By Devraj Singh Kalsi
Before I ventured into the choppy waters of publishing and experienced what it means to have a book that sank without a trace, I had a somewhat condescending attitude of ignoring books that failed to acquire readership or impress critics. In the wake of my literary misadventure, I realised I should not feel ashamed of reading or holding an obscure book that nobody in my circle has even heard of.
Being an unknown author, I have acquired adequate compassion for books languishing in anonymity. Instead of flashing best-sellers, I have overcome the shyness to identify myself with small-time, unknown writers. Now it is comforting to identify with their plight and feel I am also one of their kind.
This transition happened when I tried something unusual last year. Call it an experiment to shape new thinking, to accommodate divergence, to stir empathy, to reboot my system. I must confess that the entire exercise turned out to be therapeutic in more ways than one.
Inside a bookstore, I picked up a title lying upside down on the congested shelves, fighting for space to survive in the saturated market. The passport-size colour photograph of the author on the back cover made it look like one of the photographs clicked when he was applying for clerical jobs. As I checked out the year of its publication, it became clear that the title was resting there for more than a year. Some other queries bubbled in my mind. Was this the only copy left unsold? Or was this the only copy in stock? There was no way to know the facts so I had the freedom to imagine what I wished to imagine.
It must have been a big high for the author when it was formally launched, when it found space on the shelves of the esteemed bookstore. As the failure of finding readers capsized the literary boat, the short-lived euphoria of the gift-wrapped copies stifled his spirits and expectations, pushing him into the morass of darkness, just as quickly as he was brought to public gaze. Left without any choice, he became another suitable candidate for the ever-growing club of authors who exist to launch another struggle to get rid of the stigma of commercial setback after enduring the long struggle of finding a publisher.
Holding the book without any hesitation was the next step of boldness. An unfamiliar strength coursed through the hands as I began to rummage it. I felt overjoyed with this liberating and cathartic act – unable to recollect having done something noble of this kind before. While other readers around cherry-picked best-sellers and recommended titles, I held this one in my hands and continued reading it with seriousness. I was not conscious of the reality of reading an obscure book. If there was no sense of pride, there was no sense of guilt or shame either.
After reading a few pages, I understood that readability was not the reason why the author failed or why the book collapsed. Probably the marketing apparatus was responsible for its dismal fate. Such mishaps do happen from time to time – almost forgotten like accidents that do not make any significant difference.
I imagined being a source of pleasure for the author who found no readers or very few readers. If he found me here reading his work, he would be thrilled to spot a live reader right in front of his eyes. I did think of clicking a photograph with the book and mailing it to the publisher who would hopefully forward it to the author. Maybe this small act to cheer him up would stimulate him and make him feel that his book actually created some difference in the life of a reader. Maybe, he will then pick up the pen and bangs out another book. I could be that spark to ignite his passion to write.
I proceeded to the sales counter and the cashier gave me a strange look while trying to understand my choice. He appeared close to suggesting I should seek the assistance of sales staff. Without looking up, he said this title offered no discount. He billed me and dumped the copy on the desk without offering a carry bag. Before leaving, I asked him whether this author had any other release. He did not check the computer or bother to respond to my query.
I came out flashing the new purchase and planned to give it more visibility. I entered a nearby café and occupied a strategic spot from where it was possible to see the book cover. When nothing worked, I placed it on the table beside my cup of coffee, hoping the young couples seated nearby would cast a fleeting glance, raise a polite query or seek to hold the copy in hand out of curiosity. An hour passed. My best attempt to give exposure to the unknown author failed.
After coming out of the café, I took a bus and sat with the copy on my lap. The same response disappointed me and I returned home with a heavy heart. In the next few days, I read the book in the balcony. Then I displayed it on the tea-table in the living room, hoping that my guests would pick it up to read or at least flip through it. Perhaps the plain cover did not evoke interest.
A week later, I posted the book cover on my social media handles, highlighting it as my current read. Only a few close friends and relatives pressed the like button without posting any comments. Finally, I donated the book to the public library in my neighbourhood — with the hope it would find some readers here.
Almost a month later, I ventured there and asked the librarian how many people borrowed the title to read. He was unwilling to dampen my spirit and said he had read it and found it nice. His words of fake praise did make me feel better and I thanked him warmly, behaving like the author of the work he had read. Such close identification with an anonymous author transformed my way of thinking, making it more collective in nature. I felt a sense of relief that I had done something good –- even if it was trivial for an unrecognized author completely unknown to me.
Earlier, I loved to rummage through best-seller or recommendation sections inside bookstores. Now I realise how authors hire marketing and PR agencies to give traction to their books – both offline and online. As a result, I have lost interest in picking up such titles unless a reliable source refers it to me. I am far more comfortable browsing unknown writers from the shelves, looking for an occasional good pick that compels me to read beyond the first page.
Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.
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