The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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It is a simple publishing axiom: a book may be very good and yet be a disaster commercially because of its untimeliness. So all successful authors and publishers have an impeccable sense of timing and generate books by reflecting on the calendar and the events around them. And this could be on just about everything — anniversaries of this or that, contemporary affairs or fictionalized accounts on burning topics using a slice of history as a peg to hang the story on. But timeliness is all.

For instance, look at the spate of books on radical Islam and fundamentalism, and central Asia following September 11. Just about every social science publisher has got into the act after the huge success of Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban — it had almost sank before 9/11 — and with the Iraq war on the cards, there are many more that will hit the market in the next two months.

Till the late Seventies, it used to be said that there is always a public waiting for anybody who has anything to say that is worth saying. This still holds, but today — because of the increasing competition in the world of books — the public only waits for something it wants to hear said.

Hence the questions. What are the sources the publisher draws upon to assess the “timeliness” of a book' Who are the potential authors, and above all, do they last after the first flush of marketing and sales'

For publishers, the main source is the media, print and visual. They provide the eyes and ears. To them could be added a few academics who have specialized in the areas and have their ears to the ground. Yet, publishers have to take care of untimeliness too.

And this can be of two kinds. The planned book could be untimely in regard to general taste, opinion, feeling, or untimely in regard to the author’s actual reputation and standing. Or, to use the current buzz word, it could be “politically incorrect”, that is, going against the grain of what the public wants to hear. There is no surer way of jeopardizing a project than by giving the public what they do not want at the moment of publication or by getting the wrong author to handle it.

After the approach has been decided, the choice of the author is invariably tilted in favour of a working journalist. There are three reasons for this. First, a journalist is a known figure; second, he is accustomed to working to deadlines, which is very important for works of contemporary interest; and third, because he is used to turning out copies almost daily, and he is practised in the art of writing too. Unfortunately, academics are often passed over for precisely these reasons: they tend to remain cloistered in their academia, do not realize the importance of keeping schedules, and often enough, are far removed from writing as distinct from lecturing. The ideal would be a journalist-academic team. But sadly, at senior levels, egos clash, and the project invariably never takes off the ground.

Books of contemporary interest, fiction or non-fiction, are usually “quickies” and do not last much longer beyond the first printing. But if they have been written by a specialist and edited by another specialist in language, style and subject matter, they could be around for quite some years. But one wrong and uncalculated step about the timing, and even the most well-researched book would flop.

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