The pandemic has rocked the publishing world, with new releases suffering in particular. Books by several debut writers, such as my own, have had to contend with the lockdown. In India, one generally relies upon bookstores and newspaper reviews to be discovered as a writer. Covid-19 has effectively ground these wheels to a halt.
Meanwhile, global events have brought bigotry and racism to the fore. Both systemic and overt, the rot spreads across every industry in the world, and publishing is no exception. A Twitter-storm of controversy arose with #PublishingPaidMe. The thread was started by LL McKinney, the author of the Nightmare-Verse books, and an advocate of equality and inclusion in publishing, to highlight the disparity in advances paid out to white writers versus writers who are BIPOC (black, indigenous or people of colour).
I was deeply disturbed by this, as it dredged up my unpleasant brush with international publishing a year ago. At that time, I had stumbled upon an event in New York, run by a group of gatekeepers to the world of American publishing. The premise was simple: they would help me pitch my work to a network of prominent editors in the US. I’d have the opportunity to meet these editors in person, and build interest in my manuscript. I could potentially walk away with manuscript requests from some of the powerhouses of international publishing.
I’d just sold the rights to my debut novel, Analog/ Virtual: And Other Simulations Of Your Future, to Hachette India, and was keen to explore international publishing. My agent and I, both based in India, had made little headway operating remotely. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to gain some ground.
I submitted an extensive application to the conference, outlining my book and my writing credentials, and was soon accepted. I travelled halfway across the world with starry-eyed dreams of being read across the US. When I met the gatekeeper assigned to my work, and presented Analog/ Virtual in person, he said:
“You’re never going to sell this book.”
Preparation and privilege
Breaking into the international speculative fiction market is extremely tough for Indian writers. The handful of writers who have made their mark overseas include the likes of Manjula Padmanabhan, Mimi Mondal, SB Divya and Indra Das. Their awards and critical acclaim are well-deserved, but there are a number of writers working in this genre from within the subcontinent who are seldom seen or heard.
Even well-established writers have shared stories of their struggles in the international domain on social media and at literary festivals. Global speculative fiction readers routinely express surprise at the existence of home-grown writers from India; a brief glance at these Twitter conversations indicates that we’re creating in the dark as far as the international readership goes. We’re far removed from the overseas community, and therefore from the industry’s movers and shakers.
When I was accepted into this international conference, I requested the organisers for an invitation letter. For Indians, an invitation letter is required for a B1/B2 visa application. Luckily, I had a valid visa that allowed me to attend meetings and conferences in the US without any problems, but I prefer to carry an official confirmation of the purpose of my visit when I travel abroad.
My request was met with suspicion and hesitance. They pointed out that they’d already accepted me, so did I really need a separate letter? I said that it was in case I was asked for one at immigration. I was asked to submit a draft of the invitation letter I’d requested. Once I sent this across, I was asked to reconfirm its necessity. I did, and I had my own words sent back to me on their letterhead. I decided to give the organisers the benefit of the doubt – perhaps they were unaware of such travel restrictions.
The registration fee was a steep $800. Travel to the US was expensive, obviously. The cost of staying in New York is exorbitant. Luckily, I had some savings. My parents and close friends were supportive. We found the funds to afford the trip. There is no lack of writing on the privilege required to be a writer. I remain very fortunate to have had access to the resources others are deprived of. Who knows how many writers have been excluded thanks to their geographic location and their lack of technology, stringent visa regulations and the prohibitive cost of international travel?
‘You’re Never Going To Sell This Book.’
In the build-up to the conference, I worked on how to present my pitch, ironed my most professional outfits, and tried to fix my sleep cycle.
Day one began with meeting a roomful of around forty writers working in different genres. The energy was high. I observed pockets of representation from other cultures and ethnicities, and as a brown woman all the way from India, it felt as if I was on the cusp of a movement, one that would diversify the world of international publishing.
The format for the conference was simple: writers would be split into different groups based on their genres. On the first day, our assigned mentors would deliver their feedback on our pitches. They would then help us hone the presentation, identify other comparable works, and create arguments in favour of its success to appeal to editors we would meet over the next two days. Essentially, they were our gatekeepers to the world of New York publishing.
I was assigned to the speculative fiction room. There were fifteen writers in all. I was one of only two international writers, and one of only two to belong to a visibly diverse ethnicity.
