Kashmir: Young Authors Face the Pitfalls of Self-Publishing

Srinagar: For 26-year-old Asif Khan, a mass media student from the old city, a red letter day came when he was published as an author in 2018. His debut novel Prisoners of Paradise, a 120-page love story set in the backdrop of conflict and communication blackouts, was published by Notion Press, a vanity press. The book received a warm response, both online and offline.

Asif Khan

However, two years down the line, the young author feels his “eagerness to publish the work as quickly as possible” thwarted the potential of the manuscript even though the book got good support from the publisher and benefited from its expertise.

He is not sure he will opt for self-publishing again.

“It all started in July 2016 when Kashmir Valley was on edge after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant commander Burhan Wani. My college was shut down for six months. I took to reading books during that time and got highly inspired by the works of Khalil Gibran and Maulana Rumi. It motivated me to write,” Asif said.

Finishing the book within a year, Asif found himself caught at a crossroads as he did not have any knowledge of how to approach traditional publishing houses.

“For another six months, I kept looking for mentors who could help me with publishing. With time, I also realised that Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages took about eight months to reply to manuscripts. This further dampened my spirits and I wanted a quick solution to my problem. Notion Press came as an answer,” he said.

After its publication, Asif, however, felt the book was still a bit raw and could have done with more rounds of edits.

“I understood my eagerness to get the book published had spoilt everything. I was perhaps driven by the trend of self-publishing around me and could have executed it better,” he said.

Prisoners of Paradise
Asif Khan
Notion Press, 2018

Asif is not an isolated example. An avid reader since childhood, Nida Noor, a 24-year-old engineering student, turned to writing her maiden novel in the two consecutive lockdowns imposed in the wake of reading down of Articles 370 and 35A in August 2019 and COVID-19.

In February 2021, her book Two And A Half – aimed at reviving dying Kashmiri folklore – was published by the Valley-based self-publishing platform Lieper Publications.

“I had no idea how to go about publishing my book or how the publishing industry works. A friend of mine had gotten her book published from Lieper publications and I thought that it was the way this works,” Nida said.

Though the book received a good online response on the Amazon Kindle library, it is far from the splash that Nida had imagined making. “It cost me a lot of money. At the end, I am left unsatisfied with the publication. The edits and proof-reading could have been much better. I have learnt my lesson from this and hope to get my next book published through a traditional publishing house – no matter how much time it takes,” Nida said.

A self-publishing wave

Nida and Asif are from a new tribe of writers across India who are finding their voice and readership through online self-publishing platforms, where the author gets the editing, publishing and printing services done by a team of professionals without depending on any traditional publishing company. NotionPress.com, ebooksutra.com, Quills Ink and Zobra Books are some such companies which aim to build a community of new readers and writers by promising them exposure and monetary benefits.

Notion Press, a Chennai-based publishing company, started in 2012 with the aim of providing a democratic platform to writers from India. It has published over 30,000 books so far across various genres. The most popular categories of them are Romance, Poetry, Business Books and Self-Help.

“People do not have to invest in a publishing package. Aspiring writers can use the design tools on our publishing platform to design and publish their books for free. Their books are sold on thousands of e-commerce platforms across the world,” the CEO and co-founder of Notion Press, Naveen Valsakumar said.

Notion Press publishes over 15,000 new titles a year. “Over the last year, we’ve seen a phenomenal upswing in book sales barring the months of lockdown. We’ve noticed that young adult fiction and business books are the hottest categories,” Valsakumar said.

He maintained that for a lot of writers, self-publishing is not only a medium of expression but also a way to monetise. “I am excited that we’ve had a lot of young people from Kashmir convert their expertise into books over the past year.”

Also read: No Internet, Multiple Lockdowns: How a Kashmiri Student Got a Scholarship to NYU

On the criticism being levelled at the self-publishing industry, Valsakumar said that there are several hundreds of books from Notion Press writers on various bestseller lists on Amazon at any given moment.

“This is due to our focus on providing valuable and high quality content to readers. We regularly conduct webinars to help writers understand how to publish well. We provide expert services like editing at subsidised prices to our author community. Over the years, our singular mission is to help writers increase the quality of their books even as they enjoy the creative freedom provided by self-publishing,” he said.

Over the last couple of years, the trend has also caught up in the Valley and has developed into a booming business as several self-publishing houses have sprouted. However, there are downsides – there is a poor reading culture, and many of the manuscripts are hastily put together. Thus, the books being released are turning counter-productive for the literary landscape of Kashmir.

Ehsaan Quddusi, founder of FreshCode Books, a Valley-based publishing house, prefers to look at it in terms of the dynamic of market economics and demand-supply. He explained that self-publishing is in demand and publishing houses like theirs simply fulfil that demand.

“We have the option of editing available, but unfortunately very few authors take the option,” he said.

Ehsaan pointed out that budding authors are paying exorbitant amounts to “outside houses like Partidge and Notion Press”.

“We offer, therefore, the same services with additional incentives at a far lower price. If we don’t offer them the services, someone else will”, he said.

Abid Shaheen, 20, the co-founder of Wular Publishing house in South Kashmir, said that they have published around 40 books since they kicked off operations last year.

“Realising the need for self-publishing platforms, Shahid Malik, a techie who is in also his early twenties, and I founded this publication house in 2020,” he said.

Shaheen says he began to get a taste of the industry when he was looking to publish his own book of poetry, Undead Fantasy, on love, loss and life in a conflict zone.

“It was during the turmoil of 2016 when I penned down these poems. I was 15 that time. I had approached some publishing houses like Lieper, but chose not to publish with them later. Eventually, with my own publication house, my work found a voice last year,” he said.

The publication house offers packages starting from Rs 8,000 onwards. “This is the lowest package any publication house offers in the Valley. We have published all types of books, including fiction, non-fiction, religion, culture, politics and academics. A majority of the authors were millennials,” he said.

Also read: Amidst Lockdown, Kashmir’s Online Classes Are a Disaster Waiting to Unfold

On criticism about badly written and poorly edited books, Shaheen said that they are planning to to choose the content for publication more carefully in future.

“We received some negative feedback that books have not been edited well and should have gone through a proper editorial process. We are now being selective about the content and will choose manuscripts which are good enough to strike a chord with the audience,” he said.

The sales quotient 

On the sales side, the owner of oldest and one of the most popular bookstores in the Valley, Best-Sellers, Saniyasnain Chiloo, said the self-published books don’t find many takers in Kashmir. The shop has sold only ten books out of 50 self-published books since 2020.

“In the beginning, I take five copies from each budding author in the Valley. If they sell, I restock them accordingly. The books of self-published authors mostly contain 100 pages, and are priced around Rs 300. Many times, I have tried to reason with the authors that pricing should be done in accordance with the pages. At such a price, it’s difficult to get readers,” he said.

Sani added that many of the books have beautifully illustrated covers but are full of grammatical errors. “At the end of the day, the quality of the content matters and nobody wants to read a poorly-written book,” he says.

Literary critics and observers, however, are rather divided in their opinion on the phenomenon and its contribution to the literary culture.

Shahnaz Bashir, a noted author and academician, said that he has been keenly observing this trend. “Most of these young people do not know what writing or poetry all are about. Almost all this self-published trash that they ‘write’, and call ‘books’ are flawed both thematically and structurally. Leave aside the failure of finding good publishers, I have hardly come across a single book that could evince or reflect a sense of what is called craft. But yes, I can see the lack of literary comprehension and glaring habit of not-reading writ large everywhere on every page these writers produce, and unnecessarily so,” he said.

He maintained that “fame and royalty” are not bad motives, but one should have something original and creative to say.

“I have striven to hold myself back on telling the truth or voicing my opinion on this phenomenon, and given the strife-torn atmosphere in Kashmir, I had promised myself that I will hide my critical feelings behind a façade of expedient encouragement of the stuff most youngsters are ‘writing’. But I realised that it was not working. Sometimes too much politeness is too poisonous. I have firm confidence that many have something important to say; that there are stories lurking, craving to be told. But in order to tell them well, we need to fuel our creativity a little,” he said.

Shahnaz said the youngsters must work hard at being patient. “Read a lot, maybe a hundred novels before thinking of writing a solid one – not to speak of attempting,” he said.

“It really does not take a heartbreak but a creative frenzy to weave metaphors and imagery and pain and thoughts together into verses and poems. It sucks blood to write something good, something that gives readers a lasting, transformative experience,” he noted.

Taking an opposing view, Ather Zia, a Kashmiri academician and anthropologist based in US, said that “self-publishing is a good stepping stone to flex one’s writerly muscles but it should become a road to hone your craft and publish it at other avenues as well”.

“Writers have always resorted to self-publishing especially due to lack of publishing houses that will support their work. In this current generation, it is no different – the only difference is that the work is not as tedious and there are actual chances of the book taking off – as we see in so many cases,” she said.

Zia said that there are many opinions about the quality of literature that comes out of the unregulated publishing process. “But I believe it is a meaningful engagement in every writer’s life and people who know they have to stick and hone their craft – not only prove it to themselves but to others – will use self-publishing as a stepping stone and seek other broader avenues once they get the readership,” she said.

Shabir Mir, Author of recently published acclaimed novel The Plague Upon Us (Hachette India) stressed the trend owed itself to the desire for instant-gratification.

“This trend is suffocating our potential ambassadors to world literature in their infancy. Someone who could have gone on to write something that would have been read and discussed far and wide ends up as one whose whole idea of literature is reduced to a book launch, a press release and a social media announcement,” Shabir said.

Hirra Azmat is a journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir, who covers human interest stories with a special emphasis on health and environment.