Weekend Writing: Commercial Publishing vs Self-Publishing

This started out because a friend linked me to an article with author John Green’s opinion on self-publishing. He said it would bring a smile on my face. He knows me well.

I have not yet read John Green’s literature, although I’ve heard good things about him and have been curious for a while. But he seemed beautifully expressive in the article, and I agree with everything he says, and it made me want to add a few things of my own.

Of course, I work in the commercial (‘trade’) publishing industry, so my opinion is likely to be biased. I chose to do this job. I had the privilege to choose. People who buy and read trade books also have the privilege to make those choices. (I’m yet to meet a real-life person who forsakes a day’s meal to buy and read a book, although let’s assume for the argument’s sake that these people exist. They’ll still be a painful minority.) They have the privilege of having acquired a certain kind of leisure and a certain taste. They have the privilege of literacy. They have the privilege of a functioning eyesight. Like any other form of entertainment or art, reading is a kind of privilege, a step of improvement over the indispensable roti-kapda-makaan (which, hey, are also things a lot of people are doing without!). It’s all essentially a circle of privilege. You are inside it as much as I am. Let’s not delude ourselves about that before we get to the ‘particular’ privilege of being commercially published.

So… this thing about commercial publishing being the oppressive monstrosity. And about self-publishing being its wonderful, magical alternative that will free the world in all its expressive glory. There are many levels of approaching this debate, so let me start from a random point (not the best or the only point to start, obviously). Commercial publication, as we know, is a long and many-step process. Usually, if you are starting out:

  • You have to write a work that is of a certain length, and fits into a certain recognizable genre
  • You do some research on which publishing houses are in existence, and how you can contact them
  • You send them your work
  • Someone, often a junior editor or intern, goes through your work initially and pronounces it to be of any merit at all
  • This is forwarded to a senior editor, who examines your work more comprehensively, envisions where it stands vis-a-vis other existing works in the market (and in history), checks for plagiarism and so on, basically thinks of it as a book
  • If s/he likes it, a discussion happens with the sales department to consider the profitability of the book to the company
  • And if all these people share a good vibe about your work, the publishing house gets back to you and your work is accepted.

There are other, later, equally important steps involved, but let’s consider these initial few. Your work can get stalled from being commercially published at any of these levels, without having been entirely worthless. Let’s say you’re a brilliant innovator of genre and subject matter, and none of these editors quite understand your work and none of these sales people can figure out who will buy it. This has happened. They give birth to historical mistakes (and publishing-class legends) like J.K. Rowling or Chetan Bhagat, to name two.

On the other hand, what people on the other side of the table often seem to forget, is that this is extremely rare. People in big publishing houses are not idiots. The bigger the publishing house, it’s likelier that their staff are highly qualified individuals who occupy their positions for a reason. They are rigorously selected by other highly qualified individuals and paid well enough to stay there, or head-hunted away to bigger, more lucrative jobs. Basic ignorance or lack of farsightedness does not, usually, stand that level of competence. These people do understand books. They bring out intellectually and commercially successful books all the time. They have probably judged, approved of and published the books you love. Till now, you have admired and agreed with their judgement. (That’s why you sent them your work in the first place, didn’t you?) They’re not the brainless, soulless, sold-out monsters that they have suddenly turned into in your eyes.

However, yes, a big publishing house has to make a great deal of profit to survive, and an uninterrupted flow of profit, and sometimes (but only sometimes) a work that some people liked is rejected because the effort of processing and publishing it will be much greater than the profit it’s likely to make. (Usually so great that it will neutralize the profits made from other books, because believe it or not, big publishing houses bring out more non-profit books than you have any idea. They balance them out against the more profitable books, which is a liberty a big publishing house may take, and it does so as much as possible. So your work has to be really, really, incredibly unprofitable to get rejected despite being liked.)

