Not an easy task to decide on whom to follow. Poets seem confused when it comes to publishing their work, for big houses are hardly poet friendly in India!
Trust me I’ve seen poets making fun of the books that have been declared to be self-published. Believe me I’ve seen poets inquiring, and in some cases challenging the validity of another poet’s claim that says the book has been traditionally published by a vanity press! There are several vanity presses in India and they publish poetry satisfactorily. There are only a handful of small presses in my country and they publish poetry without charging a fee, but not all free stuff arrives with the hallmark of quality.
It indeed gave me relief when Hawakal published The Earthen Flute traditionally. The collection bears substantial notes of appreciation by two major poets: Lorna Dee Cervantes and Jonathan Moody. Hawakal offered me a signed agreement and kept their promises. Ten author copies were given to me as they released the book globally. Until today they have paid my royalty earning twice. More than three hundred and fifty copies were sold in the first year of publication and ninety-two copies were sold in the second year. The number includes international sales. It goes without saying The Earthen Flute shaped my career as a poet. In spite of Hawakal’s stunningly professional services I decided to approach another Calcutta-based publisher for my next literary project, Reflections on Salvation (RoS). The publisher agreed to publish my work, but they asked me to pay a fee. I didn’t mind; I didn’t feel hurt. It was not about my injured pride, but a matter of their existence in the field of publishing creative works. I later realized the said publisher compulsorily charges fees to publish creative writing. I then approached Transcendent Zero Press (Houston, Texas), and I’m sure they are the best people to comment on my salability as an author. All I can remember now is the claim by Dustin Pickering, founder: “Reflections on Salvation, published by my own Transcendent Zero Press, is nothing short of groundbreaking work. Any publisher would envy its credit to their list. Although the book appears as a series of prose poems, again appearances are deceiving … When the collection of prose poems came out, the new genre of “flash wisdom,” named so by doctorate in linguistics Mary Madec, was born. I was surprised by the book’s reception. I understood that Sengupta is magical about attracting and keeping fans who love him for his spiritually practical vision. The book became a bestseller on Amazon within days as a new release in Indian literature, topping several books by renowned authors and translators.”
Hawakal published my work again without charging a fee. 2017 marked the release of my two titles with their publishing imprint. It was with Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral they released the first poetic trilogy in Indian English literature. And my latest book, Solitary Stillness, has been published by them in the same way. I’ve carefully witnessed how Hawakal works: from commissioning an editor (I had an opportunity to work with Marc Paltrineri who helped me with both the books), selecting the right artist or a professional photographer who can do the cover design and illustrations, or providing the most apt photograph (it was award winning Plabon Das who gave us the cover photograph for Dreams of the Sacred…) to sending the print-ready draft to possibly the best printer in India (both Dreams of the Sacred and Solitary Stillness were printed and bound at Thomson Press (India) Ltd., New Delhi).
After publishing eighteen titles (including the collections I co-edited, and translated from their original Bengali) I can tell you there is no need to feel shy about approaching a vanity press for publishing poetry. When you approach one it means you can afford the publishing fee. But make sure your publisher offers one efficient poetry editor who can suggest changes and edit your poems when it is absolutely necessary. It feels really exciting to be published traditionally by small presses—where no money is sought by the publisher; but one should remember, it is not entirely the publisher’s task to recover the funds they invested in publishing a book of poems. An author is equally responsible to help the small press owner who might possibly become bankrupt after publishing a handful of poetry titles free of cost. It is of enormous importance for one to decide on whom to approach: a traditional small press or a vanity press? Because, in both cases your book will be bought and read by people you know directly or indirectly!
Self-published books are often not accepted for reviewing by journals and newspapers. If this makes you wary of approaching a vanity press, think again! A review (even if it is published in a major or popular magazine or newspaper) alters the sales of a poetry book but only mildly. A poet does not become a celebrity overnight if s/he receives critical acclaim. Moreover, life refuses to change even after you are published by a big house. Nothing changes, I’m telling you! No amount of activities on Facebook or Twitter can make your work read by numerous people, for at the end of the day someone will certainly ask: “Who the hell are you? What are you doing here?”
