thought that my experiences in the Indian Foreign Service would be of interest to scholars as well as general readers as nowhere else they could find the original source materials on the specific issues I dealt with. I had no diaries or notes, but a number of stray papers I had set aside for use. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I completed it, but every time I read and reread the text, I had to rewrite portions of the book. Finally, I decided not to read it again, for fear that the book would never be complete.

I happened to be in New York when I finished the book and I decided to explore the possibility of publishing my book there. Armed with introductions from my son, a Columbia Professor of Journalism, I met a couple of publishers to learn the harsh reality that a new writer stood no chance of being considered, not to speak of getting published. Legends like a publisher getting enthused after reading a manuscript of Arundhati Roy inspire new writers till they find that it is hard enough even to get someone to read a manuscript.

Speaking of my own manuscript, a publisher told me that people would read memoirs of celebrities, but they would not be interested in professional lives. He told me helpfully that if I were to write about how to be a successful diplomat, he would be interested. Readers, he said, would like to improve their lives by acquiring new skills and therefore the “How To” books were particularly popular. The clear message I got was that I should try publishing my book in my own home country.

During my travels, I almost lost my manuscript in an airport theft. The brief case in which I normally carried the floppies of those times was stolen, but I had packed the floppies in my main suitcase this time as my briefcase was full with other documents and goodies. On arrival in India, I saw a book by my erstwhile boss in New York, Ambassador Chinmaya Gharekhan, on the UN Security Council. I was quite impressed with its production and Ambassador Gharekhan introduced me to Pearson and its helpful and friendly executive, K.P.R. Nair, who had published a number of books by Indian diplomats. He lost no time in accepting the manuscript for Pearson and even with his best effort, it took a full year for the book to see the light of day.

The editor was a young and energetic young lady, who did not understand much of the intricacies of foreign policy or its vocabulary. But she improved the text in many ways, removing repetitions and correcting the sequence of events. But once she was done with the text, I had to reinstate many of my expressions and words. She gracefully accepted my revisions and the manuscript was ready. But the greatest difficulties arose in finalizing the title and choosing the pictures.

My title, “Words, Words, Words” was much older than the book itself and I had made up my mind that this definition of a book by Shakespeare was a masterpiece and that it would be the title of my memoir, as diplomacy is all about words, written, spoken and unspoken. I was told, however, that the book would appear to be a book on etymology and hence the sub-title, “Adventures in Diplomacy” was added. Pearson was still doubtful, but they decided to stick to the original title when I suggested an altogether new name, “Never A Dull Moment.”

The cover design too took a lot of work. I had thought that it would carry a portrait of mine like it happens in the case of memoirs. But we finally settled for a graphic design for the hard cover and a portrait of mine for the paperback.

I managed a high profile release for my book as my erstwhile boss in New York, who figured in the book, was elected the Vice-President of India just then and he hosted the event in his own house. Then began the hunt for reviews, another hard task. Considering the number of books that come out in India, it is hard to get the major journals to review books. But India Today, the Hindu and several other journals gave excellent reviews for my book. That made a big difference to the sales and the first edition was sold out, leading to a paperback print.

The royalties on the book, it turned out, was an illusion, as I had to pay more than the 15% royalty that the publisher offered me to order copies for presentation. My hope now is that one day I will earn enough royalty to pay for the copies I order for presents. No one offers to pay for the book you offer and most people feel that they are doing you a favour by carrying the book home.

Publishers are losing out when authors are able to reach the readers directly through e-books and other new media. But publishers still remain key players in book production and they lend value and prestige to books. The pangs of publishing do produce quality books and enrich the world of knowledge.


Arkay Em said...

In jest - "One of the signs of Napoleon's greatness is the fact that he once had a publisher shot." - Siegfried Unseld

Arkay Em said...

"One of the signs of Napoleon's greatness is the fact that he once had a publisher shot!" - Siegfried Unseld


I agree.Writing is a pleasure while publishing is a pang or may I say angst.And this should be the case even for an eminent diplomat like TP Srinivasan,will be shared with surprise by many.I think choosing a titillating title is more important than the titillation that can be offered in the content. The title is like the name a person given by her parents.Girls with the most attractive names, like Menaka, Thilothama, need not be beautiful.But the name itself adds to their self estimation and self confidence and contribution to the charm .So the title of the book has to be selected with as much care.It was Sree Narayana Guru who broke down the barrier of the avarna classes being given avarna -unattractive- names at a time savarna names were reserved for the upper castes by custom. I am sure TP Srinivasan will hereafter be mobbed by publishers to bring off his books to the global readers
KP Joseph