I sold the rights to Amaravati in June 2010. You would think I’d remember the day quite well but I don’t. I do remember certain things, though: the exact words my agent typed out on his instant messenger, the red woolen coat in which I was wrapped (June is mid-winter in New Zealand), the hug I gave my mother, what my father said on the phone when we called him. You could say I remembered the important things.
What I also remember is the conversation I had with my parents again and again in the two years between 2008 and 2010. I’d written three books in that period, and each one of them got rejected everywhere I sent them. My parents would ask me if I wanted to self-publish, and I always told them that I would wait until I found a ‘real’ publisher.
For many of us publishing is a big black box into which stuff only goes in. Before we publish, we think that it is just an old boys’ club where you had to ‘know people’ to get anywhere. Of all the things I heard said off record by people about publishing, the most repeated is: “You don’t have a chance if you don’t have contacts.”
I will tell you right now. Contacts won’t help. If you think getting hold of a big author’s name will get you into his publisher’s office, you’re most likely wasting your time. At most your contact, if chosen well, will get your manuscript to an editor’s desk and make sure it doesn’t go into the slush-pile. Once the editor starts reading your work, though, the only question they’re asking themselves is whether that book will be able to – first – recover the investment made on it – and second – make a profit.
That’s the long and short of it. Wherever money’s involved, things get business-like. Writers don’t like it; of course we don’t. But that’s how things are. And it has a flip-side too, which is that whether your manuscript gets picked up or not depends almost entirely on the editor’s perception of how many copies he thinks his house will be able to sell. (Sometimes this perception is proved wildly wrong.) If you think having contacts will help, think again. Unless your contacts are very, very famous or very, very rich, there’s no point.
Now to the other side of the see-saw: for every unpublished writer, publishing is the holy grail wrapped up in golden fleece. There is nothing that is more beautiful, the writer thinks, than a book with his name printed on it. All he wants is to get one book published, and then all will be well with the world.
The question that we generally don’t ask ourselves during this fantasizing is: What next? Say you’ve sold your book and signed the contract. Your advance check doesn’t bounce, so you’re richer by a certain (often insignificant) amount. What now? What do you expect will happen? Not to rain on your parade, but shall I cut to the chase and tell you what happens?
That’s right. Nothing happens. Your book is the center of your world, not your publisher’s. He has at least thirty other books just like yours to worry about. And he has a business to run. He does not have time to fawn over the beauty of your prose. He just wants to slap a cover on your book and send it out so that it begins earning back the money he spent on it.
What about after it goes out? What changes then? The answer is still the same. Nothing. Let’s face it. If you’re a first-time author, the chances are monumentally low that you make anything more than a quiet ‘plop’ when you hit the publishing waters. So if you’re thinking five-star launches and fan mail and celebrity status, forget it. Please do. It will save you a lot of heartache.
But say you do beat the odds and make it big with your first book, what changes then? Still nothing. You still have to go back to the writing desk everyday and write. Whether your name is Stephen King or Agatha Christie or Chetan Bhagat or John Doe, you have to begin with the blank page. The blank page doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care how many copies your previous books have sold.
One of the most valuable lessons that you will pay to understand now, before you publish, is that publishing will not be what you expect it to be. Remember that there are two parts to this industry, two very distinct parts. One is the writing. The second is the show-business. Publishing is the latter. Everything to do with publishing – the book contract, the advance, the book cover, the way your name appears on it, the book launch, the questions that readers ask, the praise, the criticism – this big edifice that people on the outside see and recognize – this is all show-business.
But if you want to be a writer and not a show-businessman, understand that no matter what happens on the outside to the façade that is being built all around you and your books, your writing desk doesn’t care. When you sit by her and write, she doesn’t care how many (if any) copies you’ve sold. She doesn’t ask you whether you’re published, whether you’re famous, whether you’re rich. The trade between your writing desk and you is simple. The longer you sit bent over her, the better she will make you. She cannot promise you riches or fame, but every hour you spend with her, every minute, she will smoothen your edges, little by little, and carve you into shape.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to get sucked into the world of show-business. It’s hard not to fret over publication or advances or sales or awards or interviews or reviews, but every time you think of any of those, remember that they’re just the ephemera. The only contract that really matters is the one between you and your writing desk, and she doesn’t give a rat’s posterior about all of that stuff you worry about. She just wants you to visit her everyday. She wants you to hunch over her, sweat a little, mumble to yourself in search of the right word, and look inward.
It’s that simple. It’s that hard.