The business of writing has changed – everyone wants to become a published author

The other day, a childhood friend of mine, who is now a senior uniformed officer, called me up. He began by making polite enquiries and went on to ask my opinion about the future of the DMK. Since he called at 10 in the morning, when catching up with old friends would be the last thing on the mind of an office-goer, I knew he would soon come to the point. Sure enough he did.

“By the way, do you have Ruskin Bond’s phone number?”

“Whose?” I couldn’t believe what I had just heard.

Arre yaar, apna Ruskin Bond! The writer!”

“But I don’t have his number!”

“Why not? You are also a writer, na? Don’t writers have other writers’ numbers?”

(In late 2009 I wrote a travel book; therefore the ‘writer’ tag.)

“But why do you want his number?” I asked him.

It turned out that his boss’ teenaged daughter had written some short stories, and the boss was keen that Ruskin Bond should take a look at them. When the boss brought up the subject during a meeting, my friend volunteered to get Mr. Bond’s number from a friend – that’s me. He obviously wanted to please his boss – nothing wrong with that – but he had clearly overestimated my status as a ‘writer.’

It is one thing to have written a solitary book – as countless people have – quite another to have earned a reputation as a writer.

After he hung up – I promised him I would try my best – it suddenly struck me that this was perhaps the fifth or sixth call I had got in a span of two months on behalf of aspiring writers. And in all cases, the aspiring writer in question happened to be a teenaged girl, and the caller a highly concerned parent.

One worried mother, who had been turned down by established publishing houses, confessed to me that the number of stories written by her daughter was not adequate enough to add up to the size of a book. But she had a solution for the shortcoming. “I can put in some of the poems she has written. She has written some beautiful poems. If we still fall short, I can put in some of my paintings. I have done some beautiful paintings,” she told me. “But how do I find a publisher?”

Had I known the answer, I would have been a rich man today, sitting with my laptop in a villa in Goa or Kasauli, after having sold half-a-dozen ideas (most of which would’ve come to me while I was shaving) to a publisher for a huge advance. But the business of getting published remains mysterious – no one quite knows what works for the publisher and what doesn’t.

Jack Kerouac’s On The Road failed to find a publisher for six years before it changed the way people wrote. James Joyce's Dubliners got rejected 22 times before it got published. The first two novels written by Graham Greene got rejected by each publisher he sent them to, and it was his third novel that officially became his first book. And without Greene’s helping hand, what would have happened to our own R.K. Narayan, despite all the lucid prose and eye for detail?

But publishing is one field that has never concerned the lay Indian, who is usually too bogged down by other demands of life to spare money for books. Even today not many would have heard of R.K. Narayan, leave alone Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand – they formed the triumvirate that pioneered Indian Writing in English. Writers like them lived in a small island, hoping to be connected to the mainland.

Shobhaa De changed the game. She not only got people interested in her books but also in the business of writing books: “If she can, why can’t we?” Subsequently, Arundhati Roy enlightened India about the existence of the Booker Prize (and the prize money it entailed). But it was Chetan Bhagat who brought about a revolution – he brought down writing from the pedestal of exclusivity and took it to the masses, and in the process stoked a million literary ambitions.

Today, the writer is no longer a faceless entity. The successful ones now get the attention that once only movie stars and cricketers did. It is, therefore, not surprising that parents are suddenly spotting the ‘writer’ in their children and frantically knocking at the doors of publishers. Ruskin Bond, alas, did not have that luxury: he had to struggle to find a publisher. That reminds me, does anyone have his number?