On Changing Gears: A Farewell to Publishing?

Publishing has been awesome. But it’s like it was too awesome to be true. It was like a love affair that, incredible as it was, simply wasn’t meant to last forever.

Something had to change, and my quarter-life crisis (Yes, I was having a crisis. I hid it so cleverly, didn’t I?) was about what that something had to be. Based on the paths I was considering and praying on, I was getting myself ready to write a post entitled either “On Changing Gears” or “On Selling Out.”  The latter post would have been if I became a slightly well-paid editor for the communications department of some big auditing or IT firm. Thankfully, I haven’t sold my soul just yet. So “Changing Gears” it shall be.

What on earth am I on about? I’m going back to school. This fall, I’ll be starting my graduate studies for a Masters in Information Studies from the University of Toronto.The reasons are several:

1. The need to broaden my horizons, career-wise. It’s really hard to find full-time work in book publishing. Internships are great, but after a point it’s hard not to start resenting oneself for being yet another overprivileged twentysomething working full time for a pittance.

2. My parents were hatin’ on me for being such a smart aleck and not having a Masters degree. That’s how awesome they are. That’s how blessed I am.

3. I do believe publishing is important, and books are too, and I don’t regret a single moment of the time I spent studying publishing and working in it. But let’s face it: the industry keeps failing the noble ideal of putting out authentic, original, quality content. Publishing is not dying, but it’s definitely flailing. There’s not only the transition to eBooks–there’s considerably shorter attention spans that cannot withstand the length of a book. Hence, there’s the decline of an audience of book readers as people turn online to be informed, inspired, and most of all, entertained. (I’ve talked about the irrelevance of traditional publishing from a writerly perspective here.)

As good as it feels to bash book publishing for not always being a good content filter and pruner, I don’t mean to pose my course of study in opposition to it. It’s about a blurring of boundaries, not a stricter delineation of those boundaries. Which leads to my next point:

4. Publishing is just one form of information dissemination. This reason was a huge factor in my personal statement for my application to the program. Nowadays it is much harder to be somebody because of writing something; one must be someone before they are published. Plus, forward-thinking people recognize that content-sharing is far more important.  And to be enrolled in a course of learning focusing on the classification of information has a thrill for me. I feel like it’s more relevant to the challenges we face today.

Also, although I love books and have a genuine passion for the role of publishing, I sometimes feel like a fraud. I don’t nearly read as much as any publishing professional should. My tastes aren’t nearly as eclectic as a book nerd’s should be. This is an issue I have beat myself up about, but rather than continuing to do so I can extend my love for the books I do read to love for the process of curating information in general.

So. How will that change affect this blog, my online presence, in all its glory and tweetiness?

Some things won’t change. I’ll still do book reviews about Islam and do the Islamic slants on books not directly related to Islam. I’ll also keep talk about the writing and creative process, and strive to cover pretty much anything that has to do with Muslims and publishing. If my course of study lends itself to the nature of this blog, great. If not, no problem. I’ll simply be an information scientist by day, the ghost of my former bookish, writerly self by night. And if the impulse to go on a whole different tangent altogether is strong enough, I’ll simply start another blog, assuming of course that I decide that sleep and a social life is something I can do without. (Joking, of course.)

I may no longer be able to stay as current with publishing trends as I would like, but my foray into the industry has been more than worth it. I’m going to explore options in freelance manuscript evaluation and eBook creation, and I’m I am still very open to discussions and questions regarding publishing, especially when they relate to the word in a larger sense and not just its literal papered, inked, and bound definition.  What I wanted to make clear in this post, however, is from here forward I will no longer be talking about publishing as one who is currently in the field. I’ll simply be someone who has studied it and has had enough experience to have a good idea of where books come from.

Time to get back into a student frame of mind: assignments, readings, projects, late nights. I’m both nervous and excited.

Let’s see how it goes. May Allah pave the path for better things for all of us.

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On Children's Books: The Victory Boys

Ah, children’s books. What is the publishing story with these books?Reading Jamal Orme’s The Victory Boys has made me ponder the question and what it means in terms of publishing for Muslim children. I reviewed the book here and was lucky to get follow-up comments from the author himself.

I haven’t had a lot of training specifically for children’s literature, but I recall the following highlights regarding such books from my substantive editing class:

  • Children’s books are the way we are initiated into the reading world. When one writes a book that resonates with a child, she has not only succeeded in telling a compelling story: she’s also played a part in making this child a potential lifelong reader.
  • The protagonist of a children’s book should be at least two years older than the targeted age group for the book. Kids are big on ages and are more likely to look up to figures who are older than them.   
  • Having kids or being around kids a lot doesn’t necessarily make a good writer or editor of children’s literature. And because an adult can never completely themselves in a child’s shoes, there will always be a shortcoming with her readerly take on the book.  