Once the pitches began, our mentor-and-gatekeeper delivered sharp, evaluative feedback to every writer. It was often harsh, but there were constructive solutions. Pitches were adapted to focus on more exciting themes, change comparisons to existing works, and even rename some of the works.
I was one of the last to present my work. I swallowed my nerves and proceeded to introduce the room to Analog/ Virtual.
“You’re never going to sell this book.”
Jet-lagged, dark circles covered by concealer, I thought I’d misheard. Outright dismissal? My heart skipped a beat. My hands began to shake.
“But I’ve already sold South Asian rights to a major Indian publisher.” I kept my voice steady.
A beat. Reconsideration.
“This is New York. They’ll laugh you out of the room here.”
Was the world of Indian publishing somehow inadequate? We’ve produced some of the finest literature, both in English and in our own languages. The books being published here represent a breadth of experiences and voices, and this continues to grow.
I know that different markets have different readerships. I’m also used to direct feedback – rejection is old hat for a writer, and the corporate spaces I’ve worked in can cut like a knife. I never take it personally.
So I pressed for an explanation.
There was concern around the book’s structure. Analog/Virtual is a collection of interconnected short stories, set in the future in Bangalore. I drew parallels to the structure of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to Yoko Ogawa’s recently translated Revenge, to The Overstory by Richard Powers, nominated for the Booker Prize, and to the NYT-bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
“This will never work. Especially in New York.”
I was asked if I was working on anything else. I’d been discussing my next novel with my agent before the conference. While still only conceptual, it presented a slightly more conventional slice of India than the futuristic vision I’d written about in Analog/ Virtual. My mentor-and-gatekeeper loved it. I was asked to write a pitch on the spot, and to focus on the aspects of the novel that lent it its “Indian” uniqueness. It was guaranteed to be a winner, I was told.
‘Slumdog Millionaire meets American Gods.’
Weeks of preparation had just been rendered meaningless. My presence at the conference was possibly due to oversight, not due to my credibility or the feasibility of pitching Analog/ Virtual at this forum. A part of me wanted to pitch Analog/ Virtual regardless, to hear firsthand from publishers that it would not suit their markets.
Another part of me believed that my mentor was a gatekeeper for a reason. Could I make the most of a bad situation by playing by the rules here and pitching a new book?
I knew my pitch for Analog/ Virtual would never gain the approval of my mentor-and-gatekeeper. Under intense duress, I spun a brand-new pitch from the wisps of an idea. My fellow writers in the room were empathetic to my position. My mentor pushed me to present a “global” work rooted in an “Indian” universe.
After much back and forth between us, it was determined that “Slumdog Millionaire meets American Gods” would be an apt representation for the new book. I’d presented a number of options, including some of the most recognised films and books produced by Indians, but was told Slumdog Millionaire was the only relatable work of “global Indian-ness” I could refer to.
It was humiliating, to say the least. I couldn’t believe that I was expected to fit my work into this narrow view of India – one that hadn’t even been created by an Indian – and that this was the only vision of India that was deemed appropriate to represent.
I was terrified to walk away from New York with nothing, so I spent a sleepless night detailing the new book to the best of my ability. The next two days were spent face-to-face with some of New York’s finest editors. I took the plunge and pitched my new book. I walked these editors through a brand-new novel and improvised on the fly with as much poise and confidence as I could muster. I focused on the “Indian-ness” of the work as much as I could, since this is what I had been advised to do.
In a surreal turn of events, every single publisher requested the manuscript.
For all practical purposes, my mentor was right that the new book would sell. I’d generated interest in my writing and in my unwritten new novel. That counted as a win – my journey to New York had not been for nothing. But I will never know how the editors would have responded to Analog/ Virtual.
I came to discover that, barring finding a foreign agent, I wouldn’t have gained access to these editors without being vetted by my mentor-and-gatekeeper in the first place. My pitch for Analog/ Virtual had been shut down by the said mentor-and-gatekeeper, and I’d been asked to travel all the way to New York to hear it.
Pursuing foreign publishing in a system that is designed in this manner is challenging for any writer who isn’t from a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant country. It is almost as if the system is designed to shut us out at worst, and, at best, be a lottery for those who can afford to invest in its pursuit.
Whose India is it, anyway?
The pandemic has highlighted facets of our country that could previously only have existed in science fiction. We are investing indigenously in the race for a global vaccine; human trials have already begun. Thanks to the proliferation of data services across the country, a large percentage of Indians outside of urban centres have access to the latest information live-streamed to their smartphones. Online classes have become the new modus operandi for educators, and a number of organisations are hard at work to facilitate access across socio-economic divides. This was unimaginable only five years ago, but it is not without its problems.
