From getting published to dealing with invisible readers, it’s a steep climb for authors today.
If you are looking to be a writer, there’s one thing you will always find in abundance: advice. Sometimes free, but most often not. To begin with, there are dozens and dozens of books in the market — I just ran a search on amazon.com — which promise to answer the all-important question: how to get published. I found one such book to be titled How to Get Happily Published (‘Only 3 left in stock, more on the way’).
If reading such books doesn’t bring about the desired results, you can sign up for one of those workshops where they teach you how to whip your manuscripts into a shape that is appealing and acceptable to publishers.
If that too fails to work, there is always the literary agent who will take a look at your work and tell you — for a fee — what’s wrong with it. And if they think it could be reworked to suit the market, they will do it for you — for a fee, of course — and peddle it to the various publishers. If nothing works, you can become your own publisher.
But once you are published, then what?
Only one in a million gets as lucky as Jack Kerouac, who went to sleep after reading the review of his book, On the Road, in The New York Times and woke up famous. For the vast majority, however, the climb only gets steeper once they have their names on the spines of books. While there is a flourishing industry to advise you how to get published, there is no one to tell you — not even for a fee — how to get readers to pick up your book.
Good books eventually sell, mostly by word of mouth and not because of reviews, but ‘eventually’ could mean several years later, or even after your lifetime — like in the case of George Orwell. In this day and age, when nothing is of consequence unless it is instant and it sells, waiting for that day when the world eventually recognises your talents can only be suicidal.
You must sell — or at least appear to sell. Which is why we have book launches — events that seek to project you as a happening writer and generate a buzz about your work. As a writer — I have written two books — I dread book launches more than the thought of putting together 100,000 words, because they make me realise that in order to be a successful writer today, you need to be a wordsmith, public speaker, marketing guru, self-promoting evangelist — all rolled into one.
Apart from the ability to translate my thoughts into words and string them together into sentences, I possess no other skills. Sometimes I do wonder whether I should take lessons in public speaking and marketing strategies, because these additional skills will make me a ‘wholesome’ writer. But, then, I am still learning the craft of writing — I feel embarrassed when I reread my already-published works — and I need to be a superhuman to be learning too many crafts at a time.
As a result, my mouth continues to get dry each time I am faced with an audience of over 100 people. The launch of my second book, a portrait of Chennai, was attended by nearly 300 people in Chennai, and I must have been the only person in the entire hall who wished that the event was over as quickly as possible because I had a splitting headache induced by nervousness. What can be worse is when you have only 10 people in the audience, which was the case when I had gone to Pune to promote my first book.
Then there is the challenge of getting celebrities to launch/read from your book. For the launch of my first book in Mumbai, I had almost settled on a celebrity whom I idolised during my teenage years and was elated when he agreed to do me the favour and asked me to courier the book to him. A few days after receiving the book, he called me to say how much he loved it and how much he would love to read from it, but “You know what, I get paid for my voice. Rs.50,000 for 30 seconds.” He then went on to speak to me for 45 minutes — commercially translating to Rs.45 lakh for him — complaining about the decline in reading habits of people. Fortunately, a well-known playwright came to my rescue: he not only read from my book — free of cost — but also wrote a glowing piece about it in a magazine where he wrote a fortnightly column.
I am working on my third book now and, even though I am only half-way through, I am already thinking about promotional events in various cities: who should be the chief guest, who should read from it, whom I should invite, whom I should not, and, above all, what I should wear. To tell you the truth, I just can’t wait to upload the pictures of these yet-to-happen events on Facebook — and it’s the prospect of sharing the pictures on Facebook that’s propelling me to work faster.
All along, I’ve had an invisible reader looking over my shoulder while I am writing. Now I find an invisible audience staring at me.
Bishwanath Ghosh is the author of Chai, Chai and Tamarind City.