Eighteen years ago, ten-year-old Sheeba shyly held out a brown-paper-covered school notebook, decorated with flowers drawn with colourful sketch pens to her journalist cousin. It contained her ‘best’ limericks and essays written with a fountain pen. She wanted to become a ‘famous writer’. The 30-something cousin looked at his little sister’s work, nodded appreciatively and gravely wrote out the address of a top publisher in the country. Excited, Sheeba wrote to them, thinking this would turn into her big moment. After months of checking the letterbox regularly, she buried the notebook — and the dream — deep in her drawer and grew up.
Drasti Chauhan is happy. The class eighth student from St. Mary’s in Navrangpura (Ahmedabad) has just had her first e-book published. “It’s 12-part adventure tale based on six children and their dog who find treasures in a castle,” Chauhan says. It took her three days to think up and another week to key it in on her computer. “Then my father went online and found a website that published it,” she says. Chauhan even designed the cover of her book herself — a castle — on Adobe Photoshop. She says she got inspired when she read in a newspaper about an 11-year-old boy who got his short story published. Ask her why and the reply is pat, “Because I want to be famous. But I will only write adventure stories. In fact, writing will be a side-hobby because my ambition to become an astronaut,” she says.
The desire to be a famous writer is as long as writing itself. Over the years, with the digital revolution, more avenues have sprung up to give flight to these dreams. Technology (layout/graphics, ‘print-on-demand’ services) coupled with on-line sales channels have made it far easier (technically and financially) for individuals to produce books of professional quality, assuming that they have the literary, editing, typesetting and other skills.
Atul Takle of Depot Publishing, an offshoot of Pantaloon Retail, says, “Self-publishing came from the idea that there are many who write and are ‘stars in their lives’. They approach publishers but have to wait months or even a year to get a reply. Most manuscripts are not even read. Besides, publishers only publish a minimum of 1,000 copies that they think is going to sell.”
Though self-publishing has been around — like the famous one-man outfit, Purushottama Lal’s Writers Workshop in Kolkata that gave breaks to writers such as the late Kamala Das and Adil Jussawalla, and turned 50 last year — in the last 1-2 years, several outfits like Depot, Cinnamon Teal – a Goa-based self-publishing company and recently, Serene Woods (SW), a portal set up by six IIM graduates, have sprung up to cater to many a closet novelist/poet. And people of all ages are jumping into the bandwagon.
The numbers are still small — ever since its launch last year, Depot has brought out 11 books and plans another five in the coming months. Three-month-old SW has 14 registered authors and six published paperbacks.
Will it work? Peter Gordon, former chair of the Man Asian Literary Prize, says, “India combines a high degree of literariness and tech-savviness with a market that is cost-sensitive.” The question of ‘quality’ remains — who decides who is a good writer or what is good enough to be published?
“In the (recent) past, the cost of publishing meant that publishers were at least de facto gatekeepers. So publishers had (and still have) an incentive to choose carefully, to edit, to nurture and develop writers. Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything published was good, nor does it mean that everything good was published – far from it – but there was a process, which meant that most things published were ‘publishable’,” Gordon says.
Twenty-five-year-old Swapnil Chugh, a founder of SW and himself a writer defends his generation, “Who decides we are good enough to be published? It’s subjective. Why should I decide to be a writer based on someone else’s review of my work? If I want to be a writer and I think I’m good enough, I want to get published.” The trend to publish has also spawned from blogging – an unstructured rigour. “Blogging has made people write more and now they want to take that a step further,” says Chugh. Gordon says that with the advent of new technologies the definitions of ‘publishing’ and ‘book’ are tending to break down. “The divisions between essay, article and blog-posting are blurring, as is the distinction between ‘publishing’ and ‘posting’.”
Easy-to-use software and social networking are aspects that proved to be a boon in Mumbai-based photographer David de Souza’s case. His coffee table book project had been languishing for over ten years before he decided to bring it out himself. “For seven years, I’d been looking for a publisher — Indian, foreign — but they agreed to do it if I found a sponsor. Most publishing houses will sit on your manuscripts for years.” Fed up, de Souza took up the task himself. Using the InDesign software for MACs, he designed all the elements of the book and brought it out using ‘print-on-demand’ services of a Hyderabad-based printer in less than six months. He decided against using a distributor or a PR agency to save on fees and leveraged his Facebook account to create a buzz.
Writers — established and new — have been using social networking sites to push their work. Rana Dasgupta started a group for his latest book on Facebook, posted reviews and managed to garner nearly 700 members. Hemali Sodhi, spokesperson for Penguin, says, “We’ve had an active online marketing strategy that started with a Facebook profile for Shobhaa De.”
So maybe it’s time Sheeba brought out that notebook.