THE FORMULA BOOK FACTORY

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By RAVI VYAS
  • Published 19.05.06
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One of the fallouts of Kaavya Vishwanathan?s plagiarism has been the allegation that publishers or their editors greatly influence what an author puts into a book in order to cater to the market, and the author should not therefore be solely responsible for any ?misdemeanours?. That editors do suggest changes is pretty well known but these changes are made only after consulting the author, not arbitrarily. And the fact that the author incorporates the changes means he accepts them as his own, and therefore should stand by them. If you closely look into the history of the making of good books, it has always been a collaborative effort between the author and the editor; solo runs, where everything the author writes goes in, very rarely happen, at least in the early years.

Times have changed however because of the pressures of the market and with it the rise of formula books, which has made the fiction editor a close collaborator, almost a co-author of the book. Hence the question: What are formula books and does the author have any voice in what goes in or what stays out? More importantly, does the editor have an equal responsibility for what goes into the book?

Formula books are mainly downmarket fiction, packaged soap operas that promise glitz, sex and romance. For example, Mills & Boon fiction that caters to women of all ages spells out the precise mix of its novels which are ?love and power and tenderness and glory and a lot of mountains in the background; or love and feeling, ancient buildings and contemporary problems.?

Editors have a much bigger role in formula books because they are commissioned. In other words, editors tell authors what the ingredients of their novels ought to be, who they are meant for and what the readership profile is. Every step, down to chapter-wise breakdown is given; there is no place for an author?s imagination to be exercised.

If some such thing happened in Kaavya Vishwanathan?s case, should she take the rap entirely on her own? Regrettably, she has to simply because she accepted the authorship (and the benefits that go with it) although she knew that the inputs were equally someone else?s too. Maybe, she might have resisted but American publishers, unlike their British counterparts, are far too aggressive in getting their point of view, which is, ?this is what the market today wants, and you had better accept it.? Young wannabe authors succumb; the few who don?t are dropped.

Formula books are becoming the norm for pop fiction now. What should a young writer wanting to ?break in? do? If the author is desperate to get into print (sadly many are) then accept the medicine and make the best of it; if he is willing to wait, first get into some prestigious magazines, get known (well-knownness is a positive factor) and then try a whole book, preferably on some contemporary problems. Chances are you would be accepted, warts and all.