As I stood in my balcony on the morning of March 25, 2020, I observed the road, which until the previous evening was host to vehicles, hawkers and pedestrians. The adorable dog of our housing society – we call her Sweetie – sat in the middle of the road with no fear or anticipation of speeding cars. Her son, Bholu, who loved to rest in the shade of a car, sat next to her. Both seemed deep in contemplation, whispering to each other, “Where is everybody today?”
As the day progressed, I stepped out into the balcony frequently to listen to the chirps of koels and mynahs – their melodies unceasing that afternoon. The days before the 25th were spent wondering about what was to come. A foreboding that the novel coronavirus would spread havoc in the near future made me anxious. I had planned to go to Jammu to meet my parents. I found myself in the unfortunate situation of having to explain to my mother why we could not meet and be together anytime soon.
The sight of the blank sky that night was something else that bothered me. Not a single plane crossed overhead. For years, I have marvelled at the sight of planes gaining altitude shortly after taking off at the Delhi airstrip, which is close by. Whenever I saw planes disappearing in the haze, I imagined life within the cabins.
That night I opened a blank Word document and saved it as “Isolation Diary”. I stared at the unmarked page for a long time, wondering what to do with it. After some time, I closed it and went back to reading Homer’s The Odyssey.
I couldn’t go beyond the first stanza:
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.
I kept humming it constantly in my head. Such was the spell cast by its imagery.
The next day I opened the blank word document again and typed a sentence. I posted a story on Instagram that evening – “Friends, I have decided to write a novel in 21 days.”
Some people replied, asking if I was working for my next novel with a publisher. I explained, “Writing is one thing. Publishing another. The two are not related.”
“Had I made a nearly impossible resolution?” I wondered. I let the story stay on my page, knowing that it was going to disappear on its own after 24 hours. I knew of writers locking themselves up in their homes and cabins for days on end and coming out with entire manuscripts of novels. I thought, “If Kazuo Ishiguro could write The Remains Of The Day in four weeks, why can’t I write a story in 21 days?”
A story started taking shape over the next few days. During my stargazing breaks in the balcony, I wondered what to do with the manuscript after I was done. “Should I send it to my agent or pitch it directly to publishers?”
Looking at the outside world and the uncertainty that lay ahead, I wondered about the possibility of not getting to live another day. “What if my dream of writing a novel in the shortest span of time and getting it across to readers dies as a dream? What are the odds of my book seeing the light of day in such a bleak scenario?” I thought about the fate of the thousands of books lined up to come out of printing presses.
My plan was to write the book in 21 days and publish it on the 22nd day. Fear played a major role in this battle of dream versus reality.
To do or not to do
I came face-to-face with the ultimate question. What would I do if I had one day to live? Better sense prevailed and I decided to take matters into my own hands. Greater to be on your own, much like everybody else in times of physical and social distancing, self- isolation, and quarantine.
One week into the lockdown, and I created a book page on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). Everything was decided in just a day; My daughter agreed to illustrate a cover for my next piece, and my wife donned the editor’s hat. Book title, description, keywords, digital rights and pricing, royalty plan, and pre-order and release dates were chosen. An unimaginable prospect compared to my previous experience of publishing with traditional publishers.
Long wait times often lasting months or years, managing disagreements, not knowing what will happen to the book once it goes off to the press, wondering how many copies the book is selling on a daily basis. The nausea of it all!
The mission of bringing out a book in 21 days got me working round the clock, not seven, but seemingly eight days a week. There were daily back-and-forths for edits and the cover art. My daughter created a makeshift art desk in her room. The bedroom housed the copy desk, and our study turned into a full-time writer’s residency. The book release date was set to Day 22 of the lockdown and time was of utmost essence. Would I be able to honour my commitment?
The countdown timer on my Amazon KDP page kept reminding me to upload the manuscript in time before the pre-set release date, and should I be unable to do so, I would not be able to publish with Amazon KDP for a year. The horror and shame of the penalty loomed large.
Week Two started on a bad note. An email from Amazon read:
Your book ‘Love in the Time of Coronavirus’ does not comply with our guidelines. As a result we are not offering your book for sale. Due to the rapidly changing nature of information around the COVID-19 virus, we are referring customers to official sources for health information about the virus. Please consider removing references to COVID-19 for this book. Amazon reserves the right to determine what content we offer according to our content guidelines.”
The family huddled. Alternative titles were brainstormed; if not coronavirus, then what? Isolation? Extinction? Pandemic? Lockdown? Over lunch, there was consensus around the word “quarantine”. With trepidation, I replaced the word “coronavirus” with “quarantine”. I heard back from Amazon in four hours. Acceptance, at last! We could proceed.
The 22nd day
Seconds before the countdown timer on Amazon KDP’s Upload Manuscript page clocked 00:00:00, I uploaded the final manuscript and tested it using the Launch Previewer to ensure it displays fine across mobile and Kindle devices.
Day 22: The Kindle edition of the book, Love in the Time of Quarantine, was released worldwide
on Amazon. I shared the news through Facebook and Instagam. Within hours, the sales
dashboard on my Amazon KDP page started indicating sales figures and royalties earned.
Everything was at my fingertips, and I felt like the King of the World!
Publishing with Amazon KDP gave me a sense of freedom and control. You can do anything and everything to the product you have created and offered for sale. You can update the book constantly. The most tormenting experience for some authors is not being able to refine the content of their book once it is published. You simply can’t do it if your book is in print format and published by a traditional publisher.
The temptation to refine and change your sentences after your book is published isn’t easy to resist. Not being able to do so can drive you insane. Why should you ignore a good sentence because you can’t insert it into your book because the book is already physically published? With Amazon KDP such impossibilities don’t exist.
I was relieved to see the option of unpublishing and deleting the book. It should be an author’s right to unpublish a published book at any given point of time. This is not possible with traditional publishing. You are, technically, doomed forever.
Victor Hugo was once spotted writing in a café in Paris. A stranger walked up to him, curious to know what Hugo was writing. “Les Misérables, answered Hugo. “But it is already published,” said the
stranger. “It is certainly published, but I am yet to finish it,” said Hugo.
A new way?
What is going to happen to us in the times to come? What will the world post COVID-19 look like? One thing is certain, physical distancing and self-isolation has accelerated everyone’s entry into the digital age. Artists, writers, and performers have already started exploring and exploiting online media. The touchscreen experience has become an integral and possibly the only social part of our isolated lives.
The prevailing COVID-19 situation has started to refashion our behaviour. Only time will tell if it’s for better or for worse. A new normal is emerging, and this new normal will define how we live, express, connect, and collaborate in the future. Everything will be at our fingertips – be it a book, concert, an event, a show, a function, or a ritual.
I reflect on the 50 days gone by with a sense of disbelief and wonderment as if death, masquerading as life, lurks outside the door, reminding me of my mistakes. There’s little time left, and much of it has been squandered in wasteful exploits. Whatever is left must be used sparingly. If at all I am able to finish my next novel, digital publishing will be my first choice. Less baggage is preferable in the current times.
Siddhartha Gigoo is a Commonwealth Prize winning author of five books of fiction, including, most recently, Love in the Time of Quarantine.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.