Which is what brings me to small, independent publishers.
So these are publishing houses which are still commercial or profit-making enterprises (and therefore ‘trade’), but they operate on a smaller scale, have fewer employees (and therefore fewer steps before your work gets selected or rejected), and usually specialize in themes not well represented in the ‘mainstream’. Sometimes this may be a social cause (feminism, caste equality, LGBT equality etc.), or it may be a generic or subjective preference (poetry, philosophy, SFF, comics, romance and so on). Usually, the people working at these publishing houses are passionate about their specialization and less concerned with profit (which does not make their counterparts at the bigger publishing houses any less sincere or more brilliant, but that’s the topic for another discussion), so if your work is a dazzling instance of non-mainstream literature, go find yourself the right independent publisher and you’re golden. This will come with a like-minded person (or a small bunch of like-minded people) who will intimately enjoy your work and share your vision, and bring you the kind of readers who do so in turn. You will probably get a smaller distribution or visibility, but believe me, even if a big publisher brought out your work and it was a commercial failure, the result would be more or less the same after the initial month or two. Not all Penguin books are on the front shelf of Starmark or the homepage of Flipkart. Not every book gets launched in five cities. And even though you get to keep your advance, honestly, it won’t pay your bills for a very long time. Books don’t make you rich, whoever you publish them from, unless you are, I suppose, J.K. Rowling or Chetan Bhagat. (Are you J.K. Rowling or Chetan Bhagat? Please feel free to leave your number in my message box. Big fan! Ah well.)


Therefore, if you’re even a remotely well-informed or commonsensical person, you’re not thinking of publishing as something that will make you a millionaire. What else might commercial publishing deprive you of when it refuses to publish your work?
A sense of legitimacy.
An ISBN number.
An entry into most libraries and bookstores.
So on.
This (finally) brings me to the point of my note.

It is an excellent thing, on principle, that self-publishing exists. It would never be a truly democratic world where it didn’t. My knowledge of literary history is not quite impressive… but hey, William Blake? You take my point.

My problem is with the suggestion that self-publishing is the only thing that should exist, and that it should dismantle the hierarchy of the commercial publishing establishment, until everything is equal and free.
Sorry, but no.

Commercial publishing, more than anything, is a system of peer review. Even when they are judging your work for profit, it’s a bunch of well-trained and experienced individuals deciding whether this work will be liked enough by a projected group of people to spend their money on. The ‘projected group of people’ may vary. I’m the only person I know who enjoys both Umberto Eco and Ravinder Singh, but these ‘well-trained and experienced individuals’ usually present both Umberto Eco and Ravinder Singh to the people who will buy them, and they have a fairly accurate idea if either of these groups will buy your work next. (Or, in case of an independent publishing house, they know one group of people very well, and again, can predict whether this group will buy your work.) Think of the way you buy a book, especially if you’re a frugal buyer. You will probably borrow a book you’re not very sure you’ll like. You only buy a book when you’re sure it will be great. It’s not an accurate system of judgement and there’s often a considerable margin of error, but give me a better one.

And the reason why this peer review is indispensable is that ‘basic writing’ is so easy. Unlike music or filmmaking or dance or even painting, writing is not a specialized or expensive skill. Anyone can write, as long as they are literate and have ten rupees (five rupees?) to buy a notebook and a pencil. Anyone can ‘publish online’ as long as they have an Internet connection — starting a blog is free. (Typesetting or making a PDF needs a little more skill, but that is not essentially literary skill. And if you have the skill, it doesn’t take much effort.) A sufficiently self-contained individual can ‘write a book’ without any interference from a second person or any imposition of quality control at any stage. All this sounds excellent and liberating. What is my problem?

