On Publishing: The Dinner Party Spiel

This article about needing to explain the publishing process to the public gave me the nudge to write up something that explains how publishing actually works.
So I’ll write this with the assumption that I’m explaining it to someone I just met at a dinner party. See, I sometimes wander into situations where I’m asked what I do, and when I answer that I work in publishing, people aren’t entirely sure what I mean. This tends to happen at family mixer dinner parties a lot. So here it is. Publishing: the dinner party spiel.

There’s a variety of roles in the book business, which can be best understood by seeing a cycle a book goes through.

  • Editorial. This is where manuscripts are acquired and the book goes through the development and editing process. There’s different levels of editing: substantive editing, line editing, copy-editing, and proofreading. On the side, there’s also other fun stuff going on, such as cover and interior design, or indexing and fact-checking if the book is a non-fiction book.
  • Production. This department deals with the process of physically producing the book. Production works with the cover and interior designers to lay out pages and deals with the book’s material costs: the paper, printing, binding, and then the shipping. Production now also produces ebook files and checks them for quality.
  • Publicity. This department makes some serious (good) noise about the book and makes sure the author and the book are talked about in news and reviews. Publicity also makes arrangements for author tours and readings.
  • Marketing. Marketing for books is not that different from marketing for other products; you reach out to your target audience and make sure all every effort is made to maximize the book’s sales.
  • Sales. You guessed it: actually selling the book. Salespeople peddle the publisher’s catalog around to bookstores, libraries, and the like, convince them about how awesome the respective season’s titles are, take orders, and make sure orders are fulfilled.

Now, it’s totally fine if you totally forget all of the above as soon as you finish reading it. But what the readerly public really needs to be aware of is how publishing works (or doesn’t work) monetarily.

Apart from your Stephanie Meyers, Stephen Kings, Dan Browns, and Margaret Atwoods, most authors nowadays simply do not make that much money. Ideally, they shouldn’t be doing it for the money, but one can argue that it’s unfortunate that they can’t make a living just by writing.

Also, the set price you see on the book’s back cover is not at all inflated. Most publishers’ profit margins, especially nowadays in the post-recession, print-dying era, are razor-thin, and that’s assuming they do make a profit. The cost of the book is not just physical. There are also the costs associated with all the departments described above: editorial, marketing, and publicity.

In short: publishing is simply not something anyone gets into for the money. On some level everyone gets into it for the love of books. So the world really owes a lot to us. We could have gone and become brain surgeons or professional belly dancers or space engineers or imams or shaykhas, but no, we went for publishing so that you all can have something to read!

Where do I fit into all this madness? I’m happy with doing anything, really. But I especially love the editing process. And I’m very excited about ebooks and the potential they hold for making books so accessible. I’d love to get involved in anything digital, whether it be ebooks, different models for publishing (such as ebook only) or online marketing for books.

So that’s the dinner party spiel. I usually only give myself time to do an extremely condensed version of it, so going all out was quite satisfying.

Questions? Fire away! The comments section awaits you, as does my freshly pressed contact page.

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On Noble Intentions and Failed Love

Image source: www.stardusttrailers.com

When I sat down to watch Blue Valentine, I was in the slightly masochistic mode of one who is about to live through a very painful story.

Painful. Wow. What an understatement.

Had I known the film would have made it this difficult to get out of bed the next morning, I don’t think I would have been able to bring myself to watch it. But I’m glad I did. And because it still tugs at the hems of my mind, I must get this out.

The Guardian’s review of the film helped me put words to the problems I did find with it. The review fittingly describes the forces of guilt and desperation that kept this doomed couple together for so long. But while it discussed what the film had the potential to do, it used a phrase that stopped me cold: “Even the best intentioned and most loving marriages can come unstuck.”

So, my fellow Muslims. This is where we come in. This is the truth we must face.

In our faith there’s a lot of lovely talk about intentions. About good intentions outweighing the bad, and good intentions being so highly esteemed that they are treated as if one actually acted on them. What this film brings to light is the much more nuanced reality for us: that even if we go into something with the best of intentions, there is still a possibility of failing. Failing miserably.

Here’s how the trainwreck version of things plays out for us. We meet a Muslim boy/girl, like them, and are convinced by our elders that the only way to go about things is to marry them. So we go ahead with it. And not just because we are forced to. But because we genuinely love the person and are grateful for having them in our lives.

I hope that’s where it ends for most of us. I hope that the reality of work, bills, children, and growing old together unfold as they should.

