Sunday, 22 November 2009

Stray thoughts on being a published writer of both fiction and academic books.

Will (Atkins) is currently holidaying in India, and early this week he was here in New Delhi en-route to Varanasi and Goa. We spent a lovely evening at India International Centre, and while I introduced Will to the quiddities of an authentic Indian meal and gave him touristy advice, we also discussed MNW and publishing in general. As always Will spoke fondly of the imprint and its authors, taking pride in the discovery of talent despite modest sales and having to cope with down trend in the market. We discussed genres, branding, marketing and that elusive magic formula that brings phenomenal success for some writers. Though I have not been published by MNW since Across the Mystic Shore both he and Mike have continued to show keen interest in my writing, especially my academic work. We got down to talking about my forthcoming book from Palgrave Macmillan (Surviving Bhopal: Dancing Bodies, Written Texts, Oral Testimonials of Women in the Wake of an Industrial Disaster, April 2010). He put an interesting question to me, “How is the experience of being a published fiction writer different from that of an author of an academic book?”

It is different. For one your anxieties are different. Since your academic book has a limited print run, a niche audience and will only be bought for libraries you do not worry about sales or marketability. Somehow the risks do not seem yours. If anything the rigorous editorial process takes into account all the factors that go into preparing your book for scrutiny. It is as if the risks get taken care of in the pre-publication stages, and both you and your publisher know exactly what you are doing. Therefore, every step of the way is more impersonal and yet more reassuring. There is inherent pride in knowing that your book is part of a prestigious imprint (Palgrave Studies in Oral History) and the intrinsic value of the book is therefore taken care of. So you do not worry about reviews, Amazon sales rank or how sales can impact the publication of your next book. Your publication profile is somehow free from any need for branding. A different kind of buzz is created for your book. Institutions/ scholars from related fields know about your work and show keen interest. Therefore, a forthcoming book is anticipated with the right amount of eagerness and academic curiosity. I was telling Will that as a fiction writer you do know that one day your novel will simply cease to sell; the royalty statements will tell you that. It carries its own twinge of disappointment. I have a feeling that an academic book spares you this as well. If anything, the process of building up your reputation is slow but more sure footed. Your publisher knows it and so do you. Your book gets talked about in a limited circle and if it finds its way into other bibliographies then you book is still in demand.

I am wondering why it is not the model for all publications, fiction, non-fiction and specialized books? Will told me that no publisher can anticipate a best seller and somehow intrinsic worth is not the criteria. Then why not have a system that percolates this bit of assurance right down to the author? We need bestseller lists, popular awards and talk shows for marketing books to keep the industry afloat. I agree. But there is a niche market for that as well. Why bring fiction into it? What is it that determines the survival of fictions’ so called midlist?

I will end with a bit of self promotion for my Palgrave book. When I got back the cover proof I felt a quiet sense of satisfaction to see what had been included as promotional material. I am reproducing them below:
“Suroopa Mukherjee's important book tells how Bhopali women from one of the poorest communities on earth have thrown off the veil and led a spirited, inspiring resistance against corruption and injustice by a multinational corporation and its political allies.”—Indra Sinha, Author of Animal’s People, based on the Bhopal tragedy
“This is a captivating read and the work is an admirable example of scholarship and artistry guided by moral principle and passion. Mukherjee designed it to purposefully and forcefully keep the Bhopal gas tragedy in global public discourse – indeed, to reintroduce it. She works diligently and passionately with oral history narratives from women survivors together with vivid accounts of women’s collective participation in activities that continue to press for compensation, justice, respect, and dignity. With poignancy, her brave and timely objective is to ‘pierce the veil of secrecy’ by using indigenous oral traditions to deconstruct corporate and bureaucratic obfuscation that function as a tool of oppression. This work is an outstanding examination of every imaginable dimension of the Bhopal gas tragedy.”--Raymond E. Wiest, Professor Emeritus, Anthropology, University of Manitoba, Canada.

I know it’s the blurb and part of the marketing but it reads differently, does it not? I also know for sure that it brings the issue centerstage, which pleases me immensely.


Ann Weisgarber said...

Congratulations on the publication of your book, Suroopa. It's an outstanding accomplishment.

As you pointed out, one major difference between a work of fiction and a book written for academia is the "anticipation" factor. Fiction readers do anticipate the next Stephen King and Dan Brown novels. But most don't eagerly wait for a novel written by an unknown author or even by a midlist one. In the halls of academia, though, scholars do wait for the next Mukhejee book since it pushes knowledge and discovery forward. Scholars spend months studying such books. The worth is in the information gathered. Fiction readers, on the other hand, typically want entertainment. They spend a few hours with a novel and then they're on to the next one. Publishers must be under constant demand to find novels that entertain. And who can really define entertainement?

Ann Weisgarber said...

Whoops! I need to learn how to spell entertainment. I also need to learn how to correct mistakes on the blog.

Frances Garrood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ellie said...

It sounds like a fascinating book. Suroopa. Congratulations.


Frances Garrood said...

A really interesting post, Suroopa. Congratulations on the new book.

Deborah Swift said...

Congratulations,Suroopa, it sounds like a fantastic book.And I think as a historical fiction writer I am always in awe of the books I consult during my research,often oral history or biography -non-fiction books by experts on their chosen fields. At the moment I am reading a biography of Nell Gwyn by Charles Beauclerk, which is a mine of facts and information about the Restoration Period of English history, and is also a wonderful read.
But often it is even more obscure volumes than this that I consult to research particular aspects of my fictional world.It is often these quite specialised books for which I have the most admiration, and to which I am the most indebted - i think it is human nature to envy what one cannot do oneself! Any book is a labour of love, fiction or non-fiction.I hope the libraries buy it in shed-loads and it gets the sort of interest it deserves.

Matt Curran said...

Suroopa, thanks for posting this. Very interesting. I have friend who writes non-fiction books for Manchester University Press and she laments how quickly I can write a book when it takes her over a year to write 100,000 words (it takes me just a few months). Research aside, non-fiction writing is just so dense: every sentence has to deliver a fact or an opinion, while in fiction you can get away with spending words on more ethereal matters such as mood and setting. Personally, I would find it so much harder to writer non-fiction that fiction. I'm not saying it's easier to lie than tell the truth, but how much of fiction is just written on the hoof?

The publishing side of things is conversely much simpler than fiction, and in that regard I am envious. Not having to deal with publicity and expectation must be liberating. Similarly, I was approached over a year ago to write some "shared-universe" fiction. In essence that's franchise fiction where the writer creates a story and characters based on an imbedded mythology such as Star Trek or Doctor Who novels. I turned it down, but you know I'm still quite tempted. Shared-Universe publishers tend only to pay a flat fee for a novel regardless of how well it sells, and it often sells by universe-branding. The fee can be anything from £4k to £10k, but the good thing about it is that it's a fixed amount and you are writing something that you, hopefully, will enjoy writing. You also don't have to worry about publicity or any of that additional stuff inherent in self-promotion. True, it's being a writer for hire, but as long as you enjoy what you're writing, the economics and the prestige don't enter into it.

PS: And as you mentioned the down-trend in the market in your discussions with Will, has anyone heard the bad news about Borders in the Press and the Bookseller site? Not so good, really, not for Borders and not for writers and their publishers considering Borders had a 10—17% market share of bookselling (and they were bloody helpful to new writers too).
Dark days indeed...

Matt Curran said...

Not wanting to end on a low note, massive congrats on the book, by the way. As Ann says, it's a brilliant accomplishment.

Tim Stretton said...

Well done, Suroopa. I'm very impressed by your versatility: I could never imagine writing an academic book.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Suroopa--

Longer ago than I care to remember, I also coauthored an academic book--as well as two monographs for The Economist (which fall into a sort of grey area, being specialized and technical, but not really academic. They certainly are more profitable, however!)

I have to agree with you that the whole process of academic publishing is more impersonal and safer. Even if one's academic book is attacked, it will be attacked within the formalities of academic discourse, which is all very Marquis of Queensbury.

Plus, in my particular case, I could share the risk with a co-author, plus all the critiquers we thank in the acknowledgments.

Publishing fiction leaves one feeling very vulnerable by comparison. It's somehow just a more personal act, isn't it?