Analog/ Virtual reflects many of the inequalities that currently exist as we are forced to transition to virtual living. It is a story of a city divided by technological disparity, run by a corporation that evaluates the worth of a human being based on a framework of merit. When I wrote it, it was intended as a feminist vision of Bangalore’s tech culture. As all of India is forced to reckon with the disparity of living through these times, it represents one of our possible futures, as both Indians and global citizens.
The book that I successfully pitched, however, the one that I’m yet to write, has more colonially acceptable notions of “Indian-ness”. It presents a futuristic version of India, albeit one that includes a pantheon of fictional gods, a zealous celebrity culture, and a parallel to the caste system. A sizeable percentage of internationally successful Indian writing conforms to well-trod notions of India: an emotional family saga; a far-flung “exotic” location; arranged marriages; mysticism; urban poverty disguised in holi colours; and gods of all kinds.
At the conference, I expressed discomfort in conforming to this collective colonial imagination of “Indian-ness”, of the stories Indians can tell and our representations in fiction. I was told I was simply doing it to get a foot in the door, that it was the first step in a long career during which I would eventually be able to write what I wanted. In effect, I would have to find legitimacy and establish credibility through acceptable expressions of “brown-ness” before I could move on to self-expression.
This may not be the norm across international publishing, but on what other grounds would a gatekeeper identify these requirements?
The collective colonial consciousness appears to prefer to view India as a country where the system is “backward” enough to comfort the biases of a colonial hangover, yet mysteriously works in spite of its abundant chaos to serve a happy ending. The pandemic casts reality in sharp relief. For all our increased connectivity, access to technology is unequal.
Migrant workers, daily-wage earners and marginalised communities have been stripped of human dignity in the face of widespread indifference. Religious and political leaders have often been divisive, spreading misinformation to the detriment of the situation. Hospitals remain underprepared; their staff overworked and underpaid.
And yet, the pandemic is not the first humanitarian crisis we’ve encountered in the last decade. Recent works of speculative fiction – including my own – that project these Indian experiences onto their canvas have been largely ignored by traditional international publishing, often in favour of narratives that include royal elephants and tigers.
The most widely-regarded speculative fiction holds a mirror to reality, is a reflection of our present concerns cast upon the blank slate of an imaginary world. Why is this privilege not afforded to Indian works of speculative fiction? The market dynamics of publishing mean it is ultimately readership that determines what goes into print. To appeal to a foreign audience, the needs of this foreign market must be met.
But does the foreign market determine your identity? Are we to be confined by these markets – by colonial and orientalist expectations – in shaping who we are, in defining for ourselves, and in reflecting to the world, what it means to be Indian? When we consume these narratives, as Indians, do we then internalise these limits of who we could be?
In the wake of the pandemic, India is revealed for what it has always been – a nation of contradictions, a smorgasbord of stories of growth and struggle, where narratives that defy popular constructs, or contradict the Slumdog Millionaire view of India, or position us as equal stakeholders in the vision of a global future, are all authentic. Pandering to colonial expectations and pretending to be otherwise is now more problematic than ever. How can you un-see what makes itself so apparent? There is no looking back, but the way forward is fraught with uncertainty.
The uncertainty of the future
The pandemic has brought survival to the fore of human experience. As social units, we have become more insular. Nations have closed borders. The same can be expected of industries across the world. Despite increased connectivity, the route to international publishing remains obscure and opaque, and can often be cruel. Things are bound to get harder. It is unlikely that international publishing will evolve to be inclusive of new narratives, or indeed, even have room to include their more colonially-pleasing counterparts.
Building credibility as an Indian writer who writes in English is also hard. I’m an English Literature graduate, and I’ve written narratives for several internationally successful games, but I was still regarded with surprise when I said I write in English in New York, and that my work isn’t in translation.
In the long run, it is my hope that access to publishing opportunities overseas will increase as we move to a more virtual way of life. Perhaps a smartphone and the backing of an established agent, regardless of citizenship or name, will be enough to open doors. I hope that diversity and inclusiveness in publishing will become more meaningful, and that Indian writers will be encouraged to expand conceptions of “Indian-ness”; we will no longer have to swallow our pride and conform to a script that has been irrelevant for a while, and must now be relegated to obscurity.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.