Harshad Marathe, illustrator
I’m a freelance illustrator and I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in book cover illustrations and illustrated children’s books since 2015. So far I’ve illustrated roughly 35 different book covers, and three children’s books. The covers for the novels Leila by Prayaag Akbar, Seasons of the Palm by Perumal Murugan, Shekhar: A Life by Agyeya, Mohanaswamy by Vasudhendra, All of Me by Venita Coelho, the Indian edition of 1984 by George Orwell, and the children’s book Muezza and Baby Jaan by Anita Nair stand out for me among my illustration work.
Freelance illustration usually involves working closely with an art director or senior designer from the publishing house, who acts as a mediator between the illustrator, the author and/or the author’s agent and/or translator, and the editor and the marketing team. Good art directors are able to manage this, but it isn’t easy keeping so many parties happy.
The process of making a book cover often involves multiple revisions and changes, for which I have my own system that keeps me from being overworked. I split the work into three stages – sketch, final drawing, and colouring. At each stage, clients can ask for as many changes as they deem necessary, but once we have all approvals for one stage and have moved on to the next, asking for changes that make me go back to the previous stage, or make me start from scratch, can be considered unethical and exploitative if an additional fee isn’t negotiated.
Speaking of fees, illustrators in India get paid about an eighth of what illustrators in the US do, and I’m saying this based on my own experience. It’s true that the economies are different and the cost of living is also different, but it still doesn’t seem adequate or fair. Hopefully, this will improve over time.
I’ve faced some unpleasant situations in this industry, including being ghosted after doing a considerable amount of work, and not being given a kill fee for my time. There have been occasions when the artwork selected for the final cover of a book is far from what I think is the best version. This can be very difficult for an artist, but it’s imperative to remember that the client’s needs are top priority .
Overall however, I’d say that my experience with Indian publishing houses has been good and that, despite a few setbacks, I still don’t feel the need to draw out a legal contract from my side before taking on a book cover job. I like working in good faith, and I’d like to keep it that way.
After the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in March, I had only one project, and it is complete now. After the nationwide lockdown from March 25, I didn’t receive any queries for a very long time. I do have some ongoing projects now, but none of them will be published anytime soon because most print releases have been postponed.
Ordinarily, I get paid within a month of having submitted the invoice. Because of the present situation, I am yet to get paid for some work that was unfortunately completed on the cusp between normalcy and lockdown. Furthermore, payments for my ongoing projects are likely to get delayed considerably. Freelancers are understandably the last ones who get paid at the end of a cash flow as publishers will ensure that their full time staff gets paid first.
My work can be sporadic even in normal times owing to the nature of freelance illustration; the Covid-19 pandemic has made it even more uncertain. Talking to some of my clients and other freelance illustrators, I learnt that commissions are sluggish across the industry right now. Editing and design work is going on, but after that, the project is put aside because nothing more can be done.
Of course, publishers see this as a temporary phase, after which they expect complete normalcy to return to the book publishing business. However, everybody agrees that nobody knows when this crisis is going to end. From what I gather, there doesn’t seem to be any serious rethink in the industry about exploring new avenues or reinventing the market. It looks like they are playing the waiting game.
While it’s probably true that the industry will resume mostly unchanged after the pandemic, I feel this interim period is like a testing ground for change, growth and innovation for independent artists such as myself. I think it is possible that in the future, a sizeable focus of big time publishing could shift to digital books, or audio books, or a mix of the two, and this could open up a whole new world of possibilities.
Moving images, GIFs and limited animations could make a bigger foray into book covers, illustrated children’s books and editorial illustrations. Imagine a book cover that depicts the protagonist periodically blinking at you, or a gust of breeze moving hair, clothes or leaves across the page.
Another new technology that has caught my eye is images with augmented reality. It enables the layers of two dimensional digital art to be viewed three dimensionally. It doesn’t require a visor, but it does require two iOS devices. I think it has lots of potential, but it is still in its infancy.
I think this is a good time for independent freelance artists who have found themselves in a dry patch to refine their craft and their message, work on self-directed projects, learn new skills, and find new strategies for success in the future. I feel nestled inside a collective pause. For perhaps the first time, I don’t feel like I’m alone in wanting to introspect, to learn, grow, and to be a hermit for some time.