My problem is this — I associate a certain kind of sincerity and seriousness of intent with the effort of having to cross a hurdle, which I believe will entirely disappear if (god forbid) self-publishing becomes the norm. The necessity to prove your worth to a bunch of fairly knowledgable people (us hard-hearted publishing professionals, hi!) is also the drive to improve your work until it meets their standards. It is what has gone out of poetry in my time. Poetry books don’t sell > pretty much everyone vanity/self-publishes > no one is quite sure what’s good or bad poetry any more. The entire discipline of criticism seems to have decayed. All the time I find people ‘publishing’ poetry books that should be allowed to exist in no possible universe, and a lot of these people aren’t underprivileged or the subaltern in any sense, so there’s no reason (or none that I can see) why their rampant travesty should be allowed to flourish… except that, hey, no one’s doing the ‘allowing’ there any more. (Of course, the reasons why poetry has come to this are long and convoluted, and right now, not entirely relevant. I’m just interested in what happens once that dystopia descends.) There’s absolutely no impetus on the writer to come back heartbroken from a rejection and re-read their work, introspect on where exactly it is failing to fit the bill of the people who have just declared they could live without it. (The introspection can lead to many possible conclusions, but first there needs to be the bill that triggers it.) There isn’t even — no more — that all-important tug at the purse strings, which effectively sets so many priorities straight for our (morally depraved, alas) race. I’m not buying a piano because I don’t know if my half-hearted playing will ever justify the price. I won’t waste money on a car because my driving is shaky at its best. But hell, I’ll write a novel and I’ll publish it on my blog; and I’ll rail against the commercial publisher who rejected it, and the friend whom I forced to read who didn’t quite ‘get’ it, and the non-existent reader who never stops by my blog, and fate for not giving me my rightful share . . . and somehow, I am the person who’ll be completely correct and justified and non-delusional in each of these circumstances. I am the misunderstood genius. The ‘system’, as usual, is wrong.

That, precisely, is the difference between today’s self-publishing and the self-publishing of yore. Blake didn’t click the ‘publish’ button on a blog — he painstakingly engraved each of his poems, illustrated and relief-etched them, coloured them individually, bound them and probably peddled them as well. He definitely spent a great deal more money than he was comfortably making. That kind of complete and relentless dedication means you’re either a certified genius or a certified madman, but nothing more casual or in-between. Just like buying the piano or the car, a lot of today’s rampantly self-publishing authors would probably make the run for it if that level of relentlessness was demanded of them, and the world would almost certainly be better for it.

Besides, while Blake didn’t have a publisher, he was not working in complete isolation and rejection of other people’s opinion. It’s just that commercial publishing options were fewer in his time. In stark, stark contrast, commercial publishing options are so many these days that I’d be actually surprised if any work of even the tiniest amount of real value goes unappreciated any more. (And if they do, I’m fairly sure they are being written at the very far, inaccessible margins and almost certainly not being lazily blogged.) While the bigger publishers have always favoured the more ‘mainstream’ literature, I believe independent publishers of today are the reincarnations of those relentlessly dedicated, pathbreaking, revolutionary people, constantly striving to meet the similar kind of work halfway. They begin their publishing houses while working other day jobs to make ends meet, without knowing whether they’ll ever recover the costs. Most of them multitask at insane levels and keep at it for years, day in and day out. And as long as the ‘matter’ is what they want, they are willing to work with all kinds of deficiencies in language, expression, imaginativeness, obscurity — any kind of obstacle to literary conformity at all. These days, if no publisher, big or small, mainstream or specialized, is willing to give you the time of day — even if you pay them money to produce your book — then maybe it’s time you sat down and did some serious, serious rethinking.

And all the processes of award-giving, syallbus-making, canon-building, shoulder-rubbing, acquisition of successful authors by bigger publishing houses and so on — while they have their own internal mechanisms, not always the noblest — are necessary precisely because of the maintenance of this standard, without which this entire system will collapse. The system must exist, so that people fight it hard both fit in and stand out, whichever suits their tastes, but to make sure that they do fight it hard. The system must exist so that every randomly strung together sequence of words is not a ‘work of literature’. If you went to the same school as I did, happen to have an Internet connection and a blog, aren’t being persecuted by your government or generally cut off from the rest of civilization, please don’t bother to self-publish. It’s likely to be trash.

Express. Engage. Etcetera.

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