I was curious to know what Raghavendra Madhu thinks about the traditional way of publishing poetry in India. Madhu, whose debut book, Make Me Some Love To Eat (Red River Press), has created a sensation among the youth, urges, “Traditionally publishing poetry? Really? Do the traditional publishers publish poetry? I thought their perennial answer is: we don't publish poetry. There is a strange sameness in the way all the commissioning editors say it. In 2018 I don’t think getting published traditionally matters. I mean for both, poetry and prose. Certainly it adds value in some ways, let’s say the brand works for the authors as much as the authors markets for themselves. What I value personally is the distribution. As a poet who performs poetry in festivals, educational institutes, and cafes across India, I do end up selling 10-20 copies of the book after most readings. I generally carry these books myself. I would be happier if there was a distributor who could get my books across, like in traditional publishing.”
Distribution is certainly an integral part of the publishing industry. Nabina Das, whose latest work, Sanskarnama, has been published by the same press, Red River, emphasizes on the distribution part of a press: “I think traditional publishing has its advantage. One, the writer is assured of a dedicated editorial assistance, the most important feature while publishing a book. Secondly, distribution—whereby a book is placed in bookstores and e-commercial sites.” Nabina finds a large number of self-published books to be “sloppy in editing.” She warns, “I know writers take great pains and spend out of their own pockets to get the books available in bookstores and e-commerce sites. No doubt even self-published books have gone on to become bestsellers and publishing sensations but I think before one ventures to take recourse to it, one must have a good editorial service availed to make sure the quality of writing is not compromised.”
Jhilmil Breckenridge, who is working on a PhD in creative writing in the United Kingdom, has a slightly different stand here. Although she appreciates the services offered by traditional publishers, Jhilmil says, “Traditional publishing does not always ensure quality. I have bought some books which could have benefited from editing. But in general, they do have checks and balances in place to ensure that mistakes are fewer.” She adds, “I have several friends who have self published, and of course, we all know of the huge success stories of 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight, and of course, closer home in India, the Meluha trilogy by Amish Tripathi.”
Uttaran Das Gupta, whose debut book, Visceral Metropolis (Red River), has fetched much acclaim, says in a similar vein: “For something like poetry, I think publishing with an independent publisher will provide you more freedom over your book. In India some of the best poetry books are being brought out in independent presses.”
Amit Shankar Saha, whose debut book of verses, Balconies of Time (Hawakal Publishers), got him many accolades, puts it straight: “Ideally traditional publishing should ensure quality work. If it is not a quality work then it will have a negative bearing on the reputation of the publisher. But there is also the trend of who is getting published (an Army General, a Corporate CEO, a celebrated Politician, a film personality, among others) rather than what is getting published.”
The process of traditional publishing seems cathartic to Linda Ashok, whose Whorelight (Hawakal Publishers) has recently been reviewed in the distinguished World Literature Today. She says, “It is not a great feat for the author to write and also invest in bringing the work out to the world. If the author has to do it (which is pretty independent and often not succumbing to establishments and its biases) it will be too daunting and draining. Also to deal with the stigma of being self-published or paid-for-being-published, is a lot discouraging. It is true that many bad writers get away with all that to become “published authors,” but having said that I believe focus should be more on contents than the method of publication.” Linda believes, “If the publisher him/herself is a poet of repute, quality is ascertained to a huge extent.”
Jhilam Chattaraj, assistant professor in the department of English, RBVRR Women’s College (Hyderabad), echoes the expectations of poets at large: “It is every writer’s dream is to be published by a prestigious publication house, national or international. But it has become very difficult in a neo-liberal market where literary agents have taken over the publication business and who are not interested in poetry. Hence, writers have taken recourse to other methods. A poet is considered important and taken seriously especially in the academic circle, if s/he is published by a big house. There are many literary awards that do not consider self-published books or e-books for that matter.”
Srividya Sivakumar, who paid for her debut book, The Blue Note, which was published by Writers Workshop, Calcutta back in 2012, speaks the truth: “No one flocks to the self-published writers to give away prizes or awards, or invite them to festivals, they are often looked down upon or shunned as being not good enough to be published by a “big” name in the first place. Self-publishing enables more publishing to take place; sometimes, the work isn’t of great quality. Granted. But that’s true for traditional publishing too!” Srividya fondly remembers her favorite poet Vikram Seth who “printed up copies of his first book of poems and went door to door, trying to sell them. It gives me hope.” Traditional publishing is not always about showcasing some “great” works, she adds, “I am often left cold by the work traditional houses publish. It seems like the same names and works are repeated. While there are poet/editors who make conscious choices to bring in new names, the numbers are small and they don’t cast too far for writers beyond their visible circles, at times. I do pick up poetry from traditional publishing houses, but mostly anthologies. When it comes to small presses, it’s individual poets whom I try to encourage with my purchase.”