Rachna Kalra, publicist
It’s fair to say that Covid-19 has affected the publishing industry, but it’s still too early to really gauge how much. It is, however, obvious that the effects of the lockdown will impact everyone – authors, publishers, sellers and marketers – severely in India and the world over. It’s a cascading effect where printers have not resumed printing at their optimal capacity, distribution channels have been disrupted, and many bookstores continue to be shut. So, it becomes all the more difficult for freelance marketing consultants like us who work with publishing houses and authors on a project basis.
Most publishing houses have in-house departments for marketing and publicity, so in any case the scope of work is limited. Now that the business is very sluggish, I assume they’ll slash their existing marketing budgets heavily, which affects us directly. Publicity and marketing efforts have to, in some way, translate into book sales, but with the current situation where books aren’t widely available and the publication of new titles is on hold, it all really seems bleak. Our work as freelance marketers is hugely dependent on how publishing houses perform. When they have a good year, we can expect projects more consistently.
I must add that marketing in the current scenario has moved, if not completely but mostly, to digital channels. But with every publishing house going online, it’s tricky to keep your audience engaged. Digital marketing costs have also gone up and the catch is that the non-availability of physical books means that you won’t get the expected returns on your spending, so much of your effort may not get you the desired results.
Authors too have decided to put their book releases on hold. Their regular incomes are affected and the luxury to spend money on book marketing may become secondary. A lot of them are also concerned about the timing of the release of their book – in such dire times, when the world faces a global health crisis, will there be any takers for their new book? I had to put a couple of projects on hold midway and I’m not sure if it will be possible to pick up from where we left off.
Also, we must bear in mind that reading is a leisure activity and at the moment the focus is on safety measures and essential items. This trend will continue where customers will focus on spending money on things that matter to them. Spending habits are already changing enormously, and books will perhaps be last on someone’s list of things to buy. The economic impact of the lockdown will be huge, as is already evident, and as I mentioned earlier, detrimental to publishing and anyone associated with it.
Add to that the overload of news and information available online, most of which is depressing and negative, to say the least. Many publishers aggressively promoted e-book versions of their new titles during the lockdown, but the e-book market in India continues to remain a very niche segment, as is the audio book market. There’s also a lot of free content available online, so unless you are a dedicated reader or follow of an author or genre, you will either wait to buy or not buy at all for a while, and/or read all that is available for free.
I will personally take it slow this year. I am aware that it will be a while until things go back to normal. The best way I can deal with this crisis is by staying in touch with my clients, maintaining a healthy, hopefully ongoing, relationship with them. I also plan to connect with authors much earlier and help them plan ahead so they’re prepared when their books come out. I am also trying to focus on other marketing opportunities outside of publishing. Exploring other streams is always a good idea and I’m using this time to do my research.
R Ajith Kumar, typesetter
Typesetting is the process of laying out words and images onto a page using different formats, fonts and styles in order to create the best reading experience. This essential step takes place towards the end of book production, before printing. I am one of those graphic design professionals who lays out text in preparation for printing or publishing.
It is a niche, a specialised field, and I got into it by accident. I had no intention of becoming a graphic design professional. One summer while I was still in college, I joined a short-term computer course – like most students did those days – at an institute near my house in Thiruvananthapuram. It turned out that the graphic designer assigned to train us had just left the institute.
Realising I was a keen learner, with both a creative mind and adept at handling computers, the owner of the institute gave me special attention and trained me personally in graphics designing. I was thus appointed the graphics designer in the institute.
For better professional prospects, I came to Delhi in 1991 and joined a publishing house. I worked there for a couple of years and then I got an opportunity to work for a renowned energy research organisation, where I worked for 18 years in the publications unit and headed the Pre-press department. Eventually I left to set up my own business and now work with renowned and established publishing houses. In the last seven years, I have worked on more than 700 projects including books, magazines, catalogues, and reports for my clients – Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan, Jaico, Juggernaut and many more.
I used to work an average of 16-18 hours a day. This was the quantity of work I was used to since I started my own business – which has been very harshly interrupted by the COVID-19 crisis and the lockdown. My work has been reduced by almost 60% in this period as most of my clients have postponed the schedule of their publications.
It is worrisome, of course, but what’s the point of worrying about something over which you have no control? There are billions of people suffering all over the world owing to this pandemic and I am just one of them.
