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On Publishing: The Coffee-With-a-Hopeful-Writer Spiel

May 23, 2011
In a previous post on publishing I talked about how I explain publishing to those who are not sure what publishing is. This post is for who do know all that. And more.
Every now and then when I tell someone I work with or am trying to get into the publishing business, there is, to my immense relief, no blank stare. Eyes light up “Oh wow, that’s great! I’m a writer! CONNECTION$$!” And I temporarily feel so cool. I don’t know why. It’s not like I throw back shots with editors-in-chief every Friday night. So, to the hidden, unspoken, yet earnest question in the writer’s eyes: “Are you the one?” I respond with great pain and wisdom: “I’m not for you, you deserve better.”

Not. What I actually say is “I hope I’ll be able to help you get your manuscript published, now or later. Tell me what it’s about.”Not all writers delude themselves, but some do tend to be more naive about the process than others. Especially in terms of how they think the world’s going to scramble to read their life’s work.

Uh. Not happening.
There’s no point in hiding it: I’ve nursed quite a few ambitions to be a published author, and a part of me still wants that. But there’s nothing like working in publishing to see not just how narrow one’s chances are, but how really none of that matters in the long run. More on that later.
Point is: as Betsy Lerner says, writing really is a paradoxical act: one writes and writes and writes in isolation to connect with the world in large. That results in a very tunnel-vision sort of a tendency. You can’t blame writers for having that tendency. But if one gives them a dose of reality, they might find themselves having to talk them off the balcony edge.

But I digress.

So, what do I tell Muslim writers who are working on the next big novel? I gently caution them to not look at their work from just their own perspective, especially if they are writing from a heavily autobiographical vein. I also give them the unfortunate news that the big publishers simply don’t feel like they have enough of a ‘literary Muslim’ audience to cater to. No, it’s not because publishing is run by the Jews. It’s because culturally, for many Muslims, there no pre-disposition to buy books. Yes, we read books, and I’m not saying we’re not intelligent and that we’re not capable of writing amazing, astonishing works. But we don’t buy books. That’s all that matters to the one of the big-six publishers at the end of the day. Whether we as consumers–not necessarily readers, consumers–of books, are significant enough to matter. Significant enough to warrant a publication targeted towards that market. Muslim consumers have only recently begun to be accounted for in terms of other industries as well, so unless books become a part of that fold or we start spending some serious dough on books and e-books, that probably isn’t going to change.

So if you’re a Muslim writer with a visible Muslim/Islamic theme in your works, don’t expect one of the big six publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin, Random House, Simon & Schuster) to get excited about your work. Not unless you’re a bigshot journalist producing a work of nonfiction that addresses something that’s hot in terms of current affairs. Other industry expert wannabes may disagree, but that’s the way I see it.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. As Betsy Lerner says, one should send out manuscripts in the same manner that one should be applying to colleges: send a couple to a small press, a few more to a mid-sized press, and one or two to one of the big six publishers. Small presses may not be able to give you all the fancy promo you deserve, but if you’re willing to do some work on your part to make sure your book’s heard about, you’re golden. You may face the problem of distribution and book availability with small presses as well, but in the age of the e-book, that now matters less and less. And if I were you, I’d be sure that my book will be produced and distributed as an e-book with world rights as well. The matter of rights is not as simple as it sounds, but we’re getting there. We can’t afford not to.

Now, I may have crushed your dreams. But I hope not. I hope I’ve just given you a healthy dose of reality and inspired you–albeit in a different way. As always, should you have any further queries, my comments section and contact page await you.

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