Plight of a budding writer


Beaven Tapureta Bookshelf
Budding writer Buddy (not real name), armed with bulging sheaves of manuscripts, wanders impatiently in the dark literary forest. The wait for a breakthrough, for that defining moment, has stretched too long.

Given the current publishing milieu in the country where publishers for months or years have to make a careful analysis of the economics of either publishing or not publishing a book, Buddy ponders on the possibilities of e-publishing or self-publishing.

Nothing can stop the urge he feels, the fire of his dream, for he believes time is now to publish his “masterpiece”! The route that demands a little more patience and sharpening of skills no more looks green, it is festering with contradictions.

He meets someone with a printing machine and that’s it! But what is publishing really?

In the past, the blame game between established or traditional publishers and new, aspiring writers sometimes turned fiery wherever these two groups met to discuss publishing and writing issues under current conditions. Even today, Buddy and his writing friends still view local publishers as being biased against them.

One publisher once noted that some budding writers have that “arrogance of ignorance”. Could this be true?

Buddy, like a few of his friends, have become techno-savvy; he gathers the courage to ask: With all these publishing opportunities splashed all over the internet and some small publishers in the city, why bother knocking on any of these big “self-righteous” traditional publishers?

In a short while, Buddy’s book is published or self-published, in print or electronically.

The above sketch of a story reflects the contemporary publishing situation. A fresh tunnel has opened for the new writers to see themselves in print.

The new writers, sometimes even established writers, are faced with a case of having to make up their minds on which publisher they would like to engage, small or big publisher.

There is a book titled “This Business of Writing” by writer Raymond Flower published in the year 1987. It’s a small book containing Flower’s and a few publishers’ observations in their long established careers in the book industry. Some of the things in the book apply to the current publishing situation in the country.

The A5-sized 134-page book had this writer wondering why we do not have local publishers putting on paper their discoveries garnered from many years of serving in the book industry. The books on local publishing business surely are valuable to the writer. The writer, in particular the budding one, living in today’s Zimbabwe, has no knowledge of what goes on in the publishing industry.

The notion has always been “big publishers are biased”.

While nearly all the chapters by Flower in “This Business of Writing” are an interesting, informative and ‘anytime’ read, one of the appendices that rang a bell louder is that written by a publisher Christopher Helm (Christopher Helm Publishers Limited) titled “What the publisher wants”.

Helm says publishers are either big or small but there are also good or bad big publishers as there are good or bad small publishers. This is the interesting part.

Authors need to make an informed choice of a publisher, considering that publishing now seems easy for the budding writer as long as one has some cash. Impatience most times leads to half-baked cakes, no matter how understandable one’s reason for rushing may be!

A good big publisher has a wide distribution base and marketing resources, says Helm and this we know all. The quality of books published is high. This publisher has a known address and royalties are paid on time.

Truly speaking, this is the publisher every writer dreams of!

The bad big publisher, according to Helm, has decision making period of up to three years, possibly because of the “elaborate succession of committees through which book proposals have to pass”.

The editor of this publishing company leaves for another firm or gets promoted, thus discontinuing a publishing project.

In Zimbabwe, the small publisher has come to the rescue of new writers. This is true as more and more books are being churned.

As an experienced publisher, Helm’s generosity in his revelation of publisher’s secrets is overwhelming. Again, he says a good small publisher has the “chief” who gives personal attention to a writer because he/she knows it spells disaster if a book fails to make it. This publisher is receptive to a writer’s ideas to the extent that “whether in production or in marketing they are likely not only to welcome your suggestions but actively canvass for them”.

A decision is quickly made to publish or not publish a book and also the production circle is quick, with a manuscript becoming a book in as little as five months. How good is this small publisher?

The budding writer need also to know there are bad small publishers who can ruin their writing careers.

According to Helm, this small but bad publisher has appalling distribution problems.

In our situation, how many of the new books from some small publishing stables have been made available outside the city or Zimbabwe?

The publicity is poor, the author does the job on his or her own with first an announcement on social media, then a few photos with friends and family holding the new book and not much is done beyond that.

Helm, writing in 1987, also saw that due to financial or cash flow problems, the bad small publisher tends to cut corners in production. No need to say the royalties are usually paid late or may not even come.

We have seen amidst us writers being paid in the form of (a number of) copies of their books which they should sell and get the cash.

How safe is the quality of our literature when it looks like we now have some of the above said types of publishers in our midst?

The writer, having researched or investigated the publishing situation around him/her, is saved from frustration that comes with submitting a good manuscript to a bad publisher.

In another chapter titled “Getting into Print”, Raymond Flower opens with a quote by George Bernard Shaw. Shaw says, “Literature is like any other trade; you will never sell anything unless you go to the right shop”.

A little more understanding of status of publishing in Zimbabwe (how actually publishers are performing) is needed to avoid a proliferation of sub-standard literature likely to be churned out by “the bad boys” slipping into the publishing industry.

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