Since there is not much work to do, I have shifted my focus to domestic chores and hobbies like taking care of plants and cooking. I have come to realise that this was the much-needed break I was seeking from my hectic work schedule, when I spent long hours at my desk with no time for myself or my family. I had always thought of taking a vacation but never got the chance. Now, nature itself has given me the opportunity to spend time with myself and my loved ones and engage in my passions. I am afraid that once this crisis is over, work will start coming in like never before and we will have to resume our maddening lifestyles.
Lakshmi Krishnan, editor
Fresh hot coffee. Water-bottle and stash of biscuits. Room sufficiently cooled so spectacles don’t slide off sweaty nose. Time to shut out the rest of the world (read: family chatter, pesky neighbours, domestic help, phones and social media that have no notion of personal space) and deep-dive into those chapters. A typical day has kick-started.
And then a pandemic came along and threw all semblance of routine out of the window.
After a full-time stint as in-house editor with one of India’s vintage publishers, I’ve been a freelance editor for six years and counting. Reviewing, editing and proofreading manuscripts, essays and varied content for publishing houses, writers and competitive educational content providers is work driven by passion and creativity, not just monetary considerations.
Work schedules mirror a circus trapeze act, what with juggling hands-on editing and author interaction, negotiations and deadlines, meetings and networking, follow-ups and account-keeping, all at once. Unlike in an office job, here the boundary lines constantly blur. The work week is defined by individual capacity, clock hours by pages put away, and holidays not by the calendar but slices of sinful space surreptitiously wedged between project timelines.
“Work-life balance” – that oft-bandied-about notion – more likely means mentally drafting that important e-mail negotiating a project while having a go at the dishes in the sink. Meeting someone for the first time invariably sparks the thought – Ooh do I smell a potential book idea brewing in our conversation? There’s no fixed salary coming to the bank every month; word count is currency but payment cycles erratic. There’s no denying the brighter side of course – the convenience of commute-free, self-created work styles and the freedom to explore opportunities, wide-ranging learning and exposure.
Come 2020, though, and a crisis like Covid-19 has put paid to a lot that was the norm. Suddenly, one is faced with taking into account shifts in remunerative patterns of employers. Benefits of work accruing from independent writers eager to make the most of the lockdown and get their manuscripts readied for self-publishing can but to an extent balance the income sourced from the mainstream; palpable anxiety and fear loom large on the horizon.
With business budgets and organisational norms taking a hit and event-planning and book fairs shrouded in question marks, with online social media, Instagram and YouTube the new platforms for readerly consumption of audio-visual authorly fare, what will come of this love for reams and reams of words to be pruned, trimmed, spruced and shaped into a taut, unputdownable book? Will freelance editing-proofreading become an avoidable luxury expense? Will bookstores shut shop, will beautiful stacks of physical books be labelled an “essential item” only in e-posters and memes to perpetuate false solace?
For the freelance editor working from home, follow-ups now feel like hounding while the concept of pipelining work is wearing thin. The practicalities of WFH in the current complicated situation makes 24 hours woefully inadequate and stressful. Now, one must balance work with a load of added household responsibilities and navigate constricted external conditions to get the simplest of tasks done.
Like drop everything and rush from home to join a queue, carefully though, whenever the veggie vendor may show up. The stark clarity and self-imposed discipline of boundary-setting and pacing oneself is a thing of the past; chaos is the new normal! Keeping the work graph productive and progressive in terms of availability, time and effort versus the output, growth and gains possible in the industry is necessary. But now a different, insidious thought has begun seeping in – what other work avenues can I explore, what talents can I hone and leverage to create more value and build better, more sustainable future earnings for myself?
Will the freelance workers – who has always lived and thrived on the periphery of the industry and seen it all as one big adventurous gig in life – be pushed farther out into the wilderness and be rendered a dispensable outsider?
The mind is fraught, the uncertainty stealthily taking its toll, it’s an unnerved (not brave, o Huxley!) new world, and the bills don’t know about social distancing... that’s how real this struggle is.
One hefty, rambling story line-edit done, I switch on the Wi-Fi on my phone to check for messages. Scrolling down the Facebook newsfeed, I spot the piece about three different bookstores re-opening soon...
Is that reason enough to hope? I don’t know. (Never before did those three darnned words ring more familiar...) But the optimist in me would like to think there’s colour beyond the grey skies yet.
And I made my mid-morning chai a tiny bit sweeter today.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.
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