By Maryam Piracha with research by Raiya Mansoor
No, not everyone’s an author.
When I initially flipped open the cover and started reading first time author, Khadija Khan’s “The Mind of Q”, it was with some trepidation and borderline excitement. That was then. Three pages in, reminded as I was by O-level grade English essays… and not the good kind, I back tracked to see who in their right minds would publish and/or support such talentless drivel (the book seems to have garnered outstanding reviews in local media). In retrospect, media critics should be lynched! When I spotted the publisher’s name, it all made perfect sense: Lulu. Lulu is one of the more established names in a specialized business that’s made its money on the belief that everyone’s got a book in them: Print on Demand (PoD) publication, or as it’s known within literary circles, “vanity publication”.
The book was fraught with multiple issues, from the differing fonts spread across the document to the dubious structure or lack thereof; to poor characterization and the inability to set the stage and adequately build up a scene; to the understanding that had it been substantially and professionally edited, there would be a marked difference between each character’s voice, instead of a monotonous homogeneity that spread across the book. There is a reason why the publication business is not an easy one to break into (unless of course, you’re Sarah Palin and you can afford to hire a ghostwriter), and why it is fact… not fiction, that not everyone’s a writer.
PoD publication allows writers to pay the so called “publication houses” to publish their book; while would-be authors handle the book’s layout, cover and marketing and such additional services like editing and copywriting cost extra. ISBN numbers are now also provided by all PoD establishments. The largest PoD outfits are Lulu, AuthorHouse (although its “authors”claim they were ripped off… not unlike the feeling their readers must get), Amazon’s CreateSpace service (Kiyani Yousaf, another Pakistani author recently published “What If” with them), Trafford Publishing and the list goes on. The name “PoD” comes from paying for as many copies as you’d like to have printed. For the purposes of recipe and cook books and perhaps the odd family tree history or two, it’s a great bargain. Not so much for mainstream novels which need to go through the publication machine; editors value books based on their market appeal and whether it would be profitable for them to publish such a novel, for social, political, and pure aesthetic appeal. PoD books rarely fit the bill and with good reason.
Mainstream publishing houses, literary publications, book critics and freelance writers whose job it is to review books, normally place PoD self published books on the slush pile  (The NewYork Times refuses to review vanity publications ). Why? Plagued by typos, editorial gaffes, poor structure and in the case of fiction, characterization, plot holes, messy dialogs (from this writer’sreading, The Mind of Q ticks the boxes of all the above), PoD self publications present an overall lack of professionalism in the finished product. The author claims Al Hamra (the sole publisher she approached in Pakistan) rejected her because of her age. That’s not a good enough excuse, sorry… Kamila Shamsie was 23 when she published “City by the Sea” which was much, much more polished than the PoD Q. Sure, there are the occasional hits in PoD publications, but those are few and far between.
Authors claim that traditional publication houses reject them, citing examples of D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and in case of local publications, Bapsi Sidhwa without realizing they’re pooping on their own argument. There is a marked difference between Print on Demand vanity publication and traditional or “true” self publication, which is largely dead. Lawrence was given no other choice in a censored England, when he self published “Lady Chatterly’s Lover”.
The man went directly to the printing press and undertook full responsibility for its publication. Similarly, Woolf’s dilemma had more to do with her stream-of-consciousness style which she published through the publication house jointly owned by herself and her husband. Hogarth Press subsequently provided the channels for other writers facing the same issues. Ms Sidhwa on the other hand, was working in an environment that simply didn’t allow women to write in English. She peddled her book to one bookstore after another, asking them to stock the now bestselling “The Crow Eaters” on shelves. It couldn’t have been easy, but then there is nothing easy about the writing life.
True, not every traditionally published author is brilliant (case in point, Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer) and there are quite a few losers out there, but PoD will unleash more than what discerning readers deserve .
The business of writing isn’t about getting published: it’s about making a difference in the lives of your readers. Anything less than that, isn’t worth aspiring to.
Writers, if they choose to go into the profession, must contend with a life of rejection without opting for the easy way out. Because as long as you can pay, outfits will publish your work and if your sole ambition in life is to be published, then Praise the Lord, Hallelujah you have an answer! (Cue doves and choir music) But if you are writing with a purpose and with the belief that you hold something truly important, there are other options. Send your work to international literary journals (a full list is available at Duotrope.com, NewPages.com, EveryWritersResource.com and others), consider small presses (independent publishers who are still selective, but don’t require you to pay for the services) and strive to get your work out there. The Internet Age was made for the success of small time people with big time dreams like ourselves. Put up samples of your work on the net, see what sort of reviews and feedback you get. Chances are, if you’re liked by more than your friends and a handful of people, you’re not going to need to pay your way into publication glory.