While I see the validity of the last point, I would like to think that as an older sibling of a 16-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy, I’m a better judge of what makes a good child’s book. It is from the firsthand knowledge of seeing what these two like that I understand why it is more important than ever for books to have an arresting, addictive quality, content that is relevant to their times, and at the same important lessons and experiences that are best learned through stories as opposed to painful personal experiences. For example, my earliest memory of understanding the realities of heroin addiction came from the novel consists of reading Burgess’s harrowing novel Smack when I was twelve.

There are other things that should be important in the writing and creation of a children’s book. Because the writer and publisher are working together to turn children into lifelong readers, children must become judges of what it is that makes a good book. And the way they become good judges is, quite simply, by reading good books. It is very important, therefore, that children’s books are competent in terms of structure and literary devices like themes, symbols, and motifs.

I think the challenge when it comes to writing for Muslim children is establishing that fine mixture of:

  • Literary richness
  • Relevance to the realities children are facing today
  • The ability to serve as a moral compass and a means to spiritual engagement

Along the same lines, Jamal Orme, the author of the Victory boys, held a poll that posed the very interesting question of what makes the most important ingredient in a novel for young Muslims:

  • Remembrance of God
  • Entertainment
  • Language quality (which translates into literary richness)
  • Morals/good role models
  • Relevance to one’s life

While relevance seemed to be perceived as the key ingredient by most voters, one can perhaps divide the ingredients a book for Muslim children should have and those that they need to have in order to be successful. Relevance and entertainment can be characteristics that are needed, whereas moral teachings, remembrance of God, and literary richness are what should be in the book as well. It’s the “should” ingredients that really are what make reading worthwhile.

When I look at The Victory Boys in this light, I realize that in terms of what a book for Muslim children should do, this book is stellar. As I discuss in my review, it could use a bit of work in the literary richness department, but its important teachings should be celebrated and applied to books written for Muslim children.

Those were my two cents on faith and children’s publishing. I’d love to hear Brother Jamal’s thoughts as well as the thoughts of those who do Muslim book reviews or book reviews for Muslim children.

On Publishing: 3 Reasons Why None of it Matters

This post is for writers for whom getting published is a critical way to validate their existence, and, really, anyone who thinks that getting published is the grandest of all achievements.

It’s not. At least, not anymore.

Literary ambition is a wonderful and remarkable thing, for were it not for that ambition, we would not see a lot of works that are out there in existence today (a lot of them are good, too!). I have a view of the existence of books in the same way medieval philosophers viewed the matter of the existence of God: existence in itself is a better thing, so it should be.

That goes for crappy books, too, for if there weren’t any crappy books, however would we know which ones are worthy? My philosophy on good and bad books is like the take on a good and bad day: you never know what a good day is until you’ve had a crummy one.

Sorry. I’m going overboard with the philosophizing today.

This post is in response to the depression aspiring writers get into when they get rejection slip after rejection slip. Don’t do that to yourself. Getting published is not all it’s made out to be, and here is why:

1. You can only be so happy before you go back to being your crummy self. The Intern does an incredible job of describing this. She actually managed to get her book picked up, and in the stressful midst of the pre-publishing activities, she found herself realizing that while her situation had changed and she had been ecstatic to find out her book was taken up, she was not really any happier than she had been before. She linked this realization with the concept of the hedonic treadmill. Published or not, in the long run you will only as happy as you’ll ever be. Deal with it.

2. If the public chooses to ignore or reject your book, that fate could be worse than not getting published at all. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather suffer from a dozen rejections than get published and have a very lukewarm response to my book, or no response at all, or be one of the mediocre books that become the scum below the bar defining good books are. I wouldn’t want that for myself. I would want my book–the book I had spent ages molding and perfecting so that it is the most unique and original and incredible work that I could produce–to be met with some response. It doesn’t even have to be positive (we all know what the fatwa on Rushdie did to Satanic Verses sales). It just has to be acknowledged. To be responded to.

One could take a different view that failing in publishing is like failing in love: that it’s better to have gone out there, published, and sold very few copies than not published at all. Nope. That sounds way nicer in theory than in practice. In the real world, editors will be kicking themselves for taking you on and your future prospects of getting published will be even more dismal.

If chances of getting published are a hundred to one, then think of your book actually gaining significant popularity as a one to a thousand. Publishers try their best to gauge the marketplace, but ultimately a lot of book projects, especially fictional books, are a gamble.

3. We’re living in the information age–on speed. No one’s telling you your content can’t be made available to millions. Hello. Internet?

Are you seriously going to mope about the fact that the gatekeepers of the publishing industry are keeping the world from seeing a glimpse of your genius? Grow up. We now have all the tools to be seen and heard. With the right platform and outreach via social media, you have no reason not to get your content out there.

And here’s the real kicker: by publishing online, you’ll be reaching out to people who simply can’t be bothered to set foot in a bookstore. Someone stumbles across your blog and says “Hey, usually these things don’t do it for me, but this one’s onto something here.” Bam. That’s success. That’s all a genuine writer really wants. They want their work to matter, even if it’s for one person.

You might raise the very valid point, dear Muslim reader, that I must think traditional publishing matters, for I after all work in the industry. Much as I love being part of the process, seeing some of the content that comes out and the fact that not everybody is a reader does make me question some things. This is an issue I will explore further later.

But the message you should take away, aspiring writer, is this: do everything you can to get published. But don’t disillusion yourself too much about the merits of getting published, and don’t subject yourself to agony over thinking you are worthless. Tie your camel, and then trust Allah. Know that there is something better for you, and it may come in a form that you couldn’t have conceived of.

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

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.

On the Divine Paratext

I was really, really underhanded with that last blog. I can just imagine my agnostic friends reading that through completely unawares, thinking that this was one of my secular pieces. And then, at the last sentence, looking stunned. “That *bleep* set me up!”

Not intended, believe me.

I went on and on and on about paratexts and the world of literature, but it wasn’t until that last line when I was struck with this realization that it was the temporal world I was talking about. With that came another “aha” moment, where I was able to reach a high I rarely get to reach, when I manage to push and push the boundaries of the temporal world and then start talking about the divine on the same train of thought.

But it was so overwhelming that my brain was straining from the leap it had just made, and I had to cut myself off. “Too much. Thinking! Must go look at lolcats!”

So this post is to apologize to those of you who felt that you were set up, because you weren’t. If anything, I was just as surprised by that last sentence as you were. And in this post I also wish to clarify what I mean when I say that revelation has no paratext.

It’s laughable for me to put it in a literal sense: to say that the Bible or the Quran don’t have a paratext. Nothing could be further from the truth. Now, we need that auxiliary body of work, an evolving body of work that explains the revealed work to us, that makes it relevant to whatever time and place we happen to find ourselves in.

But the divine text is different. It’s not the text in any conventional sense. It was the brilliance that was so intense that its revelation at  times would take a physical toll on those who served as its vessels. The divine text, that, at its inception, was a stand-alone text.

It’s like the idea of how we must worship Allah, but He does not need worship. God does not need a flattering synopsis. He didn’t need no fancy cover for His text. He didn’t seek any blurbs and endorsements. He said “Be!” and it was, just as anything conceivable is created. And the work speaks for itself. If the act of revelation is the act of publishing, then really, the paratext started forming from the moment it took on a temporal form–after it was published.

No amount of paratext can ever do justice to its grandness. All the scholarly tafsirs (scholarly commentary) on the Qur’an are sprinkled with the qualifiers “Wa Allah hu alam:” This is what we say, but ultimately, Allah knows best. One can never, ever, ever say that enough. To me, that’s the best piece of paratext out there. An attempt to understand, but a self negation about that which is beyond our conception.

I’m tired of the word “paratext” for now. My brain hurts again. Must go back to my lolcats.

On Paratextuality

I was proofreading a book on the representations of Asian women in Canadian literature and came across an concept I have not pondered in a while: the paratext.Unlike a lot of useless literary terms, this word is not as menacing as it sounds. It simply means that when the reader reads a work, that work doesn’t just come to them in a vacuum. There is a body of text, the paratext, surrounding the work: from blurbs to jacket design to cover copy. Even the interior layout of the pages in itself is a statement that surrounds the book itself.
Naturally, this idea is incredibly fascinating for me as someone who works in publishing. And it’s not just about the paratext per say, but what it represents in terms of the reading experience. Take jackets and covers, for example. Even though the cover visually is not strictly a text, it still forms a frame of reference for the writer’s work.As much as we’d like to say that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, the reality is that covers matter in publishing. Profits are made or lost simply because of cover design. Therefore, sales and marketing departments love ‘good’ covers: covers that are buyer-friendly. During my internships, I would see book covers get praised, shot down, passed around, and even when there were glorious covers that by some miracle no department could find any fault with, I found myself thinking: “That’s it. That’s the only door the reader can open before submerging themselves in the book.” And even if the designer has somehow managed to strike the heart of the book’s content, the reader is still relegated to one way of looking at it. Whether that authentic translation translates into more book sales is another issue, and if it doesn’t, marketing and sales will trash it.

For me, there is no perfect cover. Because slapping on a cover at any work is a frame of reference. It says to the reader “this book looks so-and-so because that’s the only way of looking at it.”

I would love to think that e-books are one way of breaking out of the confines of paratext and an outer frame of reference, at least in its exterior appearance. Because a book, ultimately, should speak for itself. I was struck by this idea the most when I read Jeff Bezo’s welcome message on the Kindle: that the Kindle should, really, disappear in your hands when you are reading. I love the idea that when I am reading something–especially a work of fiction–that for me the work is speaking for itself. There is no pretty cover to trot around on the subway and show off. It’s a veiled relationship.  Just you and the book.

Is the medium really the message? To some extent, it always is. But even while e-books don’t undergo the fancy packaging books go through and do not subject the reader to whatever cover it pleases to have, e-books are still part of the greater paratext. There’s still the marketing, the blurbs, the synopses–really, all the descriptions the reader comes across when realizing that this book exists and then making the decision to read it.

How much of our purchasing decisions, the extent to which we enjoy a book, is influenced not by the book itself but its paratext? We may never be fully aware of its influence on our readerly psyches. No work, no matter how great or terrible, comes in a vacuum.

Only something divine can. For a true revelation has no paratext.

On Taqwacores

256 pp. Soft Skull Press.

Taqwacores is another mental itch that refuses to go away, so I have decided to make it the focus of my first book review blog. A lot of fuss has been made about the movie, but at first I wanted to read the book. It delves deeply (if not completely) into the overlap between Islamic faith and writerly mode of being, and given how close as it gets to the heart of this blog, I am still dealing with how I feel about it.

I am unable to bash Taqwacores or sing praises of it, for neither of those things would do justice to my conflicted feelings about it. I don’t love or hate this book. It’s written too badly for me to love it. Its publishing story is too remarkable and the spirit at its core are too familiar for me to hate it. Reading it, most of the time, was not a pleasurable experience at all. But it does pull me in opposite directions, and here is how.

Taqwacores was at first self-published and given away for free. For that’s how passionate Knight is about his message. It’s the ultimate small-press book: one that will never be picked up by a big publisher, but one that is so insistent, so driven, so shockingly original, that it needs to be out there. I am so pleased that this book exists. From the minute I picked it up from the bookstore I ordered it from, this small, slender volume was such a pleasure to hold. I am so grateful that we live in times that make it possible for it to exist, for the simple fact that this can be put out there, for better or for worse.

And there are times that it is for the better. I would be loath to deny that there were times when I experienced a sudden relation to its spirit, a blue streak of recognition, a feeling that I am finally being spoken to in the language that I have been yearning to listen to and be addressed in as a Muslim. Muslim sci-fi. Rock music blaring through the house after Jummah’s over. A fully veiled young woman and her feminist diatribes. Co-existence. Inclusiveness. A striving for peace.

Now, all of this sounds very rosy when I recall it, but the means of how this vision gets executed is actually quite tragic. The writing was terrible, the narrator was pathetic, Rabeya was needlessly abrasive, and Jehangir, for all his glory, was just plain tiresome. The literature major in me wept when some potentially powerful scenes were just carelessly thrown together reenactions of children desperately trying to forge their own identity.

And that’s not even where the greater tragedy lies.

What really hurts that to make his point, Knight had to say so much that will alienate most Muslims. I understand its necessity. I understand that to not say the things he says would not make this book true to the spirit of punk. But still. Where does that leave the Muslim artists, those subjected to the writerly mode of being? Do we prop Knight up as one side of the spectrum, grateful that he took it upon himself to serve as that extreme, and then position ourselves accordingly while agreeing to disagree with this approach? As believing Muslims, shouldn’t it physically pain us to encounter some of the things he says in this book? If just reading such things is so wrong, what kind of people would we be if we are involved in the process of creating it?

I severely dislike separating my passion and my faith. But to understand how I experience this book, I must separate the two. The worldly, temporal, literary, book-loving, confessional side loves it, if not for its content then for the simple fact that it exists. But I am just not sure if I want to be the kind of Muslim who creates it.