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ON POOR LITTLE RICH WRITERS

Given the market-dominated scene, most publishers believe that “a good writer is a rich writer and a rich writer is a good writer.” Increasingly, categories are getting mixed. The line between serious and non-serious, high brow and middle brow, and literary and commercial has become blurred. The fluidity has hardly improved the quality of writing but more and more novels continue to be written and published, awarded prizes, turned into paperbacks and with some luck, into films. Why has this philosophy of “anything goes” taken over'

For two reasons. First, because publishers have come to believe that any book can be sold through marketing and the public relations networks. Second, the criteria to assess good from mediocre to downright bad has been diluted under pressure to produce more and more.

In simple terms, book-marketing follows a mix of the four Ps: product, place, promotion and price. That is, getting the first P out at the right time and price, the second getting it across to the right person or outlet, the third advertising, which means launch parties and reviews in the media. Prima facie, this looks pretty simple and straightforward. But the four Ps are vague generalizations and could be interpreted in several different ways when you get down to the brass tacks.

What is the right product in the first place' It involves the consideration of three crucial parameters — language, style, and the relevance of the book for the potential buyer. But no publishing editor could possibly define the language capabilities of his reader, style is too subjective and relevance means anything from entertainment — an expanded knowledge of how other people live, or lived — to that elusive thing called the human factor. In short, very few editors can come close to distinguishing good from ordinary in tangible terms; they go by a gut feeling and nothing more.

But since management types want answers in black and white, editors come up with something like this. One goes by the reviews of peers; or having seen the novelist’s work in a magazine you can trust; or by the general buzz in weeklies or intellectual journals; and lastly by whim or fancy. And if the novel bombs — as it quite often does — there is always that pat answer: “It seemed a good idea at the time.” When it comes to books, the principle of selection must be set by the test of time, that soundest of all critics. Dr Johnson’s criterion of a century as the test of durability is a bit much these days when 17 days is the shelf life of a first novel in the American market! The simple test is whether the first edition sold out and the novel was reprinted and made available for at least two years after its first publication. Sadly, few do.

Modern management techniques are alright for putting monitoring systems and financial controls in place but can’t be blindly applied for taking publishing decisions. Walter Benjamin was right when he said, “Writers are really people who write not because they are poor (or rich) but they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.” That is, a good book must come from within, irrespective of whether you are rich or poor. You just can’t write because you have read all the books.

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