But in this trainwreck version, the version that is becoming more and common in these times–is some semblance of the following. Muslim boy likes Muslim girl (or vice versa), they get married (again, because that’s the only way to do this), get educated, make new friends, and realize what it is they really want, or that they’re not sure they are who they want to be. They try and try to stay together, but simply cannot. After agonizing Blue Valentine-esque realizations, divorce proceedings finally begin. The families are apalled. The community is stunned. The imams are confused. They don’t understand where things went wrong. There was no physical or emotional abuse. No issues with the in-laws. No cheating. No lying. What went wrong?

Nothing went wrong. They grew up, looked at one another, and realized that they weren’t right for one another. That’s what happened.

What makes this so hard to process is that it’s not really something that went wrong. It was guided with the best of intentions, fueled by prayers and goodwill. But try and try as one might, some things are simply not meant to be. We may not traditionally believe that the path to Hell is paved with good intentions. But some semblances of hell are meant to be lived through, for better or for worse. And if that is the only way to be, so be it.

That excruciating reality is what some unfortunate Muslims must contend with. It would be very easy to tell ourselves that this film has nothing to do with us. But it has everything to do with us. It tells us the gut-wrenching truth of a failed marriage in the way only fiction can. And, fitting to what a work of fiction like this does, it offers no practical advice about avoiding it. It just tells you what is.

On the Writerly Existence

Writerly = a word that my spell checker keeps reprimanding me about with its glaring red wavy underlines, a word I love to toss around, and a word that in the context of this blog is loaded enough to warrant its own post.

The Google definition (which I’m sure is a comprehensively researched and condensed version of all definitions of the Internet) is 1. Of or characteristic of a professional author 2. Consciously literary. The World English Dictionary says that as an adjective, the word means “of or characteristic of a writer; literary”.

I’m not sure that these definitions do justice to the way I tend to use the word. So I’ll try and explain where it comes from for me.

It started during my professor’s lecture in a class on Pakistani Literature in English. He talked about the readerly versus the writerly mode of thinking. I don’t remember it in great detail, but I do remember that the readerly mode of thinking means experiencing and absorbing something as opposed to creating it. The writerly mode of thinking, on the other hand, emphasizes creation. My understanding is that one only can either engage in one or the other at a time.

The way I use the word ‘writerly’ in this blog is an extension of that. I use the word to denote an artistic existence, an existence driven by the urge to create.  It  means inwardly squirming in social situations, tugging at one’s starched collars, sneaking away to the restroom to jot down an idea here, a line there.

Those confined to this existence are just that–confined. They are ultimately helpless, often alienating those around them. Some might not even know what it is they are meant to do. They are driven by something else, and, if they’re lucky, they know what they are meant to do and do it because they have no choice but to do so.

So.

By the intersection of faith and the writerly existence I mean: What does it mean to be a Muslim and to have such an existence? I’m not sure. But I really, really hope it does not mean disavowing one completely for the sake of the other.

Bismillah. From the beginning to the end.

Something is off. I prayed Isha–the longer Isha with several units involved–I pray the longer ones to slow down my thoughts and focus on what I am saying. For even if I do not understand the particular verse I am reciting, there is something particularly soothing about the pure act of recitation on it.
Here is the part when I am supposed to be calm and joyful and the world has nothing but happy endings in store, because after all happiness ultimately lies within your own self, right?

Right?

There is a wall-hanging in my house that displays the one hundred names of Allah. I prayed the Isha–the long Isha–in front of it. When I finished, I looked up at it. Looked up at those one hundred divine names. And wondered which by which name I should call Him out this time. In which name lies my salvation.

On Being Here.

* Mike tap *

Kidding. I don’t have anything grand to say. At least not now, but probably not ever.

But I will say this. This blog is on faith and books in strange times. Why did I go with this description? I’m a Muslim (well, trying to be one) and I’ve always adored books and the writerly mode of thinking and being. I’m in the publishing industry: right now, as an intern at a lovely small press where books are a labor of love, not money. More on that later.

But now, some more on why this blog has the right to exist. (Does it? More on that later.) It’s not being Muslim per say, or being a reader or publishing enthusiast per say, that gets me going. It’s both.

  • Both are things I am passionate about,
  • Both are things that motivate and fuel me,
  • Both inform one another to me,
  • Both are things that I cannot help being,
  • And, most importantly, both are things that are undergoing a catastrophic upheaval.

This blog sets out to explore where and if faith and the writerly existence intersect. Big, big words from a poor sap like me.

So enjoy. Hope it’s worth your time.