Books are like food for those who seek shelter under the tree of ideas. We can never quite explain what happens to us as we turn the leaves and feel a writer’s voice coming through—subtle yet finely tuned.
Our opening day at the Seagull School of Publishing for the June–August 2016 batch was a peek into a new dimension of how books get fashioned so that they can greet us from the shelves, and the different hats that go around a publishing house.
It seemed, as students, we were part of a jigsaw puzzle coming from diverse cities, degrees, jobs, who got enrolled, of course, but then came the TV shows that had us hooked, books we loved and the issues which moved us. The force of ideas knows few barriers, especially when there is a group of people who are frequent flyers in the realm of the imaginary.
Soon we got a ringside seat to the world of publishing as Sunandini from Seagull Books expertly presented the landscape of books. Many hands come together to take a book from being a bare-boned idea to a fully formed expression of what the idea stands for. A publishing house is the engine room of the smooth machinery that takes a book from being a manuscript through the various stages until finally it is printed and available in the marketplace. The different players involved, apart from the publishing house, such as the printing press, distributors and booksellers mean that deadlines and trust are worth their weight in gold.
A book is one of the few products today where each title needs to make a mark for it to work. Publishing houses plan ‘lists’ consisting of frontlists and backlists which are often a mix of books—popular titles which sell well and provide breathing space for the more niche books that are slow sellers and get discovered over time.
Editors generally commission or request manuscripts so as to build these lists. Publishers are usually inundated with submissions from people who see themselves as the next best-selling writer. Whereas editors are constantly on the lookout for fresh talent and new ideas—short story competitions, academic conferences, literary festivals are some of their hunting grounds to find new voices. The competitive nature of the industry means that—apart from discussions on earnings from royalty, paper and hardback editions—the number of book launch events, travel plans and even hotels can swing the book deal!
It was interesting to learn that the listed price of a book gets distributed between bookseller, distributor, publisher and writer. Writer’s royalty earnings are increasingly being based on publisher’s net receipts post deductions from seller and distributor. This helped give a sense of how challenging it is to write books for a living.
Editors intimately engage with a book, right from checking facts and names, apart from, of course, spelling and punctuation. Moreover, editors need to understand the writer’s voice, ultimately the identity of the book in the world. The fun in editing comes from looking at it as playacting, taking on a different voice with every book that you edit.
Designers collaborate with editors in presenting the book to the world. Increasing competition for visibility in both physical as well as online bookstores means that a quality book cover goes a long way towards ensuring good sales. The book cover communicates what the book stands for and sets lightbulbs flashing in a potential reader’s mind.
A book is like a house, co-created by the publishing house and writer. The commissioning editors plan the readers’ entry and house tour, copy editors are the interior decorator who manage the house look and feel while proofreaders ensure that the furniture is clean and correctly aligned. Typesetters add life to the house. There is a certain poetry to book design as we got to know about—title versos, running heads, foot folios and flush pictures.
Editors and designers are ultimately curators of ideas; their workspace is books where readers are travellers who have stopped for a moment